Creative Lives — Emilie Chen on designing for The National Theatre and defining success on her own terms
Strolling along London’s South Bank, there’s a high chance you’ll have seen a poster created by Emilie Chen. For the past four years, Emilie has worked as a senior designer at The National Theatre, collaborating with directors, designers and writers to create a variety of visual material. Ever the advocate for doing the things that scare you, Emilie actually left it to the last-minute to apply for the ‘dream’ job role, despite feeling like she might not have a shot. In the end, it was going beyond the interview brief that she was set which landed her the job. Originally from Paris, Emilie recalls her move to London, and some of the difficulties she encountered when trying to find work: “[A recruiter] told me my work was really good but I hadn’t been able to get a job because the jobs were going to British white boys.” Earlier this year Emilie left The National Theatre to go freelance, and give herself more time in her career to explore. Here, she talks through some of her favourite projects, running Ladies Wine Design London, battling unconscious biases, and learning to be more assertive.
Freelance graphic designer and art director (September 2018–present)
Senior Designer, National Theatre (2014–2018)
Creative, Pentland Brands (2011–2014)
Creative artwork, French Connections (2011)
Junior Designer, Cadence Agency, Paris (2009–2010)
Intern, ODD (2009)
Intern, Jetlag Agency / So Chic Magazine in Paris (2009)
DSAA Graphisme (two-year superior degree in graphic design) ESAAB, Nevers, France, (2006–2008)
BTS Communication Visuelle (2-year course in graphic design, advertising and editorial design) Eugénie-Cotton, Montreuil, France (2004–2006)
Foundation, Ecole Estienne, Paris (2003–2004)
How would you describe what you do?
As an art director and graphic designer, I do a variety of things: visual identities, exhibition design, book covers, and editorial work. But mainly I art direct projects for theatre, creating images and concept trailers to promote plays as well as designing posters, ads, programmes and merchandising ranges. It’s a nice balance of conceptual work (coming up with photoshoots and illustrations ideas), as well as pure graphic design work (designing titles and creating layouts).
You recently left the National Theatre – could you tell us a little about your role there?
I worked at the National for four years as an in-house senior designer in the graphic design studio. The artwork for upcoming shows was split between the senior members of the team, and we were each responsible for our own shows from start to finish.
The role was still always collaborative: We’d come up with concepts for the image and trailer, commission photographers, illustrators and DOPs. We also oversaw the shoot production, art directing on set with our creative director, and design the posters and programmes. Afterwards we would work closely with the marketing team and the other designers to roll out the campaigns across print and digital.
“We were each responsible for our own shows from start to finish.”
Emilie and the team for “Barbershop Chronicles”
We would start work on a show six months before it opened, so a discussion with the writer and the director was the only brief we had with the script. If a set and costume designer was already attached to the project, we’d liaise with them to get an idea of their early concepts or see their mood boards. Plus, we were able to tap into the NT’s amazing in-house resources: we worked with the wig, hair and makeup and costume teams on most photoshoots, and even with the production team, the head of armoury and special effects on a couple of occasions. For the Salomé shoot, they built us a cascade of caster sugar for the actress to stand under.
Working in-house is great for building relationships with your clients. You end up knowing everyone, and if you want to discuss a project, you can just ask people to pop to your desk for a chat. Overall it tends to make for a better work-life balance, as everyone works under the same roof.
Salomé – Photography; Sebastian Nevols; DOP: Mike Marriage
Salomé – Photography; Sebastian Nevols; DOP: Mike Marriage
How did you land the job? Did you have a previous interest in theatre?
I’ve always loved the arts, but theatre was an art form I was not really familiar with. However I was a huge fan of Paula Scher’s work for the Public Theatre in New York, and when a friend saw that the National Theatre was looking for a designer for a three month contract on the If You Could jobs board, she forwarded the ad to me.
It sounded amazing but I didn’t think I had a shot, and left it to the very last day to apply! Even with that last-minute application, I got invited for an interview and was given a creative task to prepare.
I was sent the script for the play Ballyturk and had one week to come up with two concepts for the poster. I went beyond the brief to show how we could turn one of them into an installation for people to interact with at the NT. They loved it and offered me a 12-month contract. This planted the seed for Everyman – the first show I worked on, for which I created the giant finger installation on the Temporary Theatre. I ended up working at the NT for four years.
“[The role] sounded amazing, but I didn’t think I had a shot, and left it to the very last day to apply!”
