Olimpia Zagnoli on how creativity helps us understand one another

Over a long conversation with the Italian illustrator about her astonishing career to date, we learn how it’s the people viewing her drawings who truly inspire her.


The Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli is known for a number of different creative attributes. Probably most recognisable is her style, one you can spot a mile off, reminiscent of the Italian creative stars who came before her. The other factor is where these works have popped up, from the walls of galleries to the shopfronts of Uniqlo, a collection with Prada to the cover of The New Yorker or a plastic packet of tissues. But an attribute those who know, or have even briefly met Olimpia, will recognise is her ability to harness community in just a drawing. In fact, as we soon learned, it’s pretty much the basis of all her work too.

Meeting Olimpia while at Design Indaba in Cape Town at the end of February, the illustrator spoke about the way in which she approaches projects as an attitude rather than a strict routine of putting pen to paper. What ensued was an empowering talk about creating artwork for the greater good, and about how that good can be simply making a drawing that lifts someone’s mood – ensuring your work is inclusive and facilitates conversation.

Sitting down with the illustrator for a few coffees just as she walked offstage, it is very easy to get quickly whipped up in conversation with Olimpia like an old friend. Passionate, always honest, opinionated but ultimately encouraging, I lost count of how many times our conversation was interrupted with other guests bounding over to congratulate her on a brilliant talk and ask further questions.

Soon after we left Cape Town, Olimpia headed home to Milan, a city then heading into the lockdown it has only just begun to carefully emerge out of. Although at the time we had no idea what world we would be coming back to, Olimpia’s advice of trying to create a communal feeling through creativity, said before the world became in dire need of it, gives hope that this industry really can make a difference.

It's Nice That Your talk was great! You spoke really well about the whole industry, as well as yourself. Do you enjoy public speaking?

Olimpia Zagnoli No. It’s not my favourite thing to be honest. Sometimes when I have to do it, I’m like why did I say yes? Like why. It makes no sense. Why me!

INT Particularly in illustration, though, it seems so much more common that you’re expected to be good at it?

OZ Isn’t it the same for everyone? When you start communicating visually, you’re putting something of yourself into what you do. I think it’s natural to be asked to express that or to explain it verbally. I understand but it’s just… Maybe I chose to become an illustrator because I didn’t want to explain. I love the idea of being behind the illustrations or that the drawings speak for me.

INT I saw you speak once before and you spoke so sweetly about your family, and growing up with your parents’ artistic influence.

OZ Well, I grew up drawing, as most illustrators do. I kept doing it as I grew older and having both parents as artists was a privilege for me. I never had to think about finding a “real” job – in that I was never faced with the idea that one day I would have to choose something, specifically. My dad is a photographer and my mum is, I would say, a painter, even though she does more collage than actual painting. I kind of found illustration on my own – inside that sort of structure, I found my own way.

For me, drawing has always felt like a place you go to relax and have your own time, in your bubble. It was my place to go, even if I had to share a room with my younger sister, during my parents’ divorce, or in high school when I was bored by lessons. It’s always been a sort of meditative practice for me, even though I had no idea what meditation was.

INT How did things begin to kick off for you?

OZ I don’t remember very well. I graduated and over the summer spent most of my days trying to produce art. Even if I didn’t have any commissions I would give myself something to illustrate. I then put together a small portfolio and with that I started trying to find work. Obviously, living in Milan, I went to the fashion magazines, but at the time they had no illustrations, apart from maybe the horoscope. Design magazines were more about photographs at the time too as this was 2007. It was a little before social media as well. It was that very fine line between that world we knew before and now.

I’d hoped that I would work in Italy, but I only made a few illustrations for magazines and I felt like it wasn’t as much as I wanted. I knew The New Yorker because I loved the vignettes, the cartoons, and I love it as a publication. I went to New York and asked some friends if they had any contacts. I began working for real in New York – for real meaning with publications that are renowned. After that, it was much easier nationally to work when I came back to Italy.


Olimpia Zagnoli: Cuore di Panna


Olimpia Zagnoli: Cuore di Panna

“It doesn’t mean that the result is beautiful, amazing or special, but at least it looks like me”

Olimpia Zagnoli

Olimpia Zagnoli: Self portrait at home, Milan 2020

INT And you had your first cover last year too? How was that?

OZ So, do you know how it works?

INT Nope, no idea.

