Out of

Two Roads Diverged After a Design Program

by Carina Santos
Photos courtesy of Carina Santos and Paulina Ortega.

Carina Santos speaks with designer Paulina Ortega on the post-college design desert of 2010, divergences, and carving out spaces for yourself.

Iwish I knew that I would still be friends with Paulina Paige Ortega when she saw me the first Monday after OrSem 2006, and said “Candy, right?” I sat behind her in the Physics class we both fortuitously signed up for, and she mistook me for another classmate. Pau was mysterious and exotic—from Cebu!—and for me, the 17-year-old dweeb (someone else’s words, not mine), she was cool in the way that was just a hair short of unreachable. It should feel like you couldn’t reach her, and yet, there she was, having lunch and talking about French films and classic rock with you.

Most of my undergrad years were spent in classes with Pau, where we would take as many of the required classes together as our registration numbers would allow. With her, I read Camus for the first time and learned about existentialism, grew obsessed with Barthes, somehow became part of the university’s music org despite neither of us knowing how to play any instruments, and went down into our own design rabbit holes of choice, starved for a more enriching curriculum that our sparse department had failed to provide.

We both graduated in 2010, frustrated at a system that had us all but ill-prepared for a life beyond a graphic design degree, a rather bleak landscape then, with little to no prospects, that perhaps seems all too foreign today. I jumped from one freelance position to the next, settling in the more general realm of publishing, while she entered the world of advertising—both of which seemed to be the only paths towards something that resembled a career for design graduates at the time.

Paulina, on her journey from Manila through Singapore and now, Sydney, has carved out for herself a voice and perspective that is both alluring and somehow, warm. There is a quality in her work that exudes a real notion of care. It’s polished and tight, but is never devoid of character or whimsy—something that’s been true about how she’s made things in all of the time that I’ve known her. She’s created work for Caon, Vania Romoff,  halohalo, Prim, and Laker Studio, to name a few.

Behind-the-scenes photos, kits, and clothing tags for Recess.  Photos courtesy of Paulina Ortega.

Most recently, it can be seen through the use of color and a pervasive thoughtfulness in Recess, a range of apparel designed to work with the wearer’s life. It’s an ethos and aesthetic that fits Pau—an intersection of her Instagram self and how I know her—so well.

Nearly two years ago, she got married in Mexico to the love of her life, a pairing that I always thought worked quite perfectly, as Clark seemed to get the kind of weirdly elusive silliness and humor that Pau always had but most people didn’t really get to see right away. After getting to know Clark, I immediately felt like a magical match.

Interestingly enough, I’ve spent the most time reconnecting with Paulina now that we live quite far from each other. For the past three years, I’ve lived in London, and she’s lived in Sydney for five. We’re linked together by what started as a film club with my sister Isabel and our mutual friend Raymond. Through it, we’ve had a semblance of regularity in catching up and some injections of culture, which is hard to do when your timezones don’t match, and especially rough during a pandemic. But I’ve learned to expect the wonderful and weird from Paulina, who remains one of the most beautiful people I know—inside and out—who makes the most beautiful things.


A perfect photograph of Paulina Ortega and Carina Santos: one, dancing with a shotglass, pinky-up, and the other, “dancing”.

Carina Santos: I feel like it’s kind of funny how our paths kind of diverged pretty significantly, in a way.
Paulina Ortega: I never thought of it that way.

Yeah, because we took a lot of classes together, and we did an internship [at a magazine]. Do you remember that?
Oh, yes! I remember seeing those pubes. I felt so uncomfortable.

Yeah, they marketed it as a fashion internship, ‘di ba? Do you remember when our colleagues got a pizza delivery? Remember the office space, how you had to pass through a kitchen from the front door…
I think so. Is it scary how little I remember from this time?

No naman. But the space is, you enter through a receiving area with a kitchen to get to the main room.

So, one time, they went to get pizza or something, and they stayed in that front room. I think it was towards the end of the day, and we were just hanging out in the main office room, getting ready to leave. And then when we went to pass through the kitchen area, they were kind of watching porn?
Oh my God! Seriously?

Do you not remember this?

With the delivery guy!
Oh my God, I’m so naive talaga. How old were we?

