Friday Fives: Leah Maldonado

December 04, 2020

Leah Maldonado headshot

Every Friday we give #highfives to a different designer from our extended family of PNCA students, faculty, alumni, and guest lecturers. 🙌🏾🙌🏻🙌🏽 We ask them five questions, and post five images. (Sometimes they answer a few extra, like here!)

Today we're featuring Leah Maldonado, a visual designer and self-proclaimed “analytical freakazoid” who designs expressionist type, explores cultural shorthand, creates narratives, and generally pushes boundaries with a style that celebrates shared emotional and cultural experiences. After graduating from PSU and launching the expressive typography project GLYPHWORLD, Leah has worked with Future Fonts, Wieden + Kennedy, and is now with FISK projects. She's also going to be teaching Typography I with us in PNCA Design in Spring, 2021!

Leah is joining us on 12/9/20 for the final event of our Design Panel Series, a student-powered conversation with visiting guests, current PNCA Design students, faculty, and friends, presented in collaboration with FISK Projects. Join us for the online conversation by registering on EventBrite (we'll send you a's free and open to the public!).

Graphic Design department head Kristin Rogers Brown spoke with Leah in December 2020, with questions from students Emily Barrett (post-BACC 2020-21), Alicia Vidal '22, and Emma Wiseman '22.

Google Playground: Discover music in a fresh way.

Q: Can you describe your work in 5 emoji?

A: 🍀 🥺 🌱 🍎 🌎
[four leaf clover, shiny eyes, small sprout, red apple, earth]

Q: If you could get critique from one artist (living or dead) who would it be?

A: I would really love to get some feedback from Sister Corita Kent. I'm working on putting together my first course (Type 1 at PNCA!) and if I could get her two cents about how to engage a group of people... yeah that would be an out-of-body experience for me.

Colorful seashell with letter B design

Q: Why do you do what you do?

A: First I wrote: I have no idea. And then I erased it. And now I am rewriting exactly the same thing but longform, haha. I feel a little unsure as to what exactly I am doing, and then even more unsure as to why. I feel curious about the world (doesn't everyone!) and the tools I have at my disposal to react to that curiosity are captivating, too. I like typefaces because I like writing, as I write (and read!) I'm zooming into these little creatures on the page—the letters—just wondering what the hell they are and why they cause hallucinations in my mind (and yours!). It's fun to think about so I think about it a lot.

Q: How do you deal with burnout or creative block?

A: Oh god. I am still dealing with burnout and block! I am totally blocked and burnt out right now. In school I felt like a tornado, there was no deadline that was too quick or project too big. I felt like I could do anything. And then I was plopped into the real world and I realized quickly that the energy I gave myself is not appropriate to give away to others—its not met with the same gusto. It's just screaming into the wind, there's no fun echo—at least not yet. I'm learning how to parcel out my energy. I'm basically trying to figure out how to insulate my internal world so that I don't have to keep the heat on so often, haha. I've been trying to spend less time with my shiny computer screen and more time with my notebook, my family, and my piano (which I am terrible at).

Glyphgreen, green moss, mushrooms, and forestry
Magdalene, alphabet with lower and upper case letters over purple flowers
meadow of cloth flowers and greenery

Q: What influences from your childhood have shaped the way you design now?

A: I am very influenced by the Willamette valley forests. The forests here are ancient, magnificent, and extremely chaotic. They are very maximal systems that you can zoom into and out of. To me, there is no singular mastermind of nature, it's just a giant ecosystem whose complexity is difficult for a human to fathom. As a child I spent a lot of time in the forest looking for fairies and other magical things—I can't describe how this affects my work but it does.

I also did ballet for a very long time as a child and this has affected the way I learn and approach new things. In ballet there is the barre where you learn technique and you practice. And then there is the center where you take what you learned and put it into patterns called choreography. This pedagogy is how I've approached everything in design. I go to the metaphorical barre—practice, practice, practice—and then when I'm ready I put that practice into intricate patterns and do a project.

