'I was able to write half my book in Korea, attend a wedding in the Bahamas, and finish the book in Mexico'


Q&A:CHRIS HAUGHTON Illustrator, fair trade activist and award-winning children's author

You’re originally from Killiney.I studied graphic design in NCAD and graduated in 2001 – which, for a web designer, was about the worst year possible to leave college. The dot.com bubble had just burst, so there were no jobs. A few friends and I ended up going to Hong Kong to teach English for a year. I got into illustration over there and ended up doing a few ad campaigns.

You settled in London.I got a job in Studio AKA, just making the tea really, but that was my foot in the door. I started to get illustration work with the Guardian, The Irish Timesand Caramagazine. Newspapers tend to turn to illustrators when the subject matter is impossible to photograph. It could be an abstract business trend or Web 2.0 or connectivity.

Were you ever handed an assignment that completely confounded you?Of course. Sometimes I’d read an article and have no idea what it was about, let alone how to illustrate it. I was once asked to illustrate an article about the “knowledge economy”. I didn’t really understand what that was. Eventually I came up with the idea of a farmer growing a field of light bulbs.

Tell us about your involvement with People Tree.People Tree is a fair trade company that works with producer groups in the Third World making clothing, stationery and gifts. We design the products and sell them around the world. The producer groups are usually women’s shelters or groups of disabled people and we work to what these people can make.

Aren’t there any disadvantaged Third World designers?There are some wonderful artists and artisans but stuff they make wouldn’t sell in the western market. It’s a different aesthetic. Plus, some of our biggest sellers are things like handwoven kitchen sets. Nobody in Nepal uses a kitchen set. How could someone design a kitchen glove when they’ve never even seen one?

While you were in Kathmandu, you also gave workshops to university art students.Yes, it was originally intended as a short visit. But, as a freelance illustrator, I can work from anywhere. So I decided to stay on for a few months. Very few people in Nepal can afford to go to university, and those who can would usually opt for a more practical qualification. So my students would have been very much the elite. They would not have been that different from their counterparts in Ireland.

I always thought of illustrators as mild-mannered men who live in cottages. But you turn up in more places than James Bond.Well, technology has changed everything. Ten years ago, when I worked for D‘Sidemagazine in Dublin, I had to hand deliver drawings to their offices. Now, thanks to technology, I was able to write half my book in Korea, attend my cousin’s wedding in the Bahamas, then finish the book in Mexico, because it’s cheaper there. Meanwhile, I continue to contribute illustrations to publications in London whose staff probably don’t even know that I’m abroad.

You must be constantly at the mercy of dodgy internet connections.Broadband is widely available now, but of course there will still be those moments when you find yourself racing around in a taxi in the middle of the night looking for a four-star hotel that might have a working internet connection.

Tell us about your book, ‘A Bit Lost’.It’s about an owl who falls out of his tree and wanders around the forest looking for his mother. The idea came while I was teaching English to very small children in Hong Kong. I was a glorified babysitter really – but I learned how to entertain children.

It’s beautiful to look at, almost like a lino-cut.Yes, a lino-cut or a paper-cut. A lot of people say that. Although it was done on computer, I wanted to do it in the style of those classic 1950s illustrators I admire. The shapes were always simpler then, because in those days printing was so much more difficult and that really goes with my aesthetic.

Finally, you won gold at the AOI Best of British Illustration Awards. Congratulations, I assume you’ll be renouncing your citizenship here.No, you see I’m a member of the Association of Illustrators “in” Britain. It’s open to anyone who is British or works for a British publisher. I’m working for Walker Books, so that’s why I’m eligible. I’m not renouncing my citizenship!