Out of Print

Care Giver

by Jonty Cruz

Photos courtesy of Petra Gana

Petra Gana, who was just named partner at And A Half, says she doesn’t see this as a typical promotion. The design strategist talks more about her work, the importance of trust, and the distance she creates in her photography.

Petra Gana doesn’t budge. As we talk over Zoom, I quickly realize that she would rather not tell me about her problems. She feels that if she did, she’d just be adding even more of a burden to whomever she’s opening up to. It’s more comfortable for her to be the one on the receiving end—to be the one who listens, the one who tries to help make it all better.

The longest tenured strategist at And A Half Design Studio, Petra is also in charge of client management, and oversees the studio’s research and development arm. She also seems to be—at least to me, anyway—the studio’s source of balance. While those wouldn’t necessarily be the most shareable things on the company’s Instagram feed, the care and support she provides are just as essential as the design work the studio puts out. More remarkable still is how Petra has revealed a path to success that does not involve burning bridges or stepping on anyone on her way up. That may sound improbable, but isn’t it more alarming that we immediately think idealism is impossible? It may also sound soft, but softness, too, requires internal strength.

There’s a consistency to Petra’s kindness. She’s caring but never to the point of being unctuous. She also never forgets to point out just how lucky she’s been. Whether she’s talking about having such a stable and nurturing home, or having a job that reinforces her own skills in an industry she’s always wanted to be in, genuine gratitude always punctuates her sentences. I tell her that maybe everyone else feels just as lucky to have her. She hopes that that’s the case but can’t bring herself to say anything more. And perhaps that’s all you need to know about how much she deserves to be named And a Half’s newest partner—a position she admits she doesn’t see as a promotion, but to my mind feels entirely earned nonetheless.


Even at a young age, it was clear to those who knew her best that Petra was forging her own path. Coming from a family of lawyers and public officials, Petra’s passions lay elsewhere. As a child, she would spend days writing poems and drawing pictures, often showing her art to her lolo—whom she affectionately calls Goyong—in exchange for 10 pesos. He would do this as a reward, perhaps, but maybe more so as encouragement. “Whatever you are, just be the best you can be for other people,” he would always tell her. There was no pressure for Petra to be anyone other than who she wanted to be. And what she wanted more than anything was to be an artist.

As she grew older, she found herself being recognised less for her art and much more for her managerial skills and the work she did in her high school’s student council. And then in college, for the work she did as part of a student organization focused on organizational development. “Lots of project planning and managing people,” she tells me. While there were many benefits to this new role, in the middle of all that success Petra felt she had lost her identity as a creative.

What must have it been like for her to remember showing her drawings to her lolo, to remember reciting her poems proudly in front of her family, only to realize she wasn’t seen that way anymore?


To be a creative is to wrestle with your own emotions in order to produce something you’ll never fully love. It’s rarely easy, and oftentimes we make it even harder on ourselves. Thank god there are people like Petra to help us through it all. Ever since she started at And A Half as its first—and for about two years, only—project manager, she’s helped build a more solid system and smoother workflow that doesn’t drive creatives to a state of unending exhaustion or jaded numbness. That’s not to say that what she does is merely an aid to design. Creativity requires as much humanity as it does technical proficiency, and it is the former that Petra has provided the design studio during the best of times, but more so during its toughest.

“I think so much of what makes Petra such a good person to us in the studio is that artists can be so temperamental and messy. She really is the one who keeps everyone in check with her kindness,” says Toni Potenciano, a strategist for And A Half, as well as a writer for this very publication. “That’s very much who Petra is in the studio and I feel like she does it at the cost of her own creative urges.”

I tell Petra towards the end of our call that maybe it might do her good to take it a little easy, and that perhaps she doesn’t have to take care of everyone as hard as she does. She pauses for a bit and then offers a kind smile. “I wonder, though,” she says, and leaves it at that.

The following interview has been edited for publication.

Out of Print: Hi, Petra! You said in an interview last year for Where to Next that you were craving balance. How’s that been going for you?
Petra Gana: I think that was early on in the pandemic, and I was really looking for a routine or how I was going to reorient myself in the house. [Even at] And A Half, we’re always constantly asking for feedback or assessing and evaluating our situation. And we also do that with each other. We have empathy circles where we can talk about our own feelings and where we’re at.

