Saturday, 3 May 2014

In Defence Of Our Dreams: AMINA

‘In Defence Of Our Dreams’ is a project where I interview various people about their pursuit of a creative life. Pursing creativity and wanting to do something different or special with your life can be very challenging and disheartening at times, so I’ve always loved to read how other people are coping with it and how they find the drive to carry on when things are difficult. If you’d like to know more or you’d like to take part, look HERE.

Hi, Amina! Thank you so much for being part of In defence of our dreams. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for asking me! Well, my name is Amina (you can call me Mina if you like.) I’m 26 and live in Massachusetts in the US. I am a proud southerner, born and raised just outside Atlanta, GA. Think I’ll stop there or there’ll be nothing left to tell!


Haha. You’re a writer and a graphic designer. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Between words and images, I cannot say if one came before the other. They naturally seem to flow together for and from me. In thinking back, I cannot remember a time when I was not a maker of some sort. I was the kid who got art supplies for gifts and to this day, I get excited going into a craft store. The distinction I make now is that I am a designer professionally and a writer personally.

My official title is a User Experience Designer. With everything I do, from apps to e-Learning courses to info-graphics, I am consistently considering the needs, wants, and mindset of the person who will be using my designs. Some of this is intuition and empathy, but a huge part of it is user research and translating that into design. Though being a wordsmith is an asset to my design process, I wouldn’t consider myself a writer. Especially since I am privileged to work with a team of them! My company is mission-driven with a focus on health communication. It was founded with the notion that people have a right to health information that they can understand and use. I am consistently in awe that I get to build a career doing things I love that come naturally to me but also that my work has a positive impact on people’s lives.

I realized art and design was my professional path in high school. I knew I wanted to learn more than my under-funded public high school could allow. I explored the different paths I could take as a creative, like being a fashion designer as I was constantly drawing gowns and taking requests to wanting to write and design my own magazine as I managed our literary magazine. Since I was a gifted student and bored of what my circumstances had to offer me, I latched onto the idea of what I could become if I could just find the path.

Meanwhile as a creative writer, I had been consistently producing work for assignments through middle school and high school. Often I would project out experiences that I hadn’t lived yet but sometimes there would be things taken directly from my life. It wasn’t until I hit my junior year in high school that the floodgates really seemed to open. My creative writing teacher saw something in me and actually gave me challenges different from the other students. I wrote more poetry that year than I ever have and started to learn about myself as a writer. He had the class dissect a poem I had written (which they were unaware of). They found so many literary devices and hidden meanings (that I was unaware of). He told me later that it was a sign of a good writer that I instinctually do those things and told me I was a lucid dreamer. I often don’t recall what I’ve written by the time I’ve gotten to the end. The words just tumble out of me and it was only a matter of time before I started a journal to write about my experiences.

I furiously wrote as much as I could and found myself being more honest in words about my feelings. It felt easier in many ways and allowed me to see myself in words. It was a way for me to reflect and learn. It was an outlet for everything I’ve ever wanted to say. And once the words tumbled out and I found the phrase that communicated my emotions perfectly, I could let it go. It lives on the page and not in me anymore. Writing equals catharsis for me.

Thus, it became a very personal thing for myself that I didn’t want to study. I didn’t want try to break it down with my analytical brain, like when they dissected that poem in class or learning all optical illusions in art class. Since it is so personal, I am always somewhat staggered when someone responds to my words. Possibly because I am in a lifelong conversation with myself and I forget that others are in the room. Their presence is welcomed since I share my words but regardless of my audience, I know writing is a selfish act for me that I will always do even when no one is looking.

The two halves come naturally and interplay with each other and I am thankful I can balance them based on what purpose they serve for others and myself.


Who or what inspires you?

Professionally, I am often inspired by the person on the other side of my designs: the user. I think and feel my way through what that person may need, want, expect, or be annoyed by and use that to drive my decisions. It’s truly rewarding when you know that you’ve connected; when something that was visually communicated is understood, or when an experience is rewarding.

Taking a step back, music has been a driving inspiring force for as long as I can remember. Whether I am a writing or designing, I can always recall my headphones being present. It is part of the process as I’ve spent many hours with the keyboard and mouse in hands like I’m playing an instrument and bouncing in my seat performing for no one as I create. I’ve taken the opportunity to design or write about music for class assignments whenever possible, and have been fortunate enough to professionally design for musicians I respect.

