An interview with Emma Rogan - Creativity, Resilience, New Beginnings

By Tara Ranchhod

Do you know about the NZ graphic designer who inspired thousands of people around the globe to get creative? From 2011 to 2018, the ‘100 Days Project’ saw over 5000 people from all over the world enjoying something vital: Doing something creative for 100 consecutive days. In 2012 project pioneer Emma Rogan took to the TEDxAuckland stage to explain more. Unbeknownst to the audience, she was tackling some tremendous issues at the time. We sat down with Emma to find out more.

Since TEDxAuckland 2012, you’ve done a great deal, both in New Zealand and abroad. Looking back, how would you best describe your TEDx experience? How did you feel on the day? And why was it important to you?

2012 was a really profound year for me! The ‘100 Days Project’ had gained a lot of traction quite quickly, which took me by surprise. At first I said no to doing a talk for TEDx — it just seemed too intimidating. Organisers Vaughn and Elliott asked me to reconsider; I think they recognised that the ‘100 Days Project’ was something special, and worth talking about.

On the day, despite my fears, I felt such a positive response from the audience. The TEDx crowd is so brilliant and attentive! Mine wasn’t a perfect delivery - I was extremely nervous, and had a mental blank midway through - but afterwards I was relieved and grateful that I had been given an opportunity to share the project. Later, once the video was up online, it became a much bigger thing. It really opened the project up to a much larger audience, and the response showed me how much the ideas I shared resonated with people. 

Tell us more about the criteria for choosing the projects on which you work. 

With design projects, sometimes it’s an opportunity in the work itself that is exciting, other times it’s the relationship I have with a client or peer, and I am committed to helping them.

After working in studios and agencies for about 16 years, I decided to try working as an independent designer for a while. Working for myself has been both liberating and helpful to our family. It has lead to interesting opportunities, like opening a restaurant [Hello Beasty in Viaduct Harbour, Auckland], an exhibition of my paintings, and more varied design projects.

The 100 Days Project began when I’d gotten to a certain point in my career where I wasn’t learning at the same pace anymore. I’d gained a lot of knowledge, and was left wondering “what’s next?” I recognised that I was denying a part of me that wanted personal creative expression, unconnected to work. The project gave me a framework to challenge myself and a sense of community when I invited others to join in too. On its own, the 100 Days Project is a formidable task, but when shared with others, it can be manageable and even creatively liberating.

Is the 100 Days Project something you’ll revisit again in NZ? If so, what would you do differently?

I ran the project for 7 years, and after the TEDx talk it really blew up. It went from 100-200 people a year participating in it with me, to over 1700. With the success came new challenges — it  became expensive and hard to find the capacity to administer it, as well as supporting everyone taking part. You then ask yourself questions like: Do you want to monetise it? Do you need sponsors? Or does the community support it? I went through a lot of trial and error over the years figuring out how to run the project in a way that felt right to me. 

One year I didn’t run it because I was exhausted, but then I really missed it. It’s an enjoyable act of service, a way of facilitating other people’s creativity. 

When we decided to get serious about opening our restaurant, Hello Beasty, I couldn’t split my energy between both things. I don’t know if I will run it again. I love how there’s a whole bunch of ‘100 dayers’ in NZ and the UK who are still doing it for themselves. I feel like I’ve gone full circle with the project. It confirmed to me that creativity exists as a human instinct, and for many is a basic need.  

Given that the 100 Days Project has been so widespread, how did you measure success? 

I actually felt a bit bad about the project for a while, because although it was hugely successful in terms of how many people came to participate in it, and the Day 100 Shows were really well-attended, it was never a financial success. 

Initially it cost me quite a bit of money to build the website to help facilitate the thousands of projects, and required more of my time than I had anticipated. A lot of people kept telling me different things like “go overseas, take it on a speaking tour”. I think many saw an opportunity for me to monetise the project, and make my life all about it. It seemed many people assumed that finding sponsorship for the project would be easy too, but that was not my experience.

It was all well-meaning advice, but ultimately it was not what I wanted to do. It took me a long time to come to terms with all the different opinions and advice I had received, and to finally understand that it was okay to keep it simple, keep it quite grassroots. It was okay not to keep scaling it or turn it into a profit-making business.

Markers of success for me remain about the high levels of participation, and the quality of the creative work produced by every ‘hundred dayer’. Over 5,000 people from over 40 countries have taken part in the project. The work produced by participants has been truly incredible. It has broadened my own sense of what creativity is and can be. 

One year, we had the Auckland show, and the next day I flew down to help set up the Wellington show. That night, I stayed up till 2am so that I could Skype call the show in Amsterdam, and they showed me what they’d done — it was just wonderful. There have been shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Gisborne, Nelson and Edinburgh too. Given that I was also a participant, all the time I was challenging myself with this very intense creative undertaking alongside everyone else — and that has been important for me personally. It has helped my professional work, and has been a foundation for my personal work.