Sorry, what’s an empathy circle? And how can I join one? [Laughs]
So you basically join a Zoom call—like a max of six people—and there’s this set of words, and you choose one from that set and then you tell a personal story based on that word. Some words are like, “acceptance” or “commitment” or “shame.”

And you were doing this even before the pandemic?
Oh, we implemented it during lockdown because we realized we needed non-work or organic conversations.

How’s that been so far, personally?
I guess the whole quarantine has been about a lot of self-reflection. And right now, I’m okay. [Laughs] I’m also a very big homebody, which is nice. It helps.

Have you gone out at all? I get the sense that you haven’t felt much pressure to leave the house during quarantine.
Yeah, actually I know it’s such a blessing to be in a house like this. That’s why I keep looking for ways to help. And I know that it’s not the same thing for other people, and it’s been a struggle for them to find their own safe space or that third space to work. I’m lucky that my house is also my safe space and that this is the set-up I have.

Was there any time at the start of lockdown when you had to renegotiate what your home was and how it was also going to be your place of work?
I think the balance [of home and work] was just me trying to find that sense of calmness. The start of the pandemic was sort of like a reset mode for us at And A Half, and we’ve just been trying to fix things and find ways to survive. There were a lot of days when it would just be meeting after meeting. Like five meetings a day just to fix things internally, and just balancing that with being at home and finding ways to keep sane.

So did you feel like you had to take care of other people at the studio, who—for lack of a better word—weren’t as “lucky” to have that same space as you?
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s also how I positioned myself. And I know this is a controversial opinion but I really like working from home and meeting via Zoom because it sort of gives me control over the screen. But yes, I know that other people have really had a hard time. And since I think our strength as a studio is our relationships and taking care of each other, I felt I had to be the support. Maybe there’s a bit of guilt or privileged guilt in there but I just felt that I really had to be there for 

“Maybe there’s a bit of guilt or privileged guilt in there but I just felt that I really had to be there for people.”

You recently got promoted to partner at And A Half, but before we talk about your new setup, can I ask how you started at the studio?
I guess in the story of And A Half, when I came in, they didn’t really have a project manager. Around that time, they had a big account and they were juggling all these things and having a hard time managing everything. At one point they forgot to email something to the client and someone got mad, and that’s when they realized they needed a project manager. So their intern at that time was my friend and she told me, why not apply to be the project manager. And I’ve always wanted to work in the creative industry and so I applied for this role. But honestly at that time, I didn’t even know that there were design studios that specialized in branding. [Laughs] So when they hired me to be project manager, I sort of decided to help fix all of the internal processes as well.

By “fixing the internal processes,” do you really mean create an internal process?
Yeah. [Laughs]

And that’s something so crucial in a creative situation. I don’t want to say that that’s a thankless job, but I’m curious to know if and how that role made you feel creatively fulfilled.
For me, it’s all been fulfilling because I felt like I was empowering the creatives in the studio. Like I was organizing their thoughts for them, facilitating meetings, creating a better workflow, and dealing with client management. I feel, with all that, I was able to bring out their creativity more and I got to participate in that creativity as well. That’s where I found the fulfillment. But it does get thankless after a while when you deal with irritating clients. [Laughs]

Yeah, when you were listing down the things that you do in such a nonchalant way, I was like, wait, this all sounds so hard. Creating a better workflow is no joke. All the things you listed are heavy tasks. And especially in a creative industry where designers can easily post and share their work online, strat and management aren’t as celebrated or even shared. Was it ever a concern for you to figure out how to explain to people what you do?
Yeah, definitely. I think only recently, after exposing myself to people who also do design strategy, and reading about it, did I realize na I’m actually doing that, too. Because for a time, I questioned if I was really a strategist. That wasn’t my undergrad and I didn’t really study or read about it, but I realized it’s really all just about creating concepts and having a very strategic recommendation for how brands can position themselves. Which is something I’d already done back in college for orgs. But yeah, that was a big insecurity of mine before—wondering if whatever I was doing was even real. I mean, when I present to my clients, they say they get it and they say yes to the insights or whatever, but I did ask myself if what I do really helps the design. Do I really know what I’m doing? What is the ceiling of growth? It was all just a question mark. But I’ve realized now to just own it and be confident that this is actually a service.

