Updated: Apr 29
Interview with Émilie Chen
Émilie Chen is a super diverse graphic designer and art director whose creative talents play out in posters, billboards, book covers, catalogues, exhibition design, merchandise, trailers and adverts.
A French native she studied design in Paris before moving to London and landing a role at the National Theatre’s in-house Graphic Design Studio, where she was responsible for leading on artwork for up-and-coming shows.
Currently freelancing, Èmilie has created work for the likes of BAFTA, Somerset House, Penguin and Pentland Brands. She is a guest lecturer at a number of London universities and co-runs the London Chapter of Ladies, Wine & Design.
Émilie was also a panel guest at our Greater than 11% March event: Visual Storytelling, which took place days before the UK went into lockdown in response to the global pandemic.
Émilie and I both share the drive to actively contribute to bringing about more diversity and inclusivity in the creative industries. I was keen to learn more about Ladies, Wine & Design and her work, and we caught up (remotely) on the fantastic work she is doing.
Renee: Émilie, when we last saw each other I definitely wouldn’t have predicted that we wouldn’t be able to catch-up in person for some time but it’s lovely to be able to connect, albeit digitally, for the time being.
Ladies, Wine & Design - London (LWDL) plays a significant part in your creative life. What is it and how did it come about?
Émilie: Ladies, Wine & Design initiative was founded in 2016 by New York based, graphic designer, art director and illustrator Jessica Walsh. Even though the vast majority of design students are women, they only occupy a small percentage of leadership positions in the industry and she found that the few women she did know were more competitive than supportive. Her idea was to create a group for women and non-binary creatives to support each other, through small salon nights, mentorship circles, portfolio reviews, talks & creative meetups.
Jessica put a call-out on Instagram for people to get in touch if they would like to start a Chapter in their own city. I responded to the call and so did illustrator, Helen Friel. We held our first event in a pub on London’s South Bank, there were seven of us around the table.
The group has since grown: our events are really popular and sell-out in minutes, and our community has 2000+ members on Facebook.
R: Design is a broad term, what roles and industries does LWDL cater to?
E: At the beginning most of our members were graphic designers, but we soon realised that what we were doing had a wider creative reach. Illustrators and art directors are now a large proportion of the audience, and we’ve had UX designers, architects, product designers, costume designers and photographers attending events.
E: There are two strands to our work: events and community management.
The events are monthly and a lot of thought goes into tailoring them, we are keen to cover topics not being addressed elsewhere. We specifically look for speakers or mentors who could bring an interesting angle to the conversation.
LWDL is run on a voluntary basis, with zero budget (all our events - minus the workshops - are free), so we have to look for venues that will host us without charging a fee. Once the venue and speakers are confirmed, we promote and sell the workshop tickets via Eventbrite.
On the community management side, the group is really active on Facebook and Instagram. Engaging with the LWDL community is really important to us; answering questions, sharing resources, connecting people who can help each other, listening to suggestions, and getting to know our members, many of who are incredible people. We love creating opportunities for them with our #womantowatch feature on Instagram or by asking them to speak at our events.
We’ve also just activated the Membership Circle feature on Facebook, which should be an exciting development.
R: Can you talk us through a LWDL event? Such as ‘In-house Creatives’ or ‘Deep Dive on UX Design’?
E: Every event is different! We mix up the formats to keep things interesting. In the past twelve months we’ve had portfolio reviews, panel discussions, a summer picnic, a lettering workshop, a Christmas party and salon evenings - including one with Astrid Stavro from Pentagram as our special guest.
‘In-house Creatives’ was a panel discussion with those occupying creative in-house roles. Megha Hirani, who is a senior designer at Centre for London, approached us with the idea for the event. Even though a large percentage of creative work is made in-house (and interestingly, often by women), it is hardly ever covered at design talks or press.
We worked with Megha to curate the panel and prepare the questions. The line-up covered a wide spectrum of experience, from Sana Iqbal, a Creative Consultant working at people-driven, management consultancy The Storytellers, to Kat Garner, who used to work for The UK Government in-house agency, to Megan McGregor, who is a Senior Creative Manager at Universal Pictures International. It was a really interesting conversation, which has sparked further ideas of how to continue exploring this section of the design industry.
‘Deep Dive’ is a new format we tested early this year. It’s a small group discussion with a guest specialising in a specific design discipline. It’s a good format for people who are considering (re)training in that area, as it affords people the opportunity to ask questions and directly learn from those that have that element of expertise.
Angira Chokshi, who is a UX designer, came up with the idea and hosted the event. It was super successful and we’ll definitely be repeating it.
R: What has surprised you most since launching and running the Chapter?
E: I think the biggest surprise was how big the appetite was (and still is). How large the group has grown in just a couple of years blows my mind. Lots of women who have just moved to London look up our events as soon as they arrive, and there are many senior women who tell us ‘I wish something like this had existed when I started’.
Another big lesson was that anyone can be your mentor, no matter what their age or level of experience. I’ve met many smart, articulate, talented women through the group who have deeply affected how I view the industry and my role with LWDL.
One woman who springs to mind is Anoushka Khandwala. She was studying at Central Saint Martin’s University of the Arts London when I came across her article ‘Why are there so few Women of Colour in Design?’ in Creative Review. I got in touch with her and we collaborated on ‘Represent’, a LWDL Women of Colour panel discussion.
