Designer Spotlight Q&A with Gwen O’Brien
Tell us a little about yourself.

I just became President of AIGA West Michigan in May of this year, and I’ve been on the board for the past 5 years. I was also one of the founding members of our chapter, so I’m very excited to have the opportunity to serve the community in this way. My partner Dottie Rhodes and I own Plenty, a studio in Grand Rapids, and we’ll be celebrating our 10-year anniversary this summer.


What kinds of design do you and your firm do?

At Plenty, we are a graphic design studio that specializes in branding and interactive design, as well as advertising.


Describe your path to becoming a designer.

My mom, Jeanette O’Brien, owned an interior design firm my entire life, so I was constantly exposed to design. I used to work at her downtown office after school as a receptionist but also filed swatches and ordered paint samples. I loved being around her designers—they were always thoughtful in the way they worked, and I was inspired to watch them create.

At the prompting of my high school art teacher, I entered a contest at Kendall College of Art & Design, and to my surprise, I was one of the winners. The winning piece was a typography sketch that I included in my entry. I was surprised because I thought my other drawings were much stronger. That was my first exposure to graphic design. The winning piece was something that I just enjoyed doing, I don’t think it was even a class assignment.


How did your mother influence your career interests? What are you doing to continue that legacy?

My mom was a huge influence. Not only because I worked at her studio, but she always encouraged me to express myself through drawing and sketching. I began my career at Kendall thinking that I would go into Interior Design, soon realizing that interior design wasn’t my passion. I moved to San Francisco for awhile to recalibrate, so to speak, and came back to Kendall two years later to finish with a degree in Visual Communications.

Dottie and I created a scholarship in my mother’s name that is given out to a deserving Interior Design student at Kendall each year. I also hope to continue her legacy through growing the design community in West Michigan—keeping it a strong and vital part of the area.


What do you wish people outside of West Michigan knew about this area? (creativity or heritage or natural resources, etc.)

I wish more people knew about our rich design history. I grew up with it, so it’s in my bones, but it does seem like a new concept to some people, especially those from outside the area. I am also honored to be on a committee that is looking to establish the first Design Archives in this area, which will be a testament to our design heritage.


How does living in West Michigan impact your creativity and the work you do?

West Michigan has an extremely strong work ethic that has rubbed off on me. I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty! Also, this area really encourages and supports people striking out on their own and doing their own thing. I think that is very unique.


What is the number one thing you would tell new designers?

Do what you love and what makes you come alive. Life is too short not to.


How do you stay inspired? Any favorite sources?

AIGA keeps me inspired. It’s great to invite speakers from around the country here, but it’s an unexpected pleasure to meet so many young and established designers and come together in support of our community.


What is exciting to you about the way your field is evolving? 

It’s an interesting question because I feel that Design, with a big D, is gaining momentum, but design, as a practice, seems to be becoming less relevant in some ways. There is so much template-based design and crowd-sourced design that now it’s not so much about the technique as it is the idea.


What is one of your favorite projects?

Earlier this year, we launched More = Less, a campaign for the Sierra Club of Michigan to level the playing fields between big factory farms and family-owned farms in Michigan. I’m a huge animal advocate, and one of my personal goals is to put an end to factory farming in my lifetime. (At AIGA West Michigan events, we try to go vegetarian often and local as much as possible. It’s part of who we are as an organization now. I appreciate that about our community—we get it.)


What kinds of things can designers/design do to change the world?

Designers offer a unique way of looking at the world. We are always asking questions to better understand the problem, and we are not afraid of generating ideas and prototypes, and possibly failing. I think designers are more likely to keep trying to find the a solution, which is something the world—the planet, its people, and animals—need desperately right now.


What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

As AIGA West Michigan president, I hope to establish our organization at the center of what’s happening in design in the area. I intend to do that with a few initiatives: opening a physical space downtown, creating an advisory board, and selecting our first fellow in 2014. Next year marks the 100-year anniversary for AIGA, so it will be the perfect opportunity for us to begin this tradition. I also want to leave my board with a clear structure and guidelines for years to come.


How has being involved with AIGA affected your design “life”?

Before AIGA, the design community in West Michigan was very segregated. The Ad Club, now AAF, was the only group in town, but it wasn’t design-focused. I heard people’s names, but never got to know them. AIGA West Michigan has really broken down a lot of barriers, personally and professionally. I think we’ve really fostered the idea of collaboration versus competition.


What’s the most exciting AIGA event you’ve been part of, and why?

Louise Fili, 2008. I was Programming Director, and she was the first speaker we brought to town. I was so nervous. I picked her up at the airport and drove her to her hotel. I was so excited that I even walked her up to her hotel elevator and gave her a hug—she must have thought I was going to go up to her hotel room with her! Not only was she gracious, she gave a fabulous lecture that inspired everyone in the audience.


What’s your favorite way to enjoy time away from work?

It’s tough because I spend so much time working for Plenty, and when I am not working there, I’m working on AIGA. I do find time to practice yoga, walk my dog Lulu, and spend time with my family. Balance is important.


Any mantras or sayings you live by?

I’m not shy to say that I’m a big Oprah fan. Recently, she spoke at the 2013 Harvard Commencement. She quoted Howard Thurman, : “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Right now, that fits.

By AIGA West Michigan
Published June 28, 2013