Spend time with Tracy Ma’s editorial design, and you’ll experience that same disconcerting feeling that comes the moment after you realize you’ve been pranked. The scrappy collages and splintering montages that she created during her time at Bloomberg Businessweek radiate like the jarring sound of an air horn. Perhaps it’s unsurprising given her mentor; when Ma joined the company in 2011, she worked under the celebrated Richard Turley, writing in a Medium post that the experience felt “a bit like going to art school.”
It’s not simply graphic gags that motivate Ma. She’s drawn to the power of the unexpected, and has used her punchy design sensibility for non-profit causes, like a recent video for a Self Defense Starter Kit series for Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment and a shirt collab with The Fader (with proceeds donated to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR.) As of last October, Ma left her position of creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek to join Matter Studios as creative director, and now she’s freelancing and teaching at Parsons.
Before Businessweek, Matter, or her move to New York City’s Chinatown, subverting expectations was the design priority for Ma. This is strikingly apparent when looking at her first freelance commission after graduating from art school in Toronto: a newspaper format menu for an upscale farm-to-table. It’s difficult to design a menu that teams of online reviewers would call out as “bad,” especially given that the majority of menus that people come across daily are already quite poorly designed. Yet Ma managed to do so, an accomplishment and memory that continues to provide her with copious amounts of glee.
“I graduated in May 2010 and I jumped immediately into a job with an ad agency called Leo Burnett. It sounds really unambitious of me, but it was the summer and I just wanted something to carry me over for a little while before I worked out what to do next.
“Leo Burnett was in the middle of repositioning itself as a design studio instead of a traditional ad agency, which is kind of what everyone’s doing right now. Nonetheless it had these giant corporate gigs and I was doing my share of laying out brochures for the Canadian version of AT&T and making cereal boxes for Kellogg’s Canada. We’d make these giant mood boards for companies like Diet Coke to try and win the client, working on them for six or seven months, and then the client would say ‘no’; and we’d get going with the next giant mood board. Leo Burnett was trying to change the way it did stuff, and was looking for quicker, smaller projects, and offering to do them for free or very little money.
“At the time, the creative director Lisa Greenberg had very much taken me under her wing. She had these fabulous restaurateur friends who were in the middle of coming up with a super upscale farm-to-table restaurant that would be a sister site to something they already owned. They rented a beautiful brownstone in a historical, gay neighborhood in Toronto and were very proud of their endeavor. Lisa, who is best friends with one of the restaurateurs, said to me one day, ‘Oh Tracy, in the time when you’re not designing the Kellogg’s boxes, which are boring you to death, do you want to take a stab at designing the identity and menu for this restaurant?’ I was super gung-ho. I was 22 and very eager.
“I just ran with it. My first idea was to make the menu newspaper format and I didn’t pitch anything else. I was really into zines at the time, and all my peers were printing them very cheaply at local newspaper printing houses. I thought it would be cool to have these really cheap broadsheets at a very fancy restaurant. I wanted it to be so big that people were literally blocking the brand; holding these giant menus as if they were flags. I’m holding the menu right now. It’s huge. At the time, I figured people could just fold it. That’s what people do, they fold newspapers.
“The idea is that it could also wrap take-out and fries, and it would be thrown away after use. I took these big, beautiful pictures of the food, in black and white, and used a typeface that a friend of mine from college made called Hudson.
“Months later I was invited to eat at the restaurant with my boyfriend at the time. I observed the menu in use, and watched all these families and a lot of older people struggling with the giant newspapers, clearly not happy with it.
“I also remember reading a lot of reviews on the early Yelp, where customers were writing, ‘The food is fine, but the menus are so huge.’ I think this is when I got addicted to trolling people.
“I was completely satisfied with the result. The only thing that made me dissatisfied was that no one cared to tell me that they changed the menu design, probably because I was a junior, junior, junior designer. A few months after I’d completed the newspaper menu, I realized that the restaurant had replaced it with a very standard menu.
“From the design community though, I got a bit of positive press. UnderConsideration’s Art of the Menu did a post on the design, and the city magazine that I went on to work for wrote a piece on the restaurant and said, ‘check out the cool menu.’ So it was talked about twice in its lifetime.
“Overall, this was an important, early experience of what it’s like to create something that people clearly don’t love, but that other people do love. People’s reactions were either, ‘this is so cool,’ or ‘I can’t read anything. It’s too big, I’m elbowing my fellow diner.’
“I’m drawn to designing experiences that are memorable. After this restaurant menu, I got hooked on it, and it’s something that I always seek out in my work. Years later, designing Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual conference, I also sought out little moments to jolt people. I like tiny anomalies in an otherwise very normal process.
“Because of the menu, I started to develop thick skin. I realized how to deal with both kinds of reactions. Last summer for example, after I designed the logo for Matter, some people really loved it and others hated it: it was extremely divisive, but I didn’t take it to heart. I would be so unhappy with myself if I just did something that people want, and I learned this early on. Criticism is interesting because it shows you where design is right now; it draws very clear boundaries. Where clashes are the most evident, where a conversation sparks, is the moment in design that I most enjoy and learn from.”