Graphic designer and art director Malaya Velazquez Saldaña on unapologetically carving her own lane in the design world and encouraging women of color to firmly embrace who they are.

Photo by cait opperman for metropolis magazine

SHEER: Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from.

MALAYA VELAZQUEZ SALDAÑA: My name is Malaya Velasquez Saldaña. My first name means "the one who has Freedom" in Tagalog, that came from my mom. While she was a teen, she was part of the progressive people power movement and was shot at by Marcos era cops. She made it very known to me that it was important to keep my full name as it was, I am one of the few people in my family with a Tagalog first name and no nicknames. I was born in NYC in Beth Isreal Hospital downtown and being a New Yorker is probably the most comfortable label I can identify with. Other identifications are important but personally or maybe just at the moment, they feel a bit narrow/wide, like words I can't fully comprehend yet. So for the time being my name, its origins and my birth place are things I can say are solidly part of my identity.

SHEER: How would you describe the influence of your cultural background and upbringing on your work?

MVS: Well I guess I will preface this answer by defining or like trying to understand what my work is. I feel like generally when someone says "your work" there's this underpinning of it being creative work, or an extension of self. But I will say that most of my work right now is not an accurate extension of my self expression and I am okay with that. I mean if we define work being how we make money and how we spend the larger portion of our waking life, I am a designer. I think the underpinning of my work is currently treating it like work. I don't believe that doing what you love for money is ~freedom — controversial I know. I feel like that saying is a mirage used to make us work harder, and longer, for cheaper. I mean money is money and what I do for that is, what I got to do; and coming from a working class background that is something difficult to forget. Freedom is sacred, expansive, and for everyone. For it to be the definition of a method which just rests on a fact that most people must work, cheapens freedom. Because there's really nothing that sacred about work via that definition in this era of absolute capitalism.

That understanding reminds me that I am connected to workers and we are all workers to different degrees, nothing makes me special for being a creative cognitive worker. I told my dad the other day sometimes I feel like a professional gift wrapper, and felt happy about it.

On the other hand, I know I am privileged to be a designer. I've always been observant to a certain degree and tried to find beauty where I could, and design is like that. Trying to squeeze something, to look at ingredients with some sort of end purpose and make it move in that direction. Definitely the resourcefulness of my family inspires me to do that through work, to repurpose what you got into something beautiful and useful. So I am grateful I know how to make a thing, and make it beautiful. On occasion I am proud of the work I do because I can look back and know how I spent my day.

SHEER: What inspired you to pursue graphic design professionally?

MVS: I guess it was the people who were doing graphic design professionally I really was down for. Early on I had my godfather who was a real guiding force for me when my family and I were going through things. He really held me down and I admired him for that. He was a graphic designer. My step dad showed me graphic design programs when I was younger, he used design and made signs and greeting cards and would let me play on photoshop and I really enjoyed seeing things get made from start to finish. Then in college, I was doubling in architecture and graphic design in college when I more or less fell into doing more graphic design. I had really cool professors and mentors; they were instrumental in making me see it was a viable profession. Around the same time, a really good friend of mine Bianca Mackill and I started making graphic design projects for fun, and I was promoting parties at the time a bit which led to what became our joint design and event studio, Studio Six Point Six. Again, I think it was a mix of enjoying making things and knowing I could do it for money, and seeing people I thought were good people doing it made it easy for me to be like -- yeah this seems like a solid idea.

The other aspect is in a weird way wanting to be better at things I wasn't great at. I used to have a hard time being specific when I was growing up and I think both architecture and graphic design has taught me to be more disciplined in specificity and follow through. I could see myself getting better at something while I was at school and learning other designers I looked up to and it felt good. So choosing design too was choosing something that was challenging and rewarding. More a growth than a comfort decision.

CR Studio Website Project under NR2154, Taken in L.A. Home Studio by Wil Fry

SHEER: What inspired the creation of Studio Six Point Six?

