Welcome to the show, Mia.
Hey! I'm so glad to be here.
Do you want to tell everybody who's listening a little bit about yourself, and what it is that you do as a creative?
Sure! Hey everyone! Nice to meet you. My name is Mia Saine. I am a graphic designer and illustrator, from Memphis Tennessee in the United States. I do a lot of commercial illustration, brand design, and just stuff all over packaging design and whatnot. Showing people the happiness and empowerment of minorities, but also just telling the stories of others, because we have so much to share, and we have so much in common so I share those things. But beyond that, I collaborate with different organisations and companies to make fun things, happy things, and to encourage people to always be themselves.
This is so much a big part of why I've been following you and enjoying your work, is that it's not just beautiful work, which it is, but it also is so powerful and helps so many people think "Oh I'm being heard and I'm being seen and people are sharing my story." which is amazing and I love that!
Do you wanna tell us a little bit about what your creative journey has looked like up until now? How have you got to being an illustrator and a brand designer and all the things that you are now?
I'll go back to at least late high school, real quick and then kind of move forward because I am 25, I'm not that old, so I don't have this whole big journey that some people have had.
Back in high school, I was a painter. I was a traditional artist and I did not enjoy computers – that was not something I enjoyed, that was not what I wanted to do. And so I was brought up into this class about graphic design, and that led me to be interested in knowing more about graphic design, which led me to doing that in college. So I went to college, got my design degree and I used it for like two years and then things kinda changed. But in the meanwhile, it was such a fun time because when I got my degree I went to an amazing art college, (sadly it doesn't exist anymore, RIP Memphis College of Art), but they taught me so much and got me pretty much in the door to figuring out what I wanted to do.
In the mess of being in college, I was at a graphic design internship and I started to do these infographics, these little characters. I thought they were so fun, they were so amazing and so light-hearted and at the time I was like “wow this is great, how can I do more of this?” And at the time I was doing everything in illustrator, like pen-tooling, like doing the nitty-gritty. I lived with two illustrators and my friends were like “hey, um, you should try drawing this out,” and I was like, “what?! I don't do that.” I was very resistant because at the time I was to the book and I was just like “no I'm a designer like I don't make things to be just nice, I solve problems.” I was just being an old crabby designer, and obviously design is not limited to that.
So basically the last three years I've been transitioning more so from graphic design to illustration, however, I have a love for both. And so basically going from exploring to having the courage to put my stuff on social media. My friends literally had to threaten me to put my stuff online. Because I was like, “I didn't go for school for this. I can't claim this.” And they were like “just put your stuff online, you'll be okay. “
So I put my stuff online and that was a great way to not only share my art, but more so bring an awareness of like – when I did art at the time, I did stuff that kind of reflected what was going on in my life, so it was a great emotional outlet and I was hoping for the fact that if I did this someone else would be like "oh, like, I understand what you're talking about". That's like, exactly that. And so, from there, 2017 until now, has been that journey: me exploring and keep going and meeting cool people, like you.
“I didn't go for school for this. I can't claim this.”
Amazing! That's so cool. I love that journey and I'm a trained graphic designer too, that's what I studied, so it's cool to see someone who's also studied that and then transitioned out of it, because I don't do design anymore either, so we use it for a while and then we move on!
It's so great to know design, because design thinking is obviously just understanding how things work and how you can figure out what the scope of something is and then figure out how to not solve it but make things better and make things better for people.
I mean my degree was literally called visual communication design and I think I love the fact that as designers we do learn how to communicate visually, so even though you're not doing design anymore you're still communicating visually and telling messages and stories through the work that you do and it's probably design that has helped you to do that I'm sure.
Exactly, that's a better word for it
You said that over the last couple of years you've just kind of grown into what you're doing now, you started putting your work online, so it wasn't like "okay I'm gonna start making this a business"? Was it just more of a gradual journey?
