Grace is an award-winning, Nigerian-Irish graphic designer and illustrator from Dublin. Grace is the co-founder of DesignOpp, an initiative championing diversity for people of colour, in the Irish design and creative industry. An amazing project, DesignOpp is partnered with the Institute of Designers in Ireland, and making waves across the world of art.
Grace won a 100 Archive Award in 2020 for her Dublin Vinyl record packaging and has exhibited with Hen’s Teeth, Music, Memory and the Night and Where Are The Black Designers.
Her client list includes Arnotts, Facebook, AIB, The Science Gallery and Gill Books.
Grace is a published illustrator and her first children’s book I Believe In You written by Deborah Somorin, was released last year. This amazing young woman sat down with us to talk about how her journey into the world of business began.
So how did you get started in illustration?
I would say it’s really hard to pinpoint the moment where I started my own business. In my mind, I was always planning and dreaming about how I would have my own creative practice and studio in years to come. I never actually took the leap until I had built up that experience with studios and agencies.
In my last full time job, I was promoted to design manager. After a bit of time in that role, I kind of got to the stage where I realised hold on, ‘I think I’ve actually, genuinely learned everything that I can in this role.’ I was doing so many other creative projects on the side too! I was co-founder of another collective called Gxrl Code, which I ran with DJ Mona-Lxsa, who’s still at the helm today. I found myself directing projects and managing teams, and I just started to feel like the time was coming. I’d accidentally accumulated a couple of clients who wanted me to work for them and design for them. I felt like all of these roads were sort of like converging at a point. I was 27 at the time and I decided that it was the time to take risks, you know. So I just took the leap and it’s been great.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on and what your experiences have been up until now?
So I work in branding and illustration for the unconventional. I work a lot with startups and SMEs, creating new branding for them as well as illustrations. I work with bigger brands as well like Guinness, and the science gallery, Dublin. I kind of have a mix of doing illustration from an advertising brand perspective, but then also creating and shaping brands for other people’s businesses as well.
In terms of my projects, I’ll start with Gxrl Code. We started in 2017, I believe it was. So Mona-Lxsa and I co-founded the collective and the whole idea behind it was to uplift female creative talent in the industry. It focuses a lot on music, but it was also much broader and encompassed design, styling, any creative pursuit you can think of.
We wanted to support women and give them an opportunity to perform or to showcase their creative abilities. It’s an amazing initiative. I left that in 2020 because I was juggling too much at the same time with other projects, so I handed it back to Mona-Lxsa to keep the torch going.
I co-founded DesignOpp in 2020 with Mic Chikanda and Greg Osborne. The whole idea behind that, was that we wanted to create something to provide opportunity for people of colour and Irish designers in the creative industry. Obviously 2020 showed a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, and we started sort of looking at ourselves in our own industry. We noticed there’s a huge gap here and a huge amount of talent that just isn’t getting seen. We wanted to try and fill that gap and provide more opportunity for creatives of colour.
Would you say there is a social element to what you do in terms of empowering women and people of colour?
Yeah! I actually don’t know where it came from but I think it’s just a natural thing. I feel like people like me, often aren’t in positions of power, or in spaces where they can make change. I feel like throughout my career, I found myself in those rooms more often and I want to make sure that I’m lifting other people up, and keeping the door open for everybody else. I wouldn’t be here today without the incredible women, and people of colour, who allowed me to get to this position as well. So it’s all about giving back, creating community and connecting people.
What were some of the challenges or obstacles you have to overcome? I know you mentioned juggling between creative projects, has that been an issue?
So I naturally have a tendency to take a lot. I get so excited about things, creative work and connecting other creatives that I kind of want to do everything! I have , a little bit of like that ‘sparkly object syndrome’, that they say a lot of founders have where you see something amazing, and want to do that. Then there’s all the other amazing things I want to do, and this can snowball into Neverland, a never ending thing of chaos, but I’ve managed to pull that back a lot. Now, I’ve handed over different parts and delegated tasks to people.
What I’d say has been my biggest issue in my creative business, is actually changing my mindset. When I started I 100 per cent did not see myself as a business at all. I just saw myself as a creative, and I was so focused on the work itself. How can I make this piece more impactful? Can I elevate it? How can I improve my illustration skills? And I wasn’t paying attention to the business side at all. I spent so much time working focusing on designing that, I didn’t work on my business at all, and things fell by the wayside. Getting new clients and lead generation is also important. I was starting from zero on even the most basic things like invoicing and taxes so it was a huge mindset shift to get myself situated. I have put systems in place now which has helped a lot. I dedicate Fridays now to doing all of that working on my business tasks like inbound lead generation and organising invoices.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
I have a couple of people who definitely really inspire me. Charlotte Barker is the CEO of the Institute of Designers in Ireland IDI. I think that being the CEO of the IDI is a huge accomplishment for anybody. Charlotte has also been a bit of a mentor for me, because DesignOpp is one of the initiatives within the IDI. She’s been really, really supportive and helpful in getting us set up and giving us feedback and advice. She’s incredible.
