Lotta Nieminen is a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator from Helsinki, Finland. She has studied graphic design and illustration at the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Rhode Island School of Design, and has worked as a freelancer in both fields since 2006. After working for fashion magazine Trendi in Finland and Pentagram Design in New York, Lotta is now based in NYC, working for design studio RoAndCo.
In 2010, Lotta received the Art Directors Club Young Guns award and was selected by Print magazine for its annual New Visual Artists review, highlighting 20 international rising designers under the age of 30. She has illustrated for the likes of clients such as Volkswagen, United Airlines, International Herald Tribune Magazine, Monocle, Newsweek, and Bloomberg Businessweek.
We have a whole lotta admiration for this talented lady. She’s charming; she’s got serious style; and she’s funny. Our conversation with Lotta was full of laughter and inspiring stories about her whimsical journey from Finland to the heart of New York. Lotta shared about her accidental discovery of graphic design and illustration, making an international move, taking risks, and finding community in the greatest city on earth. She also offered up some stellar advice for young creatives and reminded us that it’s good to like the work you do, but it’s more important to love your life.
We’ve also got an exciting post-interview update from Lotta, so read on to the end for the big news—no skipping ahead!
Interview date: January 18, 2012
Describe your path to becoming a graphic designer and illustrator.
My background is relatively typical in the sense that I drew a lot as a kid and came from an artistic family. My mom is a painter, her mom was a painter, and my dad is in music. By the time I was 12, people started asking me what I was going to be when I grew up. Like any normal preteen, I had to rebel against everything my parents and family represented, so I would tell people, “I’m gonna be a lawyer or a doctor.”
When it actually came time to apply for college, I decided—for the greater good—to give up being rebellious and do something I had slowly become passionate about, which was being a movie director. I set out to apply to college and become the most famous movie director ever. You can’t blame me for not having very ambitious plans (laughing). At the university, they had this open door event to learn about the school. I went there with a huge stack of questions about the entrance exams for the movie department. In Finland, tuition is free so the entrance exams are really strict. For the movie directing department where you apply, there are approximately 200 applicants each year and they only take two. For graphic design, it’s 15 out of 500 applicants.
I went to the university event with all these questions and was ready to fulfill my dream. There was a girl talking about the school and after the presentation, I went up to her and started asking all my questions. She said, “Sorry, I can’t really help you. I don’t know anything about the movie department. I’m from the graphic design department and I could tell you something about that.” I said sure; I was already there anyway. She started telling me about the graphic design department. The funny thing is that I had heard of graphic design, but had never bothered to understand what it was comprised of—turns out it was everything I had always been interested in doing.
Looking back, my artistic background had manifested itself through graphic design. For example, when I was 12 there was this competition for kids to create their own 12 page magazine. I had been drawing a lot by that time and computers had started occupying my dreams. I had friends whose dads had computers and I really wanted one. The main thing that motivated me to enter that competition was that I could win a computer—this huge, bulky, gray PC. I was like, “I need that.”
I entered the competition and actually won the massive computer. My entry was this girly magazine called Frendi, which had self-staged fashion shoots with my little sister. I had cut out pictures and pasted in these epic stories about seals and the Spice Girls and everything that was close to my heart at age 12. The whole layout was made by hand. I illustrated it and spent a lot of time thinking about typefaces and studying magazines. I guess they figured I really needed a computer because my magazine was pathetic looking (laughing).
Anyway, I started at the University of Art and Design at Helsinki and after my junior year, I did an exchange semester at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and had my hands in both illustration and graphic design. I had heard a lot of good things about the school and really wanted to go there. I had also always dreamt about going to New York and the fact that RISD was three hours from NY sealed the deal.
For my exchange, I had to choose a major, and had a very hard time choosing between graphic design and illustration. To me, illustration was something I was interested in, but I never felt like it was my strong point. I was surrounded by people who were really concentrating on illustration and were amazing at it. Plus, in Helsinki you can’t even major in illustration, so I only studied design there. I ended up taking three illustration classes and one graphic design class. After my exchange semester, I returned to Helsinki, graduated, and got a job as a graphic designer at a Finnish fashion magazine, Trendi. I had always been interested in magazine designs. Since there were two of us running the visuals of the magazine, I was doing a lot of art direction. It was a very great year and a half there.
In Spring 2010, I decided to fulfill my dream that I had since studying at RISD, which was moving to New York. I started with a three month internship at Pentagram and now I’m at RoAndCo.
