Want to learn how to develop a unique design style that clients seek out? We sat down with Aussie design legend, Beci Orpin, to get her top tips on carving out a successful creative career.
It’s a typical winter morning in Melbourne, but Beci Orpin’s studio is a haven of warmth, color, and vibrance. Packed to the rafters with quaint trinkets, bric-a-brac, books, and intricate artwork – both her own and that of other local creatives – the space is an explosion of color and creativity.
Located in the heart of Brunswick, the local illustrator shares her studio with like-minded creatives designer Ellie King and the Hoddle Skateboards team. Also showcasing the work of artists such as Daniel Emma, Ella Reweti, Makers’ Mrkt, and Dowel Jones, Beci describes her space as “a little creative commune,” with a warm, supportive, and inspiring atmosphere.
Even though it’s cold and gray outside, it’s impossible not to feel warm nestled in this Aussie design icon’s incredible space. We settle in with hot coffee and donuts Beci has bought from a cafe across the way as she shares the pearls of wisdom she’s collected throughout her impressive 25 years in the Australian design industry.
Ready to get to know a seasoned pro? Discover Beci’s advice on how to develop a distinctive design style, as well as her top tips on everything from navigating the design industry to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Meet Beci Orpin: Internationally Renowned Illustrator & Creative
Commercial artist, author, creative director, mother, maker, gallery artist, icon: these are just a few names used to describe Australian design darling Beci Orpin. A Melbourne-based creative and internationally renowned illustrator, Beci’s work occupies a space between illustration, design, and craft.
“I’m a creative practitioner,” says Beci. “I’ve never called myself a graphic designer because I’m not very technical when working with text and images together – to me, that’s like rocket science. Illustration is my number one commercial output, although a lot of design is involved.”
Beci is known for her defined and recognizable style, which she describes as ‘colorful, graphic, bold, feminine and dream-like.’ Her technique is heavily influenced by childlike design elements such as bold outlines, exaggerated forms, and primary colors.
Beci is also an internationally recognized author and illustrator in constant demand for collaborations due to her distinctive design style. Working with a wide array of impressive brands, including Facebook, Disney, Google, Uniqlo, Officeworks, Urban Outfitters, and more, Beci is a special kind of creative – one that clients seek out specifically for her unique style, to have her imprint on their campaign or product.
We sat down with Beci to discover how she developed her unique style and learn her advice for other creatives looking to carve out a successful career.
Carving Out a Creative Career
How did you get started in the design industry?
In the beginning, after I graduated uni, I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was what I didn’t want to do. If you study textile design, the traditional path is to get a job in a studio, like working for a fashion company. I just knew that wasn’t for me, mostly because I didn’t want just to do one thing – I wanted to do many different things.
I’ve many fond memories of people supporting me, teaching me, believing in me in those early days, and giving me jobs when I didn’t have much experience. I got a lot of support from the Melbourne creative community in my early career. However, the first ten years of my work were very fashion-orientated in the streetwear scene, which was very male-dominated.
Ironically, one of the reasons I was successful was because hardly any girls were designing girls’ clothes. So, I had quite a niche, but I still had to appeal to the men in senior positions. It took a long time for me to be taken seriously, especially because of the nature of my work, which can be perceived as childlike or naive.
What were the key moments to your career taking off?
My career was a slow snowball. It was before the Internet took off, so you didn’t have the volume of information or reach we do now. I entered the industry locally and got a job with a label, which someone else saw, and then offered me two more jobs with another label. From there, my career slowly evolved.
The same thing happened overseas. I got a job with a skateboard company in New York, and then someone in Japan saw that. No particular job or opportunity made my career take off – it was a chain of events and opportunities. It was a slow burn for me as a young designer, but now, that would be a completely different process – everything moves so much faster now.
You’ve become incredibly successful – both locally and internationally. What’s your secret?
While I know I’ve been successful, I still don’t view it as success. It’s only been recently – maybe the last five years – that the industry has taken my work and creative practice seriously.
However, my success has simply come from doing many things – this is my 25th year doing what I do. I’ve also had the opportunity to work on many great projects with people and brands on an international scale, so that’s given me and my work some credit.
What’s been your experience with imposter syndrome? Do you have any advice for overcoming it?
Imposter syndrome has always been there for me – it’s still there, especially now! I’ve got two museum shows coming up, and I often find myself thinking, “Oh my god, why? Why have I got these shows?” It doesn’t make any sense to me. My best advice for overcoming imposter syndrome is just to do the work – just keep going.
Generally, I’ll feel imposter syndrome throughout a whole project, and when it’s finished, I’m like – oh, it turned out well! Those people who had faith in me knew what they were doing, and I knew what I was doing. The more work you do, the more you’ll trust yourself.
Reflecting on the work you’ve done and things you’ve achieved that were hard at the time can be helpful, but it never goes away.
Developing a Distinctive Design Style
You’ve got such a defined, recognizable aesthetic. How did you discover and develop your distinct style?
My style comes from my childhood. Much of my work is nostalgic and influenced by memories from when I was young, like books or experiences. For example, Dick Bruna, who made the Miffy books, heavily influenced me.
I’ve always been interested in bold forms and simple colors. Dick Bruna uses thick, black outlines and only about five or six colors, which is great for children’s graphics – and what ended up being my style as well.
