“I guess what I’m trying to do with my work is to collect and understand and use as many codes of visual culture as possible,” explains graphic designer Tracy Ma. “I’m not sure what that gets you – I think the goal is that you convey as best as possible and little by little the mood now as you encounter it.”
Tracy got into design through attending art schools in Canada and the positive reinforcement she received while there. “I also loved images and magazines and was very compelled by how they contrasted with the freezing brown slushy snow roads of my suburban youth. I spent the first part of my life in image-saturated Hong Kong with its own robust media and cinema culture. Even from a young age I have always been keenly aware of image-making as an industry and practice,” she says.
Tracy can illustrate, design, lead teams, make zines, animate, create websites and produce events. Over the years, we’ve followed the talented creative as she’s hopped from one big job to the next. The New York-based designer was previously deputy creative director of Bloomsburg Businessweek, where she worked with Richard Turley and Rob Vargass to transform the title into a new benchmark for editorial design. She was also creative director of Matter Studios where she oversaw the art direction for the platform’s projects. Right now, she’s taking time to do her own thing and is freelancing and teaching a class at fashion, art and design school Parsons in New York. What stands Tracy apart is how she continually executes work with humour and courage, and she describes her style as “scrappy, high-touch, playful, and if I really nail it some days, slightly melancholy”.
It was Tracy’s job at Bloomberg Businessweek that was the catalyst for her career, where she started as an assistant designer and rose quickly through the ranks. “I was given quite a bit of responsibility in a pretty large newsroom early in my career – I’m glad it happened that way, but it wasn’t without passive aggressiveness and sometimes downright resentment from other, usually older, co-workers from various departments,” explains the designer. “I also constantly faced existential challenges about myself and the media entertainment complex with graphic design that I shall not get into here as I need to stop treating interviews from the design press as free therapy.”
Day-to-day Tracy has realised how producing creative can often be a case of navigating other people’s “whims and narcissism” and it’s something she’s found she’s had to deal with a lot being a female creative. “I think you’re going to be treated differently as a woman no matter what or where you go; the most liberal workplaces and people with the best intentions are all bound by unspoken codes and expectations,” she says. “How it affects your ability to navigate these differences in ones’ design career, with its fixation on credit and recognition, is a different matter.”
“The most obvious scenario is that, again, of women and care. I have experienced being the one who gets endlessly talked-at about coworkers’ qualms and ‘feelings’ in the workplace – even though that’s not part of anybody’s job description. As a woman, being able to listen and care is just expected. It becomes a problem when those things, necessary as they are in a functioning workplace, are mentally exhausting, and don’t get noticed or rewarded. I see it happen again and again to myself and other women that I’ve worked with.”
Collaboration is a key part of Tracy’s work and something she’s keen to explore now she’s freelance. “I love giant collaborative efforts with a team made up mostly of people smarter than me and people who get a kick out of wearing many hats. Specifically, I like working on video shoots and staging events.” Within these collaborative projects and from teaching students she’s keen to highlight the need for female designers to shout about their achievements. “It seems men are ever more ready to claim credit for the work, while women in general are concerned with attributing credit where it’s due,” Tracy explains. “I’ve seen this happening in work places and when I was a juror for the ADC Young Guns – it’s a problem because good work these days increasingly demands efforts from more and more people.”