Nicola Hamilton

Multi-disciplinary Designer

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Nicola is a Toronto-based art director and graphic designer, whose work has been internationally recognized by the D&AD, the Society of Publication Designers, the Society for News Design, and the Canadian National Magazine Awards. Currently, she is the Art Director at Studio Wyse.

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

My very first design job, post school and interning, was at The Grid. The Grid was a Toronto-based city weekly that lived a short but wonderful life from 2011 to 2014.

The staff and the experience were once-in-a-lifetime. The Grid was a just blip in the Canadian publishing landscape, but damn did it leave an impression. Management, including the incredibly talented Vanessa Wyse, built a team of some of the brightest minds I’ve ever worked with, and they created an environment where risk-taking wasn’t just allowed but encouraged.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Grid, I’d cite the time we painted “Cash Man” Russell Oliver in head-to-toe gold, our annual chef’s guide (where we asked reasonable questions but also ridiculous ones), or the time we hired someone to streak through our TIFF guide.

The risk-taking was all kinds of fun, but it also paid off in accolades and kind words.

It was all pretty surreal. I still joke that my first job was the best I’ll ever have.

What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?

I like to believe that my mornings start quietly, with a little self-reflection. But to be honest, the very first thing I do after my alarm goes off is check my phone and mindlessly scroll through Instagram. If I’m lucky, the cat has climbed into bed to hang out with me.

I do get to the gym most mornings, and I try to reserve at least one day a week for morning coffee with an industry pal.

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What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

Other badass human beings. Living in Toronto means there is no shortage of amazing people doing amazing things. I feel really full watching other people hustle to make their dreams a reality, and I support them as much as I can. Seeing the work my creative colleagues are producing is a huge driver too. We’re all a little competitive, aren’t we?

What project are you most proud of?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. For a long time, every time I was asked, I came up blank. The nature of doing work for other people, solving problems that aren’t inherently mine, makes me feel like the pride isn’t mine to own.

So I’ve been trying to initiate a little more work outside of my client-based projects at Studio Wyse. I spent 18 months working on a project with LeeAndra Cianci, called The Scaries, which is an exploration of our own creative process and the fear associated with it.

When we started the project, we were both feeling a little stuck. Working to actualize the visions of others had rendered us out of touch with our own instincts and we were terrified to put our own individual voices out into the world. Why would anyone care what we had to share?

We decided that was dumb. So to loosen our grip on creative control and proclivity for perfectionism we devised a plan to treat every single piece of the project as collaborative: we wanted to trade our works-in-progress back and forth, each adding our own layer in our own time. Because of our mutual belief in each other, we found comfort in this exchange.

But we also wanted to face our fear of failure (it's real guys!) head on, so we chose to build the project on a medium we had no experience with: screen printing. It meant we were facing almost-certain failure, forcing us to trust in the process, our ability to learn and each other.

We shielded the project from the prying, comparing, shady eyes, likes, comments and #lifegoals of the internet until its culmination—which we celebrated by mounting the show for a weekend at a gallery in Toronto.

The pride I felt in embracing the fear—and then proving to myself that it was unfounded—was unlike anything I've experienced in my 'professional' life.

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What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

Right now: Thoughtfulness takes time (read: Slow the fuck down.)

What does success mean to you?

Awards, money, fame. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. I’ve yet to meet a designer who didn’t have an affinity for gold stars.

But, if I come back down to earth for a moment, I’d probably say that right now, success looks like a well-balanced life—a seamless integration between the personal and professional, a good mix of client-based and personal projects, and enough time for myself. A little outside validation never hurts though.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in this business?

A platform. Look, I’m a woman in this industry who has achieved a nominal amount of success, which means it’s my duty to give back to the community and to support other women looking to make it in this business.

Statistically, there are more women than men in our industry, but the visibility of women in high-powered positions is still low. If you look for women of colour, it’s even lower. I have a platform to inflict a minimal amount of change, and I intend to use it. I can mentor women, hire women, work towards gender parity in the contributors we hire. I can support the women around me who are killing it and keep hustling myself so the next generation has more female designers, firm owners, and bosses to look up to.

What was your educational experience like?

Fun fact: I didn’t get into design school the first time around. I desperately wanted into the YSDN program, but I didn’t make the cut. They offered me alternate acceptance to a program that no longer exists called “Fine Arts Cultural Studies.” I accepted, begrudgingly, with the intent to try to switch majors the following year.

I lasted a year at York before enrolling in Humber College’s three-year Graphic Design program, which I completed in 2011. It turns out that York wasn’t the place for me. So maybe what I considered a failure was the universe’s way of pushing me in another direction.

