Q&A with Tori English, Freelance Graphic Designer + Illustrator



Back in January I was invited to speak to Tori’s 4th year Public Design class at Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) about how to be both graphic designer and project manager for a client. Afterwards, Tori introduced herself as Meika’s sister a girl who had interned for a company I used to work for. I remembered Meika mentioning to me that her sister was attending the same school I graduated from, it was a fun connection. I looked into Tori’s work and absolutely LOVED her illustration style and thought her design sensibility was far beyond her four-years of school. With Tori graduating this year, the epic Portfolio Show complete and convocation ceremonies wrapping up on May 16, I thought I would ask about her plans for the future, how she felt about graduating from a University vs a College and what it is like looking for a job out of school.

Were you born and raised in Calgary?
Yes! Most of my family lives in either Calgary or Vancouver. 

Were you always a “creative”? Did you grow up drawing or was it something that developed later?
I don’t think there ever was a time where I wasn’t creating. My parents saved every scrap of paper I doodled on since I could hold a pencil. I also grew up in a family of artists (a potter, a woodworker, a painter, a fabric conservationist, the list goes on) so I was always encouraged to be creative. I always played with different mediums, hijacked my mom’s sewing machine (and broke it a few times), and did ceramics with my grandma. 

How did you end up in art school? Why did you choose the Alberta College of Art and Design?
I knew from a young age I wanted to go to art school. My cousin Sara attended ACAD for photography and I remember visiting her there and being so curious and mesmerized by the space.

I was lucky because I was exposed to design at a young age by my high school multi media class. In that class, I was able to learn the Adobe Suite and dabble in photography, graphic design and animation. Then in grade 12, I competed in Alberta Skills for Graphic Design and placed 5th in Alberta. 

Living in Calgary, ACAD was a no brainer, and it was the only school I applied for. Luckily I got in!

What does the transition from ACAD to Alberta University of the Arts (AUArts) mean to you?
I love to see AUArts getting the recognition it deserves! I’ve always been very proud of my school, so the move to university status just amplifies it and hopefully will bring in more people to experience what the school has to offer. 

There are four schools at AUArts: Craft + Emerging Media, Visual Art, Visual Communication Design, Critical and Creative Studies. What is your exposure level to each of the schools and when do you specialize?
Your first year at AUArts is all about discovering what you want to do, so you are free to explore all the four schools, with a few required Liberal studies classes like Art History and English. For VCD, the school I went into, you have to re-apply with a portfolio at the end of your first year, and then they accept 80 students. So for me, I specialized in my 2nd year. 

What did you specialize in? Did you dabble in taking classes from the other four schools?
I had a clear vision from the beginning, I wanted to specialize in graphic design so I took design related courses the first year, but I did get a chance to dabble in painting and glass blowing courses. I was convinced for about a month that I would be a glass blower, until I realized I couldn’t handle working in an oven all day long. Although the fours schools are quite separated (literally on different floors) I made an effort to attend art gallery openings and keep my eye on what the other schools were doing. I’m hoping to take some extended studies classes in ceramics or print making in the future.

What was your favourite part of AUArts? How did you utilize the school? 
I would have to say the community! As cliché as it is, I found my people at AUArts. I discovered that there were people as passionate as I was about the same obscure things. The teachers are an invaluable resource and some of the most interesting people I have ever met. I love recounting crazy “art school” stories with my friends - awkward critics, terrible first year performance art, the list goes on…

Are you excited to be done? What was the last month of school like?
The last month of school was one of the hardest months of my education. It was a ton of work getting ready for the Portfolio and Grad Shows. It also had a touch of sadness that last month, knowing it was all coming to an end and the people that I’d worked so closely with over the past four years were all moving back home.

