Gemma O’Brien: Death to inspirational quotes

The designer, illustrator and letterer Gemma O’Brien who is based in Australia, but travels around the world a lot, gives us an inside into her work for the second time on the TYPO Berlin stage. She is the creator of “For the Love of Type” and splits her time between client work, speaking at conferences and creating wonderful handwritten art und murals.

How Gemma started

Six years ago, Jürgen Siebert invited Gemma for the first time to TYPO Berlin. She describes this as “her big break in the typography world”. It was at the age of 21 when her experimental video ‘Write Here’ (in which she inscribed her body with hand lettering using permanent markers) caught the attention of Jürgen.

First, Gemma wanted to become a lawyer and therefore got the book ‘Typographie for lawyers’. This got her thinking. During an internship at a letterpress studio, she became totally hooked by ‘real’ letters and hand produced type. By this time, the type business and the type community were growing very fast in Australia and there were plenty of opportunities. Type was everywhere in the world that surrounded Gemma, and she started to document it in her blog, called ‘For the Love of Type’.


Gemma O’Brien and her project ‘Write Here’ © Gerhard Kassner (Monotype)

“I hate inspirational quotes.”

These days, Gemma states, Designers and creatives suffer from an inspiration overload.
Everyone is supposed to chase their dreams, quit their day jobs. It’s the age of entrepreneur and everyone needs to be special and happy. “Embrace pessimism”, Gemma giggles.

These days people experiment a lot with their skills — life, art, advertising, writing, design. Gemma did the same thing and however struggled a bit.

She didn’t know where her skills could fit in. Later on lettering became her means of expression. During her talk she shows many inspirational quotes, most of them were written by herself. Some just for fun, some for clients.

But since there were so many of them out there, where do you find the balance? The challenge is, to balance the four parameters of an inspirational quote: story, authenticity, meaning, authorship. One of them will always lack, she thinks, you should therefore concentrate on one or two of these points.

But no matter how much you hate these quotes, and specially in what frequency they appear, “they mean something to people”; at least that’s what her Dad says.

Work and career

Gemma also explored working at a larger agency in the field of digital animation. But she always returns to her true love of letters. The whole lettering world is still growing, so she has the chance to not just work for clients, but to create her own content with handmade and digital lettering.

Gemma photographs a lot and is always trying to find new ways to invent things. Process is really important to her. But she asks: “Do you really need to always worship the content?”. To her, the process of creation has something therapeutical about it.

Gemma O’Brien on the TYPO 2013 stage

As for client work, she created the Logo for Creative Monrings in March 2015; the theme was ‘ink’. She made a linoleum print and had the motive made into a temporary tattoo at Tattly. She loves to translate things into large scale, too, like murals or big handwritten banners. However she wants to “bring back humor and irony”. How? There are many ways. Drawing on spew bags is just one of them.

You make me sick

Her recent project is called ‘Spew Bag Challenge’. A project that started out with bordem on a plane and is all about drawing funny things on a puke bag. When she started posting her bag designs on the internet she also encouraged people to do the same. What is on the bags? Stuff like “Frankie says reflux”, “Bile High Club” or “Queasy like sunday morning”. You get the idea. One and a half years later she’s on an exhibition with those bags. Seems like she made another big step forward to making this world a funnier place. In this sense: Death to inspirational quotes – long live the inspirational quotes!

Gemma O’Brien

Gemma O’Brien

Illustrator, Typographer, Lettering Artist (Sydney)

Gemma O’Brien is an Australian artist specialising in hand-lettering, illustration and typography. She has created work for clients including Woolworths, QANTAS, Heinz, The New York Times, Volcom, Angus & Julia Stone, Monster Children, Smirnoff and Kirin.  Gemma has also worked in art direction for motion graphics at Animal Logic, Fuel VFX and Toby & Pete. In addition to commercial work, her artwork has been exhibited in numerous gallery shows and she hosts hand-lettering workshops across Australia. She has presented at design conferences including TYPO Berlin, TYPO San Francisco,  Semi Permanent,  agIdeas International Design Forum, and Typism. In her spare time she travels and illustrates puke-puns on airsick bags for The Spew Bag Challenge. Gemma is represented by The Jacky Winter Group and is a Volcom Womens Ambassador for creative and art based projects.