Why Sophia Yeshi is Advocating for Inclusive Art in the Design Industry
This illustrator decided to create the world she wanted to see.
Even the most successful people had to face a few obstacles to get to where they are today. In our series Failing Forward, women at the top of their game reveal the biggest lessons they’ve learned in their careers, from trusting their guts to standing up to critics.
Graphic designer Sophia Yeshi’s Instagram is decorated with her bold, vibrant illustrations that often feature Black women living authentic, joyful lives. The 25-year-old Black, queer, and South Asian illustrator, who has created work for top brands such as Instagram, Refinery29, and Converse, makes it a priority to showcase BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community with every client she works with. “Growing up, I didn’t see many people that looked like me at the forefront of art and design,” says Yeshi. “I decided to create the world I wanted to see.”
For this month's Failing Forward, Yeshi sits down with HelloGiggles to talk about how to develop a creative niche, why the design industry needs to be more accessible, and how to create art that is authentic to your values. Read below to hear her story.
Career Lesson #1: You can find creative outlets even with limited resources.
Growing up in a working-class family in Baltimore, Yeshi couldn’t afford extracurricular activities, but she did have access to a computer. “At 12 years old, I discovered Photoshop, and used a free trial that I found on Neopets,” she says. However, at the time, Yeshi didn’t necessarily equate graphic design as a profession she could pursue.
“I think there’s a fear that holds me back from some things, that if this doesn’t work out, then what am I good at?” Yeshi says. “But if you don’t try, then you never really experience rejection and failure, and it got to the point where I’d much rather fail than not try.”
Yeshi ended up attending a magnet vocational high school where she had the chance to specialize in graphic design. Following graduation, she had dreams of attending art school, but when she didn’t receive any scholarships, she had to turn down the opportunity. While others in her position might’ve given up, Yeshi took the opportunity to apply and go to the University of Baltimore. She studied digital communication but continued to build her portfolio designing flyers and logos for friends and local events. This paid off when she landed her first full-time graphic design gig at Charm City Concierge, a company that delivers concierge services in a corporate environment, right after graduation.
Career Lesson #2: Focus on finding your niche, and the jobs will come.
Although the stability of a full-time job in Baltimore was great, Yeshi realized she wanted to do more than just design flyers and brochures. “A lot of my illustrations are about things that I’ve personally been going through like confronting vulnerability or feeling uninspired,” says Yeshi. “I’m Black, Pakistani, and White, and my audience is Black women and women of color in the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted to create narratives that portrayed the world around me.”
So in 2019, with no job prospects in sight, she decided to make the leap and move to New York City to focus on creating a career that embodies her values. Unfortunately, when she first arrived, she applied to full-time positions but wasn’t having any luck. “I started freelancing out of necessity,” says Yeshi. “I had always had freelance clients on the side, but never full-time.” But just two months after striking out on her own, she was commissioned by Refinery29 and featured on Adobe’s Live Masterclass. Looking back, Yeshi notes, “those two things gave me confidence, and made me realize I could do it.”
Career Lesson #3: It's okay to ask for help.
While Yeshi has found success in the industry by commissioning illustrations for Rock the Vote and Instagram, she notes that it’s often hard for women of color to gain a foothold in the design world. The astronomical cost of college can prevent budding artists from going on to refine their skills with professional training. “I just hired an agent, because often I feel like women of color aren’t given the skills to navigate the business side like how to spot bad contracts,” says Yeshi. “I never saw graphic designers who looked like me growing up. It starts with representing women of color not only in the artwork itself, but [also] as professionals in the industry.”
Career Lesson #4: Learn to trust yourself and create work that is authentically you.
Today, Yeshi has managed to gain an impressive amount of range in her portfolio, with diverse projects ranging from brand materials for artisanal businesses to ads for Converse shoes. When it comes to securing work that aligns with her mission of representation, Yeshi says she looks for brands with diverse messaging. “I’m just very explicit about the kind of work I want to create,” she says. “I only put out the kind of work on my website that I wanted to be hired for.
But even though Yeshi has a long list of clients that other people dream of having, she admits it still can be hard to believe in herself every now and then. But rather than wallowing in her fears, she's learned to trust who she has become as a graphic designer—and she recommends others to do the same. “I think the hardest part of being a freelancer is trusting yourself,” says Yeshi. “But you have to remember that no one else can tell your story. Your work doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. You are you. Trust yourself, and trust your vision.”