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Global Visionaries: Dustin Mara

Portrait of Dustin Mattaio Mara

The Office of Global Affairs is delighted to feature Dustin Mara for our March 2023 edition of the Global Visionaries series. The Global Visionaries series highlights the University of Washington’s global impact by featuring innovative, globally-engaged faculty, staff, and students.

Dustin Mara, Class of 2022, graduated cum laude from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication Design and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies. Dustin was recognized as a 2022 Husky 100 and he is passionate about rowing, bringing awareness to gender based violence, and creating diversity in predominantly white sports.

Dustin shares about his global upbringing, his vision for intersecting culture, language, and type design, and what he is looking forward to about his future career.

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Tell us about your upbringing. What was it like living across the Pacific Ocean?

To me, being Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) means that family, including close family friends, comes first. Much of my mother’s side lives in the Philippines and on the west coast, and my father’s on the islands of Guam and Hawaii. I definitely didn’t grow up with a majority of my family nearby, but nonetheless we all felt very close despite the spread. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the ways of living in each of these places and piece together how that represents who I am today.

Dustin with his family in the Philippines
Dustin with his family in the Philippines

So much of that spread across the pacific, and then being very privileged at a young age to travel the world, inspired my interest in geography and culture. This eventually led to me studying International Studies alongside Visual Communication Design. I think that this awareness of who I am, in addition to my interest in the world around me, influences how I approach design. In design, we discuss our audience and users and how to be most empathetic to them and how to fill their needs and wants. I think that coming from many places and seeing and living many realities helps me with design, curating a global worldview.

I’m very proud of my cultural background and way of life. It’s exciting to say I have family from everywhere and get to visit those places frequently.

How did you become involved with the Rowers of Color Community? Why are you passionate about creating diversity in predominantly white sports?

I was actually one of the first people to put Rowers of Color Community (ROCC) together. I had a friend from the rowing team reach out and say hey I have an old teammate from highschool who has toyed with the idea of ROCC. She brought the three of us together alongside a few other friends/teammates and we hashed out how to create a safe space for BIPOC rowers in the sport — our primary goal was to create a safe space for BIPOC rowers to talk about the difficulties of being the only person of color on a team.

For me, our mission was very personal. As a youth athlete my team was very white, and I was for most of the time the only BIPOC athlete — fortunately, it was never a big deal, or perhaps I was just too naïve then. It wasn’t until joining the team at UW that I started to see how different I was compared to my non-BIPOC teammates. It’s an unfortunate truth, but that was one of the things that factored in when I had to choose between the Design program and being on the rowing team.

I couldn’t imagine that I was not the only person who felt this way, whether a youth athlete, collegiate, or even an adult. I wanted to share with others that those feelings aren’t isolated, as I’ve learned from being close friends with other BIPOC athletes. As ROCC slowly grew we were meeting people who had these feelings all across the country. Through ROCC I was able to work with nonprofits, small organizations, and podcasts that were all dealing with the same issues. It was reassuring to know that people felt the same way, and it’s even greater to know that people are actively making space for BIPOC athletes in the sport.

Tell us about DesCare. What was it like being the first President of the RSO?
DesCare team meetings
DesCare team meetings

DesCare is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) that encourages design students to build a stronger community by discussing the issues of the creative field or even distracting from it.

The group was put together after one of our alumni presented their senior capstone about mental health in the design program, and the unfortunate truths it held. As someone who related to the project, one of my personal goals was to create a culture shift within our program. The UW Design program provides a truly world class professional education and network, but in doing so there was an air of competition amongst peers which is mostly put forth by the students themselves. There was also a large sense of siloing between each class and the three majors in the program. I wanted the design student body to feel a bit more cohesive and approachable, knowing that we are all going through the same thing together and will have to face the creative industry together.

