interview :: joanna boyle

Katie | December 25, 2011

I was fortunate to be introduced to the very talented Joanna Boyle just as she was graduating from University College Falmouth and just as I was putting together my book, Interviews. Her work has since also appeared in the Parabola Project Issue II; Quickening, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I thought I would share some of what we talked about here…

What’s the most important thing to know about you?

I drink too much tea and as a result spend my time rushing around in an over-caffeinated frenzy of activity.

Joanna Boyle illustration

Why illustration? Why not a different creative discipline? Why not something else entirely?

This is a question I feel I could spend hours answering. I had such a lot of trouble deciding which course to study during foundation that right up until the final moment I was still torn between four or five different subjects. I think in the end, the deciding argument in favour of illustration was the discovery that a vast number of illustration jobs are in publishing. I have always loved reading and writing and the idea that I would be able to read other people’s children’s books or even write my own was a very exciting one! Looking back on that decision, I am convinced that it was the right choice for me. I really enjoy creating work of my own and I am always thinking up ideas for new projects which I write on post-it notes and stick on the wall.

Who are your design heros? Why? What impact have they had on your work?

Two of my favourite all time illustrators are Dave McKean and Shaun Tan. Although they are both very different in style, I think my reasons for liking them are the same. Both focus on narrative and have published children’s books that are whimsical and, in the case of “The Wolves in the Walls” and “The Rabbits,” so dark that you are left wondering whether the intended readers are children after all. It is a credit to how successful both Tan and McKean are, that they are able to create work without an obvious genre and this is probably the best position an illustrator can hope to be in. With this in mind I find it very inspiring that they both continue to push their work in new and different directions, maintaining a very experimental approach to media, which I have attempted to take on board in my work. I feel that this exercise has done both me and my work a lot of good as it has lead me to discover new methods of creating images and made me more open to different media.

Joanna Boyle illustration

What are you most proud of?

Right now, and I know this is shallow, but I am most proud of the beautiful shiny new Apple Mac that is sitting on my desk!

What was studying at Falmouth Like? How did being in Cornwall affect your work? Would you be tempted to go back there to work?

Falmouth was a really lovely place to go to university. The college itself is in the centre of town, which meant that all the students feel instantly a part of the local community.

Perhaps as a result of its being quite far away from London, the illustration course really made use of its industry contacts and that we were able to go on trips to London and New York, for advice and feedback on our portfolios. This was an invaluable experience; it forced us to approach our work in a more professional way and plan which projects we chose to pursue.

Also, in terms of style, the structure of the course had a big influence on the way I draw characters now – I was able to get the best results in the time given by drawing characters from my imagination instead of using reference.

It hasn’t been long since I finished my course but I already miss Falmouth a lot and can definitely see myself moving back there at some point in the future.

Desert island design: which three items could you not live without?

For my birthday this year my friend Katy bought me “The Bird King and Other Sketches” by Shaun Tan. It is a collection of his sketches with little notes and a really nice forward in which he talks about his ideas and how to get inspiration. Every time I’m feeling un-inspired I have a read of it and flip through the pictures and find myself feeling better

I recently bought a concertina book called “Rise and Fall” which was designed by an illustrator called Micah Lidberg and published by Nobrow Press. It is such a beautiful book and every time I look at it I see something new. I went through a phase of taking it with me everywhere I went but then realised it was starting to get scuffed and instead stuck it to the wall in my room.

Finally I have a planner by a Korean design company called Ooh La La, which I really love – I don’t think it would be possible for me to be organised were it not for the fact that I want to fill this beautiful book with nice writing!

Joanna Boyle illustration

What makes a great designer?

From what I can tell of other designers and in my own experience, the best work seems to be produced by people who are playful in their attitude towards creating it. I think experimenting and never getting too settled into a way of working is probably the kind of attitude a great designer needs to have.

Also being doggedly persistent in making new and better work and creating opportunities for yourself by contacting potential clients and keeping up the contacts you have already made.

What’s the best brief you’ve ever received and why?

This is an interesting question as most of my briefs up until now have been self-written! I suppose one of my favourite projects so far was writing and illustrating my own children’s book. Being completely in control of the plot line and the characters was a daunting but thoroughly enjoyable experience. The final book was full of my sense of humour and it felt very personal to me. After finishing it I was inspired to think up new plot lines, one of which I am already working on!

Joanna Boyle illustration

What advice would you give to someone thinking about studying illustration at University?

I suppose the advice I would give to new students would be to have fun and not worry too much about what the people around you are doing. Working in an open studio, it is very easy to find yourself looking over other people’s shoulders and it can be nerve wracking if other people’s work seems different to yours or better. At times like that it is really important to remember that you were all good enough to get on to the course and that everyone is there to learn and change. You’re not an illustrator yet, and university is probably the best opportunity to experiment that you will ever have. I did a lot of experimenting during my three years and I haven’t finished yet!

What’s next for you? What does success look like? 

Now that I have finished university, the next thing will be to try and establish contacts within the industry. As well as that I have a lot of projects in the pipeline that I am impatient to get going with! Success to me looks like a big fat publishing contract and in the longer term it would be to be able to support myself entirely through my illustration.

What’s your favourite colour?

As you have probably already noticed I change my mind about things all the time, but right now my favourite colour is orange!

Joanna Boyle illustration

To read more interviews with designers from graphic designers and illustrators to furniture and product designers and from rising stars to Joanna, to established names like Anthony Burrill, Javier Mariscal and John Makepeace, buy my book, Interviews. It’s only £10 and 50p from every copy sold goes to Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, registered charity number SC024414.

Further reading for the especially geeky:


Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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