From Biomedical Engineer to Freelance Designer—Karla López, Shillington New York Graduate

Originally from Mexico City, Karla López has spent ten years working as a biomedical engineer for the health industry. Although her career had a creative aspect, she often wondered about exploring her creativity further and working as a graphic designer. After an opportunity came up to move to New York, she discovered Shillington and enrolled in the part-time course to pursue her dream of becoming a designer.

Read on to hear more Karla’s experience living and studying in New York, the inspiration behind her Mondo project which won a 2018 GDUSA award, reflections on the cultural similarities between New York and Mexico City, and how Shillington helped her gain the skills and confidence to launch a career as a designer.

How did your childhood shape your ideas about creativity?

I grew up in Mexico City and my creativity was inspired by the place where I lived, my family and my school. Since kindergarten, I had a lot of art and music classes that I enjoyed a lot. I always loved to draw and I was fascinated with watercolors, pencils, and crayons. Frequently, I took my colors and started drawing anything that came up to my mind, as a way of expressing my emotions. In high school, I was the kind of person that was always involved in artistic things and loved doing handmade illustrations and logos for events. I believe my affinity for art grew because my parents always encouraged us to take art classes, visit museums and art exhibitions. Being in contact with the art world in this way, awakened my creativity and appreciation for design.

You were a biomedical engineer in Mexico City. At what point did you realize you wanted to change careers and pursue design? 

When I had to decide on a career, it was a hard time because I had two completely different aspirations. I loved art and I wanted to be a designer, but I also loved science and I wanted to be a biologist or a doctor. In the end, I decided to study Biomedical Engineering because in some way it combined science and design since you can create medical devices and software for healthcare and you can be very artistic with that too! As a biomedical engineer, I worked for almost 10 years in different areas of the health industry. I began doing social work at a public hospital in Mexico building prosthetics for different patients. Then, I went to the University of Victoria in Canada to collaborate for 6 months on a spinal injury research project in order to obtain my Bachelor of Science degree. I always thought I was going to be a researcher, but life took me in a different direction. I started working as a Product Specialist for medical equipment sales, then as a consultant in hospital construction projects and my last job was as an analyst for technology development in genomics. Working in healthcare is very interesting and satisfactory since you are in touch with technology’s constant evolution and can contribute to human health, but I’ve always wondered what would it have been like if I had studied Graphic Design. Many times I asked myself if I had chosen the right career, especially when you can’t find a job that you are very passionate about. After working for a while, I decided to take a break and studied a Master of Business Administration, which in some way opened my vision to explore other areas, but still, I have always wondered if I would be more successful if I had explored my artistic side.

The idea of changing everything and pursuing a career in design started to be on my mind and when I moved to New York, I finally got the opportunity to do it.

At what point did you decide to take the plunge and enroll in the New York course?

I was already living in New York when I found the course. I came to New York because my husband got a job offer in Wall Street two years ago. We love the city and decided that moving here could be a great opportunity for both of us, for him to grow more in his financial career and for me to explore new things and find something that I’m really passionate about. When I found Shillington’s course and went to an info-session, I knew it was what I was looking for. There was the opportunity to explore the artistic side that I had left aside and answered the question of what it would be like if I had studied graphic design without needing to enroll in a 3-year degree.

What were your favorite aspects of the course?

I love the way the course is designed to teach you so much in a short amount of time in such a dynamic way. My favorite part is that you are treated as a designer from the first day of class and get to experience how it would be working in a design studio. I enjoyed working on every brief that I was assigned. I always felt like I was working on a real project and that was very exciting. Applying what you just learned to each brief helps you develop your design skills every time you work on a new assignment. All of the teachers are amazing designers and have their own style but always guide you towards the best creative direction.

Did you have any previous design experience? How did the course build your skill set?

I’m really impressed with what I achieved after a 9-month course, starting from zero. Before this, my only design experience was doing my own handmade typography and drawings without knowing any theory or software.

Shillington gave me all the elements to explore my creativity, polish my work and create a professional portfolio. My skillset was built gradually by learning theory and design software starting from the most basic to more complex tools and applying my skills to real-life briefs. Since the first day I learned the design principles, I started to create my work and analyze every design I saw with a different perspective. As I advanced in the course, learned more tools and refined my skills, my work improved significantly.

What was your biggest challenge during the course?

First, the fear of starting something new that was completely different from my background. Then, gain confidence in myself and believe in my capability to achieve a professional portfolio like the ones I saw from past graduates. The language barrier was also something to deal with as English is not my native language and it can make it a little more difficult when you are learning new technical things in a fast way.

Your Mondo (Mexican artisan bakery) student project won the 2018 GDUSA award. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration and the way you approached this project? Did you have any other favorite projects from the course?

