Gemma O’Brien: Lettering Extraordinaire

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Lately, we’ve been featuring some of our 2016 New Visual Artists—PRINT’s annual list of the 15 best creatives working today under 30. If you haven’t already, meet the brilliant Gemma O’Brien. Here, she discusses her influences, her work, and how her career has evolved.


Photo by Elle Green

Age: 29.

From: Brisbane, Australia.

Current city: Sydney, Australia.

Education: University of New South Wales: College of Fine Arts (BA, Design).

Earliest creative memory: Winning a first-grade painting competition with an artwork of my pet chicken Rosie.

Path that led you to design: I quit law school after a year and realized I needed to be doing something creative for the rest of my life. So I switched to a design degree and fell in love with typography after learning to hand-set type in the letterpress studio. From that point forward I have been developing a practice that sits between art, illustration, design and typography.


Career in a nutshell: I got noticed in the type world back in 2008 when I made an experimental video where I drew lettering on my body for a university project. I was then invited to speak at Typo Berlin at age 21. This was definitely a kickstart to my career in the early days. I then worked as an art director in a couple of design and post-production studios before deciding to freelance about four years ago. Since then I’ve created custom lettering, illustrations and murals for Volcom, Nike, Diet Coke, Playboy magazine and many more. I also host handlettering workshops around the world and try to maintain personal art projects on the side.


Current place of work: My home studio attic, or makeshift hotel room studio while abroad. (Technically though: freelance artist and illustrator represented by Levine/Leavitt in the Americas and The Jacky Winter Group in Australasia.)

The key to good design: A solid idea and well-crafted execution.

Motto/design philosophy: Take your work seriously, not yourself.


Work of which you’re most proud: I think this changes with each new challenging project that arises. I am proud of my first gallery exhibition, which was held at the Fremantle Arts Centre in 2013. This was the first time I hand-painted large-scale lettering, and it was really a game-changer in terms of my work since then. I am also proud of my side project, The Spew Bag Challenge, which I started for fun while flying on airplanes a few years ago. It combines three of my favorite things: puns, hand-lettering and travel.

How you would classify your style: My style shifts within the bounds of lettering and typography. Sometimes loose, energetic and calligraphic, and sometimes big, bold and intricately detailed. Often black and white.


Biggest influence: ilovedust. This studio combines illustration and typography like no other. I love everything they do.

Design hero: Sagmeister.

Favorite artists: Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Holzer.

Favorite typographers: I have many … Luca Barcellona, Alex Trochut, Jordan Metcalf, Martina Flor.


Favorite writer: Jason Crombie.

What defines you: My laugh!

Cause that means the most to you: Mental health.

Biggest fear: Forgetting Mum’s birthday.

What you want to accomplish before all is said and done: Some good memories with all my favorite people.

Your idea of happiness: No new emails.

What you think the future of design is: The future of design is human.

Anything else: Boomer Lives!