Wednesday, 15 July 2009

11.0 / Diamond in the rough / Emma Cook

What: Illustrator and designer
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
Website: Emma Cook

Only a child…
I’m an only child and when I was little I’d love having my family and friends come over to my house. But I’d go from being very happy to very sad as soon as they left. I’d cry and throw tantrums until one day I decided to start entertaining myself and took up drawing. Then, I drew everything.

My parents are engineers and my mum would bring huge industrial-sized rolls of paper from work for me and I’d spend days drawing all over them. I had all the Disney movies and would watch them, then pause them and redraw the frame. That’s what I did. I drew lots of cartoons.

At school, I was the arty one and whenever we had assignments or we had to write a story and draw a picture to illustrate it, I’d help three or four people in the class because they were convinced that they couldn’t draw.


I would always draw and carry around notebooks to doodle in – that was my entertainment. My parents worked late and I was always at aftercare so I would just sit and draw there. And the other kids would come and stare over my shoulder.

High school was much of the same. Everyone used to send letters to their friends in the different classes and would always do fancy headers on their letters. I drew the headers for other people’s letters. That’s what I did. And whenever there were plays I helped build the sets and design posters and did little things here and there. I did lots of little bits basically. I wasn’t the school star or anything like that. I just did lots of little things.

When I was little I wanted to be an archeologist, a fire fighter or a sniper, which is probably why I like Call of Duty now. In high school, I really enjoyed biology and seriously considered doing forensics but I decided that if I ended up working with dead people I’d probably pull them out of the drawers and dress them up in party jackets or something! So I abandoned that idea and decided I wanted to be a cool art director, dress in all-black, wear funky glasses, smoke a lot of cigarettes and say ‘fuck’ a lot, which is pretty much what I do now except I’m not an art director.

I really liked advertising and got into it through my dad. He introduced me to Benetton ads and collected them for me when he went away. There was once an ad with a picture of a baby being born and every advert was always amazing and different. I don’t think my dad knows it but he’s the one who got me into advertising. He started showing me the Benetton ads when I was little and I really looked forward to seeing them. At the time, I just enjoyed looking at them and later on I realised they were more than just images. They were about a product and the product had a personality. That’s why I decided to go to Vega and study to be an art director.

Well, I was going to be an art director but then I ended up taking graphic design. We did a foundation year and got a taste of all the different subjects – copywriting, multimedia, everything… but I wanted to do something more hands-on and be able to craft things.

First job…
I ended up at the Am I Collective because my best friend at the time was convinced that he wanted to come down to Cape Town for his internship and I wanted to come down to Cape Town with him. In the end he didn’t come to Cape Town but I did. I just looked for Cape Town collectives and ended up finding the What If The World website where I saw some super cool images of a show that the Am I did. I thought they were interesting so I contacted them and asked them if there was any possibility that I could work for them. Then I ended up here as an intern for five weeks, where I sat in a little house with them and helped where I could and then they asked me to come back and do an internship and I just stayed on. Now I’m pretty much part of the furniture!

Work vs play…
I try to do things in my own time but I’m not that confident. I end up giving up on most things I do in my spare time because I think I’m just not good enough. At work I have no choice. I have to sit down and work and make something pretty. That’s cool. I can do that because there’s the pressure of the deadline and it needs to be done. If I’m sitting at home I don’t always feel super inspired to make beautiful things. Every once in a while I can make a strange type face or something but it doesn’t happen very often. It’s just a confidence thing.

I started something last year and am doing it again – every time someone says something weird in the office like a single ambiguous line or phrase, I write it down on a post-it and stick it up on the wall. We’ve had some classic ones in the office like ‘I waxed my Greek friend’ and ‘The cheese is fast’. I’ve been illustrating some of those phrases or doing illustrative type for them.


And I started working on a toy project recently. I know every designer’s done it already but I’ve always loved the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) – those awesome skulls with the patterns on them. On my of my random inspired days, I found a forensic layout of all 206 bones of the human body and I put those patterns on every single bone. Now I’ve made a skeleton character. I just need to figure out a way of making the body all hook together as a toy character that can stand.



