An AIGA Honolulu Creative Close-up
By Di Salas
AIGA Honolulu’s Creative Close-up is a profiling series featuring Hawaii’s resident creatives who make waves through design in all shapes and forms. We’d like to feature a story about a brilliant creative, Malia Wisch.
If you have any association with AIGA Honolulu, Wall-to-Wall Studios, Tori Richard or are just “in the know” in the design industry, you know Malia Wisch. She’s the one beating the drum for designers and creatives in Hawaii and the one who believes good design results in good business.
Wisch is the branding mastermind behind so many well-known local and international businesses and AIGA Honolulu’s passionate advocate and board member of seven years. Many already know of Wisch’s accolades, but some of us may not know of her journey to becoming a leader in Hawaii’s creative industry.
From Art to Graphic Design
“I feel like this is the same story all designers tell about how they liked art,” she says. “But how do you make a career out of art? The only thing I could think of was architecture. I didn’t know graphic design existed.” Wisch applied to various schools of architecture, thinking it was the only way to combine art with a profession. She received a brochure from one of the schools she applied to, the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon. “The brochure had more information about other programs and I saw graphic design as an option,” says Wisch. She looked at the other schools to which she had applied and saw that none of them had graphic design. So she went to Carnegie Mellon. She chuckles, “It’s really funny. I applied there because it had a funny name.” Wisch thought Carnegie Mellon was a cool school. “I just showed up. Never had visited Pittsburgh or anywhere in Pennsylvania. I didn’t have the luxury of college tours back then, so my college choice was literally based on the brochure.” Wisch enjoyed the graphic design program and landed a job as a junior designer in Washington D.C. at Fathom Creative.
“I learned everything on the job at Fathom Creative,” says Wisch. As a young designer, Wisch remembers learning how to set her designs up for print, working with vendors and making her designs come to life. She also vividly recalls going to paper shows in D.C. “As designers, we got invited to these lavish paper shows, which were fancy, elegant events,” she describes. The paper shows were events where paper companies could show off their latest products intended to inspire designers to work with them. “Designers loved it. The paper companies provided lavish swag and showcased their best work,” she says. “Print was still big back then. For designers, paper is a whole layer of expression – it’s a physical thing you can actually hold and say, ‘I made this.’ There’s something people loved about that.”
From Dupont Circle to Downtown Honolulu
Wisch says her job in D.C. was a great learning experience. “Many of the clients were national associations – they had money but didn’t want their printed pieces to look expensive.” Her then-boyfriend Josh was attending law school near the Capitol and they enjoyed the energy and diversity of the city. “But one event made it easier to leave D.C. and return home,” she says. She’s referring to the day terrorism struck the World Trade Center. “We saw it happen live on the Today Show. It was surreal. Josh and I watched in shock. But then, foolishly, we turned off the TV and caught the train into the city. The rest of the day was chaos, amid rumors of attacks, the Pentagon actually getting hit, and trying to get back home after the train was shut down.”
Wisch returned home to Hawaii the following summer and opened up the Pacific Business News Book of Lists to find the top design firms in the islands. “I called all of them and hoped for the best,” she says. 9/11 had had a domino effect on the design industry in Hawaii. Tourism was down and since many design firms relied on hotel and hospitality clients, they were laying off designers. “I was fortunate to get a call back from Info Grafik Inc. in Honolulu. They were actually growing since their business was diversified enough and they had recently landed a luxury real estate client.”
A few years later, Wisch left design firm life to go in-house at Tori Richard, Ltd. “This was a dramatic shift in the way I worked. I was suddenly working with all different types of professionals: fashion designers, accountants, salespeople, manufacturers,” she says. Working for a Hawaii clothing company had its perks, but Wisch says some aspects of the experience were ‘trial by fire.’ She says, “I probably managed over 40 fashion photoshoots in the five years I was at Tori Richard.” Her former boss, Josh Feldman describes her as being so hardworking and having no ego, “At the end of the day, Malia always thought about the output.”
While designing for Tori Richard, Wisch was approached by her former Carnegie Mellon professor, Bernard Uy, who had returned to Hawaii to open a second office of his successful Pittsburgh venture: Wall-to-Wall Studios. “I did feel isolated as an in-house designer. You gain and hone skills much faster working alongside other designers,” she says. Wisch joined Uy’s award-winning team and gave the agency life a shot. “I had a rough couple of years. I doubted myself. Wall-to-Wall pushed me twice as hard,” she says.
Wisch hasn’t stopped learning since starting at Wall-to-Wall seven years ago. Design is so subjective, she says. Conveying a client’s skills and story successfully requires a strategy of messaging, imagery and voice. Working with a team of project managers and developers to create memorable brands, Malia has made many clients happy.
Today, Wisch is a Design Director at Wall-to-Wall Studios. She advocates for the value of design and fellow creatives in the business industry. Her favorite phrase? “Good design is good business.” “I believe design has so much value in Hawaii. Design is learning everything you can about what someone is trying to do in the community or get across. My job is to learn it well enough to process it and present it back in other forms. It’s more than logos and stationery, it’s branding and storytelling.”
Wisch’s most well-known accolade is strengthening the creative community through AIGA Honolulu, the local chapter of the professional association for design. She’s played many roles on the board of AIGA Honolulu and has successfully led the organization as president for the last three years. This year, she’s ready for a change of pace.
June 30th marked Wisch’s last day as president. “I’ve served on the board for seven years and it’s time for me to breathe. I also believe that it’s time for new talent and leadership to take on AIGA Honolulu.” Wisch leaves behind big shoes to fill. “If there’s anything I want to be remembered for, it’s what I was able to do for AIGA Honolulu,” she says. Seven years on the AIGA board means seven years of planning events, connecting designers with mentors, and providing opportunities for creatives to network. “It was hard work, but I think about design all the time and how our industry still has a long way to go in Hawaii. I like to think I was a part of moving us in the right direction.”
Malia’s seven words of advice to budding designers:
“You need to learn from experienced designers.”
“Not as formal as having a mentor, but by working with them and learning what they do and why they do it,” she advises. Wisch understands why junior designers leave Hawaii. “There are opportunities for entry-level designers on the mainland,” she says. “Go, learn, and then ideally come home. You can share that great knowledge and make the local design community stronger.”