I honestly thought I was gonna create a business doing graphic design. Because in my work I was doing a lot of freelance and working with a lot of people, to the point where I was like “hmm this could actually be something. This is cool”. However, in the meantime I'm doing these doodles, I'm doing illustrations and whatnot and posting them and I'm like "I don't know, this looks cool." At one point, this happened either last year or 2018, I noticed this kind of tipping point where people were starting to ask me more for illustration work than my design work and I was like "what?!" It just freaked me out! I was like, “I guess I can do this for you” and it kind of just kept going and I kept saying yes. I started doing different things because illustration can do a lot of things that design do, but it was just fun to see that transition for myself, 'cause I just couldn't believe it honestly.
“At one point, I noticed this kind of tipping point where people were starting to ask me more for illustration work than my design work and I was like ‘what?!’”
That's amazing! Do you think that came through word of mouth, or was it because you were putting more and more illustration work out there? What do you think led to that transition?
The transition definitely started I think more so because of word of mouth. This other fellow Memphian, they're also an artist in the community - Lawrence Matthews - he reached out to me at one point and was like "Hey, you should do some art sometime." He works for this non-profit called The Collective and the director was like "hey can you do portraits of us? and I will pay you."
That was my first commission being paid, so I was like "WOW I'm getting paid for this!" And it was crazy because I went from doing these doodles to asking my roommate, "Hey can I borrow your Wacom tablet, I've got this gig for a couple of bucks and I need this" It was great 'cause I wasn't really sure what was gonna happen with that.
“I went from doing these doodles to asking my roommate, "Hey can I borrow your Wacom tablet, I've got this gig for a couple of bucks and I need this"”
I did thirteen portraits, so I did a lot of instant learning from that. But I didn't know that they were going to open up their business and it was going to be for that. I was like “oh wow that's a lot of people seeing my work.” And just from that opening so many people were like "wow, I love your work, can I get something from you?" and I'm freaking out 'cause I'm like “wow, I didn't know that this was gonna turn out like this.”
So all by surprise, happy accidents, and being friendly!
“so many people were like "wow, I love your work, can I get something from you?" and I'm freaking out 'cause I'm like “wow, I didn't know that this was gonna turn out like this.””
It sounds like it's a good lesson in taking the opportunities that come even if you're not sure where they're gonna lead!
Exactly. I'll say this right now, this journey is completely unplanned. Everything that's happening right now is completely rogue. I'm not that organised but you have this mindset of what you're going to do, you're like “hey in like two years, three years I wanna be doing this”and then when things change off course you're just freakin' out because you have to go with it. But with changing careers, it was just kinda like a "okay, like maybe illustration can be cool?" Let me just go with this and see what happens instead of resisting it, 'cause for a minute I was resisting... a lot.
When you go to art college, and you paid a lot of money for one thing, you just don't want to think like, “are you serious, this thing right here that I didn't study for is the thing?”
But after you get over that, just do what makes you happy and what feels natural and accept it, especially when things get kinda uncomfortable or weird for you, just be like "okay I'll just go through with it."
“When you go to art college, and you paid a lot of money for one thing, you just don't want to think like, “are you serious, this thing right here that I didn't study for is the thing?””
I'm gonna presume that because you just kinda started, you didn't do any intentional branding work for yourself? You didn't set yourself up as a brand or anything from the beginning?
No. In college we had to develop our "branding", but at the time, after college I was gonna go and work at some agency or some mid-sized/large company, so it wasn't really, you know, necessary, to have a huge like great brand.
It started off with just me being like "I like these things. If I draw something I'm influenced by this, or let me pull this from here,” and my branding just kind of fell in place, but obviously just very scattered, just all over the place, until recently.
In May, I took a class with Meg Lewis, it was a personal branding class, Full Time You. It was amazing. Basically Meg did this very unconventional way of figuring out, “your brand is this, this is who you are, your brand shouldn’t be this manufactured thing to make you look great, your brand is you, so just pull from you and what inspires you.”
So during May I kind of really figured that out, like all the colours, typeface, whatnot. These are things I was already using by the way, it was just put in my face, like, this is what you've been inspired by. And it's still growing, I'm still like trying to work on my branding, but I feel like I already have an aesthetic that I just recently started to appreciate. 'Cause at first I was like, I'm just me!
I noticed that on Instagram you have the illustration of you as your profile photo, your highlights are all colour-coded and you're using the chunky retro font, which is awesome. Are those the ones that you've kind of recently brought together?