MVS: The Studio created itself in our junior/senior year of college when we were already doing these things for fun outside of class work. It was a way again to affirm we could make things, which was empowering and then when applied to these events / parties we would throw it was fun too. I lived for the parties back then; so half of it was designing for the event and the second half was putting the event to together and all that. I liked to have a good time! ;)

SHEER: How would you describe your style of work and where do you primarily draw inspiration from?

MVS: I've worked with a lot luxury clients in the last couple of years. When I was starting out of college, I did projects centered more around culture, editorial projects, and personal projects. I do my best to do what is at hand using learned technical skills, but stylistically the end product is more determined by what the goal of the project is, rather than my personal style. I will say that drawing inspiration with context; like understanding why you choose a typeface or an image treatment outside of aesthetic approximation, has some merit. I am scared that the internet and our visual vernacular is going to be dictated by an internet atmosphere that is basically derivative of screenshots from one of the four oligarch internet deities and we are in a sad echo chamber of our own making. Like I can't tell what people are trying to sell me anymore, is it wellness juice, is it baby clothing, is it an app, is it an erectile dysfunction pill? I'd like to contribute to the diversity of visual vernacular if I can.

"Out of the Blue Collage Design, Production and Creative Direction with Bianca Mackill at Studio Six Point Six"

SHEER: What are some challenges you've faced as a woman of color in the graphic design and art direction world?

MVS: I think one was being able to realize once I got older that I deserve to be in spaces that were once really foreign to me and stand up straight and confidently and be like I am really here and I really deserve to be here. It was an uphill thing for me to remind myself I was just as worthy to be in certain spaces despite having no one else in that room with shared experiences and having the confidence to say this is what I thought was good. I feel like I am reaching that place now but it wasn't easy, it was definitely practice. To be more specific, this manifested in the struggle of finding a firm voice to speak from, that wasn’t coming from an apologetic place (I'm sorry to bother you... this may be a silly idea... etc) or coming from a chip on the shoulder, angry place is an accomplishment for me.

Another is learning to cope with uncomfortable experiences surrounding your identity. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath when people say insensitive or problematic things because I know they just haven't had the same life experiences as me. There will always be weird comments about people trying to "place" me racially which is very annoying. I realize now that I am allowed to decline answering the epically boring “Where are you from, no but where are you really from?” question, when it comes from a place of "othering" me; by telling someone I am not comfortable answering that question, or that I don't know. It’s not anyone’s business if you don't want to talk about it, because 90% of the time I know if I was white they wouldn't be asking me where I was from.

Created with Metropolis team.

SHEER: Are there any other forms of art you would like to experiment with outside of your current disciplines? Why?

MVS: Writing, because I’ve had a lot on my mind and feel it would be good to have that concentrated thought in a form I can share it with others, even if it’s just for the sake of conversation and connection.

SHEER: What advice do you have for women of color pursuing careers in graphic design and art direction?

MVS: Being a woman of color, you'll realize not everyone you work with has shared experiences but it doesn't mean that because of this you have something to prove. Your presence speaks volumes and you've done enough and you don't have to compensate for your differences, your perspective is just as valuable if not more.

Also make time for your mental health! You deserve to find your personal moment when encountering workplace / career related feelings of frustration or others ignorance / intolerance. Take a deep breath and decide for yourself if its worth expending emotional energy, or giving someone a free education on your own time. Sometimes it is definitely crucial to speak up and not allow something to move forward that is clearly problematic, but other times there are interactions that aren't worthy of your energy. It's something I've had to process. Finding a personal moment, walking outside, taking a break, venting to friends in a supportive group chat has saved me headaches and probably money. Don't let annoying, boring people or situations put you out your bag. Some things don't deserve your anger or time!

Also if you're a women of color pursuing careers in GD / AD reach out to me<3 Community is important and Spirit knows theres not enough of us out here. Our perspectives are important, unique and also are for US.

I know I must have sounded a little cynical in this interview but its 2019! How can one not feel that way and live with their eyes open at the same time? That being said I feel like the imagination of people with an under-amplified public point of view is crucial to moving forward. Design won't save the world, but imagining a different future than the one created by the current over-amplified points of view of wealthy white men may help.

Check out more of Malaya’s work and where to follow her below.