One more little thing. Illustration was something I ended up doing on accident. I’ve always done it in addition to working as a full-time graphic designer—I’ve never freelanced full-time. How I ended up doing illustration was because at the university in Helsinki, we had these bi-annual portfolio reviews and visiting lecturers would come and give us feedback on our work. There was an art director from a Finnish magazine and she saw my sketchbook and said, “Hey, have you ever thought of doing illustrations? I’d love to commission one from you.” I thought it sounded fun and that’s how my illustration career started.
“It keeps surprising me that illustration has always felt secondary. I thought I had to choose and that’s why I identify myself as a graphic designer, but I feel like I have a higher demand as an illustrator.”
Do you do a lot of illustration now on the side?
I would love to do more. The thing is that I could probably only do that. It keeps surprising me that illustration has always felt secondary. I thought I had to choose and that’s why I identify myself as a graphic designer, but I feel like I have a higher demand as an illustrator. I take maybe 1/3 of the jobs that come in just because at one point I worked two months straight, every single night after work until 1 or 2am and on the weekends. It seriously cut down on my social life. It was insane.
I like my work, but I love my life more. Now I’m trying to be gentle. I’m lucky because I have a life that, to some extent, allows me to scoop the cream from the top; I get to take only projects that I feel super passionate about or inspired by. And those projects allow me to buy those amazing shoes I’ve been watching for a while.
You talked about being creative when you were younger. Did you want to share anything else?
I think that was basically it. I rambled.
Any more stories you want to tell—maybe some embarrassing ones?
More embarrassing than openly admitting my love of the Spice Girls? What more do you want from me?
[Ryan] You mentioned that your mom is an artist and your dad is in the field of music. Did they encourage you to do something creative?
I think I was just a rebel. I always felt like I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. It was a stupid rebellion because they were like, “Oh, awesome. You’ll be a lawyer. That’ll come in handy.” I was like, “Dammit.”
Actually, I have a little sister who is two years younger than me and she is studying at the same art and design university where my grandmother, my mom, and I studied. I can only imagine what it was like for her to start there. We’ve all studied in different departments though! My grandmother was in a department called decorative painting that doesn’t exist any more; my mom was in textiles; and my sister is in fashion design.
That’s really cool. You may have touched on this, but did you have an “aha” moment when you knew that you wanted to pursue graphic design?
I guess it was when I actually heard what it was. I remember walking away from that university open house and I called my mom and said, “Why have you never told me about graphic design?”
I wasted a year dreaming about this whole movie director thing. I realized the thing I actually liked most about movies was the beginning titles and end credits and that was a separate job. My mom said, “Yeah, that’s not what a movie director does.”
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward? Would that be your move to New York?
It was definitely moving to New York. It was one of those things where you lie in your bed for two hours on a Sunday morning and just think about life and what you’re going to do with it. I had booked tickets to fly into NY because I had been nominated for an award for Print Magazine and they had an opening exhibition. I took a week of vacation from the fashion magazine I was working at to go to NY. I thought it would be a good opportunity to apply for jobs. A very good friend of mine had done this project for school where she had compiled a list of basically every creative and graphic design agency in NY. That night, I went through the entire list and color coded them based on my interest. There were five places I really wanted to work that were worth the risk of leaving everything behind. I already loved my job in Finland, so I had to consider what could be something even better than that. I emailed the five places and was lucky enough to get interviews at all of them.
It was funny because I loved my job and my apartment and my friends in Finland. Everything was good, but almost too good. The closest way I can explain it is—it’s like when you’re a kid and you build a big tower with blocks, but when it’s done, you don’t just want to look at it, and you knock it over and build a new one. You want to see if you can build something bigger and taller. It’s not that I wanted to be uncomfortable; I just felt like I was still so young and had time to see the what-ifs. What if I lived in NY? What would that be like?
Also, my parents lived in Lisbon, Portugal by that time and my sister was in London, which made the decision easier. When I was young, my family had also lived in Paris for five years. Those things have changed the concept of home to me; it’s less of a physical place and more of a place that you build around people you love and feel comfortable with. When I came over here, I realized that Americans are already accustomed to that idea because they study on a different coast or their family moves and is less rooted to a place.
I have many friends where I was raised and they were surprised I moved because they said they could never leave Finland. For me, the move was nice and I also had friends in NY. It was a big risk, but I felt like I already had a safety net here.
[Tina] Did you get a job offer right away and then move?
I came around May and then I had to wait for a while to move because I had a contract at my job in Finland and I had to empty out my apartment. Everything I own is here in this apartment or in boxes in my attic. I moved to New York in August 2010.
[Ryan] You said you worked at Pentagram, right?
