Storyboard: Mari Nakano

Two streams

I was raised in a fairly traditional Asian-American family. As far as a career, I believed I had two options: become a doctor or a lawyer. A creative career was out of the question. I mean, where was the stability in that?

Part of being a true creative means breaking down assumptions about what you’re capable of. I have to give ArtCenter the lion’s share of the credit for helping me realize what I was truly capable of. ArtCenter taught me how to scaffold a creative life for myself.

I was a community organizer before attending ArtCenter. I worked mostly with young people in the Little Tokyo community of Los Angeles. As an organizer, part of my job involved listening to young people, and hearing them out as far as what they wanted more of in their communities. A lot of it came down to art – mainly, art that they didn’t have access to. These were kids who wanted to make creative connections, seek out mentors, and apply for jobs that would give them an advantage in the industries they sought to break into.

For a while, I kept my community organizing and academic pursuits separate. They were two unconnected streams that flowed alongside each other. Eventually, I wanted to find a way to try and merge these two pursuits. I found myself turning down promising art jobs if they didn’t align with my social values. In situations like this, it’s essential that you stick to your guns… no matter how much money you are offered.

Initially, I had a tough time finding people who shared that same mindset at ArtCenter. A lot of my peers were explicitly interested in commercial work: many of them wanted to design cars or go work at MTV. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits – it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself. The rigor of the school is what allowed me to continue sticking to my guns and hold out for work that had social impact.

I find myself inundated with inspiration every day. Sometimes I fantasize about cloning myself, so I could get more work done. Ideally, in this scenario, I’d have one clone doing research, one clone constantly reading, and one clone working with a team to perfect my overall vision. Existing as a purely exploratory version of yourself, 24 hours a day… now that’s the dream.

Alas, what I’ve just described is a fantasy. I can’t clone myself; I must make peace with my limitations. This process is a little like catching butterflies. If a piece of inspiration comes at me, it’s my responsibility to capture it and study it, before applying it to whatever I happen to be doing at the time.

The naiveté of youth is a privilege. As a young person making your way in the world, you have the privilege of not always thinking about how you’re going to pay the rent. I was beyond lucky to land a job at UNICEF, and be led by people who inspire me with their passion and drive. Watching these people in action taught me how to shape myself, how to cultivate the dormant entrepreneurial side that was always there. My thinking was: if they could do it, I could do it, too.

Six years ago, I had my first kid. Having a child really grounds your priorities. You can’t afford to be naïve about your goals anymore. I still try to maintain an emphasis on social impact in everything I do. A lot of my job comes down to the question of what I’m doing for her – and by proxy, for the world at large.

Granted, I can’t change the world. I may not be on the cover of Time. But through the work I do, I can make things better in my own modest way. That’s my contribution.

Mari Nakano
MFA 10 Graduate Media Design Practices
Design Director, New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity

Part of being a true creative means breaking down assumptions about what you’re capable of.

Mari Nakano
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