I don’t know, like, 19 maybe? I was a bit older than you. And then you went to intern with sila Katwo [Puertollano] at Flux Design Labs.
Yeah, but that was a really positive experience.

Yeah, I’m sure. [Laughs] That was one of the things that I guess I wish I had more of, like more of a mentorship type of thing.
It’s hard to find mentorship, actually. I felt like we were both so hungry to get really good mentorships or experiences as design students, but at the time there was just not enough of a robust design community that we were exposed to, for us to have a lot of opportunity to choose from. There were, like, three design studios.

Yeah, that, and I felt like and I still feel like we weren’t equipped very well in terms of looking for work. Or we didn’t really know how to look for something like that.
Yeah, I feel like we went about it kind of cold emailing people whose work we liked, from the limited vantage point of the Internet at the time. But like, there weren’t nga proper structures set up at school for us to find those people. Oo nga, no? That’s crazy. I’m actually amazed that we interned a lot, but just because of our own resourcefulness or something.

It was like a desert. There was nothing there.
Yeah! [Laughs] I feel so bad for us.

I’m so sad. And then remember we would just make zines.
Do you feel like, in some ways, that that was also a good thing? Instead of being coddled in an environment, like you said, we kind of just had to make stuff.
“Throw me in a design environment, I’ll feel fine. I know I’ve been doing the work the last few years, and I’m good for it.”

Paulina and Carina in college.

Yeah, and I feel like… I don’t know if it’s a positive thing, but it really pushed you and me, I think, and other people we went to school with, to look for avenues, and things we were interested in, kasi we had nothing. I remember we had to take super random electives… Like, I didn’t even take Color Theory. I couldn’t take Color Theory because there were not enough slots, and it’s like, why would you have two full classes—
Yeah, I feel like that should have been mandatory for us. Careng, you know what I find so interesting? Maybe in the last couple of months, I’ve been interviewing recent 2020—literally 10 years after us—graduates of the same course that we took, to hire them. It’s so cliché to say “full circle experience” but I was really curious what it was like for them, and they’re like “Oh, you know, the load’s kind of heavy,” “There’s so many units,” and I was like, “You know what? We friggin’ asked for that!” [Laughs] But that’s better than what we had. So, it’s so nice to hear, actually, that they had a different experience.

Yeah, like si Smile [Indias], when I talk to her, super thorough her students’ thesis projects…
Super galing! I was asking the kids nga about their thesis, and like, one of them integrated social work into it, and I was like, Oh my God! What were we doing? Navel-gazing shit. [Laughs] It’s so nice to hear.

I do think, in some sense, graphic design… The general interaction with brands and like, the everyday, has always been there, but there has been more of a consciousness of it the last, say, 10 years, that it’s just become even more pervasive a field. I just mean to say, in general, there’s more a consciousness of brand identity and branding in whatever sense now where, even like my aunts and uncles would understand it more now, whereas 10 years ago, they didn’t. So, there was less of a support system, unlike now… Everyone’s so into it.

Before, ‘di ba, it’s like just “Make a logo. Open it up on Photoshop.” Sorry, I’m getting flashbacks to units and I really feel sorely underprepared for stuff like that. You went into advertising, right?
I did. That was actually the first time I really felt mentorship. Not that I wanted to get into advertising. I never went back after that. [Laughs] I just don’t think we understood where you could go next with a design degree at the time. There weren’t a lot of studios. I remember Kara Bermejo worked for a design studio, and they were great, but I didn’t know a lot of others, so I was like, okay.

It was so weird to go from that into advertising, where the mindset was so volume-driven, almost. Although, I will say that it really did teach me to think of branding outside of what you would expect, like a logo or something, and more of like how a consumer would interact with a brand, on every level, that was really valuable.

It’s so interesting, actually, my first boss and mentor, when I was taking my design courses in [School of Visual Arts in] New York, he also happened to be there, so I had a nice lunch with him and stuff.

Hand-painted silk scarf in progress, photos for new scarves, handpainted Nudie Sarong for Float Swim. Photos courtesy of Paulina Ortega.