What is the Portfolio Show? Grad Show? What has it been like to prepare for them?
The Portfolio Show was a chance for the Visual Communication Design grads to showcase their work for one night to design professionals in Calgary. I took it as a chance to practice presenting and asking for feedback. And I was proud of the work I did and wanted to show people! I got a chance to talk to creative directors, art directors, and freelancers and got a lot of great insights. But it went by in a blink! I definitely stressed a lot more about it than was needed, but that’s a common theme with me.

The Grad Show is a chance for each graduating student from all the schools to submit a final piece of work for everyone to see after convocation. It was exciting to see my work on the walls alongside all the people I’ve been in school with for the past four years. 


My grad piece was a resource I created for mental health in elementary schools. The grad show is on until June 1st. 

What are you currently doing for work? Are you solely freelancing?
I am very lucky and had a job lined up before school finished! Last summer, I interned with Wordfest as their graphic designer and they kindly asked me to continue on with them for another year. It’s so rewarding working with a small team of creatives, and I am fortunate to have a lot of freedom and diversity in my projects. I’m also picking up a few freelancing jobs, as well as working with a two person design shop here in Calgary! I’m also taking this time to build my illustration portfolio to send off to art directors. 

Describe your ideal project? Can you describe your creative process and who you get feedback from?
This is a tough one! I have a long “design bucket list" I keep on my phone of projects I’d like to complete and a few from that list include surface pattern design, stuffed kids’ toys, wine labels, and a mural. 

One thing that ACAD drills into you is the importance of process. No matter the type of project, I still work the same way I did at school, never skimping on research or jumping ahead and I still work solely on sheets of loose leaf paper with a pencil.

As for feedback, my friends from school and I have all agreed to offer free critics and feedback for the rest of our careers, so hopefully we stick to that promise. 

What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on? 
My classmate Sali El-Dib and I got paired with the Calgary Homeless Foundation and we helped create an illustrated Annual Appeal letter. It was exposure to a real life client and the impact that the letter had in the end was incredible. 

I also created a niche magazine in my fourth year with my good friend Colin Celino and we had the best time working together. Everything in the magazine we made ourselves, from the interviews, to the photographs, illustrations and advertisements.

Do you have a dream client that you’d love to work with?
Ultimately, I love working with clients that align with my personal values. I’ve always been interested in young female empowerment and self-esteem, so a project involving that would be amazing.

How did you develop your illustrative style?
When it comes to illustrating, I’m always trying to have fun and not take myself too seriously. I try to create honest drawings that really resonate with people, and I find the simpler the better. I’m inspired by how kids draw and how they have no fear! My drawings come from a result of experimenting and really just having fun. 

I approach each project differently, but I definitely lean towards more gestural, simplified solutions. Then again, I try not to put myself in a box; I once did an illustration project that was completely made of embroidery, and one that used dried flowers and coffee beans. I’m not afraid to experiment and make a huge mess, and luckily my roommate doesn’t mind.

You also do ceramics? How did you get into that?
My late grandma was a potter for 40 years and I would always decorate ceramics at her house. She was going to teach me how to use the wheel, but passed away unexpectedly and I never got a chance to learn from her. For a while I distanced myself from it because it brought up too many emotions. But this past winter a friend taught me how to throw, I find it very meditative and a way to connect with her. And I’m excited to bring my illustrations to a 3D surface!

Who do you look up to? Who are your favourite artist/designers/creatives etc.?
From a local landscape, I look up to Janine from Uppercase Magazine. I think it’s incredible how she has grown this creative empire and is so humble and great to talk to for advice. 

Some designers and creatives I’m inspired by are Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, ACAD grads Lauren Tamaki and Geoff McFetridge. Some of my favourite creatives I follow on instagram are @kellianderson @fayemoorhouse and @jean_jullien 

Lastly I’m inspired by my friends, my parents, my roommate, and my boyfriend who are all amazing artists and creatives!

What is your biggest dream for the future? 
My biggest dream is run my own design studio, equipped with a shop dog, ceramics wheel, vegetable garden and perhaps situated somewhere in nature, but still close to family, working for clients that I believe in and who believe in me!

Check out more of Tori’s work here.