Design strategy does exist but there aren’t as many learning opportunities for it here. Education opportunities for design aren't as available here as they are in other places abroad.

Or even in the conference room itself, where I’m guessing the reaction of the clients is clearer when they see the branding, rather than when you’re presenting the strategy.
Truly. I mean, for the strategy that we do at And A Half, it’s really about creating a concept and communicating it. But again, that concept only comes to fruition when you see the full brand or design. And I guess that’s why, as strategists, it’s only recently when we realized that we have to talk about it and put what we do out in the forefront.

“I did ask myself if what I do really helps the design. Do I really know what I’m doing? What is the ceiling of growth? It was all just a question mark. But I’ve realized now to just own it and be confident that this is actually a service.”

I can imagine how hard it is being a manager as well, and how it may seem that just because you’re not going through the “hard and emotional pursuit of design,” it somehow means you’re open to being the sounding board for creatives, and to taking on the even harder responsibility of not adding to their problems.
Yes. [Laughs] I think that’s actually the role of project managers and R&D, which is to create an environment that facilitates creativity. I super agree that as a project manager you’ll question if you even did contribute anything when all you did was talk, but I realized that we have to get over that because that doubt is stopping us also from acknowledging ourselves as creatives.

We have really good project managers at And A Half and I always feel bad if they don’t take ownership of the work as well. Because I honestly feel like none of it would happen if there was no project manager. I mean, it’s possible for designers to project manage themselves but I don’t think they would come up with as good an output if they were just left alone.

So what do you tell your project managers if/when they feel lost, or if they don’t share, as you said, that sense of ownership?
You can find the joy in client management if you know how to care for and foster good relationships. That’s exclusive of the client being “eh,” but again it’s really that balance of having that space to try other things to express yourself creatively. So our project managers are open to doing other things in the studio.

I think that’s why we have an open structure at And A Half. Whether you’re a designer or a project manager, you should feel like you can do other things like strategy or wherever you feel you can also express yourself creatively. Because I do get that frustration of being stuck in your role. I was the only project manager at And A Half for two years, and at one point I was dealing with like, 27 projects at once. [Laughs]

Wait, 27?!
Yeah, and then I broke down. I remember at the start kasi, I was just the typical, bibo post-grad saying, “I’m good! I’m good! I can do this!” And then at one point, I had to choose between going to a client meeting or this other project, and I felt bad that I couldn’t do both and I just kept thinking at that time, “What do you want me to do?!” That’s when I realized I needed help.

Oh my god. Okay, I sort of understand now why you deserve to be a partner. So what are some of the new responsibilities you have now? Or are they the same but just with a wider reach?
When I first read that question, actually, my initial reaction was—and when people perceive it as a promotion—to shy away from that idea. I don’t see it as a promotion because And A Half isn’t really hierarchical. That’s why I super love it. Even when I started here and it was just [Mike] Parker, Bj [Abesamis], and Coi [Serrano], I never felt a distance from them. And I think that’s really the culture they created and we fostered together. So them asking me to be a partner is more about them trusting me to just be in it with them for the long run, and for me to put more skin in the game. So that’s why I don’t see it as a promotion and more like me saying, “Yes, I am committed to And A Half more than ever! Yes, I will shed more blood for you!”

But there also has to be validation, still, right? And I know it’s not hierarchical and the studio is like a family, but I guess validation comes through in the form of that trust, as you say?
Definitely. I mean, I always felt the studio knew that I was 100% committed. But yes, it is validating that Coi, Bj, and Parker wanted me to share in this. That’s also them acknowledging how much I love the studio.

“I want to get excited about branding, still. Maybe because there’s a tendency to get jaded over it. And a lot of times you can get jaded because people treat branding as a band-aid solution.”

Was there a moment you can point to when you realized that you were 100% committed to And A Half?
Hmm… I guess I already felt that when I started.