“I was always like, ‘Oh my God, you have to choose. You have to choose what you want to be, and you have to own that space. Otherwise, you’re not going to be that great at it.’ Which I laugh at now, because it’s such a limited perspective.”

So, you would call yourself a designer?
Hundred percent! I don’t understand the term “graphic artist.” I feel like it’s an entirely different discipline to be a “visual artist” than it is to be a “designer.” Sometimes, they overlap, but… I feel like Shepard Fairey is a graphic artist. I don’t know! [Laughs]

It’s funny, I wonder if you’ve felt this, but you’re both an artist and a designer. And at the time, there was not as much of a deep understanding of design as a practice, have you ever felt a tug between having to choose between identifying as an artist and identifying as a designer? Because that super bugged me for many years.

Yeah, I still have trouble with that, and recently, because my practice has been largely art-based, when I look for design work now, it’s been hard, because it’s not what they look for. It’s hard for portfolio stuff, too. I always feel a hesitation to separate, but it always feels necessary, because those branches of the things I do don’t always converse.
It’s so funny! I feel the exact opposite. If I want to go back to making things, or trying to make art, I feel like “Oh my God, I’ve been designing for however many years,” and I think my confidence levels are on both sides of the spectrum… Throw me in a design environment, I’ll feel fine. I know I’ve been doing the work the last few years, and I’m good for it. It’s so funny. Okay, so I understood your opening statement just now. [Laughs]

Super layo kasi! Because you know, I’ll look at you and the work that you’ve done and think, “Oh she’s so good”—

And it’s like, I’ve always felt like I’ve fallen off the wagon in terms of design.
Same! [Laughs] On the other end of it.

‘Di ba? I do try to keep on top of it, and I do make stuff, but it’s like… I don’t know how to brand anymore.
That’s not true. I think that’s a muscle that’s always there.

I guess so. But you know, it’s really apparent in the work that you’ve been making. You’ve really put all the years into it, because that’s what you’ve been doing…
Stop it, I’m gonna vomit!

Is it cringe-y because it’s coming from me? [Laughs]
No. You know what I think? For the longest time, even in college…. I don’t know if it was like just not a mature understanding of things, I was always like, “Oh my God, you have to choose. You have to choose what you want to be, and you have to own that space. Otherwise, you’re not going to be that great at it.” Which I laugh at now, because it’s such a limited perspective, and I realized that a lot of the designers or even artists that I super admire, they were extremely multidisciplinary, and I don’t think that was an understanding that was afforded us when we were developing.

No, I agree.
I’m literally drinking from a Vignelli mug, and it’s like, “Cool! Love your logos! And your objects, too!” To be honest, it almost took me working for an industrial designer, who I think is like a reluctant mentor of mine but totally is, to kind of be more okay with... “You can and you should design what you want to, and do it well each time,” but like, it’s commendable versus being frowned upon. I wonder if that’s a generational thing. I feel like kids now don’t care.

My professor was youth contemporaries with Basquiat, and he really loved the work I made, and I felt so validated by that. But also, I felt so silly, like “Why did I have to do this to prove this to myself?”

Portrait by Aya Cabuatan for Araw.
It’s great for them, but really annoying for us.
I wonder where the gap occurred actually. We have Donald Glover who is so good at everything with high visibility, and back then we have Orson Welles who was so good at many things. So where did it stop?

I always appreciate it when people have a lot of trades, I guess, and the work speaks to one another.
Yeah, they all make sense!

I feel like you’re one of those people, actually. I don’t mean to be a suck-up, you know.
No, likewise, too. Do you think your art is reactive to your siblings’?

Not consciously. I think we were told early on not to copy one another’s work, and to sort of carve a space out for ourselves. It’s funny, because all three of us really did not want to get into art.
What did they get into?

My brother took business and Beng did European Studies. I didn’t think I could be an artist because growing up, I couldn’t paint, or I was just using acrylic, which really isn’t my medium. So I started making collages.
I always remember you telling me that your dad [Soler Santos] would tell you to use collage to play with composition and then try to paint it after.

Yeah, I still haven’t done that, and I should.
That really stuck with me. It unlocked so much in my head. I was like, “That’s true!”

