Grace Enemaku is an award-winning, Nigerian-Irish, multidisciplinary designer and illustrator from Dublin. She specialises in creating and shaping brands that people want to obsess over and building rich, imaginative worlds within her work. Here she shares more about her work, what inspires her and what advice she'd give to other aspiring creatives.
Did you always want to be a designer/illustrator?
Yes and no. I always wanted to do something related to art ever since I was a kid, but I had absolutely zero idea of what graphic design really was until I was in college studying it! I was torn between fashion design and graphic design but I landed on graphic design in the end as it was more secure. I’m glad I did now because it’s given me such a versatile skill set and I can apply my art and illustrations to anything now.
In college, I studied… a BA in Visual Communication at TU Dublin, which without the industry jargon is essentially a Graphic Design course.
My most formative work experience was… when I was commissioned by Hen’s Teeth to create a poster for their G’wan Ireland exhibition. It was my first exhibition piece and after spending all that time in an agency for three years, it was the first project in a long time where I could create absolutely anything I wanted at all with total creative freedom. That was overwhelming at first but it helped me zero in on the subjects and work that was important to me.
I created an illustrated photo collage series called Black Girl Magic celebrating Black femininity, framing Black women as goddesses of nature featuring my friends Eppi Mae and Fiona Ntidendereza. It resonated with a lot of Black women as it’s so rare to see us being portrayed as powerful, yet soft and vulnerable. I got several new clients as a result of it and two years later I still get new clients who cite that project as the one that drew them to my work.
My first real job was… as a designer at a tech startup called Intouch in the Digital Hub.
The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… to detach my ego from my work. Creative work is so personal and you can pour your heart and soul into a project for hours and hours. What you want to make is not always what will best suit the needs of your client and their audience. So while you need to have a distinct personal voice in your work, you also have to be able to look at work objectively too. I enjoy working collaboratively with clients and nurturing their own ideas as much as my own. This is especially important in branding, where a client will come to you with nothing but a kernel of an idea. You have to work with them on the ideals they want their logo and brand to represent and craft a visual language around that.
A common misconception about what I do is… that I just draw pictures all day – yes, to an extent that is correct, but people don’t realise that design and illustration are visual problem-solving. You need to be able to communicate complex ideas visually and ensure that your work is representative of the brief’s goals. You’re constantly tweaking composition and colour to ensure that each piece is balanced and has impact through contrast and other visual techniques. It’s not as simple as sitting down with a pencil making the first thing that pops into your head. Though that is what I do for fun at the weekend!
My main responsibility in work is to… make unconventional ideas come to life in a purposeful way. Clients come to me for big, bold, colourful work that inspires them and their communities. I create branding and illustration for the unconventional and whether that’s a logo and visual identity for an SME, illustrations for tech or posters for the local arts; they come to me for unconventional work that makes them stand out. It’s important to me that my work features diverse characters and stories and I see that as a personal responsibility too.
Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from
After working closely with the IDI on DesignOpp I’ve started to see Charlotte Barker, CEO of the IDI as my mentor. It’s nothing official, but she has been a huge support both in DesignOpp and in my personal career. I contact her whenever I have a professional query and her drive and vision are a great inspiration to me.
The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… leaving my job a couple of months before a global pandemic! I started working for myself as an independent designer and illustrator just a couple of months before the pandemic hit. And I’m so glad I did as I often wonder whether I would have been brave enough to take the leap had I waited a few months later. My life would be on a totally different trajectory.
I wake at… 8:45am. Later if I can! I’m a night owl by nature.
The first thing I do every morning is… I used to do workouts on youtube every morning (shoutout to Chloe Ting!) but I got lazy. Now I do this maybe twice a week and I try to go for a short walk on the mornings I don’t.
My morning routine is… wake up and pray first thing, then attempt and regularly fail to exercise, shower, do my overpriced skincare routine and then I’m straight over to my desk. I try not to turn on my phone until I’m at my desk and I’ve sent a couple of emails because otherwise, I’ll get vortexed by the algorithms.
I can’t go to work without… a hot water bottle in the winter and a gallon of water in the summer!
I travel to work by… foot. I work from home!
On an average workday I… plan out my day/week in my digital planner Notion and clear any admin work I have nice and early. Once that’s all done I move to creative work which could be creating moodboards and sketching logos for any branding projects I’m working on; or if I have an illustration project I’ll be doing sketches and thumbnails before illustrating on my iPad. There’ll often be meetings sprinkled throughout the day and organising bits and bobs for DesignOpp too. No one day looks the same for me, there’s always something new which makes every day exciting.
I start my working day at… 10am usually but I keep it pretty flexible and will start earlier or later depending on my deadline situation. By now you’ve probably realised that I am not about that “That Girl” lifestyle and I have long accepted that I never will be!
The first thing I do at work is… make my workspace welcoming. I’ll tidy any loose papers, turn on my neon lights and put on some music so I feel ready to take on the day.
I usually spend the first portion of the day… answering emails, sending invoices and doing any other admin bits I have on. I have zero creativity first thing in the morning so I use that time to manage the deluge of admin tasks that come with running a business.