Yeah, somewhat as I'm still in the refinement mode. So those colours are about to change, like very slightly. Because I had the colour palette I knew that obviously my colours are very close to the rainbow, but I love all those colours. My brand initially started off with the mint and black & white, and I had this like really weird grey at the time. That was kind of my main branding I started off with. But then gradually while illustrating I noticed after a couple of illustrations, I'm like, man, I'm really liking these colours and it doesn't matter how many times you move throughout the colour wheel. It was like those colours – unsaturated, muted – and so I was like “okay, maybe this is what I like!”
And then I'm always a fan of Cooper Black, that's the typeface that I'm inspired by. The typeface that I use for my brand is actually really cool, it's called Doyle. It's basically like a modern Cooper Black and they've made these little small adjustments that are really nice. So it's kind of like a very 1970s, happy, joyous typeface.
Obviously you said branding is about you and who you are and so it's not just about the colours and fonts and everything. You also are really well known for those characters that you mentioned, the style of your work, the colours that you're using in your work, and the message that you send. So how have you grown your style as an artist over the last few years and built that recognisable style?
That's so cool to think about, it's like “wow! People recognise my work?!”
That was crazy because I remember I was telling my roommate “I need a style, I need a style, I'm just doing whatever.” My roommate just looked at me and he was like, you already have a style, like what are you talking about?!” So sometimes you're doin' it and you don't really understand the power that is in your hands.
“So sometimes you're doin' it and you don't really understand the power that is in your hands.”
But pretty much, my characters, the way they look now, is really influenced by the fact that when I started out I was doing it in Adobe Illustrator so I was using grids. I was using these very crazy grids and like curving them and whatnot - very technical, very technical, very long. I regret I started that way - but I got somewhere, made improvement.
But it was just like, very simple. 'Cause that's the thing with my work, I just wanted to tell as much information as possible with the least amount of content, and obviously that's the same way you kind of do with making logos and whatnot. You're trying to make this idea without using a lot of information or detail.
So literally from me transitioning to design, it influenced that. I'm like “okay, instead of this having so much texture, maybe I should make this just solid black and colour theory and, you know, choosing colours that people will respond to,” I'm like “yay for me” but I'm also like, “wait, other people have to like this colour too.” But it came to the fact of just trial and error, and like I said, after doing the branding class just figuring out that these colours make me happy and these colours show progressiveness and new ideas and stuff that basically aligned with I guess my "beliefs" and quote/unquote values.
And it kinda just happened, I realised that my work really just aligned with what I was gonna do anyway, even if I wasn't gonna make money.
And I'm influenced by so many people. So, that's why I love talking to people, getting to know people. I'm very observant of people, like haircuts, and if someone eats a certain thing, or they love a certain thing. Those little things that bring people joy, that really influences my work. Because I wanna show those moments where people are being human, not obviously being worked to death by corporations and whatnot. Like who we are when we have free time, who we are by ourselves, with our loved ones, and just like being able to showcase that. I just wanted to capture that moment of like, that empowerment of like "okay maybe I'm not in a great situation but if I think positive and I do great things for myself I'll get to this point"
I don't know if I explain this much to people but a while back I was dealing with - not even a while back, very recently I just got over it – but I was dealing with, I would say a mild kind of severe depression. So, for me, drawing my characters and whatnot, it was more so me addressing certain things that make me feel less alone. It was just like, trying really hard to focus on the positive things in life and just keeping the mindset on that and how that would look. And so it was just very funny, like you will see me now, I'm cranking out, wearing a whole bunch of black, but my work is super colourful and smiling and whatnot, and actually people don't notice either.
I think I mentioned it in 2018, but my characters, if their eyes are open that means they're confident and they're sure of themselves. If their eyes are closed that means they're healing or trying to figure stuff out. These are just little symbols for myself as I was doodling to myself, like hey, maybe I want a better day, let me draw these eyes closed, and like, this is what I feel if I got the cheesecake or whatever after this terrible breakup or something like that. And yeah it just started off from there and just kind of blossomed and now, sadly we're getting kind of political. But it's just like expressing yourself and getting out there those ideas that are in your brain.
