Making Chester seem cool and contemporary is all in a day’s work for one of Liverpool’s most exciting graphic designers – you think it’s only the cast who are wheeled on to Hollyoaks to make the sets look pretty? In reality, it’s the deft touches of designers like Sara Cullen that transform the wonky sound stages into the aspirational cradles of infidelity and intrigue we’ve come to (almost) believe are set in the fictional Chester suburb.

In Hollyoaks land, aspirational magazines, coffee bars and alcohol fuel most of the plot lines. And that’s a helluva lot of  fake brands to conjure up. And pinball machines, come to that. But there’s far more substance to Cullen’s CV than soap operas…

You have an unusual job – tell us about it.

Working in television is different everyday, the deadlines are really tight and you have to work at a really fast pace. The job is mainly background props such as newspapers and magazines and the aim is to design them so they aren’t distracting to the viewer.

You get an opportunity to cover every area of design from a can of soup to re-branding a shop though I’m more interested in the illustration side so my favourite briefs are book covers.

What’s your favouritest/most challenging/unusual thing you’ve designed?

The most challenging unusual and favourite brief on Hollyoaks has to be a Pinball redesign; it was a lovely old 60s pinball machine which was restored and I re-designed the light up acetate. Outside Hollyoaks I was invited to pitch for a brief by M&C Saatchi for the Royal National Deaf Institute

They chose me as they felt my illustrations had an innocent side and they wanted me to create a harsh illustration, but in an innocent way which worked well with my colour palette.

What media would you love to work on if the world was your oyster (TV/advertising/music/editorial anything)?

I would love to illustrate book covers, especially children’s books. Penguin are the elite, I’d love to illustrate for them. Title sequences and music videos I really like aswell.

I take inspiration mainly from the 1950s. Whilst working on my MA I researched 1950s children’s books – I really like the simplicity of the work of that period and it’s idealistic nature. The colour palettes are always innocent and the visual language is very direct – and easy to read and understand.

How would you characterise your own work? Do you have a style? There seem to be lots of 20th century themes in there – or is it just a case of fulfilling a brief?

I definitely try and stick to a style, always for freelance work, as I think it’s important that it benefits and is fulfilling for me as well as the client.

Whilst at Hollyoaks, I worked on a show for Nickelodeon called House of Anubis, I really got a chance to stamp my style on this show as I was on it from the start. It was based on a boarding school in England, so I watched a lot of Harry Potter and The Worst Witch, and researched Egyptian styles.

Whose stuff do you admire in your field?

Out of contemporary designers and illustrators I really like Jessica Hische, she’s a brilliant all rounder and seems to have a really unique and fun approach to each brief. Jim Tierney who works for Penguin has the same kind of approach.

When creating my Woodland Animal Series Charley Harper is the king of clean simple animal drawings. Over the years I’ve always looked at Harry Wingfield and Hannah Hoch.

What’s your favourite font?

My favourite fonts at the moment are Caviar Dreams, and Market Deco.

Give us five things you love for their visuals…

Stranger than Fiction, Noah and the Whale’s “First Days of Spring”, Virgin Suicides, A Clockwork Orange, TV Madmen and Boardwalk Empire

What’s your career path up until this point – how easy is to set up as a freelance graphic artist/designer?

I think it’s really difficult at the moment, I’d like to move into illustration further, and I’m finding it hard to accomplish that. I enjoy graphic design and illustration, so I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can learn and build up skills as well as freelancing.

If I was starting out I would do a lot a placements, enter competitions, get yourself online, use all the tools such as twitter and blogging to make you known to the industry. It can be hard getting a lot of knock backs, but it’s a real test to see if you really want to carry on that career path.

Were you always artistic?

Yes, I loved art at school, I found a report I wrote when I was about 12 years old saying I wanted to be a graphic designer, I’m not sure I even knew what it was then, but I also love music, films, history and architecture, I think they all are helpful to be aware of whilst growing up.

Tell us about the comics/novels/picyure books you surely designed as a child..surely you did!

I remember being obsessed with and re-creating theme park maps whenever we went out for the day, apart from that I would draw family members and characters, I really wanted to be an animator when I was young.

And what of the animal portraits? Tell us about your shop and what you’re selling…

I started a project creating woodland animals as I wanted to have a continuous brief for myself to work on at night / weekends. I liked the idea of creating a real detailed close up of the animals face, and that became the common composition.

I suppose it came from working at such a fast pace in the day, it was nice to go home and really concentrate and spend time on some illustrations I could be proud of. They will be the first of many, the next set will be ‘Preditors VS Prey’ which I hope to exhibit.

Tell us what you love about Liverpool.

I love the ‘old man’ pubs and the ales. Peter Kavanaghs is my favourite. I love the architecture, and that I can afford to live in a building which has so much history and character.

You can buy Sara’s new Woodland Animal collection now, online, at a mere £30 a pop, the perfect Springwatch companion pieces.

Cat and Fox Adventures

  • Patricia Onyia

    I love the simplicity and reality of the style. So Janet and John.