Q: Tell us about a time when your work was rejected? How did you take the rejection and turn it into growth/a learning experience?

A: My work gets rejected constantly, I'm not quite sure if I've done a commercial project that's been approved yet? When something I make is rejected I get pretty frustrated at first... I'm still in a phase where I want my paid work to be art projects (that is not going to happen any time soon). Then I just iterate and try again and try to believe that the process is the fun part and not frustrating at all!

infographic for fish and new job

Q: Compare your experiences (pro and cons) working with corporate design / freelance design / studio design etc etc?


Corporate design

  • Pro:
    • Money
    • Lots of people to meet
  • Cons:
    • Byzantine social politics
    • Corporate Clients

Freelance design

  • Pro:
    • freedom
    • money
  • Con:
    • no one to hold you accountable but yourself
    • uncertainty about next paycheck


  • Pro:
    • Fun clients
    • family feeling
  • Con:
    • Not as much money
    • must wear 1000 hats at all times
A letter B activity book featuring a cartoon character

Q: What’s your advice on becoming successful in the design world? (For people just out of school.)

A: I was a designer before I went to design school. It has been a seven year process for me to break into the industry. I think a lot of people don't realize I'm closer to 30 than I look (I have Benjamin Button disease)! I was hired at WK straight out of school but that wasn't really the beginning of my journey at all. I had tried and failed a lot before getting to that point. Before I gave myself the time and space that school provides I was a graphic designer-as-waitress for a very long time. Before school, I was more interested in photo and art direction; I applied for tons of studio positions that I wasn't really qualified for, but I knew that you learn a lot on the job so I tried and tried and tried. I would get a freelance gig like once or twice a year but mostly just did self-initiated, personal projects. I came to school with a tiny bit of experience and a desire to take things very seriously, but it took me a few years to get to that spot. It can be misleading to define success as having a particular job out of school. To adhere to any definition of success that you didn't write for yourself is misleading! Making a logo for your homie is success in the design world, making a custom sneaker with your name on it is success in the design world, tagging a pole is success in the design world, left aligning some text on a billboard for a ride-share app is success in the design world, laying out your mom's resume is success in the design world, its all the same! Like, helllllo—graphic design is a cubicle job branded to seem fun! The actual world is a lot bigger than the design world.

Define success in a very personal way, don't settle for a mainstream definition of success. For me, right now success means having enough money to pay rent, to buy my friends' artwork, have organic groceries, and pay my debt. Do I have to be a designer to have these needs met? No I do not, but its very nice to use the skills I've learned to pay for the roof over my head. For a long time I was a waitress and was very successful (according to my definition of success). But I felt inadequate. I felt like a creative person wasting their time in the service industry, but when I was a waitress I was just as much of a successful artist as I am now as a working designer. The design world can take time to break into, and patience once you're in it. But life is so much larger than your day job.

Q: How do you schedule/organize your time?

A: I struggle with this. I don't really have a system. I try to work very hard when its time to work and just get it all out all at once. If I just do a little of something I'll procrastinate and maybe abandon the project. But I am working out a consistent morning routine where I wake up around 7:30, do a workout and then drink coffee and read until 10am, then I start my day. I don't look at my phone or computer until 10am. That's helpful.

Words reading "make a letter under a tree" that is layered behind an outlined tree all on top of a river background

Q: If your artistic world/universe had to have set senses...what tastes, smells, touch/feel, sounds, and main visual elements would apply?

A: My artistic universe would feel like the natural world's version of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas written in grafitti style

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See more from Leah at, or follow her on instagram @fun.weirdo.

Hear more from Leah in conversation with students and faculty in our Design Panel Series, FREE with registration (we'll send you a link). Co-hosted by PNCA Graphic Design and FISK. Series poster by FISK.

Follow along with our #fridayfives on instagram @pncadesign.