Emily Wilkinson: Illustrator & Creative Facilitator

by | Jun 3, 2010

London based Illustrator and Creative Facilitator Emily Wilkinson, works with visual concepts, language and narrative to provide an empathy with information through an interdisciplinary practice, within which she places an emphasis on catalyzing creativity and education for positive change. With an MA in Design Futures from Goldsmiths and previous experience working as a designer at Futerra Sustainability Communications, Emily is currently working as an Associate of Reos Partners. We spoke to Emily this month to uncover more about her everyday motivations, creative practice and responses to designing futures.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

Emily: I’m currently working as an Illustrator and Facilitator, although within those areas of interest I also design, art-direct, design, write and research. I originally trained and worked as a graphic designer which was a valuable starting point, but I wanted to be more interdisciplinary and work face-to-face with people rather than be stuck behind a screen. Studying again last year helped me to define what I’m really passionate about; the way that we are all creative and how everyday creativity in education and society ultimately makes for a better world. My first love was illustration and image-making, which combined with new interests in writing and facilitation continues to shape my practice.

Notes on Design: How did your career start?

Emily: I originally trained as a Graphic Designer at Cardiff School of Art and Design. Following that I worked in a Welsh studio as a junior designer. Following that I made the move to London, to work as a designer for sustainability communications agency Futerra. Designing for Futerra was a great learning experience; I loved working in sustainability and worked with some very inspiring and energetic people. Around the time I began to realise that a traditional graphic designer’s role wasn’t right for me, I met Professor John Wood who runs the MA Design Futures course at Goldsmiths, University of London. Instantly I knew what I needed to do was study again and I applied for the course straight away. While that was finishing last summer I met Reos Partners, and working with them whilst writing my thesis about the work we were doing together.

Notes on Design: Can you tell me a little about your experience working with Futerra?

Emily: I’d always been interested in ecology and anything ‘green’. Working with Futerra gave me some concrete knowledge about sustainability which allowed me to apply those interests to a wider perspective. I value the experience many reasons, but mostly because it taught me that you really do have a choice how you apply your skills, the type of work you do and who you do it for. I was lucky to get that job early on in my career because it saved me from working in full time roles for companies whose ethics I don’t believe in.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us more about working at Reos Partners? What is your role there?

Emily: I met Reos last Summer as I was finishing off my MA when freelancing. We did some design and illustration for materials used in workshops for The Finance Lab, and also did some ‘live‘ visual facilitation; creating materials in the workshops from the output generated by the participants. Other projects I’ve worked on since with Reos include Metropolitan Agriculture and The Sustainable Food Lab.

Images copyright: Reos Partners

My role at Reos evolves constantly; we try not to be constrained by job titles but I could currently be described as an interdisciplinary visual communicator which currently involves illustration, graphic design, copy writing, art direction, marketing and adding visual elements to workshop and other processes. What they are doing is cross-sector and truly breaks boundaries; not working for a company specifically in the ‘design’ or ‘communications’ industry has broadened my perspective. In meeting the team at Reos I found myself in this incredibly open-minded group of people where everyone genuinely wanted to do things differently.

Reos have strong academic and research elements to their work, and in the future I hope to be contributing to the research and knowledge generation side of Reos by integrating some of my research on visual design and creativity with their knowledge of social change to write papers and design workshops. It would also be wonderful to build up the creative and design side of Reos by working with more creative practitioners.

Image copyright: Reos Partners

Notes on Design: You evidently have an interest in social responsibility and sustainability, how do you think the design industry is facing up to these challenges?

Emily: I think it’s facing the challenges well. There are a growing number of design agencies which are devoting themselves purely to social and ecological responsibility, often using the language of public affairs and engagement. The design industry may actually be responding better than many other industries; there’s a lot of companies out there who think that publishing a CSR report is creating change and it’s not. Personally I take an interest in what we all think of as “the design industry” but prefer to think of it all as one thing, as an interdisciplinary, cross-industry approach to response(ability) is what’s going to help us face up to challenges as interdependent human beings rather than components of individual industries. I’m equally (sometimes more) inspired by small groups of people and individuals who want to create change; grassroots efforts are just as important as large-scale ones. Of course now it’s possible for grassroots activities to organically grow and have wider impact because of things like social media.

My thesis was called ‘Illuminating Ourselves: Understanding and Communicating Response(ability) in Creative Practice and Everyday Life’. In it I question our response(ability) to ‘sustainability’, and in the research make the general point that meaningful response(ability) is being able to respond to the wider context, our environments, other people and ourselves. The research takes creative practice as the interface for this, and asks as practitioners how we can sustain our ability to respond in our practice and everyday life. It’s about social responsibility but also about happiness, work-life balance and the interaction between these. I also used the thesis to explore my own practice and interests, including illustration, facilitation, language, fiction, therapy and communication. In framing this practice I used my work with Reos as practical examples in the theory.

Notes on Design: Do you have any self-led projects you’d like to tell us about?

Emily: I don’t have any entirely self-led projects on the go but am collaborating on several voluntary projects. I’m currently working with The Healing Arts Team at a local mental heath hospital, run by Jagat Joti Kaur, a Kundalini yogi and healing arts practitioner. Joti runs a group there which we’re going to do some visual facilitation work with. I’m also involved in a couple of projects in the recently revived Granville Arcade in Brixton (twitter: #brixvill) organised by Spacemakers and some pop-up activities for Saturdays involving drawing, mapping (with designer & artist Laura Sorvala) and facilitation. I also am occasionally involved in metadesign research projects run by the M21 team (which includes some Goldsmiths staff), such as this the ‘Maiden Voyage’ workshop, taking place later this month.

My solo project is really developing my illustration and fiction / creative writing ideas. I’d like to write a graphic novel one day, or the kind of children’s books that are really for adults. These are also ideas I’d love to collaborate on.

Notes on Design: What was 2009 like for you and what does the future hold?

Emily: 2009 was an extraordinary year of discovery, learning, change and transformation. It was also pretty tough due to a combination of introspective study, change in direction and massive personal change. It was intense, but earlier this year I was able to take some time out and now have heaps of energy for doors that keep on opening. 2010 is all about creative practice, well-being, relationships and is pretty joyful so far.

Professionally I hope the future holds collaboration, opportunities to continue applying and developing my ideas in practice. My co-writer and collaborator, Ivan Nascimento and I have been accepted for the 4th International Conference on Typography and Visual Communication (ICTVC) in June this year which we’re immensely excited about, so until then we’ll be researching and writing our paper; Complexing Utopias; Communicating Complex Concepts by Expanding the Role of the Designer.

I’m also hoping that 2010 will bring more facilitation work. I’ve recently trained as a graphic recorder, which in summary is live illustration and visual recording for an event or process. I’m working on being able to integrate this offering with other types of work.

Space is also something I’d like the future to hold; I’m currently looking at sharing studio space with friends and collaborators. Ideally I’d like to work in a calm space that feels like a kind of design/art research/education studio not too far from home so I could integrate paid work with local projects and everyday life. This feels important for a sustainable and happy career; to have meaningful work, community and friendships as part of a creative practice. I need to believe in a future that isn’t just something I do, but a way of living.

To find out more about Emily Wilkinson’s work, visit her journal and portfolio at www.empathi.info, and follow her tweets @_empathi. Find out more about Reos Partners at www.reospartners.com.

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