OZ The New Yorker cover is not just a normal assignment. You get asked to think about a possible cover and you’re given a calendar which tells you the main events. So, winter and spring, but also sports or... fashion. You’re then meant to send sketches, as many sketches as you want, and then if they pick your sketch you have the choice to make the cover. That’s pretty much it. It’s not like they call you and are like, “Can you do the cover?” It’s more send over your ideas. And sometimes they pin the ideas and they keep them for years. That’s what happened for my cover actually. I was asked by Françoise Mouly to think about a topic and the upcoming one was summer. I made a couple of illustrations and she was like, “I like this, but maybe for next year.” I thought it’s never going to happen. A year later they published it. It was weird because two covers came out around the same month because one was assigned – the Pride cover – and one was from the year before.

INT What was your work like back when you visited for the first time all those years ago, through to getting a cover now?

OZ It has changed, of course, especially when I started working more. I have more of a practice now, where I feel more aware of my lines, my colours and my shapes. It just comes more naturally now.


Olimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker


Olimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker


Olimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker


Olimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker


Olimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker

“It’s about creating a conversation with brands rather than just saying no or yes, or being a victim of this system that is totally capitalised”

Olimpia Zagnoli

Olimpia Zagnoli: New York View, NYC MBA SubwayOlimpia Zagnoli: The New Yorker

INT How so?

OZ At the beginning I felt a little uncomfortable with the results. It didn’t necessarily reflect who I felt I was at that moment, which I think probably happens with writing too? Sometimes you go back to pages in your diary and you’re like this wasn’t me, I was impersonating someone, or I felt like I wanted to look or sound like I was someone else. At the beginning there was definitely a lot of that feeling, of not feeling comfortable in the colours and choices. The more you work, the more you feel a sort of confidence and at least I recognise myself now. It doesn’t mean that the result is beautiful, amazing or special, but at least it looks like me.

INT Is there anything you haven’t got to do yet?

OZ The project I did on the New York City subway was so interesting for me. Even though I did it in 2012, to this day it’s one of my favourite projects. There were so many unprecedented connections with people and the response was so unexpected. It was a conversation that started from something that was so simple like a poster, and it very much opened doors to new possible jobs which interact more. Now I would love to do something like public art, like an installation or something.

INT Anything in particular?

OZ I really like this idea of people getting to interact with your work, who might not know anything about art or illustration. Not even questioning if it’s good or bad, just maybe interacting with a piece because they play soccer around it, or because they get some rest and read a book next to it. That sort of relationship between art and the public, when things are open and accessible, is something that really fascinates me.

INT But already with your Barilla project, for example – which you’ve previously spoken so brilliantly about – your work is already in the homes of many!

OZ There are two aspects to a project like that. One is the pop art aspect, the fact that you end up on a product. I have my tissue papers with Tempo now and they literally sell a whole box for 90 cents, which means they can be anywhere. That’s something I really like. It takes down all the ego that comes with creating and brings it to the people.

On the other hand, it’s about creating a conversation with brands rather than just saying no or yes, or being a victim of this system that is totally capitalised. When I teach, most people are more interested in getting recognition from brands, asking “How did you get to work with that brand” or “How can I get in contact with that brand?” When I was younger, I was into the do-it-yourself background and for me, when I think back about it, it was crucial for me to think and question all the layers in society. I think it’s important to not be blinded by the idea of working with a big brand. It’s more about asking yourself if it makes sense, or if you can say something in their voice – or if you can amplify your voice through theirs.


Olimpia Zagnoli: Barilla


Olimpia Zagnoli: Barilla

“Now you can get recognised in two seconds, but you should focus on doing a good job”

Olimpia Zagnoli

INT What do you say to students when they say stuff like that?

OZ I think there are two types of students. There are the ones who are starting to question this and then there’s another kind who are more interested in success and Instagram. I’m not blaming them, they come from a generation that has been bombarded by this concept, but they’re more interested in getting recognised than making good work. That’s kind of a problem for me. Now you can get recognised in two seconds, but you should focus on doing a good job, and then the people will come to you.

Years ago it was much harder, you could have done beautiful work but nobody would ever see it. Now, the focus is trying to make something good and not something that needs to be seen immediately. I feel that in the students, but I also see it in me. Like this urgency to publish, to be out, to show what I am doing – if I had that when I started it would have destroyed me. I feel like it would have caused me to do something that maybe I wouldn’t have wanted. I’m glad that I was a little bit before all that.

