Designer Sophia Chang on Defying Limitations in Illustration and Beyond

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Where to begin with Sophia Chang?

Over the last decade, this spunky, ambitious Queens native has followed her passion for storytelling and sneakers to cultivate a prolific freelance career. But that barely scrapes the surface.

Chang threw herself into the world of freelance after graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York. She’s since worked with major brands including Nike, Adidas, Apple, Footlocker, and the NBA, to name just a few. Chang is known for her tactile, illustrative style, and a boundary-blurring personal aesthetic that adds pizzazz to all of her projects.

In the midst of her client work, Chang co-founded UNDO-Ordinary, a wellness magazine that aims to make healthcare discourse more accessible and relatable. She also launched the female-focused sneaker platform Common Ace, which aggregates the widest selection of sneakers from around the world into one place.

Illustrations for Hennessy x NBA, 2021

Now Chang is on to her latest impressive endeavor. As the Brand VP for physical therapy and chiropractic company Myodetox, she currently oversees strategy, marketing, and creative.

Suffice to say, I was eager to speak directly with this creative force of nature. Below, we discuss her artistic journey and her unflagging drive.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)   

What has your design journey been like? You’ve already done so much in such a range of fields. Where does this urge to try out so many different things come from?

My main bread and butter is illustration and design, but I’ve always had a deep interest beyond just drawing. I took classes and had internships with print magazines, streetwear fashion design, web design, motion graphics, children’s book illustration, to learn everything and get a taste of it all to see what I liked and didn’t like. I spent my years in undergrad fully immersing myself— every minute, moment, semester, and summer that I had staying busy. I had this idea of me being a sponge, just soaking everything up as much as I could during my college years.

When I graduated, I was out there like any other freelancer trying to figure it out. It’s not that my story is particularly special— it just comes from working smart and working hard. Meaning I would be on Craigslist all the time, in the art media jobs section, emailing people for job opportunities. I made a conscious effort to put myself out there, making sure I’m presenting myself in the right way that I want to be perceived, and getting the jobs that I want to be getting. So all of it is very consciously and strategically presented.

Tiffany & Co Sustainability Story, 2021

Was this creative spirit nurtured from a young age? What was your upbringing in Queens like? 

I grew up as an only child, so I was really bored all the time. My dad was heavily academically driven, and my mom was more on the creative side, but I wouldn’t say my creativity was heavily harnessed in our household. It was very much SAT classes, never got to watch Saturday morning cartoons—very traditionally Asian, in the sense where you’re expected to perform at the top of your class academically, which I always struggled with. I could never pay attention and drew all the time. It was very hard for me to focus on things, because I simply wasn’t interested.

It never really weighed me down; I never really cared. I was just like, this is me; it’s the way I am. I always had a very strong self-awareness. It was definitely a challenge, but I was always very conscious that I would make it work. I’m very aware of my capabilities and how far I can go. I was always on a mission, even at a very young age.

Secret Walls x MLS Playoffs, 2020

I went to a public high school. It was called Francis Lewis, and it was one of the most over-crowded schools in New York City. It was extremely diverse, and I’m very grateful that I was able to grow up in an environment like that. Queens is already extremely diverse, but a high school in Queens is just everyone and everything, all mixed together in one big hodgepodge. So that was a beautiful way to grow up.

I really didn’t find my real happy place and environment until I got to college. That’s why I involved myself in so many areas, because I was just so excited to be in an element where all of my personal interests were thriving. The world was my oyster at that point in time. In our society, a lot of times it’s not celebrated that you can do many things. Especially when I was in college, I was always advised to focus on one thing and be a perfectionist in that. But why not be good at plenty of things, and masters of some?

NYCFC v. Columbus Crew SC at Yankee Stadium, 2019

Where would you say your stylistic worldview comes from, both in terms of your design aesthetic and personal style?

A big part of my illustrative style, to my own way of self-expression and existence, has always been creating my own voice as much as possible. Even with the way I dress. I don’t limit myself just to the women’s section— it’s a fun little creative journey. I don’t really like to live in this world of limitations. As a creative person, we have the gift and ability to redefine and move past these social constructs.

I’m actually working on a collection right now with a footwear brand, and they had initially hired me for a women’s collection, as a Women’s Day thing for next year, and I realized that I’ve never actually been commissioned to do anything that was specifically just for the female market. Typically it’s pretty unisex.

The general theme around the way I work is through storytelling, and connecting the dots, and bridging worlds. A lot of it comes from me probably having ADD— I’ve never been officially diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I have it. When I get emails that are too long, I get so overwhelmed. Give me short, sweet, direct, because I consume that way. That’s how I engage with the world around me; I create that way as well. I think that’s why so many people from so many different types of disciplines respond well to my work.

Really seeing things from a 360 perspective has helped position me well to be able to work with a lot of brands, beyond just being a vendor.

From your hand-drawn illustration style to launching a print magazine, it seems you are intent on preserving elements of old-world art forms and styles in your work. Why is that?  

I was born in the late ’80s, so I was part of that generation where we knew what the world was like before the internet and having computer access. I think that was a very special time, to be a part of both worlds.

Preserving the hand of the artist is something I’m always very conscious of, in terms of my illustrative style. Using different types of instruments and tools, whether it’s markers or pens and so forth, and being conscious of the brush strokes and style. I use the digital side of things to complete the artwork when it comes to composition and colors. It’s a lot more forgiving. My own personal comfort zone of happiness and creativity is really sitting in between those two worlds and mixing it.

In many ways, you’ve broken into male-dominated spaces throughout your career. Streetwear, sneaker culture, working with sports brands—these spaces aren’t necessarily welcoming to women. What has that experience been like for you?

I really exist in my own definition of self. If we’re talking about femininity, there’s so many different ways that we can describe it, even when we’re talking about feminine energy vs. masculine energy. My own personal interest in terms of sneakers, shoes, and so forth while growing up definitely gravitated toward that masculine energy. I also just, as a person, probably have more masculine energy than feminine. 

I’ve heard from people in the past that my work doesn’t seem like a woman worked on it. It’s not really gender-based; it seems very neutral. I think that’s why people respond well to it, it’s well received, and brands gravitate toward it.

JBL Audio Campaign and Packaging Design

Professionally, more than anything, I found myself in these industries through my own personal interests and interest in storytelling. The sports brands found me along the way in the process. Especially in basketball, it’s closely affiliated with the music, and arts, and fashion scene, and these public figures are so tied to pop culture, which is the space I generally work in.

Plus, as a person of color, a female, an Asian person— these also specifically help check boxes. From a PR perspective, I’m sure it looks great as well. It can’t hurt! The authenticity of my story, and my upbringing, and the hard work I’ve done to build my career only adds to that. People respond well to my story and my work.