From romance novels to board games to The Washington Post, Chiara Vercesi’s creative career is far from ‘standard.’ In this conversation, she takes Brian on a journey from introducing Grandma to homosexuality to having an agent in New York and co-founding Sail Ho Studio.
“I prefer harsh reality over comfortable lies.”
Chiara: I was a very impulsive and very polemic troublemaker teenager. And so I was a pain in the ass throughout. I don’t envy my mom, honestly, we had a very complicated relationship, but I made her life a living hell for a good ten years, or even more.
Brian: Hey yall, I’m Brian Pagán. Welcome to episode three of MindFolk: human creativity and mindful innovation, in a podcast. My next guest Chiara Vercesi and I met at Philips while we were working together on a self-help app for people with depression.
Since then she and her partner had been friends of mine, and I was excited to learn more about her career path from board games to mental health apps, to co-founding a design collective and working with The New York Times and Washington Post.
In our conversation, Chiara shares with me some of her deepest sources of inspiration, the most important career lessons as a creative professional, and a surprising example of compassionate change. Enjoy.
Tell me about your grandma, what was your grandma like?
Chiara: My grandma, my grandma was my best friend for a long time. I lived with her for a couple of years when I was a kid and, then I went back to living with her during my university time. My parents were living in the suburb in the black hole of transportation, of public transport in Lombardi. And it would have taken me hours to reach my, my school, my university.
So I lived with her during my, she was my roommate during my university. And well, She was a, she was a very important figure in my life. She taught me everything I know about, generosity and hospitality. And, her house was always open for everyone. No matter, the time, no matter the hour she was insomniac, you know?
And so she was asleep on the couch around 10 o’clock in the evening, but then by three o’clock, she was fully awake and ready to cook for whoever was showing up, I had friends showing up at four in the morning. And she looked at me: “Ah, okay. Give them a pillow and a blanket, or do they want something to eat?”
Brian: I love that, it’s so cool!
Chiara: Well it was sort of homeless shelter, hahaha.
So it took a bit of time to adjust to the, to the life together at the very beginning. But, but then it was wonderful. And, and I miss that time. That’s, that’s my, my favorite memory about her.
She wasn’t completely on board with everything and she was much more liberal than, than many other people around .And living with me, so having contact with young people, having constant contact with young people, also got her accustomed to many different things that are not exactly grandmas’ topic, kind of.
Homosexuality, for instance, she was very open to it. And it didn’t, it didn’t come easily. So… I talked her in… I talked her into it, in understanding it and understanding what the world was about.
And we discussed a lot about politics also society. She, I think she proved herself to be more open minded with me than with my mom. So since she didn’t really have the responsibility of raising me directly, so she could be a bit more open.
Brian: What’s that process like for you? Like…was is like that… was there a clear moment or did it just… how did it happen?
Chiara: No, no, no, absolutely. It was in bits and pieces. Small thing by small thing in the everyday life. Whenever she was coming across new things, unknown things – things for which she had prejudice before. Because you know that’s the way it was.
Brian: Could you tell me how that worked for you? Sorry to interrupt, but you just mentioned homosexuality.
Can you tell me how that whole process for her went?
Chiara: For her it went that I started having the first homosexual friends around. And I started talking with her about them. And, at first she was a bit reluctant. “Yeah. Okay. Everyone can do whatever, but not, not exactly… not exactly right.”
And then after some time after she got… she got to meet these people. Then she, she could perfectly relate to them and she saw that they were just, you know, people like me, like, like her, let’s say nothing really special and nothing really weird was going on. And, so little by little that’s how, that’s how she got to understand and open up to the world’s different things. And it was never a clear moment or…, we had many fights, but never about these things.
It was always a discussion. It was always an ongoing talk.
Brian: It’s nice to have this… it’s nice to have this ongoing discussion to challenge and help articulate our own beliefs. And I know that you’re atheist, so I’m curious to ask, what does that actually mean for you?
