13 minutes with Tracy Ma
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published February 7, 2017
- Portrait by Caroline Tompkins
Before she became a former creative director of Matter Studios, I had the chance to talk with Tracy Ma while she was Bloomberg Businessweek’s deputy creative director. We talked about how Richard Turley inspired her creative approach at Businessweek, the lack of earnestness in design, and why it's important to learn and build with others. But most importantly, this interview gives us a glimpse into the ideology behind Ma’s engaging and explorative work.
Mo: A lot of people are familiar with the title but aren't sure of what it encompasses. So, as a deputy creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek, what responsibilities do you hold on a daily basis?
Tracy: I guess to represent the brand in the way that I'm doing now. It's a little different for every magazine, especially with the strange way that I came to be deputy creative director at this publication. But, on a day-to-day basis, I'm kind of the team’s cheerleader. I help remind people that it’s important to have fun at this job just because of the kind of work we as a team value.
Mo: Do mind expanding on what you guys value?
Tracy: One of the many things we want to make sure of is that we turn work into play. I think things—especially design—can be a chore, especially when you're creating essentially the same story over and over again. We try to make ourselves or each other laugh and we have fun doing it. It's very important for us to reinforce that.
Mo: One thing I'm impressed by is how you guys, as you mentioned, don't take yourselves seriously. It's hard to keep that sense of integrity in explorative work. And you guys seem to not let anyone tear you away from that. Have you guys had a circumstance where you did something that made you later think, "Maybe we could've backed away"?
Tracy: We're kind of a small publication inside a very, very large conglomerate. Bloomberg bought Businessweek in 2009 and because media is so unprofitable, no one has been able to figure out how to make money off of people's attention! [laughing] So, you need to really be piggybacking off of something that is extremely profitable and, for us, it is Bloomberg's Terminal subscription service. And I think that gave us a lot of freedom. From the offset, we were in an insulated bubble within this giant company. I've been at places before where every step you take has a monetary value, and for us this publication has been very lucky to be somewhat insulated from one mistake or act, or being directly responsible for sales or something.
Tracy: So there was that and secondly, I think the creative director, Richard Turley, and the editor, Josh Tryangiel—respectively who are no longer at the magazine—kind of steered the ship with a powerful vision for what this magazine needed to be. We've always been told that the first audience of this magazine needs to be us. We should be able to pick this up and go, "Wow, I really love this magazine." To this day, when I'm picking out stories and looking back a year at previous issues, it reminds me how much I love this magazine.
Mo: Do you tend to look at other people’s work, not as an exact point of reference, but as a breath of fresh air that you want to inject in your work?
Tracy: Yeah, and [I’m] sometimes looking at too much stuff of the same genre. I can't look at too many art magazines, design magazines, or Tumblr pages for that matter because I can get very tired of it. I read [laughing] and try to do a variety of things! I started playing tennis six months ago and was so terrible at it. I think it’s good to do something that's completely out of your comfort zone, because it reminds you that you suck at stuff and you can always try harder.
Mo: It’s nice to have a release that's not aligned with what you're creatively doing. Did you have that before tennis?
Tracy: [laughing] Tennis is such a small example; it doesn't give that much of a creative release! I guess I've always loved movies and I think it's how I learned about the world, really
Spreads from a magazine Tracy made at Matter Studios where she served as their creative director.
Mo: What's your take on New York?
Tracy: I don't know. There's just potential to meet more of my people! Even though I grew up in Hong Kong, when I visited there for two months I didn't feel like any of those people were my people, even though we speak the same language. And in Toronto, I think there was a weird feeling of this place not being my home, so I couldn't love it.
Mo: Mentioning Toronto, is there a lack of accessibility that New York fills for you?
Tracy: Yeah, for sure. There's a sense of ease in Toronto; you feel comfortable and at home, at least when I go there. But then as soon as I take the public transportation I'm like, "Fuck, I cannot live here!" There's little things like that. The accessibility—physically—and then also [thinking] about one’s career, especially in the world of design. Toronto isn't a risk-taking economy.
Mo: Do you believe that New York is at the forefront of that since the publishing industry is basically homed there?
Tracy: I'm not sure. I'm here because of the people I keep meeting. I would say that it’s a forefront of people. I wouldn't know if it’s a forefront of design, because I haven't lived in enough places to say that.
Talking Through Design
Mo: What has taught you the most about communicating through design in your career?
Tracy: When I was in school, I took myself way more seriously just because I didn't know to be a creative person. And I think coming to Bloomberg Businessweek, and having Richard Turley as my mentor, gave me a master class in letting yourself have fun and figuring out how to do that. Being able to eat your own shame was a big part of it, and like I said before: being able to fail over and over again. The hardest thing can be making something not look perfect.
Mo: Do you have a question about the creative industry that you hope to find the answer to?
Tracy: Oh god, so many! [laughing] I'm going to just spitball a bunch. I guess when will design grow outside of art? Like, why is it that every creative person I meet have to have a chip on their shoulder about not being just a designer, but being an artist? The question that gets asked the most is, "What side projects are you working on?" Also, how to really figure out how to make things that nourishes one's soul, and have that be your main thing, is my big question. And there's questions about the industry as a whole reaching peak-fucking-content. Like, the Android store wants to editorialize itself, and what kind of stuff are we making if we're just trying to market things in an editorializing way? What kind of work does that make? I can't imagine it being great work, or work where you could feel that people had fun making it.
Mo: That's interesting, because you’re right about, “Where is that working leading to?” Yeah, there's a monetary benefit out of it, but what does it nourish psychologically?