I interned there. Basically every studio was like, “We’d love to have you, but nobody knows who you are so we kinda want to test you out first.” If I was an American, they might have worked with me as a freelancer, but as a foreigner, I needed a visa and couldn’t get that working freelance. I really liked being at Pentagram. I was under Paula Scher and I really looked up to her. It was a great time, but at the same time, I didn’t know if I wanted to get bound to one job. I knew that my next full-time job would probably be my last before going out on my own and I wanted to do something that was close to what I wanted to do by myself. RoAndCo fell into that because of the fashion design aspect, which I fell in love with. It definitely felt like the best place for me.
Did you ever have any mentors along the way?
I had some very influential teachers. One was Tapio Vapaasalo, who was the head of the graphic design department at the university in Helsinki—he just retired this year. I had him my first year and he was this father figure that helped me be certain that graphic design was really what I wanted to do. There is always this uncertainty at first when choosing your career path, when you ask yourself, “Is this it?”
At RISD I took this editorial illustration class with Chris Buzelli and it was a much needed boost for my self-confidence. For the first time, I got some good, proper feedback on my illustration. I think the other students were intrigued with my work because my style was so different. After that, I started doing illustration just as seriously as I was already doing graphic design.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Yeah, very. My parents have always been really proud of me. Like I said, I never felt pressured to take the path I ended up taking. Another supportive person is my boyfriend, who is also a graphic designer. I very much look up to his work and value his opinion. He likes my work, but I also know that I’ll always get honest feedback from him and I appreciate that.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself through your work?
Yeah. This was one of the tricky questions. I’m doing what I love and what I’m best at and if with that I can help other people feel as happy as I do about the work I make, it’s mainly a bonus. I’m responsible to think about the things I do and to challenge myself. My work is my way to touch other people’s lives. When you do something and you don’t feel grateful and appreciative about it, that’s not possible. You can make other people happy by being happy. So that’s the greatest responsibility I feel in my work.
Are you satisfied creatively?
I am very satisfied creatively. I’ve come to realize that the things I want have more to do with the quality of life rather than work goals. I want to have time for myself and enjoy life. I feel so lucky to have found this thing I love, but I still don’t want it to be my everything. In terms of satisfaction and the future, my work goals are not as much the big picture because I’ve already reached some of my goals in making the big decision to move to NY to pursue my career.
I’ve really been wanting to expand outside of print and I’ve been working with some new mediums. More recently I’ve done a label for a wine bottle, an illustration for a Helsinki-themed hand embroidered cushion, and carpet for the Finnish company Tikau.
[Tina] This is off topic, but I have to ask. Since you didn’t grow up here in the US, do you notice a difference between the way people work and what they value compared to Finland?
It’s very intense here. I used to complain about my job in Finland, but now that I’m here, working there felt like a retirement house compared to New York. It’s a different mindset.
Even when I went to RISD, I noticed that although I had always thought I was a motivated and hard-working student in Helsinki, there I felt my effort only to be around average. The difference in the scholarly system is that we don’t pay for university. When your parents pay $30,000 for tuition, I guess you have to deliver in a totally different way.
I feel like lately there’s been this big social movement toward downshifting and I hope that continues. I came to realize that even if I say “no” to things, people will still come back to me for things. I don’t need to be the “yes” man. I am really ambitious, but I want to channel some of that ambition to making a life for myself. On my deathbed, I hope I’ve worked less and spent more time eating dinner with friends, seeing my family, talking with my grandparents. Rarely do people think, “I wish I would have worked more.”
Since we’re talking about this sort of thing… if you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I think I’m very much a fatalist. It’s maybe kind of cheesy to say. I’m not a very spiritual person, but I believe that things happen how they’re meant to be. I’ve had to believe that, especially with the changes in my life—quitting a job I loved and moving to another country, which is extremely hard to do. I had to have this kind of take that there’s always a goal you’re headed to and there are two ways you can go—through the mountains or through the forest—but either way will get you there. Thinking that way helped me to not be too scared to make a decision.
I guess that if I had to say something, I would go back to my college self when I had just come back from RISD and was working, working, working. I would go up to that totally overachieving chick who spent all her nights and weekends at school doing work and tell her to take a chill pill.
If you could give one piece of advice to another graphic designer or illustrator starting out what, would it be?
My biggest advice is a bit of a classic—what you have in your portfolio is what you’re going to get commissioned to do. A couple years ago, I did this personal project of a cityscape and posted it on my website. Soon after, my first building related commission came in and now that’s what everybody wants from me. Now I’m trying to steer away from that and am drawing animals and plants.
