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Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community. View photos in all their glory on Flickr.

Wanderlust might best explain designer Tess Donohoe’s journey to the Rose City. After meeting her husband, Ryan Donohoe, in Copenhagen during his exchange program in architecture, Tess crossed the pond to San Francisco to study illustration. A Bachelor of Fine Arts would bring Tess to Southern California and the Art Center College of Design, studying Motion Graphics and working with clients like Tom’s Shoes and the United Nations. She’s now a full-time freelance graphic designer and illustrator living in her new Northwest abode with her husband, their dog, and a turntable apt for study breaks.We picked Tess for her tweet from the Matt Wagner talk.

We heard you recently moved to Portland’s Alberta St. neighborhood from Los Angeles. Welcome!

Thanks! I moved here on my birthday on November 2nd. In fact, my family just flew in from Copenhagen to visit my husband and I. They’re in our home around the corner pulling out carpet. It’s old, so they’re helping with the renovations. Behind the home is an accessory building that at one time housed a construction business. My husband, who builds furniture, has his woodshop on the first floor and I have my studio on the second floor. 

It’s funny because CreativeMornings was my first attempt at getting out. Matt Wagner’s talk was only two weeks after I moved here. 

With rising tuitions and more creative outlets to build a portfolio, many students are doubting the worth of an art or design degree. How do you reflect upon your BFA degree at Art Center College of Design?

It’s a hard question to answer because I understand art schools are incredibly expensive nowadays. But for me, it was a great experience because art school taught me the most important lesson I still carry with me today: it’s not about understanding specific skills, but learning how to learn. Our semesters were 14 weeks long, and you’d often start from the beginning not knowing anything about a course topic, whether it was motion graphics, typography, illustration, or something more specific. But by the end, you’d get your head around it. There’s a certain confidence earned from finishing a full project.

Given the decline of job market in 2009, were you at all optimistic about finding projects upon graduating?

I didn’t think of it like that. I stayed focused on learning what I needed to learn, and being present in what I was doing right then. In school, you have no way of knowing if you’ll have projects in three years or one year or two months. School is such a limited time that there’s no reason to get discouraged about the future and what’s going to happen. Instead, you just have to continue getting better everyday — collaborating, getting projects done and building your portfolio.

Your interest in collaboration brings to mind the BFA Programs hosted at the University of Oregon’s White Stag Building in Portland. There’s a course, “Design Discourse,” where students from the Digital Arts, Product Design and Architecture programs share ideas about design.

Exactly! It’s a similar philosophy to projects we completed at Art Center. Often, all the school’s majors would come together and collaborate. During one stretch where I was taking classes on motion graphics, we were lucky to work on a project for the United Nations. It was an animation later shown at a conference in Cairo concerning human rights and equality.

Did you have time for any passion projects outside of school?

Because school was all-consuming, I only had enough time to work hard and take a lot of classes. But a few years ago when Ryan and I were in San Francisco, we were able to collaborate on a project called Gorilly. It was started by two guys who held different day jobs but shared an idea for a mobile showroom. They didn’t know how to get the project off the ground, so they found us. Ryan was able to design the van’s interior space and build its furniture, while I created the showroom’s logo and all complimentary graphic design. They’ve now work on the project full-time and the business is still going strong today. 

What is it like for you as an illustrator when collaborating with your husband, who’s a furniture designer?

My process, especially with illustration, can be loose. I’ll get going on an idea and not have a fine sketch that’s perfect. Sometimes, I’ll allow my process to produce the project, like a happy accident. Whereas with Ryan’s woodworking, he has to plan. Between the wood being used and the cuts, it’s more of a linear process.

We’re always brainstorming new projects. It’s jut a matter of starting them in the first place.


Speaking of your illustrations, there’s a light-hearted, colorful, fun quality to your work. How do you hope people feel when looking through your illustrations compared to your graphic design portfolio?

That’s a response I’ve heard from many people — that “fun” feeling. Not long ago, I realized the feelings I held while making something were as important as my project’s final outcome. I asked myself why I should sit and feel tortured when, instead, I could create an environment that felt supportive of creativity. Maybe that’s where the bright colors in my illustrations came from, because I shifted my process towards one surrounded by bright colors. I also came to realize, quite literally, when I have to sit somewhere for ten hours a day staring at an illustration, such a time commitment also puts me in a mood. Most people might look at something on Tumblr for two seconds, but I’ll ended up looking at an illustration for twenty-plus hours. So, I’ll tinker with my process. I’ll try new things — I’ll start painting, I’ll try the texture of skin a different way, I’ll change my line work. A new process offers a new challenge.

With graphic design, though, it’s different because you’re working with a client. With start-up’s and smaller companies, it’s always fun because it’s a matter of finding out what they’re trying to say and expressing those ideas. Whereas with illustration, I don’t much consider my audience. Most of my work finds its way onto my blog or floating somewhere in the virtual universe. I’m more interested in what I want to feel. I’m able to offer more of myself, a little more “Tess.”

Really, it’s been like 24-hour business — I’ve loved doing both and I’ve refused to choose one or the other.

How would you, then, personally go about defining your aesthetic?

I like to create work that tells a story. I try to create moments and never focus solely on drawing characters. It’s about those little times of space, almost like a snapshot. And what’s unique about illustration is that, similar to photography, you’re forming a landscape. But as an illustrator, there’s a freedom to add something odd or different you couldn’t find in reality, like a horizontal half-moon.  And as two different mediums, you can’t copy one or other, but you can try to capture that same feeling.

