Tyla Mason: The power of positive pictures
Her vibrant and uplifting illustrations have earned her fans all over the world. Alumna Tyla Mason reveals what inspires her work and shares advice for young designers.
Since graduating from the Creative Academy with a BA in Communication Design, Tyla has carved out a burgeoning career as a freelance illustrator. She sat down to reflect on inspiration, doing work that matters and exploring creative outlets.
I’ve always wanted to draw and make things. But up until college, I didn’t quite understand the landscape of design and illustration as opposed to fine art. The “higher” art forms seemed really intimidating and I felt like art school would break my heart. The course at the Creative Academy appealed to me because it offered a variety of creative avenues that I was interested in. That’s when I realised that there are so many different art forms between a Rembrandt and, say, a flip-book about dogs. Recognising that those two things can be equally important, and the way that design was maybe more people-orientated than what I perceived fine art to be, is what sold me.
Personally, I would like to not get too hung up on the idea of having one style, because I imagine that I would probably get bored of that. But I definitely gravitate to simple shapes, bright colours and character-orientated illustration. With the work that I’m doing, that style has been the most intuitive, and most effective in communicating the message clearly.
A lot of your work focuses on young women and has a feeling of warmth and positivity. What do you want to achieve with your illustrations?
I don’t know that I have a specific goal in mind, but I gravitate towards projects that nurture young people’s voices and/or creates spaces for young people to feel less alone. Adolescence can feel very isolating, and a lack of knowledge, resources and confidence can prevent teenagers from reaching their dreams. I definitely don’t think my illustrations have an innate ability to make that experience less isolating. But having warm and uplifting visuals makes the content more accessible and fun.
What is on your desk?
After graduating, I was approached by Girl Effect to work on a new mobile platform they were launching, called Springster. The platform is based around digitally (dataless-ly) connecting marginalised girls by providing them with an inclusive space to share experiences and help navigate adolescence. They hired a handful of female illustrators from their flagship countries to basically build up a library of images for upcoming content. So I had to do close to 100 article illustrations in a very short time for that first brief. I did not feel ready for it, but it taught me so much about time management and being less of a perfectionist and how jobs work. It was a really positive first experience. The people at Springster were great (and not as scary as I imagined real-life bosses to be). Having them as a client kind of nudged me in a direction of similarly-focused organisations.
What have been your career highlights?
Last year, my friend Emma and I worked on the first print publication of Malala Fund’s digital newsletter, Assembly. It was a yearbook-like collection of their favourite articles since their launch. The idea was to distribute it to schools and communities that don’t have regular internet access. The two of us were trusted with all the layout and illustrations for the issue, and we saw it distributed to over 22 different countries. It was incredibly special to be a part of and so much fun to work on!
Another highlight was doing my first book last year, for The School of Life, which is called What Can I Do When I Grow Up. The book offers guidance to young people about the world of work. It is by someone I would probably pick for one of those dead-or-alive-dinner-party questions, Alain de Botton. I got to do the cover and illustrations throughout the book, mostly profiling different jobs. Some of these I had never heard of – like a cloud chief architect or a rail logistics engineer. So it was very informative. Being able to work with an exceptionally talented team and an exciting company was a huge highlight! I’m still reeling from that.
The lecturers that taught me at the Creative Academy made my time there really meaningful. Their guidance and support helped me build confidence and gave me the ability to critique my own work. Even now, when I’m stuck in a project, I will sometimes imagine what they might advise about a particular problem. We were also encouraged to explore and try different approaches with the briefs we were given, which I’ve continued to try and practise outside of school.
What advice do you have for prospective design students?
I find inspiration from films and books and podcasts and places I’ve visited. Also from stuff that has happened in the past, and stuff that happens in dreams. With commercial work, there isn’t as much space for personal themes to come through, but it does feed into the work in a positive way – even if it just keeps me excited.
Since a lot of the illustrations I make are accompaniments to stories, this helps me select visual cues from the piece of writing. With clients like Springster or Malala Fund, I am sometimes asked to depict real-life people. For example, young women or girls who are doing incredible things in the face of adversity. In those instances, it’s impossible not to feel inspired by the content!
What do you think distinguishes South African designers from the rest of the world?
It’s hard to say, because creatives from South Africa come from such different backgrounds. As a result, it would be tricky to identify what sets individual creatives apart. But I think that South Africa, as a whole, is special in that it offers such a wide range of diversity and influences.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before becoming an illustrator?
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