Winning an award was a great surprise! When we were assigned the startup identity project, I struggled a lot because I didn’t know what to do at the beginning. I started with the idea of a home exchange platform but I didn’t like it and I was literally blocked. During portfolio time, I decided to change everything and start with a new idea. My teachers advised me to think of a business that I would like to have and that I would really enjoy. Since I’ve always wanted to have a food business of my own and I love Mexican pastry, I decided to create a bakery.

My inspiration was local businesses with a modern image but at the same time, preserving the essence of Mexico. The concept of the bakery that I created is one of artisan pastry, simple and natural, therefore the name Mondo, which in Spanish means “nothing is added.” I wanted to reflect this idea in the design so I chose light colors and simple geometric shapes and at the same time tried to give some touch of sophistication. The word Mondo is very simple and it allowed me to play with the logo design. For the logo, I sketched 20 different ideas with different color palettes until I decided on the final one. I was really impressed with my final work because I never imagined the final result and that the project would win an award!

I also really loved the handmade project! I enjoyed working with construction paper to create the “Head Full of Dreams” album cover for Coldplay.

The packaging project was also a very good one where I got to create digital illustrations of Mexican icons. I also liked doing my own typography, although it requires a lot of patience and details.

Any tips for students interested in pursuing the course?

If you decide to start this journey, enjoy it and give 100% of you. You might get tired, frustrated or even want to quit, but never give up.

I think the most important thing is to trust yourself and always express your ideas. Immerse yourself in the world of design by visiting exhibitions, looking for books and observing the design work in your surroundings. Practice outside of class, look for tutorials to complement your learning and develop more skills. All the extra work will be reflected in your final portfolio. Always do thumbnails first and explore as many ideas as you can to arrive at the best concept.

What have you been up to since graduation? How has your life changed after Shillington?

After graduation, I took some time off to relax after that intense portfolio time! But all that effort was really worth it in the end. I was very proud of my work as well as what everybody accomplished. Since then, I have continued practicing and I am doing some freelance work for family and friends.

Shillington has changed my life in many ways. I’m very happy with the decision I made to take the course and resume a path that I had given up on a long time ago.

Before the course, I had the idea of working on my own but I didn’t have the elements to achieve it. Now, thanks to Shillington, I have the skills and confidence to launch my business as a designer.

How does living in New York compare to Mexico City? Do you think the place where you live impacts your work and creativity?

Mexico City and New York have a lot of things in common but also many differences. Despite dealing with hard things like traffic, crowds, strange smells, or always being in a rush, both cities are great places to live in. You can find so many amazing things to do in either of them, that you’ll never get bored. Mexico is a very joyful place were you can see vivid colors everywhere, in food, streets, houses, clothes, markets, and that impacts my work since I love to use a lot of colors. On the other hand, the wide spectrum of design styles, innovation and cultural diversity of New York City inspires me to more creative ideas.

What were your favorite things about living and studying in New York?

There are many things that I love about New York but one of my favorites is that you can find almost everything you can think of. You get to see the best in fashion, art, design, food, and so many talented people. I love cultural diversity and that you can meet people from all over the world. You have complete freedom to be whatever you want to be and you’ll never be judged.

Studying design in New York has enriched my work because I found a lot of inspiration here.

There is art everywhere around you—in the streets, buildings, museums, stores, subways, and parks—if you just look for it, you can find it on every corner. Also, there are a lot of job opportunities for everyone, and if you work hard, you can get very far.

What advice can you offer to designers just starting out?

Every day I get more impressed on how Graphic Design has a wide spectrum of job opportunities. If you decide to break into freelancing, start working for close relatives that own a business or are thinking about launching one. If they start talking about their business idea, tell them how you can contribute to their success by giving a good impression and positive impact to their current or potential clients.

Always continue learning new things and developing skills to get better and more competitive.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.

I love cats! I think they are very interesting, funny, affectionate and great companions. I’ve always had a cat since I was a little girl. Now I have a cat that is 14 years old living at my parent’s house in Mexico and, before moving to New York, my husband and I adopted two kittens and brought them with us. Traveling with two kitties in an international and overnight flight was kind of an odyssey. One of them got very nervous and escaped from its kennel and ran along the plane aisle waking everybody up! Every time I tell that story everybody laughs, but it was very stressful at that moment.

What’s on the horizon for 2019?

I would like to keep adding work to my portfolio, participate in design competitions, and achieve bigger projects as a freelancer. I’m also considering to work in a design studio in New York to gain more expertise.

Big thanks to Karla for sharing her story! Check out her website and Linkedin.

Want to hear more career change stories? Check out this list of graduates who switched careers from accountants, marketers, teachers, and dancers to become graphic designers. 

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