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Artist in focus: Lydia Thornley

Lydia Thornley is a talented graphic designer, creative director, reportage sketcher and workshop presenter based in East London. Her multi-faceted experience ranges from brand identity, art direction and communication design to illustration. After working for Derek Forsyth Partnership, at Pentagram in David Hillman's team, at Lewis Moberly and Crescent Lodge Design, she decided to go freelance in 1991.


Lydia’s vast clientele list has included explorers, physicists, beekeepers, social entrepreneurs, chefs, galleries, a sustainable fashion label, digital communications experts, charities, NGOs and educators. Later in her career, she rediscovered her passion for sketching and her work-life expanded.

She claims her sketching work happened by accident and then soon turned into her prolific Instagram feed @lydiathornley which has led to two exhibitions, commissions, workshops and to create her own product line sold in galleries and online. Lydia’s fast-paced sketching and illustration document how she perceives the world when we stop and observe.

Catching Lydia before her sketchwalk for the Trampery in East London, we’ve asked her questions about being a woman in a male-dominant industry, embracing a new career after her 50s and how to be prolific without being a workaholic.

LC: You have such a wonderful experience in design and illustration. Tell us how was the start of your career compared to how to work these days? You were in a male-dominant industry which operated in very long hours. How was your lifestyle back then and now? What has changed for women of the design industry?

I was lucky – the companies I worked in were evenly balanced between male and female designers when I was there. I was also very lucky to have parents who encouraged me to do well in the industry. My father, also a designer, had been pioneering in employing women in advertising because he thought it ridiculous to employ people on the basis of anything other than talent. His advice to me was, “If you don’t have the strength, use a machine; if the machine doesn’t exist, invent one.” So on the rare occasions when someone has wanted to make my gender an issue, I just haven’t been able to take it seriously... But design hours were, and I would argue, still are, long. If anything, that’s got worse as working hours have become more fluid and there’s been a cultural shift to expectation of instant delivery. All of that is tough for people with kids and it’s not great for anyone. The best way around that used to be to design your own company. There’s a lot more awareness now of gender bias. But I think the biggest practical changes have come from how and where we work. Tech allows us to do certain kinds of work anywhere and the shift to more working from home making a significant difference to flexible working. But of course, that flexibility can go the other way, allowing work to spill over into time that should be for other things – family time and time to recharge our batteries. I think it’s more than a gender issue – it’s a health issue and it’s important in making the headspace to do our work well. Get it right and we get it right for everyone.

LC: Please tell us about your Dispatches for a Small World project which was created during the slowness and quietness of lockdown. In contrast this project has created a collection that’s still growing, of over 400 sketches, that recently became part of a clothing line and cards. How did lockdown changed the way you live and work?

Well, you and I were studio-mates of course, and we all had to move out in the first lockdown, then when we could go back but there was distancing, to make space for others, I worked from home because I could. That was tough. I like sociable working and I live alone so that shift was very isolating. And normally a prolific filler of sketchbooks, in hurried walks in early lockdowns, I couldn’t even go on sketchwalks. But I was lucky to have a garden when so many people were stuck in high-rises. So I reported from there instead. And nature always had, and still does have, a story for me.

LC: You have a very busy social and work life, and your fast-paced sketching involves lots of observation and sensitivity. I mean the latter as your drawings show delicate details that require a great amount of understanding of people’s characters and the changes of nature. How do you balance time to have fun, to learn new things, work and relax?

Well, two things help there: I have an endlessly hungry mind – exploring, learning something new, that makes me happy – and I’m terrible at doing nothing! But my problem is, I don’t really have an ‘off’ button. Give me a day off and I think what can I see, what can I do with that day? Even in the garden, I’m always discovering things. So I should really get a lot more proper downtime than I do!

LC: Tell us what drives you to continue explore and experiment different types of art/design. How do you continue to keep work and humour so fresh and how things get better with age?

You’re supposed to mellow, aren’t you, with age but I really haven’t! I decided to go on creative adventures instead, to learn and re-learn skills, to challenge myself and to say yes to things that scare the living daylights out of me. It keeps work, and life, interesting. There’s a lot about ageing which, frankly, sucks but there are things that are liberating. I don’t care any more about job titles or my career path. I know who I am, I know what makes me happy and I’m relaxed about saying what I don’t know.

LC: Do you have any advice for people who want to produce art and to have new passions in life but find hard to get time to do so?

Make time. Start somewhere. Shoehorn it into your day (I started drawing again in cafés and on my commute). Start with materials that won’t make you weep if it all goes horribly wrong (I make my sketchbooks out of rubbish). Expect things to go horribly wrong and embrace it – you’ll learn more from that than you will from the things that go right. Learn from good people. Know that it’s OK not to like your own work. Rediscover your curiosity and hang on to it. And above all, take this from an older person and from anyone who’s lost anyone: life is short. If not now, when? 

You can find Lydia Instagram: @lydiathornley, Twitter: @lydiathornley and LinkedIn: Lydia Thornley. Visit her weekly blog reporting from her urban garden in sketches on Dispatches from a Small World and purchase her beautiful products at Studio Lydia Thornley t-shop.

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