Emilie's work on Everyman
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
A year ago I worked on Nine Night by Natasha Gordon. The play starts with the passing of Gloria, a Jamaican woman who has raised her children in the UK. The story follows her family during the ‘nine night’, which is an extended wake to celebrate the life of the deceased and to encourage their spirit to leave the house.
I came up with the idea to turn the funeral procession into a parade, showing five of the main characters: from the granddaughter learning to dance the Kumina to Gloria’s daughter waiting for a sign from her. Natasha and the director Roy Alexander Weiss loved the concept, but at that stage, only one actor out of five was cast at that stage.
We hired a couple of actors to fill in, but all the other people you can see on the poster are their friends and family – Natasha even stood in for one of the characters! It meant I had to come up with a solution to obscure the model’s faces, and this was achieved by changing the lighting from front-lit to backlit, creating a striking effect. It was a really ambitious shoot, with only 30 minutes for each model in front of the camera, but we had a blast on set with photographer Simon Sorted. I’m really proud of how it turned out, and the artwork is having a second life now that the show is transferring to the West End.
What inspired you to go freelance?
Ultimately, I decided it was time for a new challenge. A couple of freelance opportunities came my way, and I spoke with a few people who had taken the leap before me, which gave me the confidence to do it.
It’s still early days but I’m loving the freedom so far, especially being able to control my time and explore different areas of design. I have no idea what I’ll be doing in a month’s time which is a bit scary, but I know that if I go back to a permanent position, I will have learnt a lot from freelancing.
You run the London arm of Ladies Wine Design with Helen Friel, Gloria Bertazzoni, Mireia Lopez and Lisa Goff. Can you tell us a little more about it?
When Jessica Walsh started Ladies Wine Design in New York, she encouraged people to start chapters in their own city. I thought it was such a brilliant idea: you can’t be what you can’t see, and there’s been very few women creatives in the places I’ve worked at, especially in senior positions. So this was an opportunity to meet them. I’m also an introvert, so the small format (originally seven guests) was really appealing.
Represent event with Anoushka Khandwala and give a platform to Araki Koman, Kei Maye, Kaajal Modi, Marisa Jensen and Jade Tomlin to talk about their experiences felt really important, and the response from the women who attended was incredible.
Ladies Wine Design
A panel for Ladies Wine Design
The group has been an incredible support network to tap into as I take the leap into the freelance world. I’ve had so many people I can turn to with questions like, ‘How do you approach clients you’d like to work with?’, ‘What bank have you opened your business account with?’ or ‘How do you set up a healthy routine working from home?’.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
I think the most essential skill is empathy: being able to put yourself in your client’s shoes to understand their perspective, but equally being able to guess how your work will be received by the audience.
The other important one is resilience. For one idea that gets green-lit, there might be five to ten that get discarded. And then there are projects you work on where you may have several stakeholders whose views don’t align, or where the key decision maker is indecisive. It takes a lot of practice.
What do you like about working in London?
London is amazing, because it’s so international and multicultural. It’s a big cultural hub – there’s always an interesting event or a great exhibition to go to, but I also love that there’s natural spaces to go recharge like Hampstead Heath or the Regents Canal.
Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by work, and if so, how do you manage stress?
I try to step away from my computer to get some fresh air or speak with someone. Once I’m back at my desk, I usually plug myself in and pick a music track that will help me get back ‘in the zone’.
“Resilience is important. For one idea that gets green-lit, there might be five to ten that get discarded.”
Emily’s design for Ashita No Kaze (Winds of Change – a UK theatre festival celebrating the work of contemporary Japanese playwrights
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
For the past three years, I’ve been drawing people on the tube every morning on my journey to work. I’ve done over 550 portraits now, and while it has made my commute much more enjoyable, the main perk is that my sketching skills have improved massively (you can see the series here).
What tools do you use most for your work?
I’m really old school, I visualise my ideas with a pencil on paper, and scan them in. I then add some colours on Photoshop, and lay things out in InDesign.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I love podcasts that give you an insight into the way other creatives think and how they got to where they are, like Design Matters. I’m a huge fan of the host Debbie Millman, and if you have time, I recommend listening to her talking on Chase Jarvis Live on YouTube. She's had an incredible career, but she talks really candidly about failure and suffering from lack of confidence.