I love the power of illustration and art in that it's powerful for you, but then also for the people like viewing it, right? So for you, it’s an exercise in, like you say, expressing yourself and leaving those signals to yourself, but then also other people who see your work are like "oh yeah I've been in this situation, I've had a breakup and then needed some cheesecake, like I've been there"
Well that's good, and that's the thing, like when people are posting online and they're doing all this stuff, I mean obviously some people are for the clout but for other reasons, you're just reachin' out to people because you want to make sure that you're not alone in this experience.
And that's the thing, throughout this life we just need to be reminded that we're all human and we all go through similar stuff. Different experiences, but we all go through similar stuff and we should appreciate it, understand it, cherish it because all of us are very valuable, all of us are loveable, all of us are you know, capable of finding happiness and pleasure and just like fun times. It's just like, you have to be reminded of that, you know, by someone else or sometimes yourself, we have that spark.
“throughout this life we just need to be reminded that we're all human and we all go through similar stuff.”
Yeah and sometimes all it takes is scrolling through your feed and seeing a piece of your work! You might be having an awful day and then see a piece that feels relevant or that you can relate to and it can change someone’s day, which is so powerful and like you say, can make them feel joyful or happy or uplift them or just make them feel not alone.
And it's crazy because like you said, looking at other peoples work. it's funny that my work is so happy - I am a happy person by the way, I'm very joyful - but who really influenced me, honestly, was Meg, because Meg has such happy content, you know? Just joyful and silly all the time. And that really influenced me to want to talk about serious content but in a way that is approachable to other people, and also in a way that is like, “hey, don't be down about it, it's a thing, cherish it, regardless of what the situation is, figure out what you're gonna learn from this, and then have some fun, that's the next step.” And she really influenced that.
But obviously, I'd be looking at Abby Lawson, Nina Simone, you know, all these different artists and be like “oh man, like you guys definitely are my blueprint of how to be happy and how to show humanity through simplicity.” I don't know, it's very interesting.
And like you say, Meg does such a great job of talking about really heavy topics but in that really approachable and fun way and I think the same of your work. You talk a lot about really quite big and heavy things from protecting the bees, to Black Lives Matter, to education, to PCOS, mental health. Some of these are really big topics that can be quite heavy and scary, but creating work that is kind of lighter or more fun and approachable is a really cool way to get people to start talking about it, and feel like it's okay to start thinking about it, or speaking out themselves about it, which I think is amazing.
Yeah 'cause like, you just have to like figure out a way to get people to think differently. I just know as an adult, some people are very open and they're willing to try different things but the majority of us, = once you kind of settle or hone in on something, that's the way you like it or that's the thing you believe in now. But if you do it in a very odd way of bringing up something, or figure out a way that's kind of like, “wow, I never thought of it that way.” It just makes it very fun to talk about, and you just can kind of casually talk to people about it, and just ,you know, be like “hey, I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Hooray! It's terrible, but let me tell you about it because if you know about it then you're able to better understand people who have it and you're able to love them and be empathetic to whoever you meet.” And for example, I made a piece, it was called Fresh Fill and it was about when you have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, you can get this condition called Hirsutism. It's about women who are able to grow beards - I am technically able to grow a great beard and I am proud of it – but I'm trying to explain to people obviously while we're in this huge society of "hair on women is gross" and you're just like "no it's not" and then you're just kind of like “okay let me put a woman and a kiwi together.” People love kiwis, kiwis are great, they're just like refreshing and nice, so I put those two together. And people are like "wow! that is so cool" and you're just like, “here you go” - it's like an introduction in a weird way that makes it friendly. So you've just gotta do it that way.
I love that and, you know, personally for me I have relatives who have PCOS and I have Endometriosis myself, so when I saw that you were talking about it I was like "Yes I love that!" It's just nice that you can see other people who have been in the same situations and seeing people talking about any reproductive issues I'm like "oh thank god somebody's talking about it." Somebody else understands how I'm feeling all the time and they've been in that situation! So yeah, it's amazing, like you said, if you can get people to just start thinking about it, or to just even know about it – I'm sure a lot of people don't even know about PCOS – so to introduce them to it through some illustration of a girl with a kiwi is amazing!