Chiara: For me, I strongly believe in science, but strongly, strongly, strongly.
Science is the best way: the experimental method. It’s the best way that we have to be as sure as we can possibly be about something. And science in itself is humble in a way, because a scientist, a real and respectable scientist, would always tell you, “we are as sure as we can possibly be.”
Because scientifically, the 100% certainty of something: it’s never there, because you can always found out something more.
You can always find out something better the next day. You never know where the constant research will take you. And that’s for me, it’s… that for me is honesty. It’s… that for me means rationality and means proving things, not just giving opinions about things and giving fantasies about things and giving hopes.
Which I mean, I really… Don’t get me wrong: I respect religious people, because if they found a way to calm their doubts or to give an answer to all these questions that I… I still leave unanswered cause, it’s okay.
And if they find comfort in thinking about an afterlife and thinking about a superior being that guides their actions, it’s totally fine as long as they do not impose this on anyone else. I do prefer crude and harsh realities over nice lies, over comfortable lies or over comfortable possible scenarios.
Brian: Okay. So how do you apply this rationality to your daily life?
Chiara: Rationality, for me, it’s, it’s a huge drive. And, also… let me think…
Also in relationships, both with friends and partners, I tend to rationalize a lot. Because I had huge crushes for you know ‘the asshole’ and, and all these kinds of things. But I never went forward.
It was a crush. It was a one night stand, it was a one… one time thing. I never moved forward because I know that some kind of people are just not good for me. And no matter how interesting, they can be, how fascinating they can be, it just wouldn’t work. So why, why putting myself in that situation?
Brian: Makes sense. Yeah. So, okay. That, that makes a lot of sense.
Given your career path… So you are an artist, you’re an illustrator, you’re creative professional. This tends to be thought of as something that’s primarily emotional. So how does rationality and this life philosophy play into your career and your work?
Chiara: I have mixed feelings, and very contradictory. I mean, I can be both things: very emotional and very irrational. The, these two parts of myself, they coexist. What I meant before is that I never let my emotions drives my decisions or social opinions or, the way I vote for instance. It’s never a gut feeling, it’s always an informed decision. And nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that I’m completely feeling-less , I’m not an ice block for sure.
I am actually a very sensitive person and I use rationality also to shelter myself a little bit. Cause a lot of emotions and overload of sensitivity can be overwhelmed and a heart to bear. So rationality helped me out immensely to put things in the right place and in the right perspective.
And that coexists. And cause it’s in my, in my illustrations. For instance, my rationality, you can see it in my, in my, in my process, in my sketches. I never go to final without a sketch, without a very detailed sketch. I know what I want to do, what I want to do, and I have to picture it before.
Nevertheless, I found out that’s, that’s the way I think.
So I find out what I want to draw while I’m drawing. And then I finish it. That’s a different thing. So my sketch, my process, it’s my rational part. And my sketching in itself. It’s my more emotional, more emotional part. Because I feel what is right when I see it.
Nevertheless, there’s also another rational part in the process, which is the research. I never approach an illustration without researching a little bit on the topic before.
So for instance, I ended up… I worked for the New York times and I illustrated a couple of very interesting articles. One the environmental impact of beauty products. And the article was super interesting and I went searching for some more. I went visiting all the resources that they were giving in the article and took information about it, because that was something I didn’t know much before.
And I also illustrated… the last one I did was for the second passport becoming a bit of a status symbol in the US cause a lot of people are applying now for, for a right called jure sanguinis.
So they, if they have a traditional, if they are their family was, I dunno, Italian for instance. There are mny Italians in the US.
So if your family is Italian, you can apply for an Italian passport, even though you were born in the US. That’s because family ties and that’s it. I went looking for it: what was it? If it’s really a trend?
And apparently it is for many different reasons for, from healthcare to just a different life. But apparently many Americans are now having a… are now asking for a second passport.
Brian: And did your research add anything to that particular illustration?
