Designer Q&A: Camellia Neri’s five catalysts for creativity

Valerie Veteto

Welcome to a brand new editorial effort by Figma: the Designer Q&A! In our Catalyst Series we ask notable designers what sparks their creativity juices like a Vitamix set to 11. Their chosen muses can be absolutely anything or anyone: graffiti, a short film, architecture, even a moment in history.

For our first installment, we asked Camellia Neri for five sources of inspiration that she draws upon while illustrating. (Pun most definitely intended.) Below are her answers.

Hello! My name is Camellia Neri and I’m a San Francisco-based Lead Illustrator at Gusto. You’ll find that most of my inspiration is related to things or places I experienced as a child. I’m always trying to recreate that nostalgia, and I believe that’s the same for most illustrators.

I grew up in Los Angeles County (a Southern California suburb) and I’m married to a tattoo artist, Ryan Neri. Together, we have two young cats. One of them has asthma.

Inspiration #1: Main Street, Disneyland

Main Street, USA, circa 1960 Photo courtesy of Tom Simpson

Because I grew up in LA County, my first memory of human existence involves Disneyland (of course!). I was 3-years-old and sitting on my father’s shoulders, watching a parade dance down Main Street. What struck me, even at that young age, was the attention to detail the street captured. Each fake storefront had windows shouting their wares with intricate gold leaf detailing. It obviously took a lot of time and craft to make it look like a real and relatable world.

Whenever I begin a new illustration I try to take the same approach of research and intention in order to make the story feel genuine.

Inspiration #2: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse

insert grumpy Grandpa voice

I don’t know what the kids are watching in 2018, but in my day we loved real kooky shit like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Seriously though, this show had it all. Comedy (R.I.P. Phil Hartman), quirkiness, life lessons, puppets, and INCREDIBLE artwork by animator Ric Heitzman, cartoonist Gary Panter, and painter Wayne White. Please check out the documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing that covers Wayne White’s career.

The show’s superpower was the unexpected. It was obvious that they had the parents in mind the whole time because there were SO many easter eggs woven throughout.

Some of the most successful illustrators I know do the unexpected. They interject their own little moments of delight, thus showing their personality and uniqueness — something I strive for every damn day.

Inspiration #3: The Los Angeles Museum of Natural History

If you’re a child living near LA then at some point you’re going to get dragged to the LA Museum of Natural History. To this day it remains my favorite museum of all time.

This is mainly because the museum’s multiple taxidermy dioramas always looked like huge 2D illustrations to me. Maybe you’re checking out a scene depicting the Serengeti: the lions, elephants, and zebras are all positioned in a story. A lion is eating a dead zebra and the elephants are cautiously watching. The diorama’s background is hand-painted in a color palette that represents the animals’ natural ecosystem. If it wasn’t for the formaldehyde it’s essentially a huge illustration.

These dioramas use the perfect color palette, lighting, and characters — dead animals in this case — to make for a fully packaged experience. I’m reminded of that attention to detail whenever I come across well-crafted landing pages with amazing storytelling, impactful visuals, and dynamic design in the exact same way.

Inspiration #4: The partnership of Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl

When I finally moved out of my childhood home and began my life as an apartment-renting adult, I gave away all of my childhood books. All of them except for anything written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Quentin illustrated nearly all of Roald Dahl’s books, classics such as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and my personal favorite, The Witches. While I loved Roald’s narrative whimsy, it was the pairing of Quentin’s illustrations that really sold the stories for me. Much like iconic film directors who consistently choose the same leading actors and actresses, it was the collective vision of both Roald and Quentin that brought to life the characters.

This is all to say that as an illustrator, the partnership you have with writers is comparable to a marriage. Choose yours wisely and when you find a good fit, make it a priority to nurture the relationship.

Inspiration #5: The hidden history of San Francisco

San Francisco is rich with hidden discoveries or nuggets (Gold Rush pun) of historical oddities. I’m addicted to learning these obscure facts just so I can reveal them at happy hour and impress my friends. I’m sure they’re sick of them by now.

In fact, I’m so obsessed that one of my side projects is a Medium blog in which I illustrate hidden history. For all posts, I use Figma to verify my illustrations are a singular brand.

It’s the job of an illustrator to imagine worlds that wouldn’t exist to the human eye otherwise. For example, with the buried ships of San Francisco, we’re not able to dig up the street and photograph the artifacts. Illustration plays such an important role in times like this — when photography can’t capture a moment.

Inspirations that didn’t make the top 5, but are definitely in my top 10:

Know a designer who would be perfect for this interview series, or better yet, is that designer you? Please email with your website/portfolio and whether you would be more interested in speaking on inspiration or your rad side-project.