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By Nichola Spain

Gemma O’Brien almost became a lawyer. Thank god the voice of reason struck her just a year into her law degree and told her to drop out and put her creative talents to good use.

Ultimately her fate was sealed from the ripe age of four when a picture was snapped of her with a paintbrush in hand painting big red strokes of what looks to be quite an abstract piece of work. Gemma posted the image on her Instagram page, captioning it “Back in 1989, when my cheeks were as big as my dreams.”

Her dreams, now achievements have definitely outgrown her cheeks. Today Gemma is a highly sought after illustrator and typographer, working with some of the worlds biggest brands including Playboy Magazine, Nike, Diet Coke, Oreo and Volcolm.

Speaking of Instagram, before we go too far. A very pertinent question had to be asked to Gemma. We felt we wouldn’t have done this interview justice and given you, the reader the answers you deserve. So we did it, just for you.


Why is your partners name on Instagram @burritodick? (Laughter, more laughter)

“Oh my god. That’s what my mum asks me too, embarrassingly enough. So apparently it’s from some rap song or something. I’ll have to double check and get you the exact answer, but there is a reason behind it. When I post a picture I’m like oh god, I’m not going to tag him, but I think people have come to be like, okay that’s just what it is. My aunty says, oh is BD coming? So she’s shortened it to BD.”

Seems this name is going to stick. Good. BD. We can move on now. At the moment Gemma is combining her art based typography projects, commercial work and lettering workshops, topping it all off with a few design conferences here and there.

“I especially enjoy the workshop components. Sharing the skills that I have often taught myself with other people, there’s a really big demand for one on one, hands on workshops these days. So it’s great to be able to travel to different cities and be able to share these skills with people.”

“I also think doing the talks and presentations kind of forces you to reflect on the work that you have done, and look at where you’re heading.”

Gemma is enjoying a few months at home in Sydney before she jets off on a working holiday. Her work takes her to a lot of amazing places. Across America, Europe, Asia and back home to Australia.

“I think Berlin and Barcelona are my two favourite cities to travel and work in. Berlin is always an important one because in the early stages when I started studying design, I was invited to speak at a typography conference in Berlin and that was kind of like the thing that kick started my career in many ways. Barcelona just has a nice vibe, similar to Sydney where is it just like outdoors, really creative and inspiring.”

For many creatives, their art is an extremely personal thing. Working with such big commercial clients, Gemma is constantly navigating the waters between her craft and a brief.  

“The commercial work actually helped me in some instances let go a little creatively and be able to be adaptable and meet a brief and change the style a bit…I think that at first when I finished design school I had this idea of sitting somewhere between art and design where I was heavily directed by my own style and vision. Then after I started working more commercially I probably became a little bit more flexible to changing my style, especially in typography.”

But Gemma doesn’t seem to be the type (get it) to be overly tied to her work, after one of her most recent exhibitions her work was painted over.

“I did an exhibition in Laguna Beach, California in March this year and it was there for a month. You kind of had to be there to experience it and then it was all painted white again…I kind of like that idea of site specific but also transient.”

Whilst much of Gemma’s work comprises of large-scale hand painted murals, her work is also influenced and aided by digital mediums as well. As the use of technology grows rapidly and digitalisation continues to occur across the globe, the role of the hand and the machine in the creative process is an interesting one.

“Everything we do is digitised these days, there’s so many screens, especially with typography, the day to day interactions you have with lettering and typography is usually digital and it’s based on simple reading fonts.”

“But there has been this real celebration and movement towards the hand made and bespoke. Because it suddenly offers a new level of value and a new level of meaning, it is something that is very intrinsically human which no matter how far we advance towards these new technologies, at the end of the day we’re still human.”

You can catch Gemma in September speaking in Antwerp, Belgium at the OFFF by Night Design and Creativity Festival. Or stalk her work on Instagram @mrsreaves101 (not @mrsburritodick).