Balancing act: Graphic designer and illustrator Reyna Clarissa

By Lyka Sethi · Dec 21, 2018 · ·

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At 21 years old, Reyna Clarissa is on her way to mastering the art of balance. I’m on the phone with her as she sits in a café on the campus of her alma mater, Maryland Institute College of Art, where she’s scheduled to be a guest critic for students’ final projects. Throughout our conversation she emphasizes how important time management and measured prioritization have been in her personal and professional development thus far. Given her aspirations — to be a designer who is also in business, community development, social impact, and fine art — this makes complete sense.

This September, Reyna became Nooklyn’s first-ever in-house designer. The position was created to generate effective marketing materials for new rental apartment buildings and homes for sale. But in three months, she has realized how much larger the scope of her role truly is — from creating logos and designing infographics to concepting a branded print publication and creating social media assets, Reyna says it’s a bit like being a “designer-in-residence”. Whether she’s drawing freehand with a pen and paper, working digitally, or laying out a page of copy, she keeps an array of tools at arms’ length and taps into a wide range of skills.

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Most people who have held an office job know that juggling projects is often more difficult than excelling at the skills a position demands, but not everyone can easily figure out how to stay afloat. When I ask Reyna how the new gig has been treating her, she replies confidently. “I’m excited about having so much to do, but I’ve quickly started learning how to say no and manage priorities. How to say ‘okay, is this important? What’s important for the person who’s asking, and what’s important for me?’” It’s almost shocking to hear these words from a young professional (though my surprise is tempered when I find out Reyna worked in the city throughout college). Regardless, I’m impressed — she understands the significance of balance in the workplace, something that takes most of us years to grasp.

Reyna grew up an only child in the seaside city of Padang on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. She spent her early years immersed in the arts — dancing, singing, drawing, the works. But she also enjoyed working with computers. “I started using Photoshop when I was in primary school, for Friendster [social network]. My best friend and I wanted to change our eye color and retouch our photos. And I loved installing games,” she says. Her initial instinct was to study computer science.

On September 30, 2009, a powerful earthquake hit Indonesia, its epicenter just northwest of Padang. It made international headlines and left devastating casualties and damage in its wake. “It was terrifying. I was alone at home in the afternoon. I saw the building next to me crumble and the sky turned grey from the fires in the city. There was no signal to call my parents — the only person I was able to call was my best friend who lived five houses away from me,” Reyna recounts. Her family was safe, but they decided to move to capital city Jakarta where Reyna spent her high school years.

In Jakarta Reyna was astounded to find that her peers had been speaking English since childhood and seemed to be fluent, down to a mastery of American slang. “I didn’t want to be left behind so I started reading books, writing, and watching movies without subtitles. Nicholas Sparks was the first [author] I read,” she laughs. Learning English planted the seed for her to consider a life in the United States.

Reyna continued to keep a sketchbook, doodling between classes. She was studying science, but as graduation approached she had to come to terms with what her gut had been telling her all along—to pursue art.

“I liked both the creative and practical [aspects] of art and design, not just finishing a painting and putting it up on a wall. I learned the term graphic design and was immediately interested.” While her father was open to her studying whatever made her happy, her mother was less lenient. “I had to write a proposal for my mom and make a five-year plan,” she says. “In the end she said yes. Hopefully she’s happy with where I am now!”

She built her portfolio and aimed for the top five art schools in the US, and in a blink of an eye, Reyna was on a flight to New York. “My first touchpoint in America was JFK, which was kind of sad because airports in Asia are so nice. And when I got out of the airport, I thought immediately I would see skyscrapers.”

Thus she began a new chapter as a Graphic Design major at MICA in Baltimore. It wasn’t an easy transition, but Reyna focused on what she was there to do — learn. “I definitely had a bit of culture shock, but going to an art school made me realize there were other people who draw and like design,” she says. “It felt like a different world. It let me exercise my conceptual and design thinking. In the first year, you can do anything you want. That was a new kind of freedom for me.”

In college, her childhood habit of mindlessly doodling in the margins of her notebooks returned. To her surprise, people loved her drawings on Instagram, which led to her first published book project. Drawing became an integral part of her design process, no matter what type of project she was pursuing: “Putting everything on the page first is always a good starting point for me.”

During her last semester at MICA, Reyna decided to branch out and try a marketing course at nearby Johns Hopkins University. Suddenly, her perspective on design began to shift, and she started to ask herself new questions. How could the worlds of business and design intersect in more meaningful ways? What would the outcomes look like if they did?

“I realized if design people and business people meet somewhere in the middle, things can be better for everybody. And I became interested in entrepreneurship. But I didn’t know what to do with these realizations,” Reyna says. “I hate it when people say, ‘oh, so you just draw?’ Design thinking is important. I wanted to use design as a tool for something bigger.”

When she found out that Nooklyn was looking for a full-time designer in NYC, Reyna seized the opportunity. The role offered a multidisciplinary approach to design, but in a totally new industry. “At Nooklyn there was a clear overlap between design and business. And looking at how they represent neighborhoods and the people who use our roommates feature, I realized the community building element is strong,” she says.

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Reyna loves New York’s rough edges, its honesty and unabashed diversity, and she also savors its reminders of home. “People from all walks of life live here. In the subway you see completely different people sitting next to each other,” she says excitedly. “There are Indonesian restaurants, and I love the Asian bakeries here. I grew up eating bread at bakeries where you walk in and it’s like Disneyland. I love finding those throughout the city.”

I ask Reyna what has been most instrumental to her over the past couple of years as an art student-turned-young professional, and what advice she would give to other budding artists. She replies without hesitation: practice. “You’re not going to make great work right away. When you’re starting out, quantity is more important, and the quality of your work will slowly increase.”

When it comes to the vast number of tools that are out there both for creation and promotion, she recommends sticking to the tried and true. “I try not to fall into trends. I love the good old plain sketchbook and pen,” she says. “And it’s becoming so easy to share work online. You know what will get the likes, you know what will make people excited. But you also know that this is your craft. Pursue that rather than just making things you know will be liked.”

As she continues to explore this first phase of her multifaceted design career, Reyna makes sure to use her time wisely, balancing her full-time job at Nooklyn with side projects. Just two months ago, she partnered with a friend to launch a graphic design studio called Studio Nana (a cutesy combination of the co-founders’ names, Reyna and Tina). They hope to delve into projects with nonprofit organizations and cultural institutions. “We want our studio to feel like a friend,” she says.

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Of her other exciting passion projects, she explains: “I love collaborating with writers. I worked on a poetry book and am doing a series with an ‘Instafamous’ Indonesian writer,” she tells me.

Reyna is eager to continue applying her artistic chops in new and different ways, and she understands that investing in a strong network and dividing her time responsibly are vital to a healthy, balanced life and career. “I only recently learned about the power of mentors and using yourself as a catalyst. People are nice and supportive,” she says. “Now I’m motivated to reach out and create opportunities for myself.” It’s clear that she’s just getting started.

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Image Credits:
1) Photo by Moiz K. Malik
2) Tote bag design courtesy Reyna Clarissa
3) Logo designs for Nooklyn apartment buildings courtesy Reyna Clarissa
4) Door hanger designs for Nooklyn agents courtesy Reyna Clarissa
5) Sketches for Nooklyn projects courtesy Reyna Clarissa