I break for lunch at… 1pm and I have lunch with my partner who also works from home. We’re both creative workaholics so we try our best to have meals together so we’re still a big part of each other’s day. I always have some variation of egg with toast, fruit and a sweet treat. I do not enjoy cooking at all (though I really wish I did!) so I just go for something quick and simple during the work day.
The most useful business tool I use every day is… my iPad. I cannot emphasise enough how much this totally changed my workflow. I use it for illustration with Procreate so I can work in bed when I’m feeling lazy and when it’s sunny I’ll often go and work in a park to get some fresh air and it totally changes your day. I find it so much faster than using traditional drawing tablets with Photoshop and the experience just feels so intuitive natural.
I save time by… using Notion as a project management tool which has helped me focus and manage my time more efficiently. I have a career page where I keep track of my invoices and I break my workload into a monthly calendar to see the overall scope of work, a weekly task list and then a daily timetable by the hour. So when I inevitably get distracted I know exactly what I need to do next and I can get back on track. It gives the most satisfying little dopamine hits every time you check a box to complete a task and you can add your own sparkly gifs and decorate your pages so it makes the whole experience much more fun than it should be!
I rarely get through my working day without… snacking. I have an insatiable sweet tooth and a sweet treat helps give me a boost when I start to lose focus.
The best part of my day is… the part where I get to generate ideas. I find the most exciting part of my job is in the early stages of a project where everything is just pure potential. I’ll be researching, working through ideas, moodboarding, sketching and trying to capture and refine a concept or emotion.
The most challenging part of my day is… admin again! I hate negotiating fees and setting up invoices and taxes, anything to do with finance and numbers is a misery for me. I’d be lost without my accountant, thank you Ludo!
I know it’s been a good day if… I’m singing. Whenever I catch myself singing that’s a sure sign that everything is going well, I’m working at a relaxed pace and able to give my work the care it deserves!
I usually end my day at… now this is a tricky one, because I’m a bit of a workaholic this can be anywhere from 7pm up until 9pm. I try to keep my hours reasonable but because I do enjoy what I do it can be hard to pull myself away from the computer.
I switch off from work by… I switch off from work quickly as I’m incredibly easily distracted! But if I’m trying to relax I’ll go for a walk and touch the grass to ground myself.
Before I go to bed, I’ll… read books or webtoons to relax. Sometimes I’ll play a super relaxing indie game like Unpacking for the Switch. The purpose is to unpack moving boxes and put everything in the right place and as you go you uncover narratives about the character’s life. Yes, it’s like doing chores for fun but in a nostalgic and satisfying way. I try to avoid getting sucked into the endless scroll of my phone before bed, but it does happen!
I often prepare for tomorrow by… planning the next day in my diary or picking my outfit in advance if I want it to be special. Though that happens a lot less often now that I work from home!
After a long work week, I destress by… playing video games, usually on my Nintendo Switch. I’ll often be playing something soothing like Animal Crossing and Rune Factory or a JRPG like Dragon Quest or Persona. I like to draw and sketch at the weekends too, it’s very freeing to create something intuitively on paper, with no goal and no pressure for perfection!
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… co-founding a not-for-profit, DesignOpp. It’s an IDI initiative championing diversity for POC in Irish design and the creative industry. We launched in 2021 with a directory for POC in design, illustration, web, UI/UX, 3D/motion, photography, videography, product design, architecture and interior design. There’s a severe lack of representation for People of Colour in the Irish creative industry and we know that the industry is trying to be better but doesn’t always know where to find POC, so we want to bridge that gap with our directory.
Our goal is to provide opportunities, make design education more inclusive and create a community for creatives of colour that will be a safe space for them to learn and grow with their peers. We’ve just had our first in-person event and exhibition featuring 10 talented Creatives of Colour at Hen’s Teeth Studio which was a massive success. We’re really excited to do more live events and keep connecting with people.
If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… make, make, make and make! Create personal projects that will help you figure out what kind of creative work you LOVE to do. Personal projects often resonate with people the most and bring in similar jobs from paying clients who want you to make that thing again, but for them! Any personal projects you can do as a collaboration with other creative people will help you make connections in the industry and maybe even lifelong friends.
Tell us about your work on the the Height of Summer exhibition… it has been such a joyous experience working on the Height of Summer project and seeing my illustrations all over the Guinness Storehouse surrounded by plants and leafy foliage. Guinness approached me to create an illustrated map of all the green spaces in Dublin that they have supported throughout history, vinyls of the locations for the windows in the Gravity Bar which is now filled to the brim with plants for the summer, as well as signage for the exhibition. The illustrations feature lush plants and flowers as well as iconic Guinness imagery such as St. James’ Gate and everyone’s favourite Toucan.
It was important that the illustrations were bright and colourful to capture that summer optimism we’ve been missing being cooped up inside over the pandemic. It was great to learn all about the history and associate it with my own fond memories of the spaces, from visiting Farmleigh market with my Granny, to memories of St. Patrick’s Park sitting on a bench for the creative interview that would change my life!