My personal design story.

naomi marie
6 min readAug 28, 2017


In my senior thesis class, our professors asked us one question “If you could do one thing tomorrow, what would it be?” We all came up with very literal answers and had no idea if we needed to design something. But the next class, our professors said, “try again” and we had a few more days. I decided then, if I could do one thing tomorrow, I would struggle.

This was about 8 years before #thestruggleisreal came into existence, but as the only minority in my West-Michigan class, and as probably the only student from a low-income household. I knew what struggling was. Actually, it was all I knew. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, when it was the “Murder Capital” of the world. Sleeping with the sounds of gunshots and sirens was the only way of life. I grew up in a three-bedroom house, there were nine people and one toilet… #thestruggleisreal

At the time, I didn’t realize that we were living in poverty, because I hadn’t really seen anything else, except on TV. It was these experiences that have kept me humble. Because I never forgot where I came from. That compelled me to answer my professor’s question the way I did.

I graduated a few months later; I was six months into a paid internship, had my own apartment and was really feeling like I could do anything! Then the rescission happened. I was laid-off from that internship, and I knew things were bad around the country. Feeling like I’d lost everything, I realized I hadn’t even begun to live yet! So, I moved back to Gary, because it was home, and I could afford to live there. I got into a relationship. He suffered from PTSD from serving in the US Army and fighting overseas. I wasn’t a working designer. In fact, I was doing free or very cheap design work just to keep my portfolio up to date — which isn’t the way to go about things. This part of life ended with me in the hospital. I am a survivor of domestic abuse, and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not something that I talk about a lot, but hearing my story is something I know other people could benefit from. I would like to work on an awareness campaign for PTSD or domestic violence in the future. I feel like that could become another way to heal, and help others.

Maybe it was laying in the hospital bed, maybe it was because I was back in Gary, but I felt like I’d gone backwards — like I had recessed? I decided I needed to get away and start over. I really wanted to do design, but there was just nothing left for me where I was. So, I moved to California and was able to live with my aunt and her family. After working a few months at Subway as a “Sandwich Artist,” not the design job I had in mind, I started at a small design agency in Orange County, California. When I moved on, I had a contract at a division of GE Healthcare. And I remember that interview process. The hiring manager liked me, but she didn’t think I had enough experience. I had a two-year gap in my resume and my portfolio was mostly student work. And I had grown personally, but I lacked some technical abilities. Words from my advertising professor echoed in my head. “It never hurts telling someone that you want the job.” That’s what I did, I asked her to take a chance on me, I told her that I wanted it.

That action propelled me forward, I felt if I could get hired at GE, I could do anything. Little did I know that I would be working on a large branding project during my contract there. Fast forward five years later, and I moved back to Grand Rapids, Michigan — where I attended College. Bringing my SoCal-native-husband and son that had never seen snow with me. I’ve spent the last two and a half years working a long-term contract at Steelcase.

I honestly didn’t realize, until I joined the AIGA WM D+I committee and heard others like Antionette Carroll, Ashleigh Axios, and Ram Castillo speak, that I could inspire others just by sharing my story. I’ve been so inspired by hearing, seeing, and reading about other creative professionals speak about how their life has impacted their creative career. As an underrepresented person in the design profession, my experiences in life give me empathy and help me see everything from different perspectives. I am able to apply these perspectives to design and ask questions that no one else in the room would ask. I also realize that after living in Southern California and coming back to West Michigan, my community needs a lot of work with Diversity and Inclusion. I am Mexican-American and my husband is Black-American, our son is both and we are raising him in this community that isn’t very inclusive of either. When my son came home from pre-school one day and told me that a child in his class said that “he didn’t like Black people.” That ignited me to effect change in any way I could.

I’m currently transitioning to freelancing full-time. My career goals include starting my own design studio, and public speaking about my life and how struggling has made me who I am today. I also plan to advocate for diversity and inclusion, and hope to speak on how representation isn’t enough. Representation needs to be authentic, it needs to reflect reality to change the narrative. I’ve been in marketing departments, and the decision makers who have the final say bring their biases and opinions to the table. I would like a seat at the table, to be a voice and advocate for change. I’ve never been to a conference, let alone a design conference — and I think this would be a great opportunity for me to jump into the design community that I’ve scarcely been a part of. I would love the chance to connect with other designers, other entrepreneurs, and potential clients to do what I was meant to do. Effect change.

I think attending the AIGA Design Conference will help me accomplish my goals. Being more connected can only help me. I’ve never had a mentor, or anyone who really encouraged me, and I never really feel like I know what I’m doing. But this past year, I’ve been open to failure, and have learned that most great creatives paving the way often feel like they don’t know what they are doing. With every young person that I speak to as an adjunct professor, I share what I’ve learned. Another goal I have is to start a mentorship program in AIGA WM. I noticed that other chapters have them, and I feel like that’s something that can be improved in West Michigan. When I moved away after college, we didn’t have an AIGA chapter; so, there was a big disconnect in the creative community, this is something that still needs work. A mentoring program is another way of being inclusive with young designers, and for me, especially young underrepresented designers because I’ve been in their shoes. I navigated the corporate world as a first-generation college graduate. I wish I had someone like me to learn from when I was in school or just graduating. One of my AIGA WM D+I committee peers told me after our strategic planning session that she needed to learn from me, I was taken aback and the only thing I could tell her was “Girl, it’s just Tuesday.” There’s no point in holding back, especially when it comes to experiences that we should all learn from. Some struggles shouldn’t have to be repeated by anyone.

While updating my portfolio, and going though old files… I found this painting that I created as part of my “Struggle” project in my Senior Thesis class. Acrylic on cardboard, if you would like to know.

I wrote this statement for a scholarship competition to attend the 2017 AIGA Design Conference. I was awarded the scholarship, have accepted it, and plan on attending.



naomi marie

I am a person who believes in sharing knowledge so that others may benefit and grow. Our liberation is tied together, so let us resist together.