Also, Amanda Adé. Amanda is the creative director for black and Irish. I just think she’s so bold, she’s so inspiring, she’s just incredible. Everything she’s building with black and Irish is honestly going to go down in Irish history. They’re building community, they are sharing black stories, but they’re also in conversation with the government and owner occupiers getting legislation that will make the lives of black people in Ireland, so much better. It’s just incredible!
What advice would you give to your younger self, or a young female entrepreneur starting?
This is more geared towards the young, creative entrepreneur. My advice would definitely be to not compare yourself to other people, or to where other people are at. I definitely did that a lot when I was younger.
I think especially with creativity, you have to really be able to zero in on what makes you special, and what makes your work your own. It’s really easy to be hard on yourself and be really critical. If you spend that time and energy on yourself and pour it into what is great about your work, you will go much further.
I know you had a really amazing project that you did, and that was the book you worked on. So can you tell us a little bit about that?
I was so proud of this project. So it’s my first ever published book as an illustrator which is so exciting. It’s called, I Believe In You, and it was written by an incredible woman named Deborah Somorin. The book is all about a little black girl doing her best. She struggles with day-to-day activities like she’ll realise she’s lost her pencil case and doesn’t have her colours correct. When these things happen, she’ll be really hard on herself, but the people in her life, her family and friends teach her little tips and tricks along the way.
They help her and show her why she’s worth believing in. Then she passes that lesson on to her people around her as well. So it’s really what a beautiful story behind it that very closely mirrors the memoir that Deborah also wrote, Believing In Me. So the two books come together in tandem.
What have been your favourite projects to date?
I feel so blessed. I feel like I’ve done so many great projects so I’m really struggling to think of just one, because I feel really proud of all of them!
Of course the book, we’ve already talked at length so I won’t go into that. But it’s definitely up there. I’m also really proud of the poster I did for Cadbury’s recently. So the whole idea behind the project was that they reach out to ten female illustrators to create posters for women’s grassroots football teams.
So they’re all small football clubs, and normally the big football clubs will get all of the shine and all of the funding as well as obviously, the men’s football clubs. So they wanted to do something for grassroots women’s teams to make the teams and the women players feel like the star of the show.
I was assigned a team from Limerick, I’m not from there but I support them from afar! We got to create a photo illustration and I created an illustration of the Limerick player kicking the football and there’s like flame shooting in the football.
I got to have so much fun with that but I felt like the story behind it was really, really important. And it was great seeing how each of the female illustrators interpreted the brief entirely in their own way. It was just a beautiful project.
That’s amazing! Okay, so those are some of your top top favourites. So, in the future what is your dream project? What are your dream projects or dream clients to work with?
So my dream client without a doubt, would be Nike.
I’ve always wanted to work in fashion. I had a streetwear label of my own and in 2020/21 it was one of my other creative projects where I had to be like, I can’t do five different five projects. So we’re gonna have to shelve it for a little time.
But I’ve always wanted to work in fashion and I have a huge love for fashion and streetwear and I think that working with Nike would be a dream like I’d love to do a similar photo illustration stock project where like I could illustrate either on the clothes or illustrate around personal advertising campaign would just be like phenomenal dream project.
What does the future hold for DesignOpp?
For DesignOpp, I’m really excited for 2023 because we actually had such an incredible year that we totally blew our predictions out of the water!
We did a showcase for St. Patrick’s Festival, where we got creators of colour to create a piece, showing their experiences as people of colour in Ireland. We recently debuted our partnership with Arnotts, where we created a story for Black History Month, and we got four black creators to tell their stories.
I feel like we’re just improving every year, but we do have one big thing that is kicking off in January 2023. So part of the design ethos, we have three main pillars. We have Opportunity, which is the core of getting more opportunities for people of colour. We have Community, which is wanting to build a community for people of colour to learn and grow together.
Number three is Education. So we’re really passionate about decolonizing the curriculum and updating, design and third level institutions to be more inclusive, because it’s definitely a huge issue.
We’ve been in talks with NCAD, and CFA, which is National College of Art and Design and Creative Futures Academy. We are starting courses with them next year on creative diversity. So the two co-founders will be teaching courses in creative diversity starting next year, where they’ll be teaching both students of NCAD, and later professional design professionals in CFA, about how to tackle creative work that includes race.
Things like how to be more inclusive in your design choices and how to make creative spaces more welcoming for people of colour. So it’s a huge, huge leap for us and is something we’ve been really, really passionate about. We’re so happy to see the hard work bearing fruit.
To see NCAD and the CFA so open and supportive to righting the wrongs of creative education, is amazing. In the past, it’s been a little bit of tunnel vision on European design, but we’re going to bring a lot more African movements and expand the entries a lot. So we’re very, very excited.
For more info about Grace’s amazing work, visit enemaku.com for collaborations, or see her Youtube and Instagram @enemaku.
For more info about DesignOpp see designopp.ie