Drawing from experience

Published on 7 July 2021

One of the great joys of studying at university is the incredible people that you meet.

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They may be your tutors, peers, flatmates or staff members, but when you leave, it is almost certain that those who surrounded you have shaped your view on the world in some way.  

Throughout its history, the University has not been short of figures to inspire the next generation, from the physician Sir James Black and our former Chancellor Lord Naren Patel, to the Snow Patrol musician Gary Lightbody and former Rectors such as Stephen Fry and Mark Beaumont. 

Continuing the proud tradition of leading from the front in their chosen field is alumna and illustrator Johanna Basford, whose colouring books have sold millions of copies and who this year has been named as an Ambassador for the University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship. 

“I think we have quite a stereotypical idea of what a ‘businessperson’ looks like and I most certainly do not fit that mould,” says Johanna. 

“But it was a huge honour to be approached by the University with this role. I enjoyed my time at DJCAD immensely - it was a key piece in the foundation of my career and everything I’ve managed to achieve since.  

“I hope my story shows that entrepreneurship is an option for anyone who wants to work hard and has big ideas. I hope I can be a relatable example for anyone with talent and ambition, but who cringes at the idea of wearing a suit or being stuck in an office all day. 

“I hope this inspires other students and graduates to take the more alternative path after university and consider setting up a business.” 

Upon graduation from Dundee with a degree in Textile Design in 2005, Johanna initially produced handprinted wallpaper and home accessories before the financial crash prompted her to follow her passion for drawing. 

After establishing herself as a freelance illustrator, she rejected calls from publishers to diversify from her signature drawing style. In late 2011, after being approached to produce a colouring book for children, she adapted the brief to produce colouring books for adults instead. 

Today, she has sold more than 21 million books worldwide and has worked with globally recognised brands such as Nike and Absolut and in 2016 she was awarded an OBE for her services to art and entrepreneurship. 

But every successful journey to the top begins with a single step. For Johanna, that was when she moved to Dundee from the Aberdeenshire village of Auchnagatt in 2001. With her designs firmly set on a career in the art world, it was inspiration from her new surroundings that helped her to discover her signature style. 

“I was 18 when I arrived in Dundee, fresh out of sixth year at school and ready to begin my time at DJCAD. I stayed in halls at Belmont Tower and spent a lot of time in the leafy campus dotting between Belmont Tower, the Art School and the Union.  

“Dundee is a wonderful city to be a student in. Large enough that it always felt vibrant and busy but small enough that you didn’t feel lost. And so pretty. The cobbled streets of the West End, the leafy park at Roseangle and of course the beautiful River Tay.  

“I’d often stay in the studio late and walk home as the sun was setting - I saw many spectacular sunsets over the river. 

“At one point in my 4th year I was looking at the metamorphosis of butterflies and found myself in the Life Sciences building taking photographs though a microscope of caterpillars hatching from their eggs and butterflies emerging from cocoons. 

“To have access to facilities like that and the expertise and help from the University’s staff was a privilege I did not take lightly. 

“Within the Art School itself we had access to materials and equipment that allowed me to hone the real, practical skills that I used when I first set-up my studio.  

“Being surrounded by tutors who were practising designers in industry was also a game-changer. Having access to their real-life experience, their contacts and their advice allowed me to take the leap from student to graduate to professional.” 

Johanna returned to the University earlier this year, albeit virtually, to present the Centre for Entrepreneurship’s Annual Lecture in Entrepreneurship. Her new role as Ambassador for the Centre will see her championing its work in supporting both students and staff in developing new business ideas, and promoting enterprise and business innovation. 

And while she is now helping to inspire the University community, Johanna’s own star continues to shine brightly. 

“I’ve just launched my ninth colouring book, ‘Worlds of Wonder’ and was delighted to see it become a bestseller the same week. Now, I’m putting the finishing touches to the next book which will be out in October and working on some very exciting freelance projects – but they’re top secret for now!” 

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