Graduating Into a Pandemic: Francis Ho

Black-and-white portrait of designer Francis Ho, who is standing in a driveway on a residential street, facing away from the camera, wearing patterned clothes, and holding a fluffy black cat

It’s been about a year since most of North America began social distancing to combat COVID-19. How has this strange and difficult time affected young people entering the design profession? We checked in with students who graduated last spring from university programs in North America; below is the second of four stories. The others feature Angad Singh, Damini Agrawal, and Michelle Chan.

Francis Ho
OCAD University, Toronto

During my time at OCADU, I went out of my way to go to the career center, to get advice. I went to talks, attended career fairs, participated in membership programs. I feel like I came out of school prepared for working life. If there wasn’t a pandemic, I might have had a design job already.

It was scary when the pandemic hit, though in at least one way I was prepared for it. Before social distancing was enforced, Karin von Ompteda, a faculty member who is very into health and science, was reading the news coming out of China and continually reminding us to not come to class if we felt sick. But we couldn’t have predicted how dramatically everything would change. I was part of the team preparing the graduate exhibition. I sensed the seriousness when the program chair called me to say, “hold off on buying equipment for the exhibition.”

It was difficult to adjust to being at home, especially after spending so many hours working with peers at school. The isolation was challenging. One small comfort was that we had Skype calls constantly, even just open-ended work sessions during which we could talk about what was happening around us. One of my classes was canceled, but we made it through to the end of my thesis seminar. We met with the professor over Skype; she tried to accommodate us as best she could, in part by focusing less on the final work and more on the process and our thinking. Working on a process book, rather than a finished project, helped.

Screenshot, on a green background, of the Rural & Ready website’s blog page
Screenshot of the Rural & Ready website

Completing my thesis was bittersweet. It was difficult to design over the summer; I took time off to reflect on the experience and on my mental health. Only in November did I get back into design and find enjoyment through it. The New Kid Collective was helpful; joining a community helped me get inspired. I’ve also been doing a lot on Instagram: engaging with TypeHaus, with Elliot Ulm, has introduced me to a wholesome community of professionals and hobbyists gathering around design, creating for the sake of creating. That was helpful.

In September I participated in Toronto Design Directory’s annual portfolio night. It was strange to share my screen over Zoom and walk someone through my website, rather than show physical pieces. I did a mentorship program with RGD, which was also all-digital; my mentor was in Vancouver.

It can be difficult to separate these from the video calls that make up my day job in the IT department at OCADU. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had looked for design jobs, but it seemed like companies were only hiring for senior or intermediate roles. No one wanted junior designers or interns, anyone who might need guidance. I even looked for part-time retail work before landing my role at OCADU. It seems like now, in February, jobs are opening up; I feel a bit better about the market. I’ve been trying to push myself, to reach out, to look again. By the end of my time at school, I was loving and focusing on print work. I was asked about that in a recent job interview. Now that we’re in a heavily digital world, I might not have the choice to focus on print; I might have to just go with the flow.

To be honest, I’ve watched friends land design roles and it has stoked my impostor syndrome a bit. I’m slowly getting to the point where I’m at peace with where I am. I don’t yet have a career in the design field but I’m making strides in other ways. I’m practicing design in a way I can enjoy it.

A pill-shape graphic, on a black background, that includes an image of spheres orbiting a star and the text "Another remember that bad times … are just times that are bad."
Design by Francis Ho