Tracy: I think its cultural. You look at the 70s or 80s and there's a distinct look and feel of it that keeps getting reinforced by Hollywood and whatnot. I think design has a big part to play in the fabric of how we understand the world and what it looks like, and to be able to represent to generations after us of what it felt like being alive at this moment. I wish there was more heart to the sense of overwhelming content, because generations later we don't want to look like a massive glob of garbage.
Mo: Would you believe that the 50s and 60s ignited modern art? Because it was so new and everyone was wondering what to do with it, it seemed. I think that's what's happening right now. Our accessibility influences the idea of whatever visual landmark we make that'll be looked upon in 30 years or so. It's hard to define what's going on now when you're in the race, you know?
Tracy: Yeah, and I guess a lot of people that are in the professional world want to have some say in what it looks like right now. So I guess that supports the endless seeking of work or [at least] producing work that's meaningful.
Lack of Earnestness
Mo: What do you think people are trying to lead design towards right now?
Tracy: I'm not sure. I think we lack our earnestness. This is less the aesthetics of it than its tone, but a lot of what work now looks like is just references—not just visual. You need to have a basic understanding of your culture in order to engage with them. I kind of miss the earnestness. We don't make movies like Broadcast News or Terms of Endearment anymore.
Mo: I think in terms of producing engaging work, it's about finding and convincing people to help make it possible, regardless if you're established or not. A lot of people would assume that a household name would have no difficulty in producing something meaningful. But people are still saying no to Quentin Tarantino when he approaches them.
Tracy: I was talking to a colleague about symphonies and he wishes people still made symphonies instead of a piece of modern art that's produced quickly, but I'm guilty of this, too. [laughing] But I guess he misses work that takes a lifetime to produce. How it comes back to convincing people is that I think we still make symphonies and we view them as markers of time or of a decade. It just takes a lot more people to produce it now. The credits for a modern movie are however long it is compared to what it used to be. We need way more people to produce a great piece of work now. And, for me, in my own career right now, I'm just realizing this and trying to figure out how I can bring more of my people together.
Mo: I think that targets, as you mentioned before, the idea of how side projects are hard to maintain while you're simultaneously carrying your career’s weight. But yeah, getting more hands on something helps—it's a collaborative effort. I think that there's an idea of competition in creative industries, and since a lot of people are in their own bubble, it's hard to convince them to join others.
Tracy: I think finding people you can collaborate with is so rare, even though I'm surrounded by creatives all the time. Some people are very much into having sole authorship over something.
Mo: What do you think is the reason behind that?
Tracy: It's the legacy of an "Artist" or "Architect". The idea of the heroic producer of something is so alluring for some people that it drives them to do that. Like, for an author, the idea of sitting down and writing a book by yourself and needed the solitude to do that; that is very seductive for some people.
Mo: That happens, and going back to bringing people together, regardless if it’s in a conversation or piece of work, there's a sense of intimacy in contribution, too. Maybe someone else feels something the same way we feel it and that can lead to producing something out of that thought.
Tracy: Yeah, and it’s a skill. People pay a lot of money for people who are able to carry conversations with anyone—to be able to sit on stage and gouge money out of attendees of conferences, for example. I think all great editors are great conversationalists. It's a skill, like any other, that you have to perfect.
Mo: Are there any that come to mind?
Tracy: Great conversationalists? Yeah, I mean Josh Tyrangiel could moderate a panel of any size, and be on stage while having a completely engaged audience! A few of my close friends are extremely good at talking about things for extended periods of time.
Telling New Stories
Mo: In regards to the work that you guys create at Bloomberg Businessweek, do you focus on how to create something or why you're creating something?
Tracy: I guess for a lot of us, we want to figure out what it is; what does our time look like? That's the most generalist, vane way of putting it, though. I mean, in the most basic sense, we need to make a living. [laughing] We like to figure out how to tell new stories, visually. I guess for all of us, creating something visually, or to be able to crack a visual puzzle, really nourishes our souls as people and I think that's why we work together so well.
Mo: There's an audience for that. It's like the saying, "You have to find your peoples." For one thing that someone likes, there's another that someone doesn't. It's just about finding those people who like it and it seems like that's what your team has done.
Tracy: Yeah, and I think that’s what I would want my side projects to be able to do. I think part of the reason why I say "art" sometimes with a disdain is because of a lot my contemporaries kind of chase fame and immortality in through their work. I think that's kind of a gross way of going about doing something because it'll get you more money or something. Whereas for me, I just want to be able to reach more of my people or figure out who my people are. I can't rationalize that with going to art gallery openings all the time and schmoozing.
Mo: It's about humbling yourself. Regardless of the work we create or the people we impact, there's no such thing as immortality! [both laughing]
Tracy: You're right and I think that's one of the more interesting questions that I've talked about. Do you care if your work is famous after you die?
Mo: Do you?
Tracy: No, because I am dead! [both laughing]
Mo: One last thing I want to ask you is what you find the purpose of your work to be?
Tracy: I don't know! Find new friends? [both laughing]
Tracy: Because it feels good. [laughing]
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and Twitter
Last thing you googled?
- Mixing ram sizes iMac late 2015
Favorite foods? Please don't say kale.
Oxtail. It's sumptuous, cheap, and readily available in my neighborhood—Chinatown, Manhattan. It’s hard to order in restaurants, because it’s something you personally have to braise yourself for an entire afternoon. I find it very rewarding to make.
What are you jammin' to?
No, sorry! My taste in music is too garbage-y.
Most used apps?
Vogue Runway. Sometimes I just want to turn my brain off.
Big wave beach in Hong Kong. The fabric market in Shum Shui Po. The whole Yoyogi-Uehara neighbourhood in Tokyo. The Toronto Reference Library. The outer sunset neighbourhood in San Francisco.
I mostly just read The New York Times and Longform.org. Sometimes if I feel masochistic, I go on this website called The Twitter.
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