From a young age, I was always drawn to the arts, whether it was drawing, sculpture or watercolors,” says Haelim Paek (MFA 10 Media Design Practices). When she was a child, her mother enrolled her in Saturday morning and weekday afternoon classes at the Columbus College of Art and Design (in Columbus, Ohio). “My mom was very supportive of my pursuing art as a hobby,” she says, “because she knew it was my passion.”
When it came time to apply to college, there was some tension with her parents, who had immigrated to Ohio from Seoul, South Korea. “My dad wanted me to do something that was going to ‘make sense,’ like go to business school—not be a fine artist,” says Paek. Her mom, however, thought that perhaps her daughter’s hobby could turn into something larger: “She knew business school would not be the right path for me,” Paek says.
After touring Parsons School of Design while visiting a friend in New York, Paek decided to enroll. Still, there were negotiations with her parents about what she would actually study once she got there. Both her parents were ultimately fine with her going to a design school, but they wanted Paek to have a career afterward.
Paek began by studying architecture but quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit. She then pivoted to graphic design (specifically as it relates to spatial and exhibition design), which was a major she felt would enable her to land a job. After graduating, she worked at an architectural firm and then at the Bronx Zoo, doing environmental graphics and exhibition design. But she soon felt she needed more.
Her search for more led her to ArtCenter, where she enrolled in the College’s Graduate Media Design Practices (MDP) Department. “There were only 10 people in my class,” Paek says. “And you’re around really talented, smart people, so you’re constantly raising the bar of the work you think you’re capable of creating.”
MDP taught her about design research, imbued in her a commitment to experimentation to pressure-test ideas, and encouraged her to not be afraid to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and just start over when something isn’t working. “You can’t be precious about your work,” says Paek. “Having the space to fail and professors who encouraged me to think beyond the obvious was great.”
For Paek’s thesis, Anatomy of Order: Curating as Design, she took a curatorial approach to ordinary conversations, Google searches, newspaper articles, and common objects, using design-based investigatory tactics (re-collecting, ordering and re-ordering) to explore the gaps between perception and truth in everyday life. The goal of her investigations was to “display the multitude of unexpected perspectives that emerge beyond the first impression” and to encourage a deeper engagement with or reflection on our media-influenced surroundings.
ArtCenter was a place for Paek to grow as a creative thinker, and she says the training she received here has served her well throughout her career. This has proven especially true in her current position as Creative Director, Brand at Etsy, where she leads the entire brand design team and connects with agency partners to create marketing campaigns and other collateral for the company.
For the past few years, her favorite project at Etsy has been the company’s holiday ads, she says, because they’re rooted in “making emotional, lasting connections with our customers.” The latest campaign, Give More Than a Gift—created in collaboration with the company's agency partner 72andSunny—focuses on the very real human stories, connections and experiences that lie behind the handmade, personalized gifts sold on Etsy.
Paek’s favorite commercial from Etsy’s 2020 holiday campaign featured a Japanese girl named Shiori whose name is constantly mispronounced. As a present, Shiori’s mom gives her a necklace that has her name on it, reminding her of how precious and beautiful her name is. As a Korean American who has experienced having her name mispronounced as well, Paek identified with the campaign—and she knew that anyone whose name has ever been mispronounced would see themselves in the commercial, too.
"The common thread in the work I do with Etsy and [that I did] in my thesis at ArtCenter is that I’m always going to push for human stories,” says Paek. “With any type of creative work, if you just go with the obvious, it can come off very shallow or play into tokenism. But if you actually dig deeper into why a person feels a certain way, that’s where the really big, bridge-building storytelling happens.”
Storytelling is what drives her both in and out of the office. While she doesn’t currently have a personal fine art practice, whenever Paek finds herself feeling creatively unmotivated, she goes back to what she learned at ArtCenter—experimenting with taking the news and making animations and big stories out of them, just for herself.
In a perfect world, she would love to continue those experiments by bringing storytelling into them or creating an exhibition that expands upon her thesis. She has also thought about going into documentary filmmaking one day. “The heart of what I like to do is storytelling,” says Paek. “Specifically, telling stories that give voices to people who don’t have them.”