Gemma Mahoney on working independently, staying organised and finding time for passion projects
Gemma Mahoney is a freelance graphic designer based in Melbourne operating on both a local and international scale. Beginning her career in studios before transitioning to working independently, she has not only created visual identity, print and exhibition design for a variety of clients, but also ventured into type design. We had a chat with her to find out more.
EM Hi Gemma. How are you?
GM Hey, I’m extra great this week, I’m babysitting a puppy, so as much as little Monty is being a distraction to the workday, he is bringing many smiles and has been sleeping on my lap most of the day.
EM What was your first role in the design industry, and what did you learn from it?
GM My first ever role was at a small newspaper about seven years ago, I actually still work there to create the monthly paper. This role is not creative or at all aesthetically-driven, but has taught me a lot about print and finished art which has been super essential. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see a whole heap of print roll-out as a lot of projects stay digital, so it’s been great to learn in this role. It’s also turned me into a speedy wizz on InDesign.
Although, what I would say is my first ‘proper’ design job – was at Confetti Studio. I started there as an intern for a subject in uni and then I stayed on for a year and a half while completing my degree. It was great to be a part of a studio so early on, as I student I was comparing myself to professionals which really pushed me. Then when I graduated I went full-time. This role taught me so much, and I believe really sculpted me into the designer I am, and my practice. I really felt mentored and as though they were investing in me. My design approach completely evolved and my conceptual thinking also grew. Being a small team meant that I was able to oversee all the workings of the studio, be a part of all meetings and presentations and really get a feel from the process start to finish. By seeing all that I did, I got a good understanding of how to approach my own freelancing jobs that I was doing on the side.
It’s essential to be able to articulate your thinking.
EM What do you think is the most important skill a designer can have that isn’t design?
GM Communication is a pretty essential skill as it’s so important to be able to talk about your work and communicate your ideas. It’s essential to be able to articulate your thinking and be able to connect with collaborators and clients.
EM Since transitioning from a full-time role to freelancing, have you noticed a difference in the way you work?
GM Yes definitely, my general workday feels far more relaxed. Even though I still work those same 9-5 hours, it feels so different to know I have the freedom of my own clock and don’t really need to turn up for someone else. Sometimes it does feel like there is far more pressure and can be a little more stressful as it’s all on me. I can also sometimes take home the energy of work, where before it may have been easier to switch off. So I’ve put in place some boundaries, like not looking at emails and having notifications off, and I’ve recently started scheduling my Instagram posts which has made such a positive difference to my day.
EM How do you stay organised and keep on top of deadlines?
GM I’m a huge list person and always keep a diary and have a month planner – I never use my phone’s calendar as I need to see it in front of me and be able to cross it off. Love the feeling of crossing a task off (haha). My day always starts with a list of all that I need to complete and what I could do if I have extra time, this keeps me focused on what is important. I’ve always been naturally very organised and punctual, and I always like to feel like I’m on top of things to be calm so I always like to do things as soon as I can and never like to leave things to the last minute. I always put in my diary that the task is due a week before.
I’ve also started ensuring that projects I take on have a good amount of time and don’t need be rushed as this is the best way I work and how I create better solutions, so I’m really mindful of not working on things that just need pumping out.
I’m really mindful of not working on things that just need pumping out.
EM What’s the best part about freelancing?
GM I feel such a strong motivation in what I do and my practice. When you’re putting work to your own name there’s such a desire to give it everything, and it feels so rewarding when it’s purely your work.
EM And what’s the worst part?
GM Not having anyone to collaborate with to bounce ideas off or even just having a companion for the day. I do miss having another person there to help push the process, and be a support. I sometimes end up getting my mum and best friend to look over things.
EM Can you tell us about Accidental Discharge?
GM Accidental Discharge was a magazine that I got on board to do the design for in 2014. Maile Bowen started the project in high school, and when our first issue surprisingly went well we kept going and ended up creating four issues, put on exhibitions and created an online platform. AD started as a voice for feminism as a way to bring attention to equality, to celebrate art and expression. We were hoping to create a platform that was able to express and represent ideas that could empower, inspire and create conversation around matters that may not often be discussed. This really was a passion project for Maile and myself, we loved print and creating an inviting community. After 4 good years, we slowly started stepping away as things shifted for us both. But Maile and I keep coming back to one another with a new concept that we keep revisiting, so hopefully, we’ll be doing something new together soon.
It feels so rewarding when it’s purely your work.
EM Do you have a project you are most proud of?
GM I have a couple of projects that are some of my favourite that aren’t yet launched. I am most proud of these because of the process and how fluid it all was, and how this led to a strong outcome. The process is the part no-one sees and is often the most enjoyable. A little teaser… I did the ID for a dog accessory brand which is yet to launch, and I’m proud of this project because of the process, the conceptual thinking and development which led to an outcome I’m so excited to see roll-out. The client was immediately happy and it really felt like we nailed the brief, and that is such a good feeling. I’m the most excited to see this brand come to life.
To date, my favourite project has probably been for exhibition In Full View which I’m very proud to have worked on. Being able to see my designs in such a beautiful space felt like a pinch yourself moment. It was great to create signage and print that could be experienced in the one place.
EM You mentioned on Instagram that Nurture Display is the result of a “lengthy but wonderful process.” What did that process look like?
GM The process was long, and slow. I started with the words nurture and nature and it took me quite a few months before I decided to take the leap and create the whole typeface. Type design is still a pretty new space for me, and developing a whole typeface was somewhat intimidating. Finding the time was also a little bit of a struggle, as client work takes over passion projects more often than not. So I had to squeeze it in here and there so that’s why it was a good year in development. It was quite wonderful that it did take so long as I really spent the time slowly developing and seeing it grow. I’m trying to prioritise this work more now. I’ve got another typeface in the works and am trying to do a letter a day… but unfortunately, I’m not always able to keep up.
EM How did you learn to draw typefaces?
GM I really clearly remember the moment when I decided to try creating my own type. I was at Confetti and looking around for a typeface I just couldn’t find, and then Tom said why don’t you create it yourself. It’s funny, because it had never really crossed my mind at that point. But then I jumped in and that started it all. I just taught myself by playing around in Illustrator and by studying letters and typefaces. I still feel like I’m learning and there is so much more to gain.
EM What skills would you like to learn that you haven’t yet found the time for?
GM I’m really focused on building my type skills and learning how to better produce type. Any spare time I have is spent developing my next typeface and trying to improve my ways around producing it and typesetting. I really want to get better at using the programme Glyphs.
It would be great to know some basic web design or learn my way around Shopify, WordPress. Sometimes I fantasise about being about to do web development as it would be so handy to be able to build sites, but I think this may stay a fantasy – I think I’d like the end result but not sure I’d enjoy the process.