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InsightApr 12, 2024

Designing Paths: Irene Lee shares her story as an immigrant designer

Written by Irene Lee, and Olivia Baker-Sullivan, Block

Compelling narrative of immigration and design by Irene Lee

Born in South Korea, Irene moved to Canada when she was 14. Her first stop: New Brunswick. Irene then moved to Toronto for school at OCAD, graduated in 2022 from the graphic design program and since then has been working at a couple of design studios based in Toronto.

Photograph of laptop showing website design of The Bentway Lee, Irene. Website Redesign, The Bentway.

Did you have a lot of experience with arts and design in your previous country before coming to Canada?

In grade 11, I discovered the world of arts. It was during my photography class that I found my passion and connected with like-minded peers. That was when I realized, oh, I actually enjoy this—visual arts. I made lots of early mistakes on in photography, my photos were out of focus, over or underexposed, but it was enough for me to decide on studying graphic design when I went to college. Photography helped me a lot in my design work; that unfinished quality of photos, the experience of using a camera: helped me go through courses at school, which I was surprised about. Until then, I didn’t have any family members or friends who pursued arts or design in Canada. I came in ready to be surprised!

Cover design of the Art Metropole Catalog with illustrations Lee, Irene. Editorial Design, Art Metropole Catalog

Any notable challenges getting design work out of school?

My first studio experience was smoother than expected. A friend recommended me to the studio she was working at. They were looking for interns, she said, so you might as well apply. That was how I got my start. Since then, I actively started to look for design jobs on my own. I think one thing I’ve learned is, knowing the design industry and designers is equally, if not more important, than knowing how well you can perform as a designer. As a fresh graduate, I was so worried if I was doing a good enough job at Photoshop to find work. Now when I look at job hunting, it’s about humans making human decisions and getting hired depends a lot more on whether people want to work with you.

Have you met other designers who are also immigrants to Canada? Did you find you shared a lot of the same experiences?

In Toronto, many of my design friends are immigrants, which differs greatly from my experience in New Brunswick. During my five years in New Brunswick, I was always conscious of my immigrant status. However, upon moving, I felt a profound sense of relief in discovering the rich diversity of my new surroundings. The fact that I’m an immigrant felt anonymous, which I really enjoyed. I don’t see many people who moved from the East Coast to Toronto. So I don’t really share this experience of moving from a very homogeneous society to a diverse society (within Canada)… I don’t always share a lot about this [with others]. In another sense, finding a job or not having a direct connection with anyone in the industry is something I share with a lot of other immigrants who I studied with. I always felt like there was a dominant culture in New Brunswick, but I don’t feel that dominance too strongly in Toronto.

Visual identity for the PARALINE exhibition Lee, Irene. Exhibition and Website Redesign, Shoes Off Collective: Paraline

What would be something most Canadians or immigrants to Canada wouldn't necessarily know about your particular experience? (How would you say your experience differs as a designer, or stands out)

If there’s something worth sharing with others on a similar path with me, it would be that you don’t have to shy away from sharing the things you can do–I see people being too humble and Canada or North American culture is a little different from that, where we’re all about embracing what we do or being very open and confident in ourselves, which is a huge plus in Canada working as a designer. This mindset applies effectively in various aspects such as job opportunities, networking and workplace dynamics. I believe that being less preoccupied with traditional social hierarchies is something more people should embrace.

Cover design for Adulthood Fantasies Lee, Irene. Thesis, Adult Fantasies

Check out more of Irene’s work here.


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Irene Lee

I am an emerging designer based in Toronto. I believe design encourages questioning, and learning more about the world has been my motivation in the design world.

When I am not designing, you can probably find me exploring every aisle of grocery stores for entertainment purposes.

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Olivia Baker-Sullivan

Block

My name is Olivia Baker-Sullivan and I am a Digital/UX Designer in Toronto, Canada. My current areas of greatest interest are drawn from past experiences: Interior Design, Web and Print Graphic Design and Event Design. Bilingue en Français et/and English.

My goal in life is to have a career as diverse as my interests. Outside of design, I enjoy playing violin, piano and singing. I also enjoy digital and film photography as well as drawing and painting. I now regularly take yoga classes in downtown Toronto.

I look forward to connecting with you!


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