I came across a passage on your website that suggested you enjoy sketching the scenes around you while in airports and client meetings. Where does that curiosity come from?

I’ve come to realize sketching is not so much a hobby for me but something that is fundamental to my practice. And so when I was a little older than 17 and had first met Ryan, I would often fly between Copenhagen and the United States’ West Coast, a 24-hour trip door-to-door. Drawing those around me was a different way for me to absorb information and be be present in the moment. You start noticing every little detail of your environment, like the crinkle in people’s clothes or their posture and what that says about how they’re feeling. And the thing about drawing is that it can make the otherwise mundane appear interesting. What you put onto paper won’t be perfect — there will always be a little quirkiness and personality. Even more, the drawing reflects my state-of-mind. I find it fascinating.


Similarly, I read you recently worked with the Louie Awards in Washington, D.C. and took on designing the invitation cards for their annual awards show celebrating the year’s top greeting cards. I’m curious what you see the role as being for greeting cards? 

For me, whether it’s for an event or a person, greeting cards are about saying something you want to say without knowing how to say it. And similar to infographics, greeting cards can take something that’s complex, amplify that feeling, and communicate it effectively.

Around three years ago, one of the first greeting cards I designed said on the outside, “Did you feel that?” and on the inside, “I was sending you good vibes.” There was a little guy wearing a space hat with radar things sending out “vibes.” The card didn’t share a profound message per say, but it included both a surprise element and a heart-warming message. Affecting people with a smile allows the card designer to think, “Okay, I’ve done something.”

Speaking of feelings, how has your experience in Portland been so far?

When I moved to Portland, it felt like I was coming full-circle from Copenhagen and that I’d arrived home. The people have been wonderful, but more importantly I’ve felt as though I could start breathing again. There’s not this race to win something as opposed to San Francisco and Los Angeles — although the pressure might stem from it costing an arm and a leg to live in those respective cities. People in Portland offer space for others to do their work. In the past, I’ve always felt as if everything needed to be done yesterday, especially for personal projects. But now, knowing I can take little more time to finish something and have it be a better project in the end has helped a lot.


I noticed one portfolio piece, “Doris and the Bear,” that stood out from your other illustrations. Is that an example of a personal project?

Yeah! “Doris and the Bear” is an example of, again, what ties all my work together: storytelling. It was part of an online class where I was asked to create a visual narrative. As opposed to a graphic novel, I chose to look into children’s stories, deciding on a woman and a bear and their relationship out in the woods. The first step was creating the front cover.

And it’s true, I take a lot of Skillshare classes because there are just so many. I’m enrolled in something like seven online classes. Right now, I’m diving into calligraphy. Take yesterday, where I spent 12 hours drawing letters in my living room while watching a movie. The floor and tables are scattered with letters. And so from a learning perspective,  I don’t think I can be creatively satisfied. In the creative industry, and especially with interactive design, you’re always a step behind. That’s why I love what I’m doing — it never feels like a static career. 

And so, looking back, would you have told Tess to do anything differently?

I’m not sure I would say anything differently because I didn’t leave Copenhagen with a sense of fear for the future. I left for the States feeling open-minded, not knowing what was going to happen nor having a plan. Sure, looking back there have been hard times, but I would not have warned my younger self because if I had been scared or known something difficult was bound to happen, I might not have pursued the same opportunities.

If there was something I could have told myself while in school, it would’ve been to keep pushing my craft further and further. Even if it didn’t feel like progress was being made or designs didn’t look quite right, it takes so long as it is until one’s work gets to a point where it maybe looks slightly okay. You just have to push through. Even right now, my life as a freelance designer can be super hard because I never know where the work will be next. In two weeks, I won’t have anything planned. But honestly, it’s like moving to a different country — between the American green cards and other difficulties, you don’t know how the transition will work out. Instead, it’s about focusing on those little steps.Interview by Sean Danaher, Photos by Ashley Forrette

For March, CreativeMornings’ global theme is “Hidden”. The theme was chosen by Creative Mornings Seattle' organizer David Conrad and his team, while Jesse LeDoux (LeDouxville) created the illustration. The Creative Mornings Portland speaker will be Holly Andres, a photographer who through her camera examines the complexities of childhood, the fleeting nature of memory, and female introspection.Mark your calendars for March 14! http://creativemornings.com/talks/holly-andres

Last month in February, Creative Mornings Portland hosted Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media. We were hosted by The George S. Turnbull Center, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication’s Portland center, and sponsored by Citizen, Inc. and 52 Limited. With thanks to Pro Photo Supply for the photo and video gear.Remember to submit your favorite quote from Andi’s talk at: http://www.creativemornings.com/talks/andi-zeisler

Earlier this month in January, Creative Mornings Portland hosted G Cody QJ Goldberg, the Executive Director of Harper’s Playground, the first totally inclusive playground in Portland. Goldberg reflects on how he and his wife, April, raised $1.2 million in just two years without an ounce of fundraising experience while touching on lessons learned about collaboration, design and politics. He weaves lessons learned in his own childhood with dreams of creating a better childhood for his own children and more. He will also explain the GQ&J in his name.Thanks to 52 LimitedCitizen, Inc. and Pro Photo Supply for sponsoring the event, the Portland Development Commission for hosting, and Michael Calcagno of Calcagno Media and Jason de Parrie-Turner of Heliorana Filmworks for shooting the video.Remember to submit your favorite quote from Cody’s talk at: http://creativemornings.com/talks/g-cody-qj-goldberg