I think that was an exercise that [Roberto] Chabet made them do [at U.P. Fine Arts].
Going back to what you said about art and design, and us thinking that we had to choose. When I went to New York to study, I also enrolled myself in a painting course, because I really felt out of touch with that side of me, and I felt like I needed to prove something to myself. So I went and it was great. My professor was youth contemporaries with Basquiat, and he really loved the work I made, and I felt so validated by that. But also, I felt so silly, like “Why did I have to do this to prove this to myself?” [Laughs] Did you ever feel, conversely, to do anything in the design sense to feel reconnected with it?

Paulina’s drawings. On the right: one of the only ones she made made this year.

“Because you know it’s not going to suck if you think it out well, regardless of how it comes out. If the thinking behind it is sound, it’s going to work.”

Yeah, I’ve been taking lots of classes for coding and stuff like that. And I did Typography Summer School two summers ago. That was so fun, but it also made me feel really behind, I guess.

A lot of people I took that with were so young but so much more involved in that world than I was, at that point, and it’s just like, I’ve been doing this for so long and I still feel like I’m at the same level as I was when I was doing, you know, the Esquire stuff. Yeah, but it made me feel like I should step it up and keep making things.
I felt the same also. I think my professor sensed that I was being so careful, and I was like, “Well, there’s trepidation, because there’s been big gaps in time.” I was making graphite stuff and wanted to paint things over it, but I was scared because it took me so long to do the base.

Do you still do your art practice?
Maybe at the start of the pandemic, I was making stuff. Then I’ll get so many ideas but I’ll be scared to do them.

I don’t know. I think I’m okay with it na, it’s more of like a time constraint now, but the biggest hurdle was being okay with things sucking. Which I think goes against, completely different mentality when going into design. Because you know it’s not going to suck if you think it out well, regardless of how it comes out. If the thinking behind it is sound, it’s going to work. Versus art… Well, the thinking could be sound, but it could suck! [Laughs]

I see what you mean. I feel like for a long time, I felt like that with art. Especially when I grew up used to always sharing online.
I’ve always admired that about you, not conscious about sharing stuff.

Well, that was bad, din. Because I ended up making stuff with the idea that someone will see it. Or that I will post it, and I don’t remember what made me realize that “You don’t actually have to post everything, Carina.”
But isn’t that kind of like always historically part of the completion of the artist’s work, when it get to interact with the audience.

Yeah, but even with sketches, right? You’re afraid of fucking up. But like, literally, the only means of people seeing this is you posting it. And you don’t have to.

And if you waste a sheet of paper, it’s fine.
You know, I still have all of my notebooks and planners from college that you have so many drawings on.

Yeah, same. They’re in my room, which has turned into a storage room, apparently. Wait, how long have you been in Sydney?
Five years! It’s so funny that we both fell under the empire, that you’re in London and I’m in Australia, both unplanned.

And Singapore?
It was a former colony, but not part of the Commonwealth. But I really wanted to get into design there. I did not see a path outside advertising in the Philippines at the time. It was either that or publication, ‘di ba?

Yeah, so that’s what I ended up doing. My starting salary was 12k.
How crazy.

Paulina Ortega for halohalo souvenirs. Photo courtesy of Paulina Ortega.

Grabe ‘no? We just really picked up any job we could. I did a lot of freelance even in school pa. I think you did, too.
Yeah, I think we just wanted to practice more. Remember we all applied for that art awards thing [in college]? And I submitted mine late, I was so pissed. I think I always just had a mistrust of the system.

Yeah, like why would I trust these people to judge my work?
It’s such deluded self-confidence. [Laughs]

Do you remember, it leaked? The results.
No. [Laughs]

They sent the email to everyone with the spreadsheet attached, with the panel scoring.
Where was I?

I don’t know where you were! [Laughs] I was thinking about this before, baka you got integrated into Clark’s friend group, so you probably didn’t care about—
Well, even before I met Clark, I’m just not a participant in block things. I didn’t know it was leaked.

Yeah, it was leaked with all the scores. You could see if they got voted in unanimously.
That’s so scandalous.

Mm-hmm, it’s really funny. Hay nako, you’re too cool for school, Paulina.
No, I’m not! I was just too lazy to check my email.

