Q&A: Typographer Gemma O’Brien

Published on September 18, 2013
Categories - Blog, Q&A, Read About

Running from 21 September -17 November at the Fremantle Arts Centre, Better Left Unsaid is the new exhibition by NSW-based typographer Gemma O’Brien, in which she explores the aesthetic power and significance of the written word.

As Gemma prepares for both the exhibition and her appearance at the FAC Print Award Forum on 21 September to discuss her installation, she found the time to talk to us about her work, her achievements and her love of Perth sunsets. She even gives some guidance to us DIY hand-lettering wannabes!

Gemma O'Brien

What is your official job title?

Most of the time it’s typographer, but I am more so an artist and illustrator working with words.

Tell us a bit about your career background and how you’ve come to where you are now.

After a brief stint studying law, I shifted to design and became very interested in typography and hand lettering. A performance piece I created while studying design – in which I inscribed lettering on my body – caught the attention of the international typography community when I was 21. This led to an invitation to speak at Germany’s typography conference TypoBerlin and was essentially the stepping stone to recognition and commercial projects.

Before focusing solely on lettering and illustration, I also worked in design and art direction for motion graphics at Animal Logic and Fuel VFX. I am currently represented by The Jacky Winter Group and spend my time split between commercial commissions and art projects.


What is the best thing about your job?

While day-to-day I may be creating custom lettering designs for commercial brands or companies, the practice of typography and the cultural and historical ideas surrounding writing and language are very interesting. Language is what makes us human, so to be able to explore the ways in which typography can make this visible and convey different meanings based on how a letter or words looks is, I find, fascinating and rewarding.

What has been one of your proudest achievements?

Speaking at the TypoBerlin conference in 2009, directing a new title sequence for Play School while at Animal Logic, and having my lettering on a crate escorting a giraffe 400km on the highway for Taronga Zoo!

Gemma O'Brien Redfern

Tell us a bit about your exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre – what can we expect?

Better Left Unsaid is an installation piece which involves writing and creating lettering directly onto the walls of the gallery. It’s intended to be an immersive experience for the viewer who will be surrounded by text written in a non-linear format. In an increasingly digital age, the handwritten word is becoming a rarity. That also means that something written by hand is starting to have a different value or meaning. The reason humans ever started writing was partly to step in where their memory failed them, so the content of the writing in the installation will be alluding to past experiences, longing, memory, time, relationships and the human experience.

What are you hoping to achieve with the exhibition?

I am hoping to find an intersection between all the things that drew me to lettering and typography in the first place. A cross over between the craft of lettering, how this can be manipulated to change the meaning of the words and the performative nature of writing itself. Taking words off the page and into a large space changes the experience of the content entirely and I hope this is something which will resonate with the viewers in the space.

Gemma O'Brien bitmap

You’re based in NSW – what things come to mind when you think of Perth?

When I want to see the sunset in Sydney, I have to chase it down on my bike past the buildings of the inner western suburbs. It’s far more stunning to watch it disappear behind the ocean in Perth.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing if/when you have some downtime while in Perth?

If I have time, I would like to check out PICA and Rottnest Island.

Obviously it takes a talented artist to deliver such gorgeous hand-lettering, but do you have any top tips for us DIY-ers who would like to try our hand at it?

Practice! It’s definitely a skill that, over time, can be developed and honed if you’re patient. I wrote a step by step DIY lettering class which is featured on A Pair and a Spare: http://apairandasparediy.com/2013/04/diy-hand-lettering.html. Check it out and give it a go.

So, what’s next for Gemma O’Brien?

Coming up this year I am judging the Canberra Centenary Typeface Design Competition, speaking at Semi-Permanent Wellington, hosting some lettering workshops and doing some commercial projects in between.

Anything to add?

Instagram: @mrseaves101
Twitter: @mrseaves
Work: jackywinter.com/artists/gemma-obrien
Blog: fortheloveoftype.com.au Gemma.

Gemma O’Brien’s exhibition Better Left Unsaid is on at the Fremantle Arts Centre from 21 September – 17 November, with an opening night on Friday 20 September at 630pm. She will also be discussing her installation at the FAC Print Award Forum on 21 September, 2-4pm. www.fac.org.au.


  • Super excited about this! Gemma your work is brilliant.

    by Janice on September 19, 2013 at 9:14 am

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