The other piece of design school advice I relay to young designers all the time is to make the experience your own. I recognized my love for magazines and editorial design pretty early on, somewhere in my third semester, and started turning any project I could into an editorial one. I’m sure my instructors found this endlessly frustrating, but that small shift gave me a level of enthusiasm for each project that wasn’t always easy to tap into.

If you weren’t a designer, what career would you pursue?

All of them? Honestly, there's so much interesting work out there.

When being a designer feels hard, I think about what it would be like to own a small retail shop. To just spend your days rearranging pretty things on the shelves, and chatting with kind humans who share your aesthetic. To support makers, artists, and craftspeople you love. To be able to sell the kinds of publications I adore. I realize running a retail business is hard af, but in my day dream, it's the best.

When I'm feeling unchallenged, or consider how little upward trajectory you get as a designer, I think about business school. Which really intrigues me, and always has. Maybe because my feminist heart thinks we need more woman at the top... or maybe I’m a masochist. Who’s to say?

Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night.

I’m not sure it keeps me up at night, but I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout. Expending creative energy all day, everyday is really hard work. The process of design is made up of hundreds of tiny decisions: Should this typeface be set of 10-pt or 11-pt leading? Cyan or yellow? Save that for reference or don’t? All of these questions make decision fatigue a real thing for me and other designers.

I’ve been trying really hard to look after my “creative self” a little better these days. Everyone’s methods are different, but what’s working for me right now is:

  • Shorter daily to-do lists.
  • An ever-growing to-do list is great, but that guilt you feel at the end of every day for not getting through more, isn't. I've been trying to isolate 1-3 things I can accomplish in a day. If/when I finish those, I can choose an extra from the long-list, which feels a lot more like going above-and-beyond than failing to measure up.
  • Acknowledging dips in productivity. I can’t be productive for eight hours a day, five days a week. If you can, share the knowledge! I’ve started to become much more aware of the time that I’m spending staring blankly into my computer screen and using that as a cue to get up from my desk and do something else for a couple minutes.
  • No-Plans Day. I’m a planner, which means my social calendar is often full weeks ahead of time. I’m also an introvert who needs time alone to recharge. Those two aspects of my personality face-off on the regular. To combat it, I’ve started scheduling in a day or two per week where I’m not allowed to make plans. This is absurd, I know, but it’s working.
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What is unique to a woman's design experience that no one talks about, but should?

It’s not unique to the design field, but women can be awful to each other in the workplace. We just employ different tactics than the much-talked-about male-to-female workplace dynamics.

The busy working-mom is often quick to brush off the childless woman’s personal time as less important. The woman in power is quick to shutdown a quieter, younger employee’s ideas in the name of being efficient with her own time. A woman who defies workplace gender-norms and takes charge is often met with hostility by her other female colleagues.

Sure, we’re all vying for the same resources, which are widely agreed to be less available to women, but isn’t a win for one of us a win for all of us?

What advice would you give to a young woman designer?

The same advice I’d give to any young designer: Seek out people you admire and meet them. Talk to as many people in this industry as you can. For the price of a coffee, you’ve bought an opportunity to steal all their knowledge.

How would you design the ideal creative workspace?

Surround myself with lovely things. It’s clichéd, I know, but William Morris’s idea to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” has always resonated with me.

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

For better or for worse, my logic. It doesn’t matter if I ask the stars, a psychologist-approved personality test, or my closest friends: They’ll all tell me I’m “a very logical thinker.” Which is true. I prefer to make well-rationed, strategic decisions and am driven to keep learning, playing devil’s advocate, and improving myself.

Caveat: It also means I have to watch myself to make sure I don’t get stuck in the role of a critic rather than a doer.

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Is it possible to be unique or original in the Internet age?

So long as you’re being true to you, or the project, it’ll be unique.

What about the current state of graphic design could you do without?

Constant communication! Can I ban emailing after 6:00 p.m.?

What are your plans for the future?

I joined Studio Wyse in April of 2017, so a lot of my future plans are tied up in what the studio can and will be. We’re growing like wildflowers and having a lot of fun doing it.

But tangential to that, I’d love to figure out how to help foster an independent publishing scene in Canada. The state of the industry here is deplorable, but there’s an active and thriving industry in Europe and the States. There are more talented editorial designers, writers and editors freelancing here on Canadian soil than ever. And the data shows that most of the population is still reading print. Anyways, it’s a pipe dream, but if anyone reading this has a project, or money to give to one, slide into my DMs.

Photo credits: Nicola's headshot at the top of this interview is by May Truong, The Scaries images are by Christie Vuong, and the studio photo below is by Della Rollins.