Thinking about what we talked about, what’s a big thing you’ve self-actualized or made peace with or felt empowered by over the last decade or so? What have you come into?

Yeah, I think more the art aspect of my practice. I feel proud or happy with the work I made, even though there are institutional awards and things and I don’t get picked. I’ve learned to recognize that you can be happy with the work you make without needing that sort of external validation from those people. Which is nice, but it doesn’t mean that you suck.

Siyempre, I wouldn’t be like “I don’t want the award” or whatever. But it’s realizing na it’s not as important as it probably feels and not everyone has to like what you make.
So, it’s liberating.

Yeah, it’s like “E ‘di wag.” It’s okay, you don’t have to like it. I don’t like everything someone makes, you know? Or, I can recognize that this person is good, but I don’t really like their work. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal, and it really eliminates a lot of bad feelings that you might impose on yourself.
Yes, so true.

“It’s so liberating to come to the realization that you just make the stuff you want to make, you do it well, to your standards. And it’s like other people’s problem to define you, or to make sense of you, as they will, and you don’t have to do that for them.”
Paulina and Clark at their pre-wedding merienda in Coba.

Do you have an answer to the same question?
I think, in a similar vein, it’s so liberating to come to the realization that you just make the stuff you want to make, you do it well, to your standards. And it’s like other people’s problem to define you, or to make sense of you, as they will, and you don’t have to do that for them.

It’s fine for you to take from it what you will. I’m releasing it. Yeah, exactly, I will define myself by the work that I make, and not impress upon myself a label that I have to work towards reinforcing.

Sorry this is off-tangent, but do you still do your dyeing?
I did so much of it last year and I think because I’ve been working on fabric, for Recess, though in a different way, I haven’t had the time to dye, but I’ve been able to experiment with fabric in other ways. I think it started with my dyeing and painting on scarves, and I found a really good printer here, so I started collaging those. So, it’s been such a progression, actually. And Recess kind of presented itself to me, so it was like “Oh my God, new things to play with.” [Laughs]

I have the same kind of reaction when discovering new trades or processes. There’s so many things to play with! Recently, I got a sewing machine. I’ve gone to a couple of workshops on dyeing, so that’s why I asked. I’ve dyed my own wool. It’s fun.
Wow! I can’t wait for you to knit a landscape.

Do you remember Nona Garcia?
Yeah! Her work is in the Gallery of New South Wales.

Yeah. I saw that from Clark’s post and got confused because I thought you were in Manila. Anyway, she told me to knit one of my paintings. I’ll do that when I figure out the colors, because I need to chart that, too.
I remember that designer, Max Lamb. He made rugs. He did them in London, actually. He did [the pattern] from the thread. It’s so cool. Meron din siyang process videos online.

Like him, his [collection of work] is so different across the board.
Yeah! I really learned so much from the industrial designers, or like these other designers who are really not fussed about what they call themselves. They’re so enamored by the processes of the stuff they make; it’s really infectious.

Paulina for Namì and halohalo.

I think that’s what I enjoy. When you discover a new thing to kind of explore.
Yeah, you really just want to make stuff.

Have you been working full-time over the past year?
I think I’ve been working triple time the whole year. I can’t switch off.

Yeah, that seems like a “you” quality.
I’ve taken deliberate steps to switch off, when I can. This has been true ever since I was a kid, I always found sleep to be a waste of time.

Me too! It’s so annoying, that you have to sleep. I really don’t like it.
Yeah, why do I have to do it? I really enjoy meditating now. I’m still awake, but I really enjoy the space to quiet my mind. It can easily go the other direction and overwhelm you. I don’t nap. I struggle to, until now.

Well, Recess looks really amazing. Congratulations!
Thank you! I only see the mistakes. [Laughs] I actually have a work call after this… to ask what’s up. I think sometimes people get surprised with me, a bit, because as a designer, I’ll be like… I put two decks side-by-side, and I said “Why is the difference just two points?” I really felt like they went, “Oh shit, she found it!” I’m really sorry to be pedantic, guys, but I can’t not be. [Laughs] ︎
Paulina for Uniqlo UT SEA.

Carina Santos is an artist, writer, and designer.