As a model student and suck up deluxe, I kept in contact with all my lecturers. I’m good friends with two of my lecturers and they asked me to come back and teach the third year illustration module (which I studied in my third year) recently. They thought it would be interesting to have me come in since I was an ex-student. It was really cool and lots of fun. I was standing up on the first day in front of about 60 kids and doing a presentation about the Am I – about what we do and who we are, telling them about the different processes we use that lead to specific results. They all looked really interested and it was cool seeing people react to things I do and things I know. There’s nothing quite like going back to teach people who indirectly make you realise how much you’ve learnt in just a few years.

I started off by giving them a brief, telling them what the industry’s like and working with them in class to help them with their illustrations. We read a couple of articles together to find interesting bits in the copy that would work well as illustrations and then I looked at everyone’s layouts and scamps and gave them advice – considering different layout options and collecting reference for their illustrations. It was great working with them and I’d go back in a heartbeat. Teachers always say ‘It’s the good ones that make the job worthwhile’ and that’s so true. It was a brilliant experience having students come to me for advice and take what I said on board.

Confidence is my biggest issue. I’m still working on that. I’m always really suspicious of people who compliment me. I used to be really confident at college but then I started working and realised how amazing some professionals are and my confidence got squished. It’s daunting stepping out of college and seeing how accomplished some of the people you work with are. I feel like I could never achieve what some of them have achieved or do what they're doing.
I’m an internet whore. I’m constantly on the internet. I can’t help myself. I go on blogs and websites and have a folder that’s full of cool images I’ve downloaded from the internet. I don’t always go back and look at them but I just love looking at other people’s work, looking at what other people are doing and how they’re doing things – like making a beautiful line. I look at the way different people use lines. That’s my thing. I hate the way I do line work so if I find people whose line work is similar to mine but better I get inspired and spend ages looking at how they do their line work.

I like working in vector. I like building things. I like making a chunk and then another chunk and building on things. I make typefaces. Recently I did a typeface made from candy. I dabble in everything. I’m confused about my speciality. I’m an illustrator more than designer. I wasn’t bad at design at college. I came top of my class and got the design award but I can’t really design these days.


I’d like to get into character design at some point – animation like Nickelodeon. I love their characters. One of my favourite things to do when I go home is slouch around on my dad’s couch watching Cartoon Network.
Pros and cons…
I like making pretty things. I like the whole process of making something from scratch, from a blank scary canvas to adding a colour, then another and then, suddenly, it all works – you finally get to grips with what you’re doing. When you get to the end, it’s a bit of an anti-climax because it’s more fun building something than it is finishing it.

The one thing I don’t like about being an illustrator is the whole super cool scene. Everyone in Cape Town is an illustrator or a designer and the majority of them are super trendy hipsters. It irritates me. They do great work, which I love but also have the time to go out and be super trendy. I guess I’m just jealous.

Place of origin…
I don’t think I’ve had a ‘South African’ upbringing because I’m first generation South African. My family’s all British and Scottish. I grew up with BBC tapes that were sent from the UK. I think I had more of a British upbringing than a South African uone but if I were in Britain I’d say I had more of a South African upbringing so I sometimes feel like I am without a specific culture – I don’t belong to either which is kind of weird and sad.
Seeing other people do well makes me want to do well and try harder. Watching what they do and seeing them excel at the things they love makes me think, ‘God, I can do that!’ People motivate me. I love being around them, watching and listening to them.

Inspiring people…
Kris is really cool. We sit and chat all the time and he’s taken time to sit and chat to me, especially when I just started working. He told me how the industry works and inspired me. He’s probably one of the best people I’ve ever spoken to and one of the biggest inspirations I have. Christo and Ruan are also really inspiring. When I first started interning, I remember I’d get to the house really early and Christo would be the only one there and we’d sit and talk about illustration, art and design and all sorts of funky things. I had so much fun on those mornings, just sitting around and talking about stuff with him.

All the people I work with inspire me. There was never anything like Am I Collective in South Africa when they first started it. It was great that they were able to take something that they loved and turn it into something so important and valuable. I hope that one day I could do half as well as they’ve done.


My dad is very embarrassing. Every time I go up to Joburg and his girlfriend’s around, he asks me to take out my computer so I can show her all my work. My dad always wants to know what I’m doing and likes to show other people what I’m doing too. He sends things to my family in Scotland so they can see what I'm up to. Both my parents have always given me every opportunity that I could ever want and they’d do anything for me. I’m so appreciative of everything they’ve done.

