Designer Profile: Ozora Onuki, Experiential Designer - Montreal


Hey Ozora! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a Brazilian and Japanese experiential interior designer. I develop brand experiences such as events, activations, and pop-ups. I am currently based in Montreal and work as a freelancer, but I am on the road almost half of the time since I can make my own schedule and work remotely while traveling. I just booked a trip to Europe for three weeks because tickets were $230.

What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I studied Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati - DAAP. We had an amazing program that allowed students to have five semesters of internships, and I took full advantage of that by taking jobs in New York, Switzerland, and Croatia. After graduating, I worked at Pink Sparrow, an experiential design agency and fabrication shop in Brooklyn. Through these experiences, I developed the connections and portfolio to be able to find my own work.

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What led you to start working in experiential design? What do you love about it?
Experiential is an industry that has grown exponentially in the last few years, with not enough designers to fill the demand. This means I was leading my own projects from the get-go, which was very empowering as a young designer. 

What I love about it is that it’s dynamic and fast-paced, and it constantly challenges me. It’s a real adrenaline rush when you have to problem-solve, juggling the objectives of the project, the realities of budget and timeline, and still deliver a beautiful design. There are so many moving parts, and a lot can go wrong at the last minute. It’s incredibly satisfying when you overcome a crisis and pull off a project that wows the audience. It’s kind of addictive.

I also enjoy that most of these activations are made for millennials like me, so when I am designing it, I can ask myself: would this experience compel my friends and I to buy this product? It’s a tangible answer.

When you started creating experiences, were you working for a company or for yourself? How did you transition into freelancing in experiential design?
I started doing experiential during my internships, first at Brigada and later Pink Sparrow, where I worked full time post-graduation. After my US work visa expired, I felt that I had enough connections and experience to freelance, so I moved to Montreal where I had friends and living is more affordable, and started working from home. Most of my clients are people that I developed good relationships with while working together in the past, and people who reach out because they saw my profile on LinkedIn.

How does the process start off between you and a brand? Then what does your creative process look like?
It starts with a review of the objectives of the event: is their goal to have people share content on social media, try a product, or learn about the brand? From there, we brainstorm for a few different concepts using mood boards. Sometimes the client has a very clear vision of what they want, but more often they are relying on me to present something that will impress them. I do a lot of research into the brand, and draw inspiration from design history books, fashion, and popular culture. After we have a concept, I will model the space in 3D, and consult with the fabricator to determine how it will be built. 

I will usually be there through the installation, art directing and prop styling so no detail is missed. It’s fun to stick around for a drink and observe how people are interacting with the space.

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Do you have a favorite project you've worked on?
My favorite project was an event for CNN and their subsidiary Great Big Story at SXSW. They were two events happening parallel to each other, with GBS being a fun house full of wild photo moments that showcased their videos, and CNN being the stage for talks with David Axelrod and Christiane Amanpour. I tuned into The Axe Files the next day, which is one of my favorite podcasts, and felt very relevant listening to Obama’s Senior Advisor interviewing his speech writer discussing current politics on the stage that I designed. They even made a joke about how branded the space was. 

Why do you think it's important for businesses to create real life experiences for their customers and community?
Consumers have become very selective about where they spend their money, and brands have been struggling to engage with them through traditional advertising. Being able to interact with brands in real life is how we understand their narrative, and if we identify with it, we will post about it on social media and share with friends. A well executed experiential campaign benefits the user as well as the brand. 

Do you have a dream collaboration?
I would love to work with some high fashion brands, where spaces can be very conceptual and artistic. Prada has put on some amazing experiential spaces, and Virgil Abloh’s pop-ups for Louis Vuitton are beautifully immersive. 

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What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face?
This is a common thread with creatives, but handling the business side of my work is the biggest challenge I face. I struggle to keep track of sending invoices and following up on payment. And when I have to file my taxes, it’s a complete mess! 

What are some of your short/long term goals?
Short term, I want to take on more jobs with brands that I personally believe in and support. Long term, I would like to build up my experience lecturing, and eventually teach part-time. I did a couple of lectures back home in Japan, and it’s really fun to talk to students who have such a fresh take on design. 

At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Women are often faced with more challenges than men while trying to achieve success. By supporting each other, we do our part in leveling the playing field. 

I owe so much to the female mentors who took me under their wing when I needed guidance. And to all the women who stuck by me and supported me through the difficult moments I went through in the workplace and personal life. I do my best to return the favor. 

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We have a series called Purchase from Women - what women owned businesses are you encouraging with your dollars?
I spend a lot of my dollars on products from Soko Glam (beauty), Margaux (shoes), and The Nue Co. (supplements). I became familiar with these brands through working with them in the past, and not only are their products amazing, but they are led by super-smart, super-talented women I admire. In Montreal, La Montrealaise and Les Étoffes are my go-to boutique shops. 

What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Since I moved to Montreal, I have been trying to learn French. Everybody here speaks English so it’s hardly an immersive environment, but I have made good progress!

What are some of your favorite places in Montreal?
I love my neighborhood of Mile End. There’s a lot of cozy bars, restaurants, and boutique shops. I recommend walking the alleyways between each block for a peek into the beautiful backyards, going to Aire Commune for happy hour, Henrietta for cocktails, La Montrealaise and Les Étoffes for shopping, and Datcha for dancing. And when it’s warm, taking a picnic and a bottle of wine from the SAQ to the park.

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