Chiara: Absolutely. it added something, because the first ideas I had were a bit more standard and a bit more descriptive, rather than concept… conceptual. While the final artwork ended up to be a… to have a nice idea behind it.
Brian: And which stories did you find to inspire that idea?
Chiara: Well, the story of this, Italian lady that grew up in the US, in an Italian family. And she was saying, “when I, when I think about cooking, I think about biscotti, not… not chocolate chip cookies.” She feels this deep bond with Italy and she would like to live her, elderly life over there.
Because elderly, apparently are taken… are, are taken better care of in, in Italy rather than, rather than in the US. And the healthcare costs are lesser. So I did… the final concept was this elderly, elderly woman that was knitting an Italian flag from the red thread of the US one.
And that inspired me, because I pictured someone in her elderly life. And what, what would you be doing? And what’s the image of the Italian grandma? So: either she is cooking, she is knitting…
Brian: Okay. Just, okay. So just to kind of shift gears a little bit, we talk a lot about awards in design and illustration and art. So how important are awards for you?
Chiara: How important are they? I lived so far without them, so yeah, you can do it.
At the same time, I can’t pretend that recognition is not important. Cause, I’m mean, there’s a thrill to it when you see your name on, for instance, on The New York Times, on Scientific American. I was in the cover of The Washington Post: when I received the magazine. I mean, there’s a thrill to it.
I got people, after the cover on The Washington Post… I got my first fan mail! So I got people that wrote to me, “we saw your cover, it was super nice. It was the cutest; many compliments for your art.”
And that was it. And it was amazing! So how important? I would say not so much. But let me tell you better when I win one, then I can be more honest.
Brian: Okay. So we’ve known each other for a long time, and I know that you’ve struggled with some very intense insecurity in the past. So, if you wouldn’t mind, could you just describe for me the process of moving from this insecurity to being featured on The New York Times and The Washington Post?
Chiara: It was super slow process. I have a very erratic career path because as I wrote in my, in my bio, that you were so kindly checking out for me…
At the beginning of my career, I felt like living out of illustration was a dream too big for me. And such a, such a wonderful thing that I wasn’t entitled to, to have it sort of.
And so I settled for ‘let’s take whatever it’s out there’ instead of sitting for a moment and thinking to what kind of illustration career I would have wanted, I just took whatever what’s out there.
And when I tell you whatever, I mean, whatever!
Oh man, I designed packaging for the pizza boxes.
But worse than that, I designer the cover. For… the covers, because I designed many over the years, for Harmony novels. Which I am not sure if you know what they are, but they are romance novels: those that you find the newspaper shops that old ladies read, something like, that during summertime. And I designed the line, the medical line of it.
So nurses and doctors, like there’s no tomorrow, in all the passionate that you can imagine. My man, I love reading literature for me is very important.
Designing those covers… the lowest point of my career, my low self… my lowest self-esteem. Lower than that, it couldn’t fall. Seriously…
Oh! Worse than that: we go…we’re going down, down, down, deep, deep, deep. Worse than that: I was contacted once by the Adventist Church of the, whatever day, of the seventh day of the… I don’t remember. I illustrated three children’s books for them. Not one – three. And the first of them they published, they misspelled my name on the cover.
The first book I ever published, it was for a, for a Christian publisher with my name misspelled on it. Man, seriously. When I tell you that I settled for whatever was out there, I really mean whatever.
And so that was early beginning of my career. Then I worked in board games for six years, and then I decided to move to Amsterdam.
And when I moved to Amsterdam, I started finally taking commissions that I was really proud of and that I was really happy with. But it was still 50 / 50. So half shitty commissions, half nice jobs. And then something happened.
I was feeling after two years in the Netherlands, I was feeling very lonely and very out of touch with the design community because I was working as a freelancer from home and I didn’t have a school, so I didn’t have a workplace. So not real, not real chances of contact to have meaningful contact with people, so meaningful and continuous contact.
Brian: And you were learning English at the time, right?