It’s funny working on both sides—as a designer who commissions and as an illustrator who gets commissioned. When I’m Art Directing, the only thing I see is what’s in someone’s portfolio. I rarely think further—what if I got this person who does really dark and gloomy images to draw a happy clown? That’s just not going to cross my mind. I think that’s the work he has in his portfolio; he doesn’t want to do anything else. That’s the first piece of advice.
The other thing I swear by is talking clients into things. I know that as designers we’re working customer service and we should definitely deliver what’s commissioned from us, but we’re also professionals and consultants. I guess I like to think that you should never give up too easily and should be prepared to back up the things you are passionate about. Sometimes clients need a little push. They see things they haven’t seen anywhere else and they’re not going to just digest it.
You’re in New York. How does that impact your creativity?
It has a huge impact! Especially since I’ve only recently been transplanted here, I’m still living in my honeymoon phase with New York and I’m inspired by something every time I step outside—the colors, smells, height of the cityscape, the fashion, the food, and the light! Light in Manhattan keeps blowing me away—how it reflects through the windows and makes these beautiful rays and spots of light on the pavement. Just seeing these kind of mundane things that I find beautiful and that make me smile has had a very big impact on my creativity.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Yeah, especially with moving to NY; this is a place where you need to be connected. I feel like the creative community in NY is really special and everybody helps each other out. In Finland, there are only a handful of people who design, so there can be a lot of competition. You’d have to be crazy to try to compete in NY. There are so many talented people that it doesn’t make any sense to try to act like you’re better than someone else. Instead, I think it results in people really supporting each other and creating this great community. I’ve met so many people here that have helped me out in so many ways, especially coming from another country. There’s something special here.
The first time I came here I almost started crying when I saw the skyline—it was so beautiful. I would often take the bus from RISD to New York and every time that I had to take the bus back to Providence, I would say, “New York, wait for me!” And three years later, I moved here. The city is so full of energy and it gives so much. It’s an extreme of emotions living here because when things suck, they really suck, but then the next day the best thing ever happens! Nothing like that can happen anywhere else but here.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s a bad habit, but I start my morning by reading my emails. I would love to be one of those people that made green tea and did yoga and then checked email two hours after being awake. I’m in my bed; I hit my alarm clock; grab my iPhone; email. It’s really sad. I just can’t give that up. Because of the time difference, I answer emails about freelance work. I start my day at work around 10am. Because I live in the Lower East Side, I have a 20 minute walk to work, which is really nice. In the evening, I try to preserve my quality of life and go out with friends for dinner or go to openings. If I do have to work on a project, I’ll get take-out and go home and work for a bit. That would be a typical day at the moment.
My dad works as a creative director in the field of classical music and up until I was 10, that was pretty much the only thing I listened to. When I was 10, we moved back to Finland from Paris and the girls were listening to Spice Girls. I said to them, “What’s this rock ’n roll?” I did not make very many friends my first day (laughing).
Right now, on the top of my list are the Spotify playlists that a friend of mine sends me. The latest was “Lotta’s Sad Mix”, which I got when my boyfriend had to go back to Finland after staying in New York for three months.
Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?
I do. I’m waiting for the new Wes Anderson movie, Moonrise Kingdom. I died when I heard that my friend, Jessica Hische did the lettering for it. That’s such a dream job. I love all of Wes’s films. The style and the colors—the colors inspire me.
I got seriously addicted to Downton Abbey. I had to cancel a dinner with a friend one weekend because I just had to watch one more episode and was suddenly really “sick”. Now I have to wait for a year until the third season comes out. I’m totally embarrassing myself, aren’t I?
Do you have a favorite book?
Sadly, I’ve had less and less time to read. I used to be such a big reader. I was reading more when I lived in Bushwick and could read on the subway. When I moved to NY, my dad gave me Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids. For a week I walked around the city wishing I could run into Patti and hug her. She became such a big inspiration to me after reading her book.
Another one is The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman. I’m such a big fan of her storytelling and imagery.
There’s only one requirement. It has to have avocado.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
This is the hardest question. Obviously it would be awesome to be remembered as a great designer and illustrator who magically found a way to combine both and lived a life full of happiness with friends and lots of parties (laughing).
But really, I want to be remembered as someone who was a great person and who was a happy person. My work is a big part of that; I want to be remembered as someone who was happy doing what she did.
[Editor’s Note: We’ve got an exciting post-interview update. Lotta has quit her day job and will be venturing out into the world of full-time freelance at the end of March! We’re super excited for you, Lotta. You’re gonna rock it, girl!]
“I’ve come to realize that the things I want have more to do with the quality of life rather than work goals. I want to have time for myself and enjoy life. I feel so lucky to have found this thing I love, but I still don’t want it to be my everything.”