Sara Nguyen was always destined to be an artist. From even the earliest years, she can recall messing around with MS Paint, making short, janky animations with friends, and immersing herself in the stories of rich worlds: be it through watching Japanese anime on the TV, spending time alone in her room reading, or even hanging out with her older brother while he played video games. In short, a strong inclination for storytelling? Check. A passion for exploring the creative realms of other artists? Absolutely. And of course, it probably helped that for Sara, drawing and visualising came more naturally than writing, or even speaking.
While this may sound like an open and shut tale of how an artist came to be, the truth is, Sara’s path was far less simple. Growing up a second-generation Vietnamese-Canadian in Vancouver, for her, a career in the arts simply was not feasible. In fact, she didn’t even know the option existed. “I considered pursuing something arts related, but heard it wasn’t realistic and saw no representation around me,” Sara says. “To me, art was only ever a hobby or something you teach.”
Continuing, she adds that this further reflected the alienation she experienced - caught between the drastic value difference between her “more traditional” home life, and the outside world which was “coloured by progressive Western values of independence.” And while this rapidly taught Sara to approach everything with an open mind, as well as when to stand up for her beliefs - lessons which she values to this day - it was only in the last two years of high school that she realised her affinity for the arts was also something that could also be stood up for.
While up until that point she had enjoyed designing posters, page layouts, and logos for friends, the turning point came when she discovered that her passion could, in fact, also become a paying job. “The life of a graphic designer was still a mystery to me, since no one around me was in the creative field,” she says. “But coincidentally, I met a friend around that time who was studying at Capilano University’s IDEA Program in North Vancouver. They convinced me to see that this was a viable career avenue, and that CapU’s IDEA Program would be a practical choice for school.”
Prepared to give it a whirl, Sara enrolled at Capilano - undertaking a Bachelor’s in Design for Visual Communications, while majoring in branding. “I’d describe the experience as very intensive and hands-on,” she recalls. “I struggled to keep my mental health afloat, but my classmates helped get me through the rough times with some good laughs along the way.”
Of this period, Sara specifically remembers a project for one of her type design classes, which she did while studying for a semester in Germany. Inspired by the idea of blending music and [type] design, it was during the pursuit of this idea that she discovered Gregorian Chant notation, which used squared notes called ‘neumes’.
“I found it interesting how this notation system didn’t associate the symbols with a pitch,” she says. “To read it, you had a starting note and followed the shape of the notes and the overall structure of the lines. I started to see some interesting letter shapes within the music notes, and things started rolling from there.”
The result was her own unique font: ‘Neume
’. Sara adds that she still holds onto her drawings from the refinement process - work which showcases the transformation of the neumes’ forms into a legible display font. “[Neume] is a reverse contrast typeface, so I also studied the form of typefaces like Klim Type Foundry’s ‘Maelstrom’, and classic slab serifs like ‘Rockwell’.”
While this project would prove a fine addition to Sara’s portfolio, perhaps even more valuable was the lesson she took away from it. Where at the beginning of the course, as a “less-experienced type design student” she was encouraged to make a set of symbols rather than a font, her passion pushed her to take the harder path as she opted to pursue font creation midway through the semester… against the professor’s initial recommendations. “In the end, [the professor] was proud of how far I got with ‘Neume’, while admitting he could see my soul slowly die designing symbols in the beginning,” Sara says. “Lesson learned – the projects that I just have fun with during the process feel the most rewarding in the end. Follow your heart and do the things you love (if you can afford to).”
It was also around this time that Sara also got her very first glimpse of the industry. Working a design/production job for a start-up, she found herself tasked with content creation of digital phone ads for an app. Although she describes the work as “not the most glamorous,” Sara still appreciates the fact that it taught her how to be efficient with time - a skill which proved valuable when she landed an internship with 123w.
“This was where I learned how to work within a full creative agency,” she adds. “Being surrounded by creative directors and such a senior team pushed me to step up the calibre of my work. I learned to fail fast and always ask the dumb questions. It’s ok to sound stupid, and sometimes, things just need to be explained in another way to be understood by someone else.
To this end, Sara specifically recalls one of her first professional projects: a small art director job of mashing together b-roll and stock footage for an ad. While she notes that it wasn’t a super big campaign, that scale certainly did not help alleviate the overwhelming nature of being thrown into the project mid-way through, all while still new to the work as a whole. “I remember panicking, trying to figure out how to give colour notes to the editor for the first time,” Sara says. “The amount of relief I got after talking it through with my mentor was insane.”
Now with some years of experience under her belt, it seems that, fortunately, this process has become far less stressful, and a great deal more fun. In fact, according to Sara, her favourite part of the job is the creation process - although this can be both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, Sara admits that she is sometimes challenged by the need to stay in the flexible and sharp creative mental space needed to make great work: “Unfortunately, I have a habit of defaulting to just getting the work done when I’m crunched with time or when I feel a lack of creative freedom in the project,” she says. “Getting the work done is great, but knowing when to make space for more lateral thinking is equally as important.”
But she adds that the sometimes struggle of making space for lateral thinking is aided nicely by her passion for the cooperative process. “I love working with a team to come up with new creative solutions and seeing the work come to life,” Sara says. “Being able to bounce around ideas to create something is what I love about my job, and I appreciate being able to surround [myself] with good humans who care about the work.”
In fact, Sara notes that this is a large reason for why she recently joined TAXI on a full-time basis - taking a job as an art director/designer in their Vancouver office and working on cool projects such as the agency’s recent work for the Pacific Salmon Foundation.
“TAXI recently revamped [the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s] branding this year, and one of the ideas we pitched was based around a bear mascot – a ‘spokesbear’,” she says. “We put some other ideas on the table, but there was something more charming and memorable about having a mascot who could educate people on the importance of salmon, compared to one of us convincing other humans to donate to a good cause. And, the client absolutely loved the idea when we presented it. They had some good laughs (which is always a good sign)!”
Client appreciation isn’t the only reason why Sara is passionate about this campaign, however. As an artist, she finds herself excited when brands and people realise the importance of standing for social causes, and the value of taking the time to ensure narratives and people are represented in meaningful ways. And while the work for the Pacific Salmon Foundation is specifically focused on standing up for the environment and the British Columbian ecosystem, Sara believes that this same care must be dedicated to all manner of causes.
“I see that sometimes people just check boxes to be politically correct, but I’m glad others are starting to think about the nuances of representation too,” she continues. “Like, how do we respectfully represent people from marginalised communities who don’t outwardly present as the stereotypical archetype? (i.e., stereotypes of people with physical and cognitive disabilities, sexual and gender orientations, etc.)”
Building on this, Sara holds the firm belief that observing people and getting to know their stories and needs (a favourite pastime of hers), is the ticket to creating more impactful work - both on a personal and industry-wide level. “I guess I have a natural desire to understand different perspectives and see how everything connects in the grand scheme of things,” she says. “What drives them to do x, y or z? What makes them smile? Those are some things I wonder about.”
It is also in this space that Sara’s background as an artist and her love of the industry find perfect harmony - bringing together past and present to create inspiring work. Where she has always emphasised the importance of creating just for herself to keep the artistic passion alive - presently through the likes of sketching and painting - what she values about art specifically made for the industry is the way it can be used as a medium that communicates and drives change.
“It’s important that what I do resonates with my audience, or else the work just becomes more noise in the world,” she adds. “However, I just love the act of creating something and seeing it come to life, especially when it’s for a good cause or good people.”