THE X FACTOR
This New York native first got interested in graphic design during sophomore year at Maryland Institute College of Art while still a sculpture major there. Leslie's internship at Esquire provided valuable insights into the magazine landscape and how to fit into it. Leslie has the design chops to create beautiful magazine pages in print and the motion skills to make type and image live and breath on the web. This young designer's conceptual way of thinking is deep and even turns to political topics on occasion. Please enjoy Leslie's perspective on design, maintaining an effective web presence, and navigating one's career.
BY: Katie Belloff
SPD-U: When did you first decide that you were going to be a designer/work in design? Were you always interested in working in magazines?
Leslie Xia: At a young age I gravitated towards magazines and comic books. I used to hang out at my dad’s grocery store in Flushing, which was next to a newsstand. Every week I would peruse the newsstand and haul back copies of J-14, M, and Tiger Beat to my room and devour them. At the time I cared more about the content than the design, but when I got older I started reading other magazines like GQ, Wired and New York.
I’ve always been interested in art, but when I went to art school, I was undecided about what I wanted to do. I loved conceptual art, I loved sculptural forms, I loved animation. One summer, before my sophomore year of college (I was a sculpture major), I decided to take a small intro to graphic design class and something clicked!
SPD-U: How pivotal of a role have internships played in your career, and do you have any tips for students looking to land one?
LX: My internships were vital because they allowed me to believe that design was something I could pursue. Not knowing your potential and what is possible can limit what you think you can do. While at my internships, I saw how magazines ran. I saw the role I could play and was able to experience first hand the excitement of it all. They also offered me amazing connections to folks who became important mentors.
However, internships are NOT the end all-be all. There aren’t enough to go around (the number of magazine internships are dwindling), and often are primarily available to students enrolled in private art schools. In our current digital age, institutions don’t need to be the gatekeepers. You have Instagram, Twitter, Dribbble, Squarespace, to showcase your work. It’s become easier to make connections, find folks interested in the same forms of content, and learn to create your own projects. If you follow the right people, send out the right messages, and create good, imaginative, personally meaningful work, you’ll be in a good place.
But, my advice to those looking for internships: 1. Apply to all of them. 2. If you know where you want to work, make sure they offer design internships, and then cold call them. 3. Never stop at the online application portal. Your application will drown in an inbox of 100 other entries. 4. Find out exactly who in the art department you would be working for as an intern. DON’T email anyone and everyone who works at the company and don’t email other people in other departments (design or otherwise) at the same company. When I was at VICE I received emails from gazillions of randos about jobs for other channels or departments at VICE that had nothing to do with me. Be precise and once you’re 100% sure it’s the person you’re looking for, send a golden email, with a glistening cover letter.
SPD-U: How do you approach a cover letter? Do you feel they're still necessary, or does an email suffice?
LX: I think the email IS the cover letter. Getting an email that is solely “Hi, here is my resume and cover letter, thank you for your consideration.” feels like a copy and pasted booty call. If you’re trying to win an employer over, take that extra step. Why waste an opportunity to let your personality shine? Use your cover letter as a way to show why you deserve to work, learn and grow with this organization.
SPD-U: Having worked at Esquire as a student, what sort of mindset should you approach your internship with?
LX: Take advantage of everything they can offer. When I was at Esquire, my Art Director, Stravinski Pierre, gave me this piece of advice: “Don’t fuck it up.” Harsh, but he meant it as: don’t have an opportunity sit in your lap and lose out on everything it can be. Ask as many questions as you can.
Also use these moments to find mentors and build connections. My supervisor, Christa Guerra, was a pivotal mentor for me. Besides being a badass, she was a female designer of color, and seeing her navigate her role at Esquire inspired and influenced me greatly. After graduation, I would go to Christa and Strav for advice and guidance, which was really important to me.
Last but not least, be respectful of your peers and colleagues, The industry (especially the design industry) is small as hell. If you come to SPD happy hours, you’ll see familiar faces. The more people you meet, the sooner you’ll realize that this is a family, and we all have to look out for each other. DON’T burn bridges, be your best self, project good energy and cultivate the relationships you build.