Yeah just doin' it in a way where people can just be like "hey, why is this girl with the kiwi?" and "wow, she compliments that kiwi," it's just like those little things make people receptive and more willing to listen to your story. And it's not just my story, there are so many others who are out here who don't feel seen. Having PCOS, it's very hard, it definitely sometimes interferes with business.
I don't know if you have Endometriosis, but that's horrible and it's just gotten worse for me recently. So it's just like, “how do I explain this to people the best I can?” and honestly that's when I made that piece with the girl in the dirt with the spikey cactus fruit because I was like this is how it feels. It feels like you're insane and you can't do anything about it, and you have this terrible fruit that keeps stabbing you. And it's crazy because all types of people are like "I LOVE this piece" I went to the gym and there’s this guy who was a guy I just never thought would like my work, and he was just like "I love your stuff! This is the piece I like!" and I just thought to myself, “that's so cool because I don't think he'll ever research PCOS, but the fact that this has you interested in this visual, I can tell you more about it. It’s a conversation starter.
You said that being inspired by Meg kind of encouraged you to start talking about more of these kinds of topics through your work so has this happened over time?
Yes, at first I was very reluctant to, you know, I guess putting my voice into my work because as a designer, my brain was wired to be like “this is not about you.” So when I was doing my personal work, the illustration work, I was like “wow I can do literally anything I want. This could be about a piece of pizza. It could literally be anything and it will just be my idea.” So yeah it definitely started off gradually. I took the time to be like, “hey I wanna talk about this thing, how can I symbolise this but not make it obvious and make it kind of quirky, you know?”
At first it was just like me getting used to having that and then once I kind of grasped it I was like "Oh this is cool!" It's like gaining power, you're like "Yes!" And I just started implementing these little easter eggs in my work that pertained to different situations. I know at some point I want to play around with numbers, I want to do stuff like that. There's significance in little pieces like here and there. But yeah it's a gradual thing.
You can kind of go back through your Instagram feed and you can see kind of more and more, especially lately there's a lot, you know, but it's amazing. So do you think that now people are drawn to your work or recognise you because of the messages that you're telling and the style of your work itself – do you think people are kinda drawn to that?
Yes. I have - for a long time, 'cause you know as an artist basically we have to constantly build up our confidence in our work 'cause it's kind of like, “oh your contacting me - why me?” It came to a point where I was just like “oh crap. I'm doing something that you really enjoy.” And I realised that – and this is regardless who you are, you can just be starting out or you can be the super experienced artist – but what you do is yours. As long as you obviously don't follow a formula and do exactly like someone else and you add your little quirkiness, no one can replicate that. So once you kinda figure that out you're like "no one can do it the way I can."
So you start to understand more why certain companies or people are reaching out to you. They want your aesthetic, they want your voice because you make them have this feeling of happiness, or you give them that encouragement to be like “hey this is what we believe in.” So yeah, it was a very gradual thing – people came to me and I was like” yeah I can share your story.”
I was just collaborating and figuring out how to interpret what that person or company might want, but adding my little like “sparkly sparkliness” to it.
“As an artist basically we have to constantly build up our confidence in our work”
I'm sure that your graphic design experience is helpful in that process, right? With working with clients and understanding what they need and how to tell that story and then you use your illustration magic to bring that story to life?
Yes, that's essentially what I do. Still to this day if someone comes to me for any reason, my brain does like to play both, like devil's advocate. I'm like “hey I want to do that really fun thing, however, if we do this thing you're able to do this platform which would gain this.” It’s very strategic, but at the end of the day it works out and I'm glad that I have both sets of knowledge now. I'm growing in both and it's' just wonderful to see how they work hand in hand. Design and illustration, I think they're like sisters – one is definitely more technical than the other but I mean both can be technical. It's very wishy-washy, it's whatever you want. And when people come to me, I’m trying to figure out a way when they leave the project they're better than when I first met them, they have a story to tell, or they have something to give to someone else to make them feel better. It just works out on its own but having those two assets has been a super cool thing.