Chiara: And I was learning English, yes. Because my English sucked balls. Yes, I was the stereotypical Italian talking with her hands. In some way you will understand me. And, and I spent six months in silence.
Yes. Basically when I came here and I realized that that bare minimum of English that I knew back then wasn’t nearly enough. So I just stayed silent. Cause you know, it’s better to shut up and let people think that you’re stupid, then open your mouth and take away any doubt. So living there, I listened. I listened for six months, meditation and listening.
And then after a while I started talking, started speaking. And let’s say after one year, one year and a half in Amsterdam, I was finally comfortable with English. And I applied for a position in an agency because, I felt like a daily job was what I needed. And that’s how I ended up in Rotterdam.
And that period was very important for me. It was a turning point. Because it gave… not having to worry anymore about bread and butter, I had the chance to…. doing that as a part time job, and then in my spare time and the rest of the time, focusing on my personal style of what I really wanted to do as an illustrator.
On a personal project, on promotional projects that were not as remunerative to make aliving just out of that but had a very large, diffusion and very large reach. So during those four years, I built up a portfolio I could be proud of and, that I could honestly present to publishers without feeling… not… not yet there.
And so after four years there, I was ready, and I went back to freelancing. And that was a couple of years ago. And since then, Things went amazingly. Well, I, I took a bit of courage. I went to New York for one month and a half.
I went shaking hands and meeting people I always wanted to meet. And I’m going to make you just one example. For me, working for The New York Times was my lifetime dream. You know I never sent them an email? Never. I got to meet them when I was in New York in November. And I never had the courage, the balls, to just write them a cold e-mail saying, “I wanted to work for you for my entire life. This is my portfolio. Check it out.”
Never, never did that. Luckily I had a, I have a wonderful agent in New York. I work with a, with an agency that represents my work. And so when I told them, “Guys I’m coming to New York for one month and a half. I would like, first of all, to meet you all so, we can catch up. And, then I would like to meet, to meet someone, to meet art directors and people.”
So, my agent Nancy came with me. She, organized an entire day of meetings from 9:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. I went meeting the art directors of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal… I met eight people from The Wall Street Journal that day. Whoever… every art director who was available, I talked to. And then I went to Advertising Age and to American Lawyers Magazine. And after that, everyone of them conducted me for a commission.
Brian: So thinking in terms of advice for other people, that trip to New York worked out because you took initiative and made it happen, right?
Chiara: Also because you get to the work that you show.
Meaning, if when my portfolio… For instance, the… the switch to from board games, to editorial and advertising for me was really hard. Because board games have a very specific way of being illustrated, very specific categories of board games, and very specific illustration styles that match these categries.
And so when your portfolio is mainly made out of this things,.. You know that you could do something else, but who’s watching your portfolio does not.
Cause yeah, “Okay I see this in case I will need something like this. I will call you. Otherwise, nope. Why should I try asking you to do something different than what I see, when I can call someone that does exactly that thing?”
And it makes perfect sense. So it took me some time to build another portfolio in order to get more commissions. And my agents also helped out immensely in that. And to go back to, to my English, I think that those six months that I spent in silence, listening to people, helped me immensely. From a behavior, from a character point of view, I learned finally how to listen properly before saying anything. And that was not from, that was not with me from the beginning.
I was very impulsive, very polemic and troublemaker teenager. So I was a pain in the ass throughout. I don’t envy my mom, honestly. We had a very complicated relationship, but I made her life a living hell for a good 10 years, even more.
Brian: Thanks for sharing that with me.
Chiara: Thank you for asking. It was very nice.
Brian: Chiara, it was a pleasure speaking with you as always! And everybody else, thank you for going with me on this journey.
You wanna be on this podcast? Just get in touch on our website: https://mindfolkpod.com or via Twitter and Instagram as @mindfolkpod. Let’s talk.
Joost: Hello, good friend, Brian. This is I,Joost, sitting in my backyard enjoying the sun. And I just enjoyed your first MindSnack. I love that name MindSnack, so thanks for that.