SPD-U: What would be your "Do's and Don'ts" for a designer transitioning into the workforce or revamping their portfolio site?
LX: *looks at my half finished portfolio site* lmao.
Even if your site is a work in progress, you still need a portfolio presence. Host a simple site that has a basic, beautiful, quick templated layout where you can showcase images of maybe 5 of your best projects. Slap your email on it, add a message about new work coming soon, list the experience you’ve had, done. You can work on making a more elaborate, beautifully laid out site while still having work up that potential employers can see.
Don’t be misleading. Be honest, document your work well, and showcase only the best of the best. Make sure, your work is front and center. Don’t code an elaborate website where someone has to snake their way through a maze. Great web design is cool, but not when an Art Director is only spending 5 seconds looking at each person’s site (host that experimental site as a separate link within your portfolio!!).
Be transparent. Define what your role was in the projects you post. Do not pass off school assignments as client or professional work! It is SO easy for employers to tell.
Lastly, make sure your email and resume are easy to find, and updated!
SPD-U: Having done a lot of work for ViceNews.com, what would you say are some of the key differences in designing for Digital editorial over Print? Were there things you didn't expect to be easier/harder?
LX: Soo many things!! I love working in each, and they both have their own unique rewards and challenges. They’re both fast paced, but for completely different reasons.
Working in news design, we were delivering content every single day, and I was conceptualizing graphics every hour for posts. I learned a lot about the ethics of journalism, image making and my role in delivering messages. I was animating profiles, creating infographics and branding our podcasts, all while art directing and designing our web feature packages, social media graphics and daily stories.
I’m currently at Men’s Health magazine, which is a monthly. It’s still quick moving because we’re constantly designing, art directing and churning out pages. However, I’m given more opportunity to spend more intentional time with each page. My only job is to make the pages I’m assigned the best they can be.
Both mediums continue to teach me a lot, and are so versatile and dynamic.
My favorite things about web are it’s fluidity and forgiveness. You can update things you messed up. The hardest thing is that nothing truly goes away. People on Twitter are the WORST!!!
For print, the best thing for me is that pages can have more design depth and texture. You have the viewers attention for longer, because they made the active decision to purchase that magazine. The hardest, which I guess this goes for both, is lack of diversity within the industry!! So many popular illustrators and designers in high positions are white dudes!! I’m trying to commission more women/queer folks of color for illustration so please hit me up! Y’all, hire people of color!!!!
SPD-U: What are some things you wish you could go back and tell yourself about working not just in publications, but as a designer in general?
LX: Stay versatile in the skills you possess! I think I was better off because I was interested in so many things. I equipped myself with the in’s and outs of print design but also had a heavy interest in motion graphics and web design. I think it’s really important to know the field and keep your tool belt ready, because editorial design is SO versatile. It thrives online, it dreams in 3D and VR, it breathes new life through video and motion design. The definition of what a publication and editorial content can be and do is constantly changing. You have to learn with it.
SPD-U: Who are some of your design idols (and can we have their Instagram tags? ;) )
LX: Omg too many. I started an instagram specifically for my design work and I use it to follow all of my fave designers and illustrators. You can go to my instagram following list to see everyone I love and all the new people I add to stay updated.
SPD-U: Do you have a guilty pleasure magazine?
LX: Ummmm I don’t really. I mostly subscribe to magazines with beautiful, informative, well thought out design and content. AND I barely have time to read those, so I don’t really have room for “guilty pleasure” mags.
SPD-U: Last but not least: favorite pizza toppings (and yes, pineapple and pickles count).
LX: I’m about to sound so boughie but my favorite pizza right now is from Fornino’s (conveniently located across from VICE HQ) Funghi Misti pizza. It’s topped with 4 kinds of mushrooms and a shit ton of juicy azz truffle oil. But otherwise, if I were held against my will and forced to order a papa johns, it would be pineapple and mushroom with a shit-ton of garlic dipping sauce.