Yeah, because I’m very idealistic? And I guess I was just so happy to be in this environment and to see them as my friends. Especially when it started and it was such a small thing and there was this opportunity to grow it. And I was like, why not go 100%? I’m lucky to be able to love work, and I really love working because I’m so passionate about And A Half. I’m sorry if all my kuwentos are all about work. I don’t really have a lot of other things going on. [Laughs]

Well, you do, actually, and we’ll get to that in a bit. [Laughs] Anyway, you keep saying that you’re lucky to be part of And A Half, but it’s pretty safe to say that the studio is lucky to have you just the same. That environment you’ve talked about the studio having, a lot of it is thanks to you as well, right?
I mean, yes, I agree—and I hope I’m saying that not in a makapal way—but yes, that’s the reason why I like this place. Because they told me from the start, “Go!” and I just said okay and ran with it. They really trusted me with all those things and we built it all together. That’s what I really appreciate. I hope everyone at And A Half—and I’ll be so sad if it’s not the case—but I hope everyone feels that same ownership. That’s why we aren’t fans of hierarchies and why we really don’t like that idea of someone saying, “I’m your boss” or even “having employees.” We just all call ourselves members of the team. And I know it sounds idealistic but I want to protect that. Especially in a service industry like ours, it’s the people that drive your uniqueness and what makes you different in your offering, and I want to protect the people in that sense and give them the space to bring themselves out more.

I just keep going back to [the importance of] facilitation, and I think that’s my strength. I like building consensus and letting everyone speak and create organization from that.

Is there or has there been a project you’re particularly proud of?
Well, the easy answer—which is the true answer—is And A Half itself. I’m proudest of how we’ve grown and how we’ve progressed and how we’re all constantly trying to find ways to get better together.There’s this philosophy we keep pushing internally but also [to our clients,] which is inspired design. It’s essentially us being hopeful for our clients. We’re just trying to counter our own sense of bias like, “Oh, we’ve already seen this before,” or “This is just another millennial cafe or whatever.” Inspired design is all about hoping for them but also challenging them [to take on] something that can be more.

I also feel I can’t pinpoint a particular answer because as a strategist—or baka it’s just me—but I convince myself to fall in love with and believe in each project so much that it’s really the best. I feel I have to do that so I can convince myself and others of this narrative.

Does that take a lot out of you, though? Trying to really believe in each project?
I think you just have to find one thing to be excited about to bring out that creative spark. I want to get excited about branding, still. Maybe because there’s a tendency to get jaded over it. And a lot of times you can get jaded because people treat branding as a band-aid solution. We’re also trying to combat that, but yes, believing in it can also be helpful for the process.

From an outsider’s perspective, it feels like And A Half’s selling point is that it’s a big family or it’s a place where you can feel like you belong. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah, definitely. We actually just had this discussion internally, too. We talked about how our relationship with each other is founded on trust. It’s about inspiring trust through your actions and trusting each other. That’s a big reason why we don’t have a creative director or one person who approves everything. We want everyone to be a leader and autonomous. I feel that’s a good thing for us, but there’s also that expectation that you have to be able to lead.

There is that sense of a family vibe. I think it comes from that sense of ownership from everyone and that is what makes us close, what makes us feel like we can share anything with each other, and just be honest. That’s really the vibe, and what I love about And A Half and want to protect.

I know you said that there’s really no hierarchy in And A Half, but I’m curious: how do you measure growth? Is it based on one’s capability to wear multiple hats?
I would say that is exactly how we measure growth. We hate the terms “junior designer” or “senior designer.” If we work together, we trust you to lead and we trust your creative direction.  The hard part, I guess, is that it’s kind of a proactive growth. You have to be proactive about it. You have to choose it. Recently, we’ve been talking about how to be more supportive of this, and have check-ups and encourage people to outline their own goals so we can make sure that people are growing.

How do you balance the family vibe with your role as a manager?
I think that’s why the foundation of And A Half is not us being a family. The foundation is trust. We always go back to that. We ask ourselves how we can inspire trust, and what are the ways we can ensure that that trust is kept. And if it’s not, we’re all completely honest with each other. That’s something we’re also trying to foster, just being honest.

Okay, before I forget, why is “asleep” your bio on Instagram?
Well, there was this running joke of me back in high school and college that I was always asleep—especially in class. [Laughs] And I guess I took that idea of sleeping as a sense that a part of you is always resting. So maybe the reason why I made the bio “asleep” is so it feels like I’m not putting pressure on myself as an artist. Because if I’m half-asleep, then I’m not thinking too hard. If I’m awake, then I’m telling myself, “You should be going hard.” [Laughs]

“I want to be able to control the way that I’m vulnerable.”