Emilie's 'My Fellow Commuters' portrait series
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I knew that I wanted to do something creative, but I don’t think I had any awareness of graphic design as an occupation until I graduated from high school.
I’ve been really influenced by my father. He’s an artist who lives between Paris and Taiwan, and he does a lot of things: lecturing, writing books, organising exhibitions. He and my mum always brought me along to museums and encouraged me to read and draw when I was growing up.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
My studies were really useful, but the way design is taught in France is really different from the UK. It really prepared me for working in a design studio: placements were mandatory, we were taught how to use design software and our assignments were really practical.
The DSAA was more conceptual. I was asked to develop my own practice and come up with my own briefs rather than just answering someone else’s, which was a real shift. The class was split between graphic design and product design students, so I also learnt about collaborating with creatives from other disciplines.
“I graduated the year of the recession, and it was tough to get into the industry.”
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I graduated the year of the recession, and it was tough to get into the industry. This was made more complicated by the fact that I really wanted to wok abroad because most of my design heroes were based in New York (Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister) or in London (David Pearson and Angus Hyland).
I was lucky that I had no student debt (design studies in France were only 450 euros per year at the time) and that I could stay with my parents in Paris while I lined up internships and summer jobs, and worked as a junior designer and artworker for minimum wage. It allowed me to save enough money to come to London twice – first to do an internship at ODD, and then for good in 2010. After coming back, I spent eight months doing more internships and the odd week of freelancing. I lost count of the number of emails I sent asking people for work, but it all paid off in the end.
Pinocchio – Final CGI illustration and animation by Real Life Living Things; Programme designed with Jack Archer
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Every internship or job I ever got felt like a lucky break, because they came after several rejections. Also, working on creative projects both inside and outside of work has really helped my career.
Before I worked at the National Theatre, I volunteered my skills to create the visual identity for two projects for social change: The Little Helpers (a platform to connect volunteers to charities for ad-hoc project) and The Emily Tree (an association that encouraged young British women to get involved in politics). While both projects fizzled out, they helped me find a new purpose and gave me the confidence to look for a role more in line with my values.
“I always assumed my work would speak for itself...I had never thought of myself in terms of gender or race while I was job hunting.”
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Back in 2011, after five months of struggling to find work in London, I was close to giving up and going back to France, but then a recruiter asked me to come in for an interview. He told me my work was really good but I probably hadn’t got a job because they were all going to white British boys. It was the first time I came across the concept of unconscious bias, and this was a game-changer. I always assumed my work would speak for itself and I had never thought of myself in terms of gender or race while job hunting.
The same recruiter made me practise my handshake and corrected my choice of words and way I held myself when presenting, to appear more confident and assertive. I realised I needed to learn qualities that didn’t come naturally to me. I’m the perfect example of ‘fake it ’til you make it’!
Graphics for The Cheese Iron
Could you do this job forever?
What does the future of the industry look like in your mind?
I attended Kate Moross and Marina Willer’s talk at the Design Festival this year and Kate said that in order for the discipline to evolve, the industry had to open the door to a wider range of people, and this really resonated with me.
“This new chapter of my career is a phase of exploration.”
Our industry strives on creativity and innovation, and we can only grow by welcoming and learning from people who have different perspectives from ours. The success of movies like Black Panther, Moonlight or Crazy Rich Asians, and plays like Barbershop Chronicles, Nine Night and The Great Wave, show people are hungry for different stories and new role models.
I’m really excited to see a shift also happening, and I’m inspired by Tim Goodman, who is championing creatives of colour with People of Craft, and speaking out about turning down speaking at conferences where the line-up is not diverse, and I hope the success of Kate, Gal Dem, the Other Box, Tea Uglow, Campbell Addy, Adam J. Kurtz, Lauren Hom and Shantell Martin will open doors for everyone.
Les Blancs; Photography by Franklyn Rodgers
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Don’t compare yourself to others. Own what makes you special, and define for yourself what success look like.
Say yes to things that scare you, and apply for roles you don’t feel 100% qualified for. No one expects you to have all the answers. Remember that the people you look up to have got to where they are by learning on the job, too.
Find your support network and surround yourself with people who inspire and champion you.
Being a creative means trying to bring something new to the table and that takes a lot of courage. Be kind to yourself and accept failure as part of the process. Sometimes you get rejected because it’s not the right place for you, or because it’s not the right time, but it doesn’t mean you’re not good enough.
Emilie [second on the left] and the rest of the team on ‘Everyman’