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How pivoting from fashion to graphic design paid off for this top-ranking illustrator

A former designer at Innocean Berlin explains how he got his foot in the door

Illustration by Jael Umerah-Makelemi

Rik Nieuwdorp studied fashion before finding his self-proclaimed ‘psychedelic illustration style’ as a graphic designer. Since then, he has contributed to poster campaigns for Festival of Animation Berlin and digital design projects such as the D&AD Award-winning Bookcase of Tolerance, which transformed Anne Frank's bookcase into an AR app, and The Uncensored Library, which republished censored articles by acclaimed journalists as uncensored Minecraft books in the game.

Nieuwdorp recently left his job as a designer at Innocean Berlin, and is currently taking on freelance projects as he travels the world. Here, the D&AD top-ranking illustrator tells us how he got his start, how advocating for himself helped him land big projects, and why designers should have confidence in their aesthetic. 

Talent can be applied in a number of ways

As a kid, I was always creative, but I never wanted to be an illustrator necessarily, or even an artist. I studied graphic design in the Netherlands after studying fashion and deciding it wasn’t for me. I enjoyed graphic design so much that I stuck with it and later got into the European branch of Miami Ad School, where they offered an advertising course in art direction. I did the course and that's how I rolled into advertising.

When I did my last internship at the advertising agency Innocean in Berlin, they gave me a chance to switch from being an art director to a designer and I really appreciated that because I realised that I love craft a lot more than theoretical stuff or idea generation. Innocean saw how I was progressing with the smaller projects they gave me the opportunity to do, and then gave me more opportunities – and I can only thank them for that.

Image of still from The Uncensored Library by DDB Group Germany

When the opportunity to step up comes along, take it.

My big break came down to a bit of luck really, because I was doing an internship at DDB Group Germany when they were working on the Minecraft and Reporters Without Borders project The Uncensored Library. I had some random general knowledge about national flags which I realised no one else had and was needed to complete some work on this project. I spoke up about it and asked if I could join the project, and this is how I rolled into what was a huge project. After this was completed they kept me on and I then I got to do some graphic design work for them too.

Speaking up in the office when I realised my general knowledge could be useful to the team opened up a huge range of opportunities for me. It’s lucky to get in but once you are you need to show that you can actually be an asset on a huge project like that, even as an intern. So that's what I tried to do and then I somehow got my name on the credits list and that helped me to get more internships and I was put on more big projects.

Step up and into opportunities to progress

Honestly, my transition from junior to senior was very smooth as the designer above me left and they didn't hire someone new in the time that I was there, so I naturally got more senior work to do but I have since quit my job there to travel. Like with the Uncensored Library, I saw there was a role that I could fill, I stepped up to it and my ability to do it was rewarded.


Image of still from The Bookcase of Tolerance by INNOCEAN Worldwide Europe

Be flexible in how you apply your skills

It’s important to be able to step into a project at any time. As an illustrator, I am sometimes involved from the start of a project and sometimes it will be in a hybrid role between an art director and an illustrator. Other times, like with the Anne Frank House project, for example, I come in at a very late stage, just for illustrations within the video. In that case, the team will just brief you on where they're at and exactly what they want.

I might also just get asked by a team to translate data into something visual with no brief at all. There's a lot of freedom to create in this job and I really appreciate it as it means people like my style and trust me to adapt it to their vision.

Have confidence in your talent and your aesthetic

You have to be confident in your abilities and have confidence in yourself. There's this corporate illustration style right now that a lot of companies are using and I would never make the concessions of using that style over my own just because it might be more commercial. I don't know if that's good advice, but that’s just me. I remember when I was in school, a teacher asked me, “Do you really want to be known as the guy who makes the super trippy, psychedelic illustrations?” I thought about it a lot and I concluded that yes, I would like to be known as that guy because it's my style and I really, really like it. A lot of people might not like it, or it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but that's fine because it's my cup of tea.

D&AD’s Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read more interviews with the likes of a design director who just launched his own studio and an art director who got a job during a hiring freeze.

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