When I first said I wanted to get involved with the ad industry or the creative field they didn’t understand that I could make a living from it and survive, do cool stuff and get recognition. At first, my mum was adamant that I needed to get a degree, not a diploma. I had to get a degree! She said I couldn’t go to Vega at first because they didn’t have a degree programme but they introduced it when I was in Matric luckily. Now that my folks understand what I’m doing they’re very pleased that I’m doing something I enjoy and it’s all paying off.

Average day in her life…
I set my alarm for 6.30am but I usually keep pressing the snooze button until about 7.30am. Then I get ready for work and head over to the office. I’m usually one of the first to arrive so I read emails and check out blogs and things to get inspired and then launch into the day’s work. Then we have the 12 o’ clock Shick Shack (Shick Shack is the ‘sound’ of Call of Duty). At lunchtime, we generally all sit together and talk about nonsense or talk about the last Shick Shack or the next Shick Shack. I head home in the evenings to work on my own projects or take work home. Every once in a while we all have a braai (bbq) or sometimes we’ll have an epic lunch and go out afterwards.

Favourite places…
I like the National Gallery and the Company Gardens. I love parks because I don’t have a balcony or outdoor space at my flat. Outdoor breeze and grass is just great. And then there’s Hermanus and Kalk Bay as well. Kalk Bay’s where I first place I saw a whale. I’d just moved to Cape Town and was sitting at the Brass Bell and this huge creature came swimming around the pier and waved at us. I love the sleepy vibe of Kalk Bay. Nobody's in a hurry. It’s just very relaxed and not as hipster cool as Cape Town city. Everyone there seems more chilled out, going about their day, doing their thing and there’s nothing pretentious about it.

Collections of stuff…
I collect fans, like old Chinese fans. I love fans. I like the way you can just flick them open and shimmy around being all dramatic. I don’t have many of them but if I see a nice fan, I will buy it. And I collect books – design books, illustration books. They’re like my treasures. My mum always told me when I was younger that you must never hurt a book. So in my book collection, spines are never bent and there’s not a dog-ear in sight. They’re still as perfect as when I bought them.


I’d love to learn how to do proper old-school bookbinding one day and make books with type embossed into them, beautiful trims, all kinds of different materials and gorgeous spines, like the old volumes that you can get. I love paper too and would love to be involved with magazines somehow one day. Magazines are different to advertising. It’s nice to think that someone would actually carry a magazine around with them and page through it. Magazines are more personal. Advertising is something that is pushed on to people but they choose to buy magazines. Books, magazines and anything with pages are great.
On the side…
I love reading biographies and autobiographies. There’s so much I learn from other people by reading their stories. I grew up watching Monty Python and I just finished reading their autobiography. It was so interesting – because it took them years to get to where they got and they had to do so many different shows before they found each other. And even after they found each other, they had to get over little problems with each other. It’s very cool learning about other people and finding out what their story is. It always makes me think that even though I have a lot of feelings of inadequacy, it could eventually all work out for me some time. I can get it right. Other people have gotten it right so how hard could it be to crack the whole confidence thing?
The book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden is full of all the most brilliant advice I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if I’d like to go overseas. I don’t know where I would go or what I would do. I feel like I need to be more involved with stuff over here before I can go and be more involved with stuff anywhere else. I’m also on my own little soul-searching mission and trying to figure out what I’m about so until I’ve got that all figured out I don’t know. All I know is that I have to be here in South Africa to do that.

I’m just going with the flow now. I’m not sure whether I’ll have a specific goal later in life but right now I just want to take it as it comes and if something cool presents itself then I’ll do it and see where it goes from there. I don’t want to avoid doing certain things because they don’t fit with a set plan. I'd rather not have a plan and let things unfold for now. I’ll plan later. I’m 24. I don’t need a plan. There are still a thousand things I need to do!


burn said...

Inspiring work by a great talent. Sweet article...I think i'll come back to this blog. keep up the good work Em.
i feel like drawing something now... just need to buy some pens.

cator said...

Burn is right Em you are a great talent , a marvellous insight into what you do and who you are Loved it, will read it often and of course all the others from your colleges in due course . Thanks for this Love you Gran

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