As the first President of DesCare, I spent my time learning about what the student body needed and what our role was as part of the program. Our very first steps were to support students with very clear mental health resources, for example bringing in speakers who had experience talking about imposter syndrome, group lead meditation, or just sharing the UW mental health resources. Eventually we shifted to a more ‘fun’ based program structure, as we learned that we just needed a space to socialize and talk about our struggles in design with one another. So eventually that looked like having socials, or turning the studio into a game lounge, or sending candy grams.

After I graduated, I heard that the sense of competition and siloing has gone down significantly. It’s hopeful to think that maybe that culture shift was achieved or at least kick-started. It’s exciting to continue to see what the current DesCare group has done with the RSO and their plans for the future, especially with how young it still is — so much potential for within the program and beyond!

How does your work sit at the intersection of culture, language, and type design?

This is always a hard question to answer and keep concise… I can talk for ages about how my two degrees, Visual Communication Design and International Studies, have always complimented each other, even if it’s not an expected pairing. So much of design has to be empathetic and aware, and it has to come across in understanding where people are coming from — both literally and figuratively. To understand one’s culture and the way they speak plays a major role in the way I research and craft design solutions.

Meskla Sans type specimen book, one element of Dustin's capstone
Meskla Sans type specimen book, one element of Dustin’s capstone

This intersection comes from my longtime fascination with language from a young age. It is interesting to think that the syntax and colloquialisms of language frame the way we think and lead our lives. This ties in directly with designing type. Typefaces are the visualization of our spoken language. At a basic level a font can say the meaning of a word/phrase as it is, but it can also add additional meaning to that word or phrase in the way the font looks and feels. It’s almost like we are shifting the framing of language via the way the letterforms are crafted, and in a lot of ways we are! In addition, I’ve always seen typefaces as the building blocks of visual communication design (and the building blocks of written language) and so distilling the vastness of design into a single thing, which can take hours to craft with all the minute details, is why type design drives my practice.

If you look at one of my capstone projects for example, Meskla Sans, I designed a typeface that represented my condition as someone whose family is spread across the pacific and receiving a design education on the mainland. I looked into the smallest features of each letter and tried to build in features that represented the cultures of the various places I call home. It comes through more in some letters and less in others, but as a whole the typeface represents me.

I try to keep this global lens with every project I take on. I think understanding that the United States has its own design sensibilities helps determine what solutions are more viable that others.

What was it like to intern at a global creative consultancy in New York?
Dustin and other interns in a meeting room
Dustin and other interns in a meeting room

I interned at Lippincott the summer/fall right after graduation! I was fortunate to meet an alum in the program, who guided me through the interview process and eventually hired me as a Lippincott-er. It was my first ‘real’ job in the design world, and I have to say the UW Design program prepared me so well for it; it just felt like a continuation of school. It was also amazing to work alongside a super diverse group of designers, both in their personal and professional backgrounds. The office was full of creatives in different fields so it was great to see how people are expressing their creative problem solving in many ways. New York itself is a massive cultural melting pot so getting to step out of the office and have so much inspiration at hand was incredible.

During my internship, I was fortunate to see client work from all over the world, from all of the different offices. It was interesting to see how the design process was nudged around to fit cultural differences, again something that is so key to my own personal practice. I learned so much from my internship and that learning has only pushed my work deeper into the intersection of my interests.

As a recent UW graduate, what are you looking forward to about your career?
Some of the Class of 2022 Design students before graduation
Some of the Class of 2022 Design students before graduation

I can’t say enough how both my education in Visual Communication Design at the School of Art + Art History + Design and in International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies have prepared me for what I hope to be a very successful, and very global career in design. I can’t wait to explore different areas of design and to continue to push my freelance design practice — I help many nonprofits and small businesses with design!

The University of Washington has provided me with the skillset, experience, and network that allows me to feel comfortable to pursue jobs and further education worldwide and not just limit myself to the Pacific Northwest or the United States. I am excited to go out and explore the opportunities that exist internationally to bring my unique background and design sensibilities. I also hope one day I will have the opportunity to come back home (to UW!) and share my stories to come with future students.