How I Got Here: Dapo Adeola

The British-Nigerian illustrator and character designer talks about his break into the creative industries, his experiences with being pigeonholed, plus his plans for the future

British-Nigerian illustrator and designer Dapo Adeola became a household name after his book Look Up!, co-created with Nathan Bryon, became the number one debut picture book of 2019. Following the adventures of science-mad Rocket, Adeola has since created a sequel with Bryon, as well as illustrated several more books. He’s also built a loyal social following and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2020. 

This summer sees him publish the first children’s book he’s both illustrated and written. Hey You is set to be a “lyrical, inspirational exploration of growing up Black”. Adeola has also gathered the talents of some of the most exciting Black illustrators to help tell the story with their images.  

Here Adeola talks about the long journey he took to break into the industry, how he challenges stereotypes around race and gender in his characters, and the realities of still learning on the job. 

Top: Rocket with Jamal, ilustration from Look Up! Above: Rocket from Look Up! All images: Dapo Adeola

On his first experience of illustration I got into art and design, just purely from reading and an appreciation of the illustration in the books I read, and also from cartoons and video games. My earliest memory of actually drawing was at seven years old, when my best friends and I used to just draw our favourite cartoons and levels from our favourite video games. From there onwards, it was just a natural progression to comics, comic book art, anime and all the usual stuff that gets people into this.

On not going down the conventional route I studied graphic design and advertising at a higher education institute at Croydon College. They were teaching the University of Sussex degree there, but we didn’t have all the extra bits that you get if you were to actually study at the university. [The course] was completely different to anything illustration related. So I was the kid in class that used to tailor all my briefs to allow me to illustrate. I didn’t actually pass, because I spent a significant amount of time doing the opposite of the course. 

I’ve since come to understand higher education a bit better, and that’s not what should have happened. If they had seen me illustrating for the first and second year, they should have given me some sort of pointer or direction that I was on the wrong course. But you know, that wasn’t in their interest to do that, they were more concerned with getting bums on seats.