Growing up in Nicaragua, Amalia Ramos was passionate about two things: moving to New York City and working as a creative. Now the co-founder of her own design studio MA’AM Creative, Ramos is the embodiment of the success that comes from raw talent and incredibly hard work. Amalia talks to us about earning her design chops, learning to live a more balanced life, and turning fear into a force for growth.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
It was 12 years ago now, but I do remember. That first week was exhausting! It was the middle of summer, and it felt like a thousand degrees. My best friend and I drove a little U-Haul from Savannah on the Fourth of July long weekend and we hit every piece of traffic. We moved into a sublet in Greenpoint that we found on Craigslist. This was back in 2005, and Brooklyn wasn’t what it is now. It was totally different than what I had in my mind, and what I thought New York would be. It felt a little bit like a slap in the face because all of a sudden I was confronted with the reality of what money could get you in this city. I felt so far away from the things I wanted. The G train was a nightmare and there was no direct train into the city where I was doing an internship. It was still exciting, but it was an adjustment of my expectations. I knew it was just a starting point, though, and that I would get my bearings quickly.
You have to start somewhere! You’re originally from Nicaragua?
Yes. I grew up between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It's the largest country in Central America and it’s so beautiful there. Very green with beautiful mountains. It’s known for its lakes and volcanoes. It's also got a beautiful Caribbean side that's still quite undiscovered.
Did you always want to live in New York?
It was a dream of mine since I was in high school. My mom strictly forbade me from applying to art schools in New York and California. [Laughs] She thought those cities were too crazy to live in. Nicaragua is a small country, so it was hard for her to imagine. We compromised and I went to university in Savannah, Georgia, knowing that I could move to New York from there. The more I studied art and design, the more I knew I wanted to be in New York. I think I had also just watched too many reruns of Friends. I thought my life in New York would be just like that! [Laughs]
Were you always interested in design?
That's a very interesting question. I didn't know graphic design existed when I was growing up in Nicaragua. I knew creative people, and knew that I liked doing creative things. I used to say I wanted to be an architect, because that was the most creative career I knew. Things really changed when a new art teacher came to our high school. She had taken workshops and studied abroad and she really opened my eyes to the variety of careers I could have. I took an aptitude test in high school and it said I should do something in marketing and advertising, because I was creative but liked communicating and manipulating messaging. I thought that was a brilliant result! [Laughs] So that's where I started. It took me a while to actually figure out what I wanted to do in that sphere, though.
I did very well in university, and graduated with honors. But everyone seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do in graphic design and I didn’t really have a direction. There were people that said, " I will never sell myself to advertising. I will only do publication design. I will only work on book covers." I always knew that there were a lot of things that would make happy. When I got to New York, I signed up for a typography conference and happened to meet a friend of a friend who worked at a publishing house. I loved the beautiful books they made, so we got to talking and he offered me an internship!
It was a great first workplace experience. I was in New York, in this beautiful building in Manhattan, surrounded by amazing books. Still, when they offered me a job after a few months, I turned it down. It might have seemed like a mistake to people at the time; I’m sure a lot of people would have taken it. I had recently graduated and I didn't have much experience, but I felt it wasn’t right.
When one of my old colleagues there moved to a fashion advertising studio, she offered me a freelance gig there that eventually turned into my first full-time job. Lloyd & Co. was a small creative agency, and my boss, Doug Lloyd, was just a genius. I worked under him for almost four years. That was really my design boot camp—I lived and breathed design 24/7. I had no life. I worked late, got into work early, and came in on the weekends. It was both a fantastic experience and a really stressful time.
What sort of work were you doing there?
It was mainly fashion advertising, but since it was small shop I got to learn all aspects of the creative process. So I did a little bit of packaging, publication design, event and marketing materials.
It was a great place to grow. But after four years, I burned out. I got to a point where I didn't have any more ideas to give. As a creative, that's a very sad place to be.