It was her first time running an event and chairing a discussion. Since then she has been invited to talk at several other events, started her own group called; Women of Colour and has written about representation and decolonizing design for both the AIGA Eye on Design and Lecture in Progress.
I’m really proud we played a small role in her success and the experience has really opened my eyes to the power of Ladies, Wine & Design: we have the opportunity to use our platform to up-skill and champion the future leaders of our industry.
R: What does working on LWDL give you personally, what was the impetus for your involvement?
E: I didn’t study here, but back in France, so didn’t have the network that one would typically establish whilst studying. The agencies I worked for in the UK were very male-dominated. I knew very few female creatives and had no role models I could turn to for career advice.
I was also attending a lot of design events at the time, like Glug, D&AD and Typo Circle, but I’m an introvert and I would just sit quietly in a corner with the 1 person I knew and avoid eye contact with anyone else. So the idea of a small salon night with 6 other women felt like the right format for me to meet and connect with other female creatives.
R: Émilie, you are an incredibly talented person. I’m curious, where do you find the creative nourishment in the collective?
E: Thank you! As a freelance creative working from home, my life can feel really insular. Meeting other creatives, especially people from other disciplines or working in different parts of the industry, gives me different perspectives. I find it really inspiring.
R: What is the importance of having a community; both personally and professionally?
E: On a personal level as well as a professional one, the group has really boosted my confidence. I’ve approached people I would never have dared to speak to before and it has opened up opportunities I never dreamt of, like speaking at Central St Martins and London College of Communication or chairing a panel discussion in front of 100 people at General Assembly.
There’s also something about the Ladies, Wine & Design group - everyone is incredibly supportive and generous with their time and resources.
Back in 2018 I was anxious about going freelance, but being able to access a network of successful women who were self-employed gave me the confidence to take the leap. Every time I’ve needed advice over the past two years for things such as; ‘how do I write a contract?’ or ‘how do I negotiate a fee for a pitch?’ I’ve always had someone to turn to.
R: What are your aims and ambitions for Ladies Wine & Design London?
E: LWDL has already grown beyond my wildest dreams! We’ve had members finding work, mentors, collaborators, and friends through the group.
We’ve had D&AD New Blood and General Assembly reaching out to collaborate, been interviewed by Design Calendar, and invited to work with London College of Communication students. We’ve also been invited to New York to meet Jessica Walsh and the other Chapter leaders.
But there’s still a lot to be done, and not just in terms of improving the numbers of women in leadership positions. Ultimately, we want to make the creative industry more inclusive, so we need to make sure we support and champion underrepresented women and non-binary creatives from all backgrounds. And then the next step is: how do we engage the conversation with men in our industry?
R: How do womxn get involved?
E: The best place to start is the Facebook group, which is open to women and non-binary creatives, where anyone can contribute resources, share opportunities or ask for advice. We also have a newsletter and an Instagram group, which are good ways to keep up to date on events. Our tip would be to set up an alarm because when the tickets are released they go in no time!
We’re always open to event ideas so if you have one, please do get in touch. We love to hear other people’s ideas and to use our platform to give public speaking opportunities to other women, no matter what their level of experience is. A lot of our past speakers have been people we’ve met through our events, and a couple of talks have been collaborations with women who had come to us with an event idea (like the 'In-House Creatives’ event I mentioned before).
R: For the foreseeable future we are unable to venture out and commune in person. Can creativity save us?
E: When we held the Represent panel discussion with women of colour working in the creative industry, one of the panelists, Jade Tomlin, said that being a creative is a privilege. I can’t quite remember her exact wording but she essentially said that creativity gave us tools to make sense of the world that others had not. I think that’s true, and in the past, I’ve definitely turned to creative writing and art projects to work through tough times.
But equally, I think we need to be careful not to expect creativity to ‘save us’. There’s a lot of pressure, especially on social media, to use the lockdown time to be productive, to start that side hustle or to finally create that masterpiece, and I think it's dangerous. We’re going through really challenging times, and maybe the right answer for some of us is to focus on eating healthily, getting a good night's sleep and taking care of our physical and mental health for the time being.
If you feel inspired and want to use creativity to help you through these tough times, that’s amazing, and you should absolutely do it. But if not, be kind to yourself: it’s ok to not be creative right now.
R: What are the things you are doing to stay busy, inspired (and sane) whilst housebound?
E: Getting off-screen really helps. I’ve been doodling over a Vogue magazine (following Jennifer Hayashi example), draw, read, baked and tried some YouTube yoga classes for beginners.
And also staying connected with friends and family. I’ve never spent so much time on the phone or on video calls! Social distancing is hard and people are craving connection. We ran 4 Ladies, Wine & Design virtual salon nights a couple of weeks go, they were a big success. We're now in the process of planning more virtual events that we'll announce in the next few weeks - watch that space :)
R: I couldn’t agree more on the video calls. I could have never imagined having such a concentrated number of them in a week, let alone a day!
Thank you so much Émilie, been fab to learn more about LWDL and always a delight to talk all things creative (including your beautiful work).
You can reach out and find more info on Ladies, Wine & Design - London here.
To connect with or to explore Émilie's work you can do so on her website emiliechen.com - (we guarantee you will experience pure delight on viewing ‘My Fellow Commuters’ - located under her ‘Illustration’ tab). You can also connect with her on instagram @spottedbyem.
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