INT How did you get into teaching? Do you like it?

OZ I don’t have a specific class, I go around and do six months in one school, maybe a week in another, a workshop here or there. I wasn’t trained to do it and I don’t know if I’m any good at it. I talk A LOT when I do it because I want to give all the information that I can.

INT Like what?

OZ The one thing I try to pass on is being excited about what you do. When I was at school I was confronted with teachers who were frustrated with their jobs. But one day, I remember a teacher talking about the bureaucratic aspect of the work – invoices, contracts and all that. He said something, along the lines of: “Don’t worry, you’re going to learn all these things, they look very boring and very scary right now but you’ll get a sense of it and then you’ll be able to do the best job on this planet because being an illustrator is great.” That simple sentence for me as a student was fantastic. I needed to hear that on the other side of all that struggle – the internal questioning, the technical difficulties, and doubts – there was something to look forward to. It’s very simple but for me it’s very important. I try to always say to my students that it’s a wonderful job, that it’s a privilege.

INT It seems that side of a creative role is taught a lot more now and it’s so important – especially when you’re freelance.

OZ Yes particularly, I have to say, with women. It’s not a matter of gender obviously, but in teaching in Italy most of the time I see that women are so shy about what they do. Most of the time they come with their work and they’re like, “Oh it’s nothing, it’s not important, it’s not really good”, and I have to say let me see it first before anticipating. I am obviously generalising, but it happens a lot. I always try to say don’t question yourself too much. Be critical, but at the same time exercise your inner self, try to put it out and see what happens.

When it comes to money, sometimes when I teach I take real assignments that I got from brands or magazines. I ask students to make the same topic in the same size that I was given, and I give them the price that I was paid so that they have an idea of how it works in the real world. Most of the time schools – especially in Italy, but maybe in Europe in general – are quite disconnected from the actual jobs that are out in the world.


Olimpia Zagnoli: Tempo

“It’s very important to create a sense of a communal feeling that brings together all the people in the world”

Olimpia Zagnoli

INT Do you think you will always stay in Italy?

OZ I don’t know. I lived in the States for a while – I never moved there, but I spent time there for months on and off. Now I live in Milan and Milan is a city that’s very active. It has lots of events, and lots of art and culture. It’s not like I live in a town in the countryside obviously, but at the same time it has the life quality of an Italian city. You can go on a lunch break for two hours and nobody is going to kill you. You can also take the day off, see an exhibition and go back to your studio without feeling guilty. In the States I felt much more pressure. It could be challenging and good for your work to be pushed, but the more I grow personally, the more I enjoy the time off and the pace that you can have in a country like Italy.

Also the cultural background is so deep, it’s everywhere. You can have all the inspiration you want in a 30km drive from one town to the other. It’s so amazing to have such a small country that is so dense. When I was a teenager I didn’t care about this stuff at all. I was like, “Let’s go to London, let’s go to Paris.” Everywhere was better to me. Now seeing it with the eyes of an adult, I am starting to travel through Italy and see how many amazing things there are. And the more I travel around the world, the more I see how peculiar the country is in its ups and downs, its contrasts, its craziness. In terms of art, it’s just insane compared to lots of other countries.

INT It’s so true. There was just one more thing I wanted to ask you. In your talk you said a lovely statement about how there’s a lot of responsibility in creatives to educate themselves. I was wondering if you had any advice – maybe for younger people, or even those who have been in the industry for a long time – as to how they can make a better effort to educate themselves?

OZ Huh, difficult question. I don’t consider myself particularly educated in order to inspire anyone else. I think that every day we are more exposed to topics like equality and identity but I think that too often these become just words in our mind, or things that we learn not to say. They become rules rather than actual concepts. I think that all of us, in one way or another, have experienced some sort of isolation, some sort of form of misrepresentation. Everyone can relate to feeling a bit lonely, or a bit isolated, and it’s very important to create a sense of a communal feeling that brings together all the people in the world.

As a woman, it’s very easy to understand why some forms of discrimination have happened in my life. Yet knowing, learning and reading about it every day, and trying to get a better sense of what I can do for those who feel that same level of discrimination on higher or lower levels, helps me understand how people relate to each other. I say that not as a creative, but as a human being, a normal human being.

You can watch a further interview with Olimpia, held at Design Indaba, here.


Olimpia Zagnoli: Love Everybody

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Olimpia from her window by Miro Zagnoli

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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