I also studied textile design, which gave me a solid craft background, color skills, drawing, and design experience. I think my textile design brought together all my skills and talents to help me become what I am now – whatever that is.
How do you adapt your style to suit different clients and projects?
One of the reasons I’ve been commercially successful is that my style has a lot of variation, and I can apply that, in principle, to many different projects. For example, bold outlines won’t always work for a commercial client. But there might be a way that I can use bold forms or color in a way that’s still commercial and suitable for that client. So, although my style is prevalent, it’s also really adaptable, and that’s an essential part of being a commercial designer.
As my career progresses, I’ve realized I love working in many mediums and styles, not just my sketchbook or computer. It can be challenging – there’s lots of problem-solving involved, but that’s my favorite part of my job.
How do you make a design unique while still leaving your imprint?
One of my favorite things about being freelance is working within a client’s style or knowing what a client wants. However, I often make my unique imprint through color, forms, or shapes. That’s where you can leave your mark on the project and make an impression on the client.
It’s different for each job, but that’s one of the reasons that I ask for references. I love to know what elements of my work clients like or the specific pieces that inspired them to choose my style.
You’ve worked with some big brands! How do you select collaborations, and which brands have been your favorite to work with?
I’ve done a lot of collaborations, and it works best when it’s a two-way street. You have to be able to meet the brief, and they have to offer you things as well – like exposure, creative freedom, or whatever it is you’re seeking. The most successful collaborations work for both parties.
When my first book came out in 2011, Urban Outfitters asked me to do a homewares collaboration, which was huge for me. It was back in Urban Outfitters’ heyday, and working with them and their art director was amazing. It also tied in perfectly with the release of my book, which Urban Outfitters stocked in their US stores: it was such a serendipitous collaboration.
Is there a time and place to say no to a project?
I’m a big yes person, but there’s definitely a time to say no. As a people pleaser, that’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way. I get excited about almost any job, but the older I get, the better I get at deciding which opportunities to pass on – especially if it’s outside my skill set.
Budget can also come into play. If the budget doesn’t match the job, sometimes you do it anyway for the opportunity, and sometimes you don’t, and you need to trust that instinct. I know it’s a cliche these days, but from experience, I’ve learned that trusting your gut on clients or projects is vital.
Building an Inspiring Creative Space
Tell us about your studio! How does your creative space inspire you?
I’m a collector, and my collection of trinkets is constantly growing and changing. It’s crucial to feed yourself inspiration, and one of the ways that I do that is by collecting other people’s work and looking back on my work. It’s constantly inspiring.
Since I’ve had this studio, my living environment has become less chaotic because I can have all my chaos, color, and collections in one place. It’s my space for organized, creative chaos!
Working in a shared studio with other creative people can also be great when you work alone. It’s so inspiring to see what everyone’s working on. At university, I loved seeing other people’s work, which was the main thing I missed when I left. It’s not just about the work; it’s about creating a warm, supportive studio atmosphere – like a little creative commune.
Your new book, ‘Book of Girls,’ celebrates 25 years of your studio! What inspired it, and how did it come together?
I self-published ‘Book of Girls’ this year, a collection of scans of my sketchbooks broken up into decades. I’ve always kept sketchbooks throughout uni and high school, a practice that’s always been important to me. Even calling it a practice sounds ridiculous because it’s just something that I’ve always done.
My sketchbooks represent an archive of my work, showing what I was doing at the time and what I was into. For example, I’ve got a sketchbook from the first time I visited Japan in 1996. I’ve always wanted to publish them, and this year seemed like a good time. It was put together by the people at TRiC Studio, who are good friends of mine. They assigned a team of graphic designers – one team member per decade – to edit each chapter.
It’s a very personal project: sketchbooks are not something you usually show people, and there’s so much in there that may not make sense to anybody else, but I’m so happy with the result.
Words of Wisdom from a Seasoned Pro
How do you navigate trends while staying true to your unique style?
I avoid paying attention to trends and try to let everything happen through osmosis. But the multimedia trend is something I’ve seen pop up a lot – especially in illustration – which I love.
That kind of collage style is fascinating – taking something scanned, vector, and photographed and putting it all together. While I’ve only done it in a tactile format, you can definitely do it with compositions. I’ve also been loving multimedia animation – the art of combining many production methods.
My advice is to make trends your own; explore those that resonate with you and ignore the ones that don’t.
Design and illustration can be a competitive industry. What’s your advice for standing out?
I’m not competitive – sometimes I have to pitch for jobs, and I hate it. However, I’ve always had quite a unique style, so luckily, I haven’t had to compete with too many people in my niche.
Good designers will stand out for their unique style and approach. It takes time to develop your style, so stay true to it. Someone can work in their style for five years and not be recognized. And then all of a sudden, people are like, “Oh, look at all this great work this artist or designer has done!”
Stay true to yourself and invest in yourself. Flexibility is also essential – I’ve done so much work that people wouldn’t know was me. Continually practicing your style with flexibility is key – the more you can get your work in front of people, the better.
What words of wisdom would you give yourself ten years ago?
Learn more business skills. Learn how to run a business. Learn about tax and accounting. If you don’t have the skills, employ people to do it for you.