Designer Tracy Ma’s creative career, and life really, has followed an ongoing process of reinvention. It’s an approach those familiar with her work will be able to spot, because she doesn’t tackle the job of a designer – whatever that really means – like any of the caricatures who increasingly populate the industry. It’s Tracy’s wit which allows her to see the often earnest attitude to graphic design as one big joke, even if no one else gets the punchline.
One of the designer’s first jobs was at Bloomberg Businessweek, where a three-month stint became a five-year job. Between 2011–2016 Tracy worked her way up to deputy creative director, ultimately working on over 200 issues. Throughout her time at the publication her visual output chopped and changed in style, but the sense of humour was consistent; she’s perpetually contextually clever with content. When provided with visuals that were “often scarce or shitty,” she’d utilise the potential of typography as an image. In her current position as visual editor at The New York Times’ style desk, Tracy continues an approach to editorial which puts the reader’s engagement first. In the run-up to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s big day, her first Times piece saw her design an extensive – and comical – FAQ of “everything you wanted to know” about the royal wedding. Question 27 asks “Would it be at all possible to surf this website without such cutting-edge art direction?”. The answer it displays? No. Obviously.
Across the context of her portfolio to date, problem-solving is an integral part of Tracy’s work, the thing that binds it all together. It’s the way she deciphers pretty much anything, whether it’s a Businessweek cover story interpreting the liquidation of Yahoo!’s assets, or her family’s emigration from Hong Kong to Toronto.
Growing up in Hong Kong, a city where “everything was very convenient, brightly lit, and there was a very sumptuous pop culture offering,” was an experience she describes as “kind of full.” Moving to Toronto when she was eight, Tracy found herself confronting the unfamiliar concepts of wide open spaces and a new language to learn. The ramifications of such a move “weren’t clear to my parents and I until we were actually living there,” she tells It’s Nice That. “A big part of my life has been learning on the go, and I think it informs the way I approach problems now, too. You just kind of reinvent as you go, and we adapted to that big change [of moving to Toronto] over time.”
When Tracy was in the fourth grade, a teacher picked up on how she liked to draw and recommended she try out for an arts-focused school. The attitude to her application, from both the designer and her parents, was very much “if you get in, you get in”. She got in, which, she says, “basically dictated, you know, the small group of people I’d have this interface with for the next nine years”.
The education experience that followed was an unusual one. Standard subjects were still on the curriculum but maths was taught by a drama teacher, and Tracy’s science teacher led the choir. Looking back now, the designer admits that while attending the school was interesting; it maybe wasn’t the brightest idea. At the time she wasn’t yet fluent in English and spent half the days dancing, miming, and learning to paint. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that there was no route for a non-English speaker, which is something I was struggling with at the time – beyond learning Shakespeare, juggling my pubescent body in a leotard and being bad at math.”
It doesn’t take the most rigorous analyst to work out how coupling the struggle of mastering a language, with attending an art-focused school, can lead to someone pursuing a visually-oriented career. For Tracy, the decision to study graphic design at university was a natural one, and she’s quick to note how “you get funnelled through these tracks, and it was natural to be like, ‘oh, I’m going to major in graphic design’.”
The designer studied her BA at Toronto’s York University, based near the neighbourhood she grew up in. Its proximity to her house was a similar situation for most of the student body, “it was an extension of high school, essentially,” she says. Made up of mostly local residents, York, Canada’s third-biggest university, offers everything you can imagine, from courses in dance to accounting. “It was kind of like a trade school,” describes Tracy, it “wanted to create students that serve a workforce.”
During her studies at York, Tracy began to be drawn to a different approach to education. Looking at approaches to visual communication originating from the Netherlands, she became attracted to experimental types of work, practices that are minimal and part of the Swiss modernist lineage. “I think the stuff that I was into, the stuff that I wanted to emulate and make, meant I felt a bit of a disconnect to what they were teaching in school.” It was that disconnect which saw Tracy first go against the grain with the work she made. The designer solved the problem of not quite fitting in by running with the fact that actually, she didn’t really want to.
The first body of work in Tracy’s ongoing portfolio that conveys this attitude is undoubtedly her material for Businessweek. An e-mail from Richard Turley asking her to join the team for three months in New York was the beginning of everything. “I was trying not to vomit every day. That was the responsibility, having moved to New York in a suitcase basically”, she describes of her first few weeks there. “I felt a lot out of my depth, but I met some of the most talented women (1,2,3) that I still long to work with… I think it was the first job where I was like, ‘This is awesome’.”
