Outlier talks to prolific designer and illustrator Beci Orpin about staying true to yourself, why she welcomes procrastination and what she’s learned after 20 years in the business.
Even if you don’t know Beci Orpin by name, you’ll almost certainly know her work.
That’s particularly true if you live in Melbourne, where the designer and illustrator was born, raised and continues to live. The decals on the exterior of everyone’s fav food van the Taco Truck? Her work. The designs on your Arro Home cushions? That’s her, too. And the illustrations littered throughout cult mag Lunch Lady? All Orpin.
Working at the intersection of illustration, design and craft, and dabbling in myriad pursuits beyond that, to brand Orpin a prolific creator would be an understatement. Her 20-odd years of freelancing means her client list is like a roll call of the big names every creative would kill to work with. We’re talking Gorman, Visa, Mercedes Benz, City of Melbourne, Fosters Universal Music Kester Black Mount Franklin Melbourne International Film Festival Who Gives A Crap Koko Black I Don’t Think We Need To Go On.
In recent years Orpin has also become an author, having published four books to date (including this year’s Sunshine Spaces), and has held a number of exhibitions around the world (including this year’s Unattainable Rainbows at Lamington Drive).
As if that wasn’t busy enough, Orpin also shares two sons with her partner Raph Rashid (he of aforementioned Taco Truck, as well as Beatbox Kitchen, All Day Donuts and Juanita Peaches), running her practice from the same Brunswick warehouse that houses his hospitality empire.
Goals AF, right? You can see Orpin’s a trove of inspiration, knowledge and advice, and we were lucky enough to gain a sliver of her time to try to acquire some of it.
Hey Beci! Can you tell us a bit about your path to where you are now?
After a few false starts into tertiary education, I ended up doing textile design at RMIT, which I really loved. I graduated from that in ’96 or ’97. I really liked the course—I loved it. I was always an OK student but never amazing, and this was the first thing I found that I was really good at. So I was really dedicated to the course.
When I left I went straight into freelance, and this my 20th year of working freelance. It’s not what I intended to do, it’s just what happened. I think Alannah Hill was the first contract I did, designing some fabrics for her. That’s part of a bigger company called Factory X, so once I started working for Alannah some of my friends were working for other labels there. So I started doing t-shirt graphics for them, and it just kind of gradually built up over five years.
So it took me about that long before I could support myself with freelance work after graduating. But I had a lot of other jobs at the time: I was working in a bookshop, I was running a night at a nightclub, I was screenprinting at a place called Vixen. Slowly I stopped doing those jobs, but they all helped my freelance career in a way.
For example, at the bookshop I could look at beautiful books all day for inspiration. Vixen was these two women running their own successful business so they were really inspiring; they let me use their tools so I could make my own things when I was first starting out, so that was really awesome. And at the club I met lots of people who became clients. So it was all building towards that goal. I was also volunteering at the Heide gallery and RMIT gallery—lots and lots of things that meant I met lots of people and that helped get lots of freelance work.
In the first 10 or so years, my work was very fashion-based. I had my own clothing label for about nine years, which I started in around 2001. But the majority of my freelance work was t-shirt prints or actual textiles.
Once I had kids I kind of lost my interest in fashion and my work became more illustration and homewares based. That was just an organic transition. There was definitely a part of me that was like, ‘I'm interested in illustration’ and I began to do more illustration, and it just kind of happened.
Then I did my books—my first book came out in 2012—and that changed my work again. That showed that, yes, I could do illustration and textile design, but I could also do art direction, I could also do writing, I could also do prop sourcing and styling and a whole lot of things that go into coordinating a big project.
I also had a blog for a while—I just started writing it and really liked writing it. So then my blog became a thing. And I think because my blog was a thing, that’s how I got my book.
So now, I still do illustration and textile design, but I also am getting more art direction work where I oversee projects. It’s also led to me running lots of workshops, which has become an income stream for me and something I do all the time at the moment. That’s kind of where I am now!
Did you always want to pursue this line of work?
I always wanted to do something creative that involved drawing, but I didn’t know what that was. I worked it out along the way.
When I was leaving high school there wasn’t any illustration course. So there was either fine art or graphic design. And I wasn’t either of those things—I wasn’t technical enough for graphic design and I wasn’t cerebral enough for fine art. So that’s how I eventually found textile design. And I was always interested in design. So I always knew I was going to do something creative, but it took me a while to work out exactly what that was.
