Ben O'Brien
Ben O’Brien

Ben O’Brien, an Internationally Acclaimed Illustrator, Left College and Taught Himself How to Succeed

For Ben O’Brien, a prominent UK illustrator and designer, his career began when he summoned the courage to quit his comfy studio job and go it alone. Within a year, he was freelancing at the BBC and Airside, an in-vogue London design studio.

Not long after, he found himself single-handedly producing artwork for the American launch of Smart cars and taking control of his own career.

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O’Brien realized at age 8 that art was really the “thing” he enjoyed doing above all else. He drew on everything and spent his spare time looking at art. He nurtured his love of drawing until, he recalls, he discovered an exciting new source of inspiration.

“I was given a book called ‘Subway Art’ about graffiti in New York and I was just blown away by it,” O’Brien, 38, says. “Growing up in the English countryside as I did, New York graffiti seemed so exciting, different and attractive to me.”

‘I Became Addicted to Colors’

After he finished school, O’Brien attended college in London and took a course specializing in animation at The Surrey Institute. But, like a lot of students, he choose the wrong course and soon realized he wasn’t passionate about animation.

“I worked in animation for a few years after college,” O’Brien says, “but I was only ever really passionate about how things looked, not how they moved.”

It was a brave move, but one day O’Brien decided enough was enough and he left the studio where he was working and set up as a freelance illustrator. He knew he needed to learn Adobe Illustrator and spent two intensive weeks doing just that.

“I barely ate or slept,” he says. “I was completely immersed in how to create with vectors. I became addicted to colors. I learnt more in two weeks than I did in three years at college.”

An illustration O'Brien created for The Guardian.
An illustration O’Brien created for The Guardian.

That was almost 15 years ago, and he still uses Illustrator every day to create his own brand of fresh illustration and design work. He now lives and works in Frome, Somerset, in southwest England.

Many have tried to launch a freelance design career and failed. But with household names like Smart cars, GQ magazine, and Wired on his client list, O’Brien has really made his mark. He produced the famous “illustrated car” for the Smart car launch and is well known for the florescent palettes he uses in his editorial illustrations for publications like Wired, GQ and The Guardian. The parallax scrolling advertisement he produced for GQ exemplifies his versatility.

‘Stand up Straight, Breathe Deep and Just Do It’

His advice to young designers just starting out: “Stand up straight, breathe deep and just do it. You have to have inner confidence to really build a creative career. Be confident in yourself, get yourself out there, make mistakes and pick yourself up afterwards. Talk to people or at least email people. If you don’t feel confident right now, that’s fine. Trust me, the more you work at it, the more confident you’ll be.”

O'Brien Smart car illustration for an advertising campaign.
O’Brien’s Smart car illustration for an advertising campaign.

Although he is best known for his iconic Smart car images and his psychedelic illustration style, he is also well loved for his positive attitude and friendly approachability.

“I enjoy creating illustrations that excite people,” O’Brien says. “I take inspiration from shapes, movement and color, the tip of a pine tree or the wave before it drops, the corner of a building, the curve of an eyebrow. I find these forms exciting.”

O’Brien broke the mold of the “traditional” designer and this has left him with a firm belief that design students don’t necessarily need to go to university to learn their skill.

“I know there are some fantastic colleges that produce exceptional students,” he says. “But I also think there are some that aren’t teaching the right things. They have a dated approach or a lack of industry knowledge, or don’t offer the students a good understanding of where the industry is going.”

An illustration O'Brien create for The Boston Globe.
An illustration O’Brien create for The Boston Globe.

Learning technology is key, he says, and critiquing others’ work and doing practice briefs are great experience. But if you can’t go to university, for whatever reason, you can still build a career as a designer.

“Don’t let that stop you,” he says. “Every year, I see great young creatives starting out without a qualification. Get online and absorb everything you can, network with professionals, follow tutorials, read design blogs, do it yourself and you’ll become a strong, confident and proud designer.”

See more of O’Brien’s illustration work at, and his fabric work at

Look and Yes is making a film about graphic designers in Britain and O’Brien will be included. Watch this clip of him talking about what inspires his designs.