Although Sophia Yeshi has wanted to be a graphic designer since her preteen days, it wasn’t until after college that she began to hone the distinctive illustration style she’s celebrated for today: bold, colorful compositions featuring diverse characters and uplifting, inspirational messages.

As a queer Black and South Asian designer and illustrator, Yeshi proudly claims space with a positive and powerful presence through her work, and she encourages and empowers others to do the same. In her off time, she also keeps a blog that spotlights her peers in the creative industry. “Even though my platform is small, just being able to also extend that to them is important,” Yeshi says. “Because you never know who’s going to see it and who may hire them from that visibility.”

Here, the Brooklyn-based talent tells us about her personal creative journey into the design world, how she’s been using Adobe Illustrator on the iPad, and why “Yeshi” is not just her middle name, but also her professional moniker and an integral part of her personal motto.

How did you find your way into the art and design world?

I got my start when I was twelve years old and discovered Adobe Photoshop for the first time — this was in the early 2000s. At first, I was downloading the 30-day trials and making a lot of photo collages using scans from magazines, combined with the Brush tools. I knew I liked making art digitally, and that led me to realize that I wanted to be a graphic designer. The high school I went to was a magnet, where you could study along different vocational tracks. Mine was graphic design, and I was able to learn Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. We also had a whole print shop, where we learned print binding and had access to all sorts of equipment. That was a really cool introduction into the world of design at such a young age. Then I went on to the University of Baltimore and studied graphic design.

When did you begin to focus on illustration?

It wasn’t until after college that I really looked into illustration, rather than just thinking of myself as a graphic designer. As I got older, I started to develop my voice and focus my audience and illustration work. I create artwork that inspires and uplifts and represents women of color and the LGBTQ+ community — artwork that’s motivating, inspirational, empowering.

“It has always been really important to me to be able to have my own voice and tell my own stories.”

My work is very colorful. I’m drawn to bright, bold, expressive color palettes. I try to base my work on things that I myself can relate to. A lot of the time, it stems from my personal feelings, things that I’ve gone through, like imposter syndrome. I’ll channel that into an illustration because these are things that other people can relate to. When it comes to characters, I try to show a range of different people — I want to show diversity. I want people to be able to see themselves in my work.

How have you been making use of Illustrator on the iPad so far?

I’ve really enjoyed using it over the past couple of months. Often, I find myself starting on the iPad, and then finishing on desktop for additional textures and different brushes. It’s been really great to create on the go — sometimes if I’m on a trip or in the car, I’ll bring the iPad along in case something strikes. 

What tools or features have you been experimenting with most?

Right now, my favorite tool has to be the Pencil tool. I love the drawing tools in Illustrator, in general, but using vectors and smoothing out the lines — that’s something that you don’t get in other drawing programs. When you’re drawing freehand in other apps, it can be very messy and your lines aren’t perfectly straight. But with the Pencil tool on iPad, it’s amazing, because you can use the Smooth feature. I also love being able to double-click into the Direct Selection mode and use the Simplify tool to easily clean up and delete any unnecessary paths.

I also love the symmetry and Repeat tools: Being able to create patterns easily and play with radial symmetry and grid symmetry is really fun. That’s something you don’t have on the desktop version. And you have access to all the Adobe fonts, which is nice for when I want to make more graphic design–based things on the iPad. It definitely has that functionality. And then, more generally, I use Creative Cloud to store my docs, easily access version history, and go back and forth between the iPad and desktop.

As your career has grown, how have you found ways to carve out the space and freedom to develop your personal voice, while also balancing client work?

It has always been really important to me to have my own voice and tell my own stories. When I first started working full-time as a graphic designer in Baltimore, where I’m from, I found that a lot of the work that I was doing — which was mostly corporate graphic design, making flyers and brochures and things like that — didn’t speak to me and the things that I wanted to say with my work. I made an official decision to only post my illustration work on my portfolio. Most of it was personal work, because I only wanted to post the kind of work that I wanted to be commissioned and hired for.

Now you’ve established your career in such a way that clients come to you because of the strength of your personal message.

I think being strategic in that way has really helped those types of clients find me — because I was very intentional in the way I defined my audience. I didn’t post all of my corporate work, because I thought if I did, it would only attract more of the same kind of work. Instead, I would literally only post bright and colorful things in my portfolio, even if I was working on other things in my 9-to-5 job. Now, a lot of people come to me and say things like “Oh, we really like that you have a definitive style and a unique voice.” It’s helped me get clients that align with my point of view and specifically want to work with me because of it. 

Even if I weren’t a graphic designer, I could never just have a 9-to-5 where I’m not able to be myself. Yeshi is my middle name, and I’ve always used it as a play on words. My website and studio is called Yeshi Designs, as in “Yes, she designs.” It inspires and empowers me, as a woman of color, to say yes, we do have a presence in the design world and we exist: We’re here.

“Even if I weren’t a graphic designer, I could never just have a 9-to-5 where I’m not able to be myself.”

As an independent illustrator and designer, how have you been navigating this year of pandemic and protest? 

This year has been full of highs and lows. I’ve been getting a lot more work and visibility. I’ve always freelanced, but this is my first year doing it completely full-time. It's been amazing, because I see so much growth in myself and in my work. At the same time, I'm learning the importance of self-care, because I am my business. If I haven't slept well, or if I'm not eating well, it's going to reflect in my work. I’ve realized it's important to put yourself first when you’re your own boss — and sometimes that means saying no to things, so that you can say yes to yourself. 

Do you have advice for others, whether they’re just starting out or thinking of striking out on their own?

Trust in your own voice, and try not to get too caught up in comparing yourself to other people. You’re going to see so many talented people out there, but that doesn't mean that your voice isn't important. Just know that what you have to say matters, as well. Because ultimately, if you don't believe in yourself — and if you don't put your work out there — it makes it that much harder for someone else to believe in you.

Header image created with Illustrator on the iPad.