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Illustration of a child at the beach, parasols, orange sky.

Dala Minh Hieu on pursuing his dreams of illustrating children’s books – “I do not compromise with convention”

I was born and raised in a poor town where everyone contended with social stigmas. I always questioned ‘why?’ yet found no answers that satisfied my curiosity. Upon relocating to the UK, I realised that these issues are not confined to my homeland alone but are global in nature. I want to advocate for global issues and culture via my illustration.


When my mum was pregnant with me, she drew a lot for a competition at the school she was teaching. Between the ages of six and 15, I joined the competition for students every year and won some prizes. When I entered high school, I wanted to go to art school, but my parents believed that business school would be a better choice for me. I obeyed them and gave my best efforts to get the offer from one of the highest ranked universities in my country.

After graduating with a merit degree, I worked in marketing and advertising for almost six years. Along with my dedication and efforts, I was promoted to a creative planning manager position two years ago. A higher position also means higher responsibility. My life at that time was like an endless loop, and I hadn’t drawn anything for years. I had also forgot what my childhood dream was, until a client asked me about what I dreamed of – suddenly I started to remember what I dreamed of when I was 17. After 10 years, for the second time, I wanted to fulfil my dream with illustrations.

I have to say, my experience at AUB has been fierce and amazing at the same time. I’ve taken advantage of the facilities, and the course totally changed my mindset, my approach to art, my style and my audience.

I do not compromise with convention. Normally, when I approach a problem, brief, or statement, I let my thoughts go with the flow first, and I ask myself questions like, “How many possibilities could there be?” and “Conventionally, how people will approach and tackle this?”

After that, I try to think differently and go against conventions. Among the possibilities in terms of composition, colours and rhythm, I pick the best and the most suitable after asking for feedback from professional practitioners.

I used to feel self-deprecated because I didn’t have an arts degree or any professional experience, and now I’ve gained more confidence since I believe that practice make perfect. From an artist going crazy with my use of colour negatively, to focusing on using colour more effectively and capturing the attention of viewers, I feel so grateful about this chance I’ve had.

I’m a workaholic. I decided to give up my dream job to pursue and fulfil what I’ve not done since I was 17. I didn’t want to let anything disrupt my study. Within two units, I finished seven major projects, not including single pieces. These involved narratives and works for the Green Fashion exhibition in London and so forth. However, the most time-consuming and effort-requiring project must be my children book Noah Finds a Forest in the Sea.

The inspiration for this story struck me five years ago while I was sitting on the beach, marvelling at the beauty of the sea. I observed a little girl collecting empty bottles around her, and her act of kindness stayed with me long after. Back then, I shared the title of the book on my Vietnamese Instagram account, making a promise to myself to complete it someday. I firmly believe that when you make a promise, the universe conspires to help you fulfil it. I could never have imagined that I would end up studying at an arts university and illustrating this book.

As a copywriter at the time, I returned home and contemplated a plot based on what I had witnessed. However, my skills back then were not sufficient to craft a lengthy story, especially a children's book. Now, there are no more excuses – it’s time for me to fully execute this idea. Through this storybook, I aim to convey the message that by keeping our beaches clean, we can also keep our oceans clean.

I thought up the story of a girl named Noah. She wishes to go to the beach and sea when she turns four, and when her dream comes true, she can’t hide her excitement — she loses her parents and sits at the lifeguard hut. She realises that there is no forest here, except for the forest of littering. She decides to make the beach clean by collecting the empty bottles surrounding her. Others see her act of kindness and join her to clean the beach. And when her parents find her, they are so proud of her that her mum says there may be no forest in the sea, but there must be a seed of kindness growing up in her.

I was ambitious when, during the second unit, I signed up to four projects via my Course Leader and these were completed at the last minute within one month. I had to test different compositions, colours, swatches and text placements to find the best ones and after that, I also got a lot of feedback from international authors and illustrators in terms of children's books to add and remove unnecessary pages. At that time, I was extremely stressed, but my Course Leader told me I could leave it until third unit if I couldn’t complete it. However, I wanted to wrap everything up and finally I completed it.

Right after second unit, I saw the Green Futures Competition and found the brief totally matching with my projects. Hence, I submitted it as my entry for this competition and luckily, I was shortlisted.

Besides illustrations, sometimes I make films with acting roles as a scriptwriter. I won Best Film in a filmmaking competition – I built a story about colours and meanings that people don’t usually associate with them, like how white doesn’t only represent purity. It’s the best way to demonstrate what we’ve undergone – scars we have from the past. And no matter what colour you are, it’s totally different from others.

In the near future, I still want to be a narrative and packaging illustrator. In the far future, I want to be an art director or a creative director. I want to use my skills and creativity to illustrate kindness to spread all around the world.

Something to think about

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