Tracy’s time at Businessweek is referenced endlessly for its ability to poke fun at issues while retaining its worth. The team took subjects such as taxes, investing, or porn copyright and reworked them to appeal to everyone. A headline like “Bitcoin Dreams” would grab the eye of a budding accountant, but Tracy’s accompanying illustration – of a unicorn galloping through a waterfall – would get a double-take from design boyz too. “I don’t think we were fully aware of all the implications of that kind of opportunity you know?” she says of that period. “We were experimenting, figuring it out. There was a big excitement in the air like, ‘oh, let’s try this new thing.’”
Tracy left the publication in 2016, feeling that she couldn’t “design another spread in the magazine in a way that was meaningful to me, or meaningful for the reader to experience”, she says. “I’d kind of reached a summit, or a plateau rather, and I just needed to learn new things.” At this point, she was deputy creative director, and went straight into a role as creative director at Matter. The designer then had a freelance stint – “a completely different itch to scratch, and I scratched it” she laughs – before joining The New York Times in January 2018, having missed the way "editorial requires a close relationship with the reader. It takes longer to digest, and as a result, the thoughts that you can explore are wider”.
Holding esteemed titles like creative director and visual editor, most would expect – considering it’s what most creative directors do – for Tracy to sit back a bit, nodding her head at concepts presented to her by juniors. Instead, the designer continues to put in the graft, due to a practice she picked up at Businessweek; where “no one worked longer hours” than her editor Josh Tyrangiel. “I guess it showed me that I don’t have to be that asshole-who-kicked-back-got-all-of-the-credit-and-did-none-of-the-work type of creative director, who I’ve always had a problem with, from earlier in my career. It’s very important to me that it’s a hands-on type of job.” Since then, she’s also started from the beginning again, teaching herself motion graphics and how to code.
It’s strange, but Tracy’s attitude towards job roles – which is basically her acting like a decent person – has made her an anomaly in the design industry. She sees value in collaboration, getting the best voices involved and heard, working towards the goal of designing what hasn’t been done before. As a result, Tracy is considered brave, but in being brave, she’s also now considered a rule breaker. It’s a reputation she’s accidentally cultivated and one she doesn’t love, “just because I think it’s pretty loaded,” she laughs. “It’s kind of soundbite-y. It’s not really true to what I value; I don’t want to create chaos for the sake of it. I don’t know,” she says, interrupting herself. “I guess I want to be known as someone who can try a different avenue, rather than whatever the industry standard is, but I don’t seek out smashing things or causing trouble for the sake of it,” she justifies.
Take for instance a launch site she designed for a Times article on “Consent on Campus”. To reference the difficulty of each individual college student’s account, each quote is typographically animated to communicate emotion. “It’s not a very good business model,” Tracy chips back in on the subject of reputation. “You can’t be known as the disrupter, because what happens once you disrupt something? You’re just the creator of chaos.”
However it’s a well-known fact in design that to bend the rules just a little bit, you already need to know them pretty well. Despite the fact that Tracy regularly does this in layouts, website designs, typographic choices and editorial illustrations; it’s an aspect of her personality that sits only within her work. In a period of graphic design where practitioners yell opinions on Twitter every other day, Tracy, the rule breaker, stays silent on the subject. She rarely even shouts about the work she’s made, and if she does, she pokes fun at herself while doing it. “It’s a combination of self-loathing, and wanting to focus on making good work,” Tracy says, between laughing, on the subject of staying out of graphic design gossip. “I feel like the work of elevating design to be more of a profession is something that was already done in the 80s and 90s. I don’t need to make much of an effort in that area, which is the only way I can justify being vocal about my work,” she continues. “I never set out to be that super sleek creative director in the minimalist apartment type of character, and I call it a character because it’s literally a cartoon of itself.”
By consciously distancing herself from being “the caricature designer,” Tracy has found herself “completely frozen, [unable to] make a sound or voice an opinion,” she points out. This has its own problems, putting pressure on Tracy to voice her opinions through her work; or, conversely, making her feel like her value as a thinker has been swallowed by her ability to take dull subjects and “add some garbage to make it pretend that it’s interesting,” she says. Even though her voice might be one that designers would like to hear louder, the work speaks for itself.
When discussing what tone of voice her work should take in the future, Tracy states a want for “editorial concepts that throw us slices of the world”. The fact that she’s ambiguous on what graphic style or medium this could be delivered to audiences in, only makes her all the more exciting to watch. Tracy’s a designer who isn’t fussed by trends, gossip, or the concept of being a graphic designer at all. But despite all this, her visual boldness, it seems, is due to slightly being in “a place of conflict of not wanting to commit fully to being a graphic designer, maybe…” she says, still laughing – even when talking about her future self, or future projects, Tracy Ma can’t help but poke a little fun.