How does your partnership work with your husband Stu, with whom you created your restaurant? What is your process for working together?

Stu is a very committed chef, I’ve never met anyone who can work like him — he’s very resilient, and he never compromises the quality of his work. He’s caring too, and his food is an expression of that care. As a designer, I admire that very much. It helps that I have worked in hospitality before - that’s how we met - and that we each have quite well-defined skill sets. 

We decided to sell our house to raise the capital we needed to open the restaurant. This was a turning point for me, as owning a house had previously been very important, and letting go of that security felt quite scary. However, once we were ‘all in’ financially, things progressed quickly. 

I think Stu had waited for me to get to the point where I could comprehend exchanging our house for a restaurant! In the months that followed, we created ground-rules for working together, as issues came up. We talk through everything, we share all our communications, we’ve been pretty open with each other if we’re feeling unsure about anything. Part of our process of working together is to have good advisors on-hand for the big financial decisions — there are a few people who we go to when we need to sense-check our thinking.

The design process for branding the restaurant was difficult for me, it was so personal. Ugh! I would share my workings with him, and he’d very patiently look at the latest visuals, think a bit and say “keep going.” And I knew he was right. He never meddled with the process or tried to instruct me on specifics though, which was great. When I got stuck, I turned to a few key creative partners for help.

How do you approach food creatively?

The idea of fusionhas become quite important to me. It’s been a useful way to frame up my own existence as a person of multicultural, multi-ethnic heritage, as well as a way to think about the cuisine itself. 

The food we’re interested in is what we’re excited to eat, what we’re inspired by, and to us it’s very much a reflection of our place in the world. Not everyone in the food industry likes the term ‘fusion’ — for some it suggests ‘confusion’, or it comes loaded with the politics of appropriation, which I can appreciate too. For me, fusion is happening in food, culture, art, and life all the time, all over the world. Fusion food for me is an inclusive way of thinking about how food changes and evolves as people migrate and change.

At Hello Beasty, we’re creating contemporary New Zealand food informed by Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisines. We’re thoughtful about how we do that, and how we bring Stuart’s classical European training into play with some of our local cuisines and ingredients. For some dishes we honour the tradition - there’s a way to do a good dumpling, we don’t mess with that - and then other dishes are more expressive of fusion, such as our take on a cauliflower dish that’s dressed in Korean gochujang in a non-traditional way. 

Being respectful and authentic to ourselves is a big part of what we’re doing. We’re trying to honour good food. We’re also observant of international trends — and a kind of ‘new fusion’ style of cuisine that started to emerge internationally about 10 years ago. Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisines are now part of our everyday in NZ. For us, this cuisine style is a reflection of Auckland’s incredibly dynamic population. We’re trying to do it in a way that’s genuinely delicious, well executed, and a pleasure to eat.  

A huge focus for Kiwis right now is the environment, and food waste is a big part of that. How should we approach sustainable practices?

The margins are really tight for making the business work. Waste costs money. Running our kitchen — the ordering process, usage and wastage are measured constantly. Ultimately we’re trying to minimise as much waste as possible.

Most small operators like us are probably not very wasteful at all when it comes to food. We can adjust our stock levels quickly and relatively easily as needed.

We work with the seasons and with good suppliers. Being independent means we can change our menu when we want to, and we often do it in response to the available fresh produce. We’ve also done things like sourced natural chopsticks that are reusable, with reusable paper sleeves, which we recycle in-house. We recycle our menus. We are about to participate in a composting initiative here in Viaduct Harbour, and eventually we will have access to a shared garden too. 

Looking forward into the future, what kind of impact would you like to have on the world?   

For me, it is very personal and very much about my children. If our kids can go out into the world and like who they are, be healthy, happy, and thoughtful adults, and if I’ve helped support them as a parent, then that’s the impact I would like to have had. 

I have suffered from PTSD as a result of traumatic experiences as a child, and have had therapy as an adult to recover from them. That therapy was actually happening at the same time that I was rehearsing to give the talk at TEDxAuckland in 2012. It was excruciatingly difficult at times to manage both processes, and part of me wanted to hide away from the world. When I look back, it’s obvious that the work of creative self-expression was very much linked to this healing therapy I needed to do. The TEDx talk was an opportunity to better understand just how important the 100 Days Project was by forcing me to figure out and articulate why I had created it in the first place. 

It was a chance to undertake significant creative work and to push myself beyond the constraints of my everyday. It is a little, every day, that builds up to a significant body of work by day 100. For many hundred dayers, the project has been a way to reconnect and restart a creative practice again, or to hone skills in a rigorous way. I know that it has lead many people to more fulfilling creative lives, as it has done for me. That’s been an unexpected but very satisfying outcome, and is something I am proud of.

To find out more about Emma Rogan, visit her website. 

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