Keya Vadgama lives in Toronto and works as a full-time interactive designer, while freelancing as a type designer, calligrapher and letterer. A life-long learner and constant creator, Keya holds a Bachelor of Design and has pursued continuing education at Bitmaker and Type@Cooper.
A woman empowering other women to share their creative journeys, this Torontonian and curious traveller also honours her Indian heritage through the art she produces and the stories she tells.
We connected with Keya to learn more about her creative process, her brand and how she went from intern to lead interactive designer in only two years.
Read our full interview with Keya, now:
- For readers who may not know the difference between these two types of design, what constitutes analog? What qualities does digital design have?
For me, the difference between analog and digital is the use of modern technology. It’s a completely different experience to draw something by hand versus on a computer. Both have their pros and cons. What makes digital design different are things like the ability to zoom in up close, or quickly copy or undo a mistake. I prefer analog when starting a project so I can quickly iterate and then I move onto digital for the polished piece.
- From where do you think your passion for visual script stemmed?
My passion for type stemmed from simply learning more about it in school. Before I took typography classes, I really didn’t pay attention to it. Having the awareness of it led to a desire to learn more, and once again switching between analog (calligraphy) and digital (type design). When I was in my third year of university, I also took my first type design class where I designed a Gujarati font. I learned about an entirely new side of typography in another language. This is partly why so much of my work is inspired by my culture.
- Where did you first learn how to write in calligraphy?
I first learned in 2013 after buying a Pilot Parallel pen and playing around with it for about a year. I then attended TypeCamp in 2014, where I learned the basics of Roman and Gothic calligraphy.
- Growing up, how did you express your creativity? How has this shifted or changed, today?
I expressed creativity through digital design even when I was growing up. I never took an art class when I was in high school because I can’t do life drawings. But I did have Photoshop on my family computer, and when I was in the ninth grade I started teaching myself how to edit photos and add text on top of the pictures I would take. Although, if you’re asking about when I was a child, I had Crayola Twistables that I absolutely loved to draw with!
- In 2017, you attended the Type@Cooper condensed program and designed the Bandhani Serif font. Describe the creative process that goes into creating a font.
The creative process of designing a font is different for everyone, but for me it generally follows this path: Finding an idea for a font, researching about that type of font or finding references of that style, sketches upon sketches of what you’re envisioning until you have a solid direction for all your letters, importing those final sketches into a type design program (at Cooper, we used Robofont) and tracing over them and working on spacing and kerning. There’s obviously a lot more to it than just that, but that’s an overview.
- What’s the culture like at Type@Cooper? How did you hear about their condensed program?
The culture at Cooper is an inviting but challenging environment. They encourage you to explore all your ideas, and push your limits, but within the constraints of the five weeks that you’re there. It’s a highly rewarding experience, and a lot of work, but you have teachers who know what they’re talking about and all the resources you would need – The Herb Lubalin Study Centre is across the street. I found the program when I was looking into postgraduate type design courses that I could take before I (hopefully) do my master’s degree.
- What’s the significance of the name Bandhani and the font’s overall style?
Bandhani is the name of an Indian textile pattern, which the font is based on. It’s a form of tye-dye that makes a variety of patterns consisting of little imperfect square shapes and ballooned edges, and I used these characteristics in my typeface.
- On your website, you say, “When I’m not designing letters or practicing calligraphy, I help design the Internet.” What kind of web projects are you currently working on?
I usually have a lot on my plate, but one of my favourite projects I’m working on is redesigning my agency’s own website! Outside of that, we work with corporate tech-based companies, mainly. One of our major clients is Rogers.
- With the Internet and technology rapidly changing, what do you think the future of design will look like?
This is a hard one! I’ve been seeing a trend towards more collaboration among designers and developers with the rise of programs like Figma and Framer. I’m hoping to see a rise in design that emphasizes content and not aesthetics. While a lot of design may look pretty, it’s not necessarily useful.
- On your Instagram, Letters by Keya, you highlight the stories and significances of the different letters you design. Based on your creations so far, do you have a favourite? If yes, why this one?
My favourite is usually my most recent, and for me that’s my sister’s wedding invites. I was able to use my typeface for the first time in a printed piece. I custom drew each illustration to represent something related to each card’s events. I also printed through Moo, on their luxe paper, and letterpressed the cover card on handmade paper. This added more of the authentic touch I wanted. I was also able to custom design the wax seals we used on the envelopes. It’s my favourite because I was able to focus on such small details and take my time perfecting it to meet my vision.
