Interview

Brnesh Berhe

Art Director, designer, illustrator, writer

14 years experience

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bberhe.com

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@brneshberhe

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Brnesh Berhe is an Eritrean-Canadian art director, graphic designer, illustrator (and sometimes writer) from Edmonton, Alberta. She graduated from MacEwan University in Edmonton back in 2009 where she studied graphic design with a major in illustration, and later in 2013 completed the New Media Journalism program at Simon Frasier University in Surrey, B.C. Growing up in a household where politics and social issues were discussed–all while watching way too much TV for her own good–Brnesh not only grew up caring about important issues that have no doubt influenced some of the projects she's taken on, but where possible love infusing humour and bold colour into her work as well– the latter a remnant of the cartoons and ridiculous things that inspired her creativity inher youth.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it?

I heard about it in high school. A girl in one of my classes had a booklet from MacEwan’s design program and at that point I had no real understanding of what a design career would look like; but I saw some of the career options in that book, mainly magazines and animation and it piqued my interest. I didn’t go and apply right away or anything though; I took general studies for a year with a plan to go into Business (you know, something more rEaLisTiC), but I quickly realized I hated Econ and really had no idea why I wanted to even pursue it. I went to the MacEwan open house the following year thinking I would go into Journalism, but after sitting in on the Design Studies session I quickly changed my mind. I was so introverted that journalism, as much as it was a longtime dream of mine, seemed so daunting to me, and I assumed I’d have to talk to way less people as a designer haha. Even though that was incredibly naive as a 17 year old, it was the right move in the end.

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

My first full-time job outside of internships was working for a pretty well-known chain of salons and spas that at the time had locations across Alberta and BC. I worked with a great team of people, great boss, but my god that place was a nightmare. It was like a low budget Devil Wears Prada. I was responsible for a lot there; advertising, product packaging, in-store signage, and decals…I was totally thrown into the deep end, and everything was due “yesterday”. I was also so conscience that they didn’t know how to do Black hair which put me in a weird position to internally decide not to put any Black people in their ads advertising the salon. Not that they noticed or genuinely cared about diversity either.

As shitty as that place was, it’s honestly where I learned to have a backbone and start to trust my gut and skills a bit more. It was an environment that tested you mentally, but even with all the bad it informed a lot of how I would handle myself as a designer, and just as a co-worker moving forward. Watching how that place was run and how genuinely good people were mistreated was a case study in what not to do, which in and of itself was a huge lesson. You obviously don’t want to be grateful for being mistreated, but I came out of it with a better sense of who I wanted to be as a young designer.

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Who do you consider to be an inspiring woman (alive or otherwise)?

Not including my mom and some of the women in my family, I’d say Issa Rae is really inspiring. She seems so genuine and does everything with intention. Seeing her come up from making YouTube videos to essentially building an empire is amazing, and while I don’t have any ambitions to build an empire of my own, seeing how she carries herself in those spaces as an “insecure” and “awkward black girl” is incredibly inspiring. On top of the fact that she creates resources and spaces for folks–particularly Black creatives–who are interested in doing what she does. She’s not a gatekeeper at all and I love that.

What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think what inspires me is what comes to me genuinely. The things that move me, or anger me, or make me laugh no matter how stupid. I want to spend my remaining years as a designer carving out spaces for myself to explore who I am genuinely.

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What’s the boldest thing you’ve ever done in your professional life?

Without a doubt, quitting my job with no backup during the pandemic.

People assume I had this grand plan to go and pursue my dream as a freelancer (and I did have a plan to maybe try doing it full-time at some point down the road), but the truth was when I made the decision to leave when I did, I was leaving a job that I once loved that over the years had grown to become way too toxic, and got to a boiling point where I was left with the choice of picking my health over a steady paycheque and benefits.

It was only like a month or so after I left that I started hearing about the “great resignation” which may have made me feel less guilty about my choice had I known before, who knows, but I’m lucky that my years of working on freelance stuff on the side and having great relationships with some folks benefitted me so much in my first year working for myself.

I didn’t even really advertise or seek out projects. It was mostly from people who knew me or referrals from people who knew me. I obviously never assumed it would always be like that, and I know I have to focus more on putting myself and my work out there more intentionally, but I’m so grateful everything worked out the way it did in my first year given the circumstances. While I have some lingering resentment over why I had to ultimately leave, I’ll never regret making the choice to actually leave.

What does success mean to you?

Getting to do what I like with the autonomy with how I spend my day and not having to worry about money and maintaining my mental health. Too much to ask? Haha.

I think it’s so important to define what success means to you on your own terms and acknowledge that it’ll change as you get older and have more experiences to pull from. I have no interest in becoming an influencer or anything like that, I honestly think I’ll be successful in my career if I can manage to make a decent living working with good people while taking time to actually have a life outside of how I earn a living. I’d like this career to open up possibilities for a peaceful life outside of my career if that makes sense.

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Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night.

Currently it's all the AI stuff–worrying that I won't be able to keep up with how fast everything feels like it's moving, but I started my careeer worrying about how some people may perceive my name. I think subconsciously it’s led me to have a pretty unhealthy relationship to my work in my 20s and early 30s that I’m deeply trying to unlearn now; the whole “if they don’t take me seriously I have to do aaaaall these things so they do.” I’m glad I’m finally at a point now where it doesn’t plague my thoughts as much as it did, but every once and a while it creeps back in.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when starting?

Right out of school? I would’ve friggin’ relaxed :)

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How would you design the ideal creative workspace?

I work from home and my desk is basically where my dining room should be. So ideally I’d like a separate room (a big one) with a lot of natural light like I have now (but more, I want MORE) and a bunch of art on the walls. A big desk with a couch for nappin’, maybe a balcony or patio covered in beautiful trees I’m not allergic to. Perfectly organized shelves that just tidy and dust themselves. Plants that aren’t fake but somehow also won’t die on me (a girl can dream) And I’d want this to still be at home – no separate studio for me – so I don’t have to commute, but still have that separation with a quick walk to my kitchen to get snacks looking like a damn mess. The dream.

Who are your design heroes?

George Lois was a huge influence on me when I was in school, specifically the work he did at Esquire in the 60s and 70s. I wasn’t familiar with him prior to that, but I didn’t know that I was already so familiar with his work, particularly that image of Muhammed Ali on the cover of the magazine with the arrows going through him–it’s one of my favourite images ever and for whatever reason I was totally enamored with it growing up. There was a big, beautiful coffee table book of his work at Esquire that I took out over and over again from the library at MacEwan. I just wanted to do what he did.

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What about the current state of graphic design could you do without?

The pressure to become an influencer if that’s not something you gravitate to, and to keep up with apps that are spreading us thin so they can make money off of our “content”. Boooo.

What are your plans for the future?

Whoooo knows.

I've had some personal things come up lately that have me thinking about what the next few years could look like–whether I continue working for myself or not, even though things have been going well overall.

But regardless I want to have a healthy relationship with my work and to enjoy all of the other things it can offer. I thought my eventual end goal would be to freelance, but I’m realizing more and more how many other doors are opening for me to build the life I want. Even though I’m still figuring it out, I'm glad I made this jump. It's been exactly what I needed and I hope to ride this out for as long as I can.