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Getting New Zealand on the map

Her master’s degree in New Zealand inspired German artist Theresa Grieben to build a career creating illustrated maps.

My New Zealand map is among the first I ever illustrated, and it’s one of my most memorable maps.

My 18-month Master of Design project at Unitec in New Zealand included two parts: a body of practical design artwork – in my case a graphic novel – and a written explanatory exegesis (master’s thesis).

The New Zealand map was part of my graphic novel. It shows the path of several road trips that I took with friends in the period of my 18-month master’s degree; the towns and places we found, the activities we did. If you look closely, you’ll find some personal remarks on the map like my new home and haven’t been yet.

My map illustration style is quirky, personal, handmade, linear, individual and with a love for hand lettering and very detailed drawings.

Theresa's illustrated map of New Zealand

The illustrated map of New Zealand I created as part of my master’s degree.

My New Zealand journey started when, after finishing my bachelor’s degree in communication design in Germany, I decided that I wanted to complete my masters abroad and combine it with my curiosity for traveling

My existing bachelor’s degree from Germany was easily compatible with my New Zealand postgraduate master’s degree.

The degree was made up of one intermediate presentation of my progress per semester, and one final examination in the very end, where I publicly presented my design work and defended my written exegesis to a panel of external critics.

As my master’s degree was research-based I didn’t attend taught classes but rather worked on my own and had regular one-on-one counselling sessions with my three supervisors who gave me a lot of patient support, proofreading and very valuable advice.

Things were not always easy. I remember that for a couple of days after one particularly bad presentation I was so frustrated that I was at the verge of just dropping my entire master’s to go traveling instead. Luckily I didn’t do that… instead I took a week off and flew on a spontaneous trip to Vanuatu, which was an adventure in itself and helped me put things into perspective. When I came back I had more focus. In my final master’s examination everything went so smoothly that I managed to get an A with distinction! It pays off to never give up!

What really helped me during my master’s was that me and my fellow design students got to use an entire studio for ourselves. It was very inspiring to work along other students from all sorts of design backgrounds, like photography, interior design, painting and landscape architecture. We got to give each other feedback about our projects and there was always someone to help me or to talk to. In the end it felt like a family to me!

I created my graphic novel In the Land of the Long White Raincloud as part of my master’s degree. In it I recount my personal story of coming to New Zealand by using different visual techniques.

Now, five years after finishing my master’s, I’m doing exactly what I’m good at and love to do.

After completing my Master of Design degree in New Zealand, I moved back to my home city Berlin. At first I was a bit lost, struggling to adjust back into my “old” life in Germany.

I started working in a coworking studio with artist friends and decided to become a self-employed illustrator. During my master’s I had been working so very self-determined every day, that I couldn’t see myself working in any different way anymore.

I illustrated more maps and personal projects and fine-tuned my artistic style. I participated in a lot of markets, developed my product line, and organised a couple of successful pop-up-shops in Berlin. I opened my online shop where I sell high quality art prints, and slowly but steadily I managed to build up a base of clients for custom editorial travel illustrations.

I’m getting commissions from magazines and publishers including BBC World Histories Magazine where I illustrate historic maps of specific expeditions that have shaped world history; NetJets Mag, a magazine that people get to read in private jets – those maps are usually about fancy travel destinations and luxurious resorts; and Babbel’s online magazine (a popular app for learning foreign languages), who commission me to illustrate language-related maps, like a regional map of dialects, or a map about typical idioms from a specific city.

I love that I can organise my time independently, as long as I get my work done. I get to decide which projects I want to work on and have no boss “above” me. The best thing is that I can schedule my own vacation freely; I can technically travel for a month at a time, as long as I can juggle it with my project deadlines.

Whenever I sell one of my New Zealand art prints through my online shop to a customer in New Zealand I do a little happy dance and look up on the map where exactly the parcel goes to!

If you’re thinking of studying in New Zealand, here’s my advice:

  1. Have patience, don’t give up easily. If you struggle with something, try again and again. Even if it hurts, it will pay off.

  2. Realistically assess your financial means – studying abroad is expensive. Look into scholarships/support programmes offered by your country.

  3. Plan at least one year ahead, and make sure you apply in time!

  4. Be open, make friends, ask questions, live in a flat-share with locals, spend time with fellow Kiwi students. If you are provided a studio by your university, use it!

  5. When you choose your university don’t decide so much in terms of career but rather in terms of what feels right for you – that’s at least what always worked for me.

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