- Located in Toronto, what do you love about this city?
I love how diverse it is. I know that’s a cliche answer, but it’s true! I never feel more at home than when I’m in Toronto. I lived in England as a child and still visit often, I visit my boyfriend in D.C often and lived in New York for five weeks for the Type@Cooper program, but none of these places feel as diverse or as “homey” as Toronto. I also love that having this much diversity among our people results in having a ton of diversity in our restaurants, cafes and even the art scene. You can find pretty much anything here.
- How would you describe Toronto’s creative community? What impact has this community had on you as a creator?
I’d say Toronto’s creative community is, again, quite diverse. I’ve been able to find workshops, shows, galleries and communities for almost every niche creative interest that I have. The Toronto community has had a large impact on me as a creator because I’ve meet so many other artists that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise. Knowing these artists has lead to them referring prospective clients to me, introducing me to other creatives and teaching me about the business side of being a creative.
I have a really tight-knit group of Toronto-based lettering and calligraphy friends that I’ve made over the last year. Having this kind of support has been unreal. And, Toronto as a city is widely involved in the arts. There are endless examples, but for me Nuit Blanche is always the big thing, and as a teenager I used to wish I could be a part of it!
- Over the last few years, you’ve interned at Habourfront Centre and The Royal Ontario Museum, and you’re currently the Lead Interactive Designer at Pilot Interactive Inc. and the UI UX Designer at Mind Makers, Inc. How would you say your internship experiences helped you land positions at both Pilot and Mind Makers?
Having my internships listed definitely helped get me interviews and “legitimized” me as a designer in the eyes of my future employers. The work I did at my internships was print work, and I was applying for the job of a digital designer, but I found the skills to be transferable. I too had enough digital work in my portfolio to be a serious candidate.
I started volunteering with MindMakers in 2016 through a lead on Twitter! One of their partners, Isis Anchalee, tweeted that the organization was looking for a designer to help refresh their website. I am huge fan of her, so I reached out and asked for more information. When I learned about what MindMakers does and the values they stand for, I was immediately on board.
For me, my internship and volunteer experiences were more valuable in terms of me being able to figure out what I do and don’t want from a workplace, rather than helping me land jobs. The work I did at both internships is unrelated to what I do now, but they gave me a lot of insight into what sort of management style I prefer, how I like to work in an office, as well as letting me experience what a typical 9-5 at a creative job is like. I also experienced working with other designers and developers, which was invaluable asset.
- As a woman in STEM, what advice would you give to other young women looking to explore similar industries?
Get involved in the community anyway you can. Take workshops, courses, attend networking events, etc. It can be intimidating, but it’s so worth it. There are a lot organizations dedicated to women in STEM, like GirlsWhoCode or Hexagon, that bring together women working in these industries and give them a platform to speak to younger women who aspire to be in their position one day. Workshops and courses are extremely valuable as you meet so many people while growing your skillset, too.
For any women still in school, I would also suggest staying in touch with your teachers after graduating, especially if you enjoyed their class and it’s relevant to what you want to do. Your professors know the industry well and if you have questions, they will be happy to answer.
If you’re lucky like I have been, these professors can turn into mentors. They will guide you and introduce you to people in the industry. If you feel you’re unable to do this, find a woman in the industry who you admire, and email her introducing yourself and asking her to coffee. Tell her you want to learn about her journey in this industry. Best case scenario she says yes and you grow your network while also making a friend in the industry. Worst case scenario, they ignore your email. It may seem like a bold move, but it works.
- What do you hope other potential digital creators learn through your work as a designer?
I hope they learn that you don’t necessarily need a consistent visual style to be considered a successful designer and that there can be consistent themes and ideas that show up in your work, instead of just focusing on aesthetics. I see a lot of young designers trying to replicate the same “style” in every project they do, but style is something that naturally develops over time – you can’t force it! And if you’re like me, you realize that style can also just be an idea or a theme.
- Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I may be biased when I say this, but I really believe that more designers should know the basics of type design. I believe they would be able to work better with type, make informed decisions and improve their work a thousandfold. In May 2018, I’ teaching type design at my alma mater (Sheridan College) and I’m hoping to use this experience to develop some type design workshops for designers, calligraphers and letterers in the future.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Keya!
To learn more about Keya’s journey and to keep up to date with her personal and creative progress, follow her on Instagram at @lettersbykeya and visit her website at keya.io.
The feature photo is by Sonia Saund.