And even though I do not know their craft, I feel connected to them as fellow creatives. A penultimate figure on what I like to call my Love List is Prince. He is an omnipresent cultural figure in my life. One of my earliest memories is watching my dad dance around to Controversy. Since I came from music loving parents, I have many memories with music attached to them. In hindsight, he is often right there like a distant uncle that sent songs instead of letters. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to truly appreciate him and what he’d been trying to tell me all these years. Many of the traits I seem to find in others on the Love List I can trace back to his influence or similarity. As a creative, I saw in him an example of fearlessness, dedication, and demonstration of excellence as a habit. I saw that growth as an artist and as a person weren’t mutually exclusive ideas.

It is not surprising to me that many of the people I admire are musicians. Since I am ever the reflective, I think I’ve worked out why music sits in such a hallowed position. Though I love to sing and dance, music is not something that I do. I see instruments as statues that I revere too much to touch. I don’t want to know chord progressions or how to read scales. I prefer music to be experienced instinctually as I drown in it motionless or whipped into a frenzy of voice, shimmies, and hip jerks. I am full of feeling in something I cannot fully capture and hold. Yet even in its amorphousness, it is ever impactful and heavy enough to anchor itself down into various parts of my life.


If you could do anything without the fear of failure, what would you do?

This is a tricky one. It implies that fear of failure would impede me from doing something and that failure is a finite point that cannot be traversed. Since I believe that failure is inevitable and does not have the power to stop progression (rather it often propels it forward), I don’t fear it. The uncertainty of dealing with it can be a pain, yes, but in my mind, it’s not something to fear to the point of paralysis. So I guess my answer would be anything I would do anyways!


I love that, and I agree. There is no reward without fear. In your experience, what is the biggest thing that stops people from following their dreams?

I’ve worked with children since I was about fifteen years old, through running summer camps and teaching. One of the camps I did in college was an art camp that had different courses every week with a different age group of kids. One week I was working a group of 6 to 8 year olds in a Mythical Creature camp. The whole focus was having the kids draw and do art projects around creatures they dreamed up. After making a list of all these different types of creatures, we had the class start drawing the animals on the list: a unicorn. I walked around the class taking in their work and noticed one little boy wasn’t drawing anything. He was a rambunctious little thing who was just staring at the blank page.

I crouched down next to him and asked, “What’s wrong?” And he replied without hesitation, “I can’t…I can’t do it.” I was a bit taken back by it because his usually energetic self was so deflated. I pressed on and asked “Why?” He looked up at a girl’s almost completed colourful drawing and said, “I can’t draw like her. I can’t do that.” I smiled and began working through the problem with him. “Okay, what’s your favourite shape?...Rectangle, great! Can you draw that for me?” I got him started drawing his unicorn and whenever he referred to another person’s picture or how it was “supposed” to look, I always threw this at him, “Says who? It’s your unicorn and it can look however you want it to.”

Eventually, we got a unicorn on his paper and I remember being really struck by that experience. I have seen children crumble under the weight of not being able to solve a math problem or incorrectly spelling a word but never from an art exercise. I had always seen creativity as a place for me to explore and be unique, so to see a child so young afraid of being subpar at it was jarring. Unfortunately, his behaviour is something I’ve seen over and over again.

I think fear stops most people but there are two things that I think can really amplify that fear: comparison to others and avoidance of self. If you are constantly comparing yourself to someone you can’t be because you have to be you and avoiding yourself because you don’t like that individual very much, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you won’t get too far trapped in that self-constructed maze. Another figure on my Love List is Russell Brand as he quite literally forced me into bouts of laughter that had my stomach aching for two days, even though prior to that I was perpetually on the verge of tears. One of the things he said in an interview once struck a chord with me and has proven to be so true.

When asked what advice he would give to up and coming comics, he said:

“I think the mistake I made, and it’s probably quite typical, is you think, ‘Oh my god, I love Morrissey, I love Peter Cook, I love Richard Pryor…I want to be like Morrissey, Peter Cook, Richard Pryor!’ And you realize what those people are, are themselves, perfectly and beautifully in tune with that they are. So if you get in tune with what you are, then you will have it. Then you’re in line with the universe, you’ll be supported by the energy around you.”