What was your biggest fear when you initially embarked on your career?
I didn’t really think about it at the time. But I definitely think it’s scary putting yourself out there—I’ve had a lot of exhibitions and things like that so it’s always kind of scary putting your ideas out there.
When you work freelance, you’re continually living with this thing where you don’t always know when you’re going to get work. That’s always scary but I’m kind of used to it now. But I’ve got two kids and a mortgage now, so all of a sudden it becomes quite serious.
Do you still have those kinds of fears now?
Yeah, of course. There’s still times when it’s quiet. I think I don’t want to ever get complacent either. It could be easy after 20 years and fairly consistent work during that time to become complacent and think you don’t need to promote yourself or try new things or learn new things. I guess I’m quite aware of that now. It’s still a worry but you continue to do things to ensure people see your new work.
The other thing I worry about now is with social media—I’m always worried about not being true to myself. It’s really easy to go off on a social media tangent and forget what your work actually is.
Do you experience much procrastination? How do you overcome it?
I think procrastination is really important! There’s definitely days when I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve spent the whole day just looking at blogs’. But then I feel like I’ve worked for so long now, I know my process—and I know you have to have those days where it’s just looking at things or it’s just investing in your memory bank.
If you spend the whole day on Facebook or Instagram, that’s a complete waste of time. But if you’re just finding it really hard to get stuff going and you use that time to look at books or blogs or go see an exhibition, that’s OK—you need to have those times.
It’s only recently I’ve looked at it that way. I do still beat myself up over it, but I know how I work and I know those days are now important. You have to be good with deadlines if you work for yourself, and I know I’m going to get the work done. There’s times when I’m killing myself and I’m a very close deadline worker. I used to kick myself for it but that’s just how I do all my best work.
What about self-doubt? Do you ever feel like an imposter, or that maybe it was all an accident?
All the time! I spent a lot of my time thinking that I was going to have to find a ‘real’ job. Now I don’t so much, but I definitely still feel probably more grateful than I should to be able to do what I do for a job. I still think it’s a miracle that I can do this and make money.
I don’t so much feel like an imposter anymore, but now there are new insecurities. Like, am I still relevant? There are two new generations now producing work similar to mine, so where does my work fit in? That’s the current insecurity.
So you worry about originality in your work?
It’s really hard, I totally still worry about it. I think you’ve just got to keep pushing yourself. If you’re worried about that stuff I think you should produce self-motivated projects, and that’s when you can be free and express what you want to express—do the work you want to do. I think that’s when you show your originality.
But it is a worry, and it becomes more of a worry, for me, after 20 years because you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a bunch of other people who’ve got a similar style to me now—how do I make myself different from that?’ Again, it’s about not being complacent.
What has been the biggest challenge or failure of your career so far?
The business side of the business—I’m just not interested in it! And as you develop and get more of a reputation you’re entitled to charge more, and I find it really hard to make those decisions. I still feel like I like this too much and shouldn’t be getting paid to do this.
Working out what to charge for things is really hard, and there are definitely times when I’ve charged a lot less than I should have, or quoted on something too high because I think that’s what I should do and then not got the job.
What do you hope to achieve in your career in future?
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about this lately. I still love textile design and I still love doing all the work I started out doing, but I also love doing all these bigger jobs where I get to do creative direction. I really like being able to use all those skills—problem solving, organisation, using contacts for people you know—so it’s not just design, it’s all those things combined.
I’ve had a few jobs where I’ve had to do that, and I’ve got a few coming up, but I hope to do more of that kind of work, as well as still actually making things. Lately I’m really loving making things with my hands as opposed to working digitally. So if I can do that more, that’d be great.
Virtual pep talk
You have to work hard. If you don’t work hard, it’s quite hard to get somewhere.
That whole thing about staying true to yourself is also really important. You have to stay true to what your work is, and what you believe in. But it’s really hard. If someone had told me that when I just graduated, I would have no idea what they were talking about. So it’s a weird thing—it’s important advice but you kind of have to learn it yourself.
The other thing that can be really detrimental is comparing yourself to others. Don’t think about what other people are doing—just think about what you’re doing and make sure you’re doing that really well. Try hard to run your own race.