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How this self-taught designer and 3D animator forged her own path as a freelancer

A former D&AD Shifter tells us why creatives should define their own success

Still from 'She wants to move' 3D animation by Olivia Ema

London-based freelance art director and designer Olivia Ema has previously worked at Wieden+Kennedy, BBC Creative and Havas. After studying business management at university because of a pressure to make money, Ema eventually dropped out when she realised her true passion was in the arts. Here, the former D&AD Shifter tells us how she realised that you could carve a career in the creative industry, how she overcame imposter syndrome and burnout, and why it’s okay to define what success looks like to you. 


What was your route into the industry?

I studied business management because I was convinced early on, unfortunately, that I wouldn't get much money from pursuing a creative career. I was really good at English literature and media studies, which were my highest grades in school, but I still pursued business, even though I wasn't that great at business. I hated it and I ended up dropping out. I had attributed not enjoying business management to my not being able to focus, but I realised that I was able to focus fully on my photography, which was my hobby at the time. That was the biggest hint for me that it wasn’t that I couldn't focus, it was just that I was trying to make myself focus on the wrong thing.


How did you discover that you enjoyed photography?

We didn't have smartphones in school, but I had this little camera. I used to take pictures of my friends and upload them onto Facebook. That was my thing, and I really enjoyed it. As an emerging photographer, you need to shadow other photographers, so after I dropped out of university I was just applying for lots of studio jobs, to shadow and help out photographers, but I was just getting rejection after rejection after rejection, and it was just getting really tiring.

One day my boyfriend, who is in the creative industry, sent me an application to D&AD Shift, which was for people who had never gone to or dropped out of university and wanted a creative career. I thought, “Oh my god, another application,” but I decided to give it a go. I was in this mindset where I couldn't pretend anymore. I thought, “They will either accept me for who I am, or they’ll reject me,” and I just bared it all in that application. They took me on, and that was a big deal for me because it felt like it represented them taking me as who I was.

Still from 'Digital Vessel' by Olivia Ema

Can you tell us a bit about your experience with D&AD Shift?

After the Shift programme, D&AD had this showcase where they put up all of our work. I had never seen my work on display before and they had really gone all out. There are these stairs in the London office, and they had hung my collages from those stairs in a banner which was just cascading down. I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing that. It felt so crazy, that I had just dropped out of uni in late January and there I was in August with my work on display for everyone to see. A lot of industry people came to see that showcase, and I later ended up doing internships with some of the people I met there, including Wieden+Kennedy and BBC. I hadn’t been exposed to advertising much at the time, and I hadn’t even known who Wieden+Kennedy were. Then I did my research and I was like, “What, this is the agency that gave Nike their tagline.”


What was the biggest challenge that you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

The imposter syndrome kicked in when I was interning. I felt like I had stepped into a big kids’ playground, and that feeling of wanting that life so badly came with putting a lot of pressure on myself. I felt like I needed to stay late or prove myself. Everyone would leave work at 6pm and I felt like I should stay till 9pm. 

I ended up burning out, and felt uninspired and like my creativity was gone. I decided to step away from the industry for a while and work in retail — at a department store in London called Liberty. That store has this eclectic design that slowly started to awaken my creativity again. I realised I wanted to sketch the vases and Persian rugs they had, and started building a design portfolio with these sketches of what I was seeing in the store. 


Can you tell us a bit about the projects you're working on?

I’m currently working freelance as a designer and 3D artist, helping a company rebrand which involves a lot of 3D work and art direction. All my skills, from photography to 3D design are self-taught. I taught myself through online tutorials out of curiosity. Also, my dad is an artist and he’s always incorporated 3D into his work, so for me it felt very natural to delve into that and develop that skill.

Still from GUAP's 'Fairytales + Folklore' gala event screen display at the Natural History Museum by Olivia Ema

Who are three creatives who have inspired you, or who you think are doing interesting work?

Designer and Creative Director Maria Pearl, Art Director Ikrah Zubair and Photographer Olivia Lifungula.

What advice do you have for someone trying to break into the creative industry?

Failure is inevitable on the path to success, so fail more boldly and with confidence. Defining your own version of success is super important. A lot of my imposter syndrome came from feeling like I had to squeeze myself into other people’s versions of success. The moment I started to define what success looks like for me, it took a lot of pressure off, and gave me the ability to trust my path as uniquely my own. Lastly, have fun. Life and this creative journey is a challenge with its fair share of highs and lows, and finding those pockets of joy gives you the strength to persevere.

Get in touch with Olivia Ema on LinkedIn

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