That is a truly beautiful sentiment. What’s the hardest part about pursuing a creative life and fighting for your dreams?

I would have to say uncertainty and learning to adapt to it. Especially if you come from a background of stability, the constant flux can take its toll emotionally and physically. Also, those around you that haven’t chosen such an uncertain path can start to look like traitors when they are just trying to protect you. In the face of that, you have know within yourself that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing and will walk head high into the unknown.


What’s been the biggest obstacle or hurdle that you’ve faced?

Like I said earlier, I knew I wanted to pursue art and design as a career. I went to university and as I moved into my Visual Communication major, I thought I knew exactly what career I wanted. But as graduation got closer and I got rejection after rejection, I panicked that perhaps I was wrong and I was not one of those people. Summer of 2009, I moved back home after graduation and continued the job hunt in a recession. The longer it dragged on the more I questioned myself. Getting rejected for a job is hard enough but as a creative, it can feel like a personal attack. As I was already on shaky ground emotionally, the experience helped to throw my whole identity into an upheaval. I was going to be forced to settle into some soul-crushing bill-paying job instead of the career I had dreamed of.


How did you overcome that?

During that time, I was writing a lot on a blog I had started toward the end of college. The words were seemingly always flowing but I hadn’t created or designed since I got my degree. I was starting to question whether I was actually an artist or designer without the behest of a teacher to create something. But then I realized that part of the frustration I was feeling was not being able to express myself because it seemed an inappropriate use of my time. (“Did you apply any more jobs today?” “No, but look at this drawing I made!”) As I worked it all out in words, I was also listening to some new music. It got under my skin and made me hum with the need to make something.

This new cultural figure in my life came by way of the band IAMX, the solo project of Chris Corner (co-founder of the Sneaker Pimps). My love affair with British comedy had led me to him but the raw nature of his music seduced me. I saw a bulletin on their MySpace that they were looking for promotional posters for the new tour and was hoping to get some help. They are fiercely independent and rely on their street teams. For the first time since graduation, I actually wanted to make something and it felt purely selfless. I wanted to make something to give back to the man whose music had been uplifting me and I felt so gracious to have the opportunity. I designed four posters with such enthusiasm that when I sent them off I knew I was sending back the love that I felt I had received sonically. I saw it as a gift and expected nothing in return.

Days later, I was shocked to receive an email back from the touring keyboardist telling me that they had promo posters squared away but would love to use my design for merchandise. Over the coming weeks, I worked with her to get my poster turned into a tote bag. They are based in Berlin, and I would anxiously await her responses and jump to make any changes that she asked for as quickly as possible. She once responded telling me I was a star. Once it was all said and done, I got to see my work in their store with my name credited. The experience proved to me what amazing things could happen when I listen and follow my instincts, when I create from a place of purity and selfless compulsion, and that without a doubt, I am one of those people.

After this, I focused my goals and realized that I wanted to go back to school. The rejections from those jobs were blessings, as none of them would have satisfied me. I wanted to teach and become a professor someday, which meant graduate school. Also, I wanted to find something challenging that could make use of my brain, not just my eyes. I decided to make that investment, despite it being an uncommon and expensive path for a designer to take for their career. I shifted focus to applications for schools rather than jobs. Some people questioned whether the risk would be worth it but I held onto my convictions knowing that it was my burden to take on.

One day I was working on a mixed media collage as I took a break from writing my statement of purpose for an application, and a package from Germany arrived. Stuffed inside were buttons, a signed CD, and three of the totes I designed. One was signed, “Mina, Thank you for the lovely designs. Chris C.  X” I reread it so many times and felt this warmth as it sank in that I knew what I was doing even if others didn’t. My mantra during this time were his lyrics: “There’s an open window….and I can go through….to the life of others….there’s nothing I can’t do. Fight. You can be happy.”

So what came from that risk? I got into my number one choice school in a program run by my academic crush and found the place in the design field where I truly belonged.  


Wow. What an amazing experience. That is incredible. How do you cope with things like doubt and fear?