Then I decided to take a sabbatical. I quit my job, sublet my room in Greenpoint, and moved to Paris. I'd always wanted to live in Paris; I’d studied French in high school. France was the medicine that no doctor could have prescribed for me.
It was incredible. I did whatever I wanted! The purpose of that sabbatical was to be inspired again. I had a little place in the Latin quarter, and I spent eight months living and travelling. I went to Turkey to visit friends in Istanbul, went to Israel and Palestine with an aunt. I would get lost in the streets, go to museums, just look at things, and really enjoy what I was eating. There was no structure.
It worked, it really did. I came back to New York with so much energy. I wanted to make sure that whatever I did next had balance. I started freelancing, I met new people. I love dancing and started taking Zumba classes. I met this girl Charlotte who was working at Starwood Hotels. They were looking for designers for the W chain, so I came on board. I was lucky enough to be promoted a few times, so when I left I was an associate creative director. That's where I got my branding chops and learned how to use design to speak to guests and the public in the hospitality world.
Last year, Starwood was acquired by Marriott, so I was laid off. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. During my time at Starwood, I met my business partner Kristina. She approached me with the idea of starting our own creative studio. We launched MA’AM Creative in March and have been open for almost four months now!
What was getting laid off like?
I think it was perfect timing for me, because I’d gone as far as I could in my department. I was starting to get a bit comfortable. If I hadn’t gotten laid off, I would have probably looked for a different challenge. Because it was such a large company, we knew it was coming so it wasn’t a surprise. There was a system in place, so that you could really take the time to think about what you wanted to do next.
That being said, I had anxiety about the unknown. Nobody likes not knowing where they stand or where they're going. Similar to my sabbatical, though, it allowed me to reevaluate how I was spending my time. I realized how much time I spent on computers, doing things that were intangible to me. I remembered loving the process of making things with my hands in art school. So I took lettering classes and flower arrangement classes. Now I cook to relax—I call it "assemblage,” so it’s not really cooking but putting a lot of things together. [Laughs]
How is it now having your own business?
Starting the business has been exciting, stressful, a blessing, scary, satisfying, anxiety-ridden, and rewarding all at the same time. The clients we work with are so passionate about what they do, so to be part of that is a beautiful thing. We’re working on so many different projects: restaurant branding, wallpaper, packaging, event branding…. It's awesome because you're playing with different parts of your creative brain.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
The first piece of advice that I got in New York has always stayed with me. It was from the person who gave me an internship at the publishing house. One afternoon, he gave me a small design project to do. I think I was scared because I was new to the city, new to design, new to everything, so I did the bare minimum. Or rather, I did exactly what was asked of me. When I handed in the design, he looked at it and said, "This is fine. What else?" And when I didn't have anything, he said, "Amalia, I really need you to take initiative. This is good that you take direction but come to the table with something." To this day, that has impacted how I do things. You have to take initiative. Don’t wait for someone to tell you the answer.
Second: follow your gut, even if it’s scary. Moving to a new city, quitting a “good” job, getting laid off, starting a business—those things are all fucking scary! But it's the good kind of scary because it opens up a world of new opportunities. Fear should never be paralyzing. Let it be a force to propel you onto your next big thing.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is home, first and foremost. It’s also a beautiful example of the American dream. If you work very, very hard and you're very, very dedicated, you can get to where you want. I haven't gotten there yet, because I keep adding things to my freaking bucket list! [Laughs]
But I think New York is a very literal testament to that. You get what you put in. It's kind of like boot camp for life. I hate to say it, but you really have to be driven here because the way that we live takes effort. The way that we work takes effort. I respect anybody who lives in New York. All of the experiences that you have, day in and day out, are incomparable and unique. That's one thing that's unmatched anywhere else that I've been in my travels. People here are passionate about what they do, how they live, what they eat, how they work out, what they believe in. It makes for a very unique experience.
Visit MA'AM Creative for more details.
July 5, 2017