Tracy Ma on playfulness, peculiarity and her prodigious prolific practice
Now Assistant Editor of The New York Times, Tracy Ma is a graphic designer like no other – working across editorial design, interactive web design, illustration, brand identities, art direction, campaigns and virtual dogs to name a few, within her professional and personal practice.
The New-York-based designer never fails to approach whatever she does with the same tenacity and eye for editorial tradition alongside total contemporary subversion.
Working her way from freelance designer to the deputy creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek before her role as Visual Editor and Assistant Editor at TNYT, Tracy has forever produced work that combines beauty and thoughtfulness with hilarity and weirdness. We've chatted with Tracy, asking how the past year has been and her effortlessly timeless practice.
Hello Tracy! How are you doing? How've things been?
Doing good!! Anxious about re-entering the rat race!
I can't imagine things have slowed down for you at all this past year, has the way you worked changed at all? How've you found the adjustment?
It did slow down for me in 2020. Throughout 2019 I would get off work (from my day job at the New York Times), commute home and do more work on a freelance basis for one-off clients, friends, interviews like this one. By the end of the year, I was really suffering from burnout. When the pandemic hit, all that peripheral work sort of vaporised, and it felt amazing – the weekends were mine again! But things have picked back up, and I have to return to book a reverse-calendar of sorts: slice off time to have some 1:1 time with myself.
For those who don't know you, what's your story? What's the journey to where you are now as the Assistant Editor at The New York Times?
I studied at art schools in Toronto, moved to New York in 2011 to join the Bloomberg Businessweek magazine's art department. I worked my way up there from a 3-month contract to eventually be its deputy creative director. I left Businessweek in 2016; I joined the Times in 2018.
You're absolutely prolific; you nail anything you set your mind to – be it illustration, animation, editorial layout or web design. Is any one discipline your favourite child, and what more do you want to learn?
I don't really have a favourite child. I'd love to get better at – all of those areas. I feel like I spend time picking at each of those things a little bit at a time and advancing very slowly across the board, haha. I really should have picked one and went with it!!! Too late now!!!!!
Your work has a unique mix of playfulness, character and sincerity; it's wonderful. What is most important to you in the work you create?
I think my best work manages to create a small smirk, a tiny fibre of muscle movement on someone's face. My dream is to make them cackle/eyes moistened/laugh so hard they can't breathe. I think it's a tall order.
The work you do seems both rooted in contemporary culture and simultaneously, and effortlessly, timeless. What do you want people to take from your work, and what do you want people to say about it?
I don't think timelessness is a necessary criterion for me. Timelessness maybe implies that the work should be/can be experienced outside of its original context. Ideally, the stuff I put out there is memorable enough to help map out what they were going through or thinking about as they move through the world at that time, kind of like time markers or signposts!
Can you tell us of any work you've been up to recently?
A super talented colleague at the Times created a new way of working with an After Effects timeline in the online space. It blew my mind! And really making me revisit AE and think about how animations/motions create meaning. Separately, I am very excited to be working on a long-form multimedia piece with a design educator and artist who works primarily in the online space. Not gonna say anything specific until these pieces publish!
What's the most challenging and the most rewarding part of your practice?
The most challenging aspect of my work is also the most rewarding. Working on all types of projects and with new groups of people involves self-managing and reinventing the workflow wheel. You gotta get into a collaborative rhythm without getting worked up or frustrated.
Getting through a project is like a three-legged/four-legged/sixteen-legged rat race. If we manage to make it through the finish line with a project with a lot of workflow complexity, I find that very rewarding. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, though, of course, we all just trip on our own little shortcomings, tumble into a giant rat king and just barrel towards the finish line in a ball of fire and anger. That's fine too, I guess.
What do you want to see more of in the creative industry? What are you doing in pursuit of this?
I'd love to see the industry move away from contractual-based employment and more long-term salaried job opportunities created, with good benefits, including paid time off and paid parental leave. In pursuit of this, I think I will move back to Canada.
What questions do you wish people asked you?
I wish people asked me what my favourite textiles are.
Well then, what are your favourite textiles?
Just guess something! I refuse to answer in just a few sentences; if you want, we can have a full interview on just textiles!