The moment when I felt the most doubt and fear was right before my second year of graduate school. I normally can cope with the understanding that I have done my best and given everything I can. Knowing that helps me deal with whatever may come because I know that I couldn’t have done more and I try to learn from it. But in this instance, my choices had put me in a position where I could have risked finishing school. There were no next steps for me to take as things were up to others at that point. I coped with this situation by crying and listening to music. Crying is a powerful tool because afterwards I can focus. I have to allow myself to freak out and then I can move past it. I let it out and let go of it in tears, words, and music. Afterwards, I can be proactive and back to hustling my way through to the next attempt at a solution.

The outcome? I was awarded another grant, a teaching assistantship, and landed a freelance design gig with powerhouse vocalist Liv Warfield, who is also one of Prince’s back up singers. These opportunities came from people believing in me based on my work since I gave everything I could. But also, from my tenacity to go for things I never would have been able to see if I hadn’t cried it out first.


What do you like the most about walking the creative path; the path of the dreamer?

I love how it feels when I am doing what I am supposed to be doing and time ceases to matter. It all flows and clicks together. Sometimes you can’t see where it’s all heading toward while you are in it but instinctually you can sense when you are on the right path. In my second year of graduate school, I worked on a thesis that focused on health literacy. I initially wanted to focus on literacy but it was too vague and broad. As I narrowed it, I kept stumbling upon the term health literacy and the more I learned about it the more intrigued I became. I felt connected to it since I have my own experiences in doctor’s offices where I don’t know what they are trying to tell me or what to do about my health even though on paper I am an intelligent woman.

I delved into the project determined to showcase my abilities as a writer, strategist, and designer. My work was recognized throughout the school and I felt proud of what I was doing. But yet again as graduation rolled around, I found myself without any prospects. I hustled my way into having free lodging as a house sitter for the summer and went on the job hunt determined not to move back home again. I was comforted to see my classmates struggling too but I got nervous as it was midsummer and I still only had one interview under my belt at a company I didn’t want to work for. I was pretty down on myself for a few days but I still felt strongly that I had made the right choices and just had to keep at it.

The next day I tried out a different job board and one of the first positions I saw was with a company with “health” in the title. Intrigued, I opened the description and read the words “knowledge of health literacy” as one of their nice-to-haves. I wasn’t sure if I fit all of their criteria exactly but knew I had to apply. I sent a load of emails out, not expecting to hear back since it was a Friday afternoon.

And yet not even an hour later, I had a reply sitting in my inbox. By the following Friday, I had the job offer I had been waiting for and was making plans to move to Massachusetts (after I stopped crying of course).

A month or so later, I was working on a proposal document my company was sending out that had callouts for other documents we’d written. I’m finding images when I saw the cover page of a .pdf that I was looking for. I started smiling when it dawned on me: it is one of the documents I referenced for my thesis.

Moral of the story? You owe yourself and your dreams the chance to be realized. Get out of your own way, listen to your instincts, and trust the path.


I love that. And now for the obligatory music questions…Who is your favourite band?

Now this is a completely unfair question! Because as much as I love Thirty Seconds to Mars and feel indebted to their music for finding me when I needed them and the Echelon, I have to say my favourite is Incubus. Mars is a recent (lively and ever-so engrossing) addition to the Love List whereas Incubus started it when I was 12. Their music has consistently been there with me for more than half of my life and has shaped me into who I am.


If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be your theme song?

I can’t even accurately describe how this song hits me. Just go listen.


Describe how you feel right now in a lyric. Just for fun.

“I’ll burn both ends until my fire’s out. Lost in the darkness, I can still scream out.”


If you could give one piece of advice to people currently fighting to live their dreams, what would it be?

Think this interview is littered with advice but there are some words that come to mind. Sometimes I write something and I feel like I just nailed it. When this happens I can’t bear to try and say it any other way, so I just have to quote myself. These words came to me by proxy of Rayon, Jared Leto’s character in Dallas Buyers Club. I felt seduced into that theatre by her. Once I was home, I knew what she was meant to impart to me as these words came tumbling forth as I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to write:

“Don’t wait. Be beautiful and full of life as you know you are. Fuck those who address you as anything other than what and who you are. Don’t let your pain take you away from your right to be here because there will be a point of no return. Do not wait until you get to it. You are not a sacrificial lamb. You do not have a death sentence. This is your life. Live it.”

Thanks Rayon, couldn’t have said it better myself. =)


Thank you so much, Amina. This has been one of my favourite interviews so far. Your story is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.


You can find Amina [Echelon Stories] at…

Twitter: @EchelonStories