“When people come to me, I’m trying to figure out a way that when they leave the project they're better than when I first met them, they have a story to tell, or they have something to give to someone else to make them feel better.”
That's probably, like you were saying, no one can do it like you can, right? And that's part of your magic, that you have that perfect combo of experience that gives you your special magic and sparkle, which is awesome.
Through this process the last few years of doing illustration and design and doing your own thing, what do you think has been the biggest lesson that you've learnt about branding your passion and turning your creativity into a business?
I think again the biggest thing that I’ve learned was, your brand should be definitely a reflection of you. It should be authentic to who you are. Let’s say I'm like a unicorn and I'm like “no I wanna be a horse and I’m gonna stay in this barn,” it just doesn't work out. It doesn't feel authentic and you can tell because then things are off, your messaging is off, and all this stuff.
“Let’s say I'm like a unicorn and I'm like “no I wanna be a horse and I’m gonna stay in this barn,” it just doesn't work out. It doesn't feel authentic and you can tell because then things are off”
For example, I love robots. At some point I'm gonna put that in there, and it's fine. And it doesn't have to be me drawing a robot, I can do something like play with the texture of steel or play around with numbers, play around with bars, do whatever. But once you can figure out those things, you just can pull it together and it just feels right. And you’ll know you're on the right track because you'll start to feel better. You're like "this is what I want." You’re like that 18th century artist who actually found what they wanted to do before they died, you're like "oh my god, the masterpiece! let me copy that!"
I know for a fact that I recently made this illustration, I did an image of the boy with the yellow bubble coat, and he was amongst some flowers, enjoying himself and that was the portrait that I was like "wow, I got it" like that was my "ahuh!" even though it was for a client.
It was just the fact of me accepting things I enjoy and obviously took reference from. In that illustration I literally took images from my phone that I took while walking in the park, or I like fashioned bubble coats, I pulled it all together and it's just like, boom, you create this creation that no one else can create. They can try as much as they want to, it's not the same 'cause YOU did it!
So you just have that confidence and you start, build off of that and it works its way out. After you reach that point you just need to kind of buffer it out, very slowly like a metalsmith person. Just treat it well, don't go and zoom off unless you're very confident, but play it off, see what else you can add to the blend, see if it works out, and see if it represents what you want to do or what you want to say.
“you create this creation that no one else can create. They can try as much as they want to, it's not the same 'cause YOU did it!”
I love that. Thank you so much for that lesson and advice. I think anybody listening is going to take some amazing value from that. So thank you. Do you wanna tell the people where they can find you, and anything you've got going on right now that you wanna share?
First things first, right now I am currently working on a website so you cannot find me on the internet like professionally, so that will be coming later this fall – I'm super excited. But you can find me on Instagram, I'm also on Facebook and Twitter .
I always hope that someone will message me like, “hey I'm trying to work on this” and I'll be like, “go ahead!” I'm interested in what people do. So reach out to me any time on social media, I would love to hear from you.
Also, projects I'm working on, I have a couple of cool things happening. Super cool things. I'm working on a couple of books, not for myself but like for other people, but really cool books I'm really proud of. This first book is actually for educational purposes, so I'm gonna be helping kids to read!
And some apparel stuff is happening next year. In 2021 I'm probably gonna go full force with merch, prints, posters, everything that everyone has been asking me for and I’ve been terrible at delivering. I was just like “I would but I only have 5 bucks!” I'm kidding. it was just more so I felt like instead of being reactive – at one point I was just making these one-off pieces and then I couldn't afford it anymore – I've decided to be more business-minded and push more of that so I can actually do collections and give you guys a wide range of work. So that's things to look forward to and I can’t wait to share!
Me too! I'm like, man, yes! I already have one of your t-shirts so I'm ready for more!
Well thank you so much for this whole conversation, for sharing your story and for sharing where we can all find more of your work and what you've got going on. I can't wait to see what happens next, and I'm sure that people are gonna find so much amazing value from this conversation, so just a huge thank you!
Yeah thank you! And I'll see you guys later, talk to you soon. Bye!
October 14, 2020