I’m excited to talk about the other things that you do. Clearly, photography seems to be a strong pursuit for you—whether it’s a personal one, or an extension of your creative career. What made you feel like this was a passion worth committing to?
I think because with photography I have more control. I’ve just been reflecting on it, actually. I think balance is about being able to have control. I also realized that maybe why I like or have chosen to commit to photography instead of drawing or other things is because I can control the frame and I can make people see what I find beautiful. With illustration kasi, I feel my technique is not close to what I see in my head. It’s frustrating for me. But at least with photography, I feel like I can get there faster because I can manipulate real life objects. But yeah, I’ve just been having fun with it and I like that there’s more control. I think, in terms of beauty, I can realize it faster in that medium.

I don’t think, though, that I’ve committed myself enough to be called a photographer when I know people who are super grinding and really, really dedicated to the craft. I like it as a medium to express myself, but I’m not taking photos every day or continuously sharpening my eye. So yeah, I don’t know whether or not it’s disrespectful to say I’m a photographer when others are practicing super in-depthly and when I’m just finding a way to express myself.

I’m not an art critic so maybe take this with a grain of salt, but there’s an intimacy to your photography that feels just slightly out of reach. Would that be a fair assessment?
When [I read] that question, actually, I super liked the description. I think that’s accurate. I feel like it is distant but it’s also intimate. I like how you worded it because that’s the feeling I want to give off. I want to be able to control the way that I’m vulnerable. I guess it’s due to the pandemic that the only model I have for myself is me. And the things I like photographing are things that are feminine. I think—with the distance—I feel I have more control of what I want to show people. I want to show vulnerability but I still want it to be on my own terms. And I think that’s also how I am as a person. And maybe I’m looking for an avenue to be vulnerable na nga in my art… but it’s still controlled.

What are the things you notice about the things you shoot?
I think what I’m attracted to is softness. In a meeting recently at And A Half, we were sharing and started talking about [Marcel] Proust and how, for him, the meaning of life is that one cup of tea and finding beauty in the mundane. That’s also how I see photography. I like it because I’m allowed to explore and see and challenge myself to see the beauty in things. But in terms of the more conceptual stuff, thematically I really like exploring textures, because it involves a lot of zooming into things and seeing them differently and creating something abstract from a mundane object. I also love the female form. For me, it’s like the most beautiful “object.” I love the softness and the curves and I enjoy exploring the details.

On the flipside though, what do you notice about yourself when you shoot?
Well, because I’m shooting myself now, since there’s no one else to shoot at the moment, I guess it’s more of an empowered feeling and being able to shape your own body, so to speak. I just feel like I’m having fun. It’s fun for me to produce things I find beautiful.

And since we’re sharing na nga and I’ve been thinking about control lately, I like that I can control the angle, the shape, and the positioning of my body, so I know how I’m portraying myself. In a way, it’s not as raw but it’s still how I want to show myself. But now I’m thinking maybe I should be more vulnerable?

To bring it back to work, like before, I didn’t want to call myself a strategist or a creative. But now I know I am a strategist. I’ve been doing strategy for four years now. I’m also finally okay calling myself a creative now, but I think it’s more because I am representing And A Half. I think there is a power in labeling yourself and owning that. And that’s why I feel like I have to do it for And A Half, because that’s good for us. But for myself, hmm…

I do get a deeper sense now of what you do for And A Half. It seems people go to you for support, but you don’t actually go to people for the same thing?

But don’t you feel you deserve to be heard or to express yourself in that same way?
I think it’s because I can express it to my family. So I have that place to share, but I do recognize that me not sharing is maybe also stopping me from having more real relationships. I’m trying to be more honest, though. That’s actually my 2021 goal. [Laughs]

Do you feel like you’re still craving that sense of balance, or is it something else now entirely?
I think that I’m happy with the challenges that we have right now. I’m really happy being partners with Bj and Coi and working with the whole team. I know there are a lot of challenges we have to face but I’m happy in my position and with the things I have to do. Balance-wise, I told myself to just chill out. Because how do you know if you’re feeling balanced, right? It’s if you feel like you know who you are and you know what you’re doing. And I feel like that’s enough. You don’t have to know your future, and I think that’s what pressures a lot of people. So the whole staying in the present thing is really true. And that’s where I am right now.︎


Jonty Cruz is a writer and a creative consultant.