Mariah Barnaby-Norris is illustrator and designer based in Portland, Oregon but from Canada originally with a bit of Australia mixed in there too. Mariah loves creating wonky worlds filled with imperfect things, and making up approachable characters that are far more confident and fashion forward than herself. She likes to see what she can fit together or build off of as she moves through a project. Mariah is currently working at the lovely studio, Oddfellows as a designer and drawer of things.
I always wish I had a cooler answer for this, but the truth is I had no idea what design or illustration even were on a technical level… even though I was always surrounded by it and inspired by it.
I grew up in small towns where art and design weren’t really huge topics of discussion. I was always drawing as a kid and was drawn to colourful wacky things (mostly weird princesses and animals with large heads and shoes).
My dad is a very talented artist, so I was influenced by him for sure; he would draw these fantastical, very detailed pencil sketched scenes with castles and mushrooms and fairies. Blew my mind.
I kind of just fell into the design world in University— I was majoring in Art & Design because I knew I loved drawing, so I figured something would spark my interest there… but I had no clue what I was doing.
I was taking philosophy classes, drawing classes, and Italian classes(?!). I had a vague idea of the Bachelor of Design program and had walked past the magical Visual Communication doors plenty of times (sometimes peering through to see what the cOoOol design kids were up to).
After talking to my now-bestie, Erin Nagy (who was headed into that program and seemed to know what she was doing), I decided to try and get into it as well. I was rejected the first time I applied, but I gave it another go and finally made it through the magical doors. THANKS, ERIN.
Not to be dramatic, but I think I had the best first office -slash-first design job that a wee fresh designer could ask for.
I worked for Kobot, a digital design agency in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the time they shared a beautiful studio space with Curio Studio (a branding/illustration agency and the studio that gave me my first internship). I felt so welcomed into that first job, which was until then also an all-male team (thank you Bryan, Stefan, and Birtles)!
The team at Kobot helped me grow as a designer in so many ways: They pushed me out of my comfort zone, took chances on me, listened to and appreciated my contributions to projects, and ultimately opened the door to my illustration career by letting me sneak illustration into our projects wherever I could.
The culture at that studio really set the bar high for my future jobs. We would all take lunch together, go for walks, watch far too much Star Trek and drink far too much coffee, but above all, Kobot encouraged a healthy work/life balance, and I am so glad I learned the value of that as a young designer.
Being in a space with Curio and watching them work was also super inspiring and opened my eyes more to the world of illustration—Amanda, Graham and Rachel are some of the most talented people I know, and I feel lucky to have been able to peek over at their screens whenever I could.
I take a walk every morning (most mornings) before work. I love getting out first thing in the morning, people watching, witnessing the seasons changing slowly, taking photos of plants, and usually treating myself to a nice coffee on Fridays 🙂
I’ve been actively trying not to check my phone first thing in the morning for the first few hours of being awake, and it’s been great for me.
For a lot of illustrations lately and for most of my personal projects, I haven’t been looking at reference images and just dive in. This usually ends up looking wonky and weird but I like that. It’s fun to try and remember what something looks like from memory and just flowing from there.
My initial thought was… “messy” (haha), but looking back on some projects, I realize that I do have a pretty clear process. Obviously, context matters in terms of how difficult the project is or if it’s just for fun.
My education was very theory-based; there was a lot of ‘why’ before we dove into actually making anything, so either consciously or subconsciously, I usually do lots of research on the client and the subject matter of a project. This is followed by:
• gathering references and inspiration,
• doing initial sketches (which are usually very rough thumbnails) to nail composition,
• Choosing one or two possible directions,
• colour blocking,
• first pass, then
• final product.
… Some existential crises, imposter syndrome, and client feedback are always sprinkled in there too, of course!
Literally everything around me! My work is just a mishmash of what I'm exposed to every day: experiences, music, food, cooking, friends, plants, shapes, current events, funny things, sad things—it’s never-ending.
I’ve found myself being inspired by fashion more lately, which is fun! I’m also always pushed in new directions by what people are doing around me, creatively or non-creatively. Surround yourself with people who are doing different things than you are, because you never know what you’ll be inspired to try out.
Probably moving to Portland for my current job at Oddfellows—I had never lived in the states or been to Portland before and didn’t know anybody, so I was just hoping for the best.
I don’t want to sugarcoat moving across the world though; it sounds like a fun and spontaneous thing, but it’s actually very, very hard, and it took me a while to get adjusted… but I love it here now 🙂
Be kind, and eat the cake. I just made this up now, but I think it describes me as a person pretty perfectly haha.
Best: “Surround yourself with people who are smarter/more experienced than you.” This sounds a bit self-deprecating, but I feel like I’ve learned the most when I’m the least-experienced one in the room.
Another best: This sounds kind of silly, but you should put your favourite recent piece of your own work as the background on your phone or computer/iPad. I heard this from an illustrator I love (Yuko Shimizu)—I don’t quite remember her reasoning, but sometimes when you’re making things, you tend to be your own worst critic. So it’s nice to have a reminder of something you’ve made that you’re proud of.
Worst (well, maybe not worst): “Don’t work for free.” This is one I’ve been questioning. I think if you’re in a place where you can use your skills to help someone who is doing good work for the community, then you should do it.
I’ve done a couple of these projects for amazing people, and they’ve ended up being some of my favourite illustrative pieces. Those pieces have gone into my portfolio, and I’ve had paying clients reference those projects, so it’s gone full circle.
I’m sure this has already been said, but doing good work for good people is nice 🙂
I have so many, and it’s always changing, but off the top of my head I think of Jordan Sondler: Her ability to share her situations and life experiences with the world in clever illustrative ways has always been inspiring to me.
Mari Andrew is another — her words are so gorgeous, and her comics are so lovely and easy to digest (I also subscribe to her newsletter, which is always somehow relatable).
Some classic style icons for me are Keith Haring and Matisse.
Big windows, lots of plants, some weird art and knick-knacks around for inspiration. Comfy seating, funky lamps, good sound system for the beats, a dog (or a few), and friends who are working on different exciting things so I can peek at their projects… and a bakery nearby for coffee and treats.
Who was/is your greatest mentor and why?
Bryan Kulba! He’s had my back since day one, he gave me my first job in the industry, and he was the first person I called for advice after getting the offer for my current job. He gave me my first drawing tablet… or maybe I stole it? I can’t recall exactly how I ended up with it, but that changed my life. He’s one of the best humans I know, and I wouldn’t be where I am without him.
We are all unique in our own quirky ways, but I also think most things have been done already and that’s okay too… maybe being unique is overrated. I recently hesitated to draw flowers because I was seeing illustrated flowers everywhere and thought I should try something new… but, why did I even care about this? DRAW THE DAMN FLOWER.
Not a clue, and I’m okay with that. I’ve had a pretty ‘go-with-whatever-pops-up’ attitude so far, and it’s treated me well, so we shall see. Some things on my mind lately have been, more risograph printing (IT’S SO FUN), artist residencies, illustrating a book one day, going back to school for something more drawing focused… who knows.