Lotta Nieminen cheerfully doffs two design hats: illustrator and graphic designer. Equally at home in each discipline, she nonetheless draws sharp distinctions between her aesthetic, practice, and even clients in each. Her illustrations teem with saturated colors, textured scraps of paper, and tiny people roaming through extraordinarily detailed cityscapes. Her design work is spare, machine-elegant, and bold—as beautiful an antithesis to her lovely illustrations as can be imagined.

A native of Helsinki now based in New York, Nieminen has freelanced in illustration and design since 2006, and worked for  Pentagram, RoAndCo, and fashion magazine Trendi. She was selected in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 this year, ADC Young Guns, and Print’s New Visual Artists in 2010. Before Nieminen gets too busy to talk (and we expect that to be any day now), we decided to catch up with her to find out more about her process and how she balances her roles as a graphic designer and illustrator.

How do you define yourself as a designer?
Realizing I can identify as both a graphic designer and an illustrator was a big revelation.

Nowadays, my professional identity is loose: I’ll wear whatever hat the project requires. Besides design and illustration, I also do art direction, photography, and prop styling.

In my work, illustration and graphic design are very different, both in ways of thinking and the clients. As a graphic designer, it’s more about finding an answer to a question, whereas when I’m illustrating, I’m executing an answer someone else art directs. I try to avoid working as both the designer and illustrator on the same project.

In illustration, I work for big companies that commission a “set style.” But in design, I prefer working with smaller brands that I can oversee in a more overarching way.

 

Can you describe your style?
In graphic design my style is minimalist and deliberately colorful. I aim for a strong feel of space in my compositions. I also have a weakness for details and small type. I take great pleasure in choosing the right materials for each project.

In illustration my style is more generous, with lots of elements and details. I find it easier to play with colors and patterns in illustration than in graphic design, where my taste is maybe more simple.

How did you first get interested in the design field?

I come from an artistic family. My my dad’s in music, my mom’s a painter, and her mom was a painter, too. My middle sister works as a fashion designer and the youngest studies musicology. I spent a lot of time [as a pre-teen] parading against everything art-related and said I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer instead.

When it came time to apply for college, I wanted to make movies. I attended an open-door event at the university and went home with a huge stack of questions for the film department. There was a girl talking about the school, and after the presentation I approached her and started asking my questions. Turned out she was from the graphic design department and didn’t know anything about film. She offered to present me her department instead.

I had heard of graphic design, but never understood what it was—but it was everything I was interested in. The thing I actually liked most about making movies was designing the titles and end credits—obviously not the core job of a movie director.

Tell us about where and how you work.
I work from home. I start my day reading emails off my phone in bed. It’s a terrible habit I haven’t been able to get rid of.

I find taking a shower and getting dressed first thing is a miracle maker. I learned this the hard way when I started freelancing; you’ll hate yourself if you work all day in your pajamas and order delivery for every meal.

A good chunk of my time goes into the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business. I enjoy it, but it does take away from the time I have to create. In busy times, I don’t have room for trial and error, which, to me, is the core of being creative. If I’m too short on time to try and fail, then I don’t get the same satisfaction from the outcome.

I realized no one else will make room for creative work but me. I now split my work day in two: admin before lunch, and creative work after.