In Conversation with Estefania Loret de Mola
Estefania Loret de Mola, known as @stefyloret on Instagram, is an emerging Chicago-based designer and recent University of Illinois-graduate who—seemingly overnight—grew a virtual audience of over 245,000 people. Her original intentions in sharing her work on a digital stage didn’t include garnering such a large spotlight. If anything, it was quite the opposite.
Stefy views her now highly-shared posters as a way to process her own feelings—an act of self-care that allowed her to follow wandering thoughts by way of making through them. It was only after she began to post these therapeutic outputs during quarantine that she recognized that sharing her intimate, personal work could significantly impact others, too.
But like all possible social media exchanges—especially during a period when these platforms are the main conduit for connection—there’s equal space for dialogue and competition. After countless shares, too many comments to reply to, and critique that sometimes bordered on accusatory, Stefy was face to face with dilemmas that have become inflamed during the pandemic.
"Making" in a world where we're unable to interact with our peers and mentors in intimate ways is something we've all had to grapple with lately. How can you ensure the work you’re creating is authentic? When we’re mainly confined to the inspiration behind our screens, how do you decipher whether or not you’re starting a trend, manipulating one, or unknowingly swimming in waters that border on plagiarism?
Stefy continues to reckon with whether or not she’s creating authentic work that’s first-and-foremost for her. Work that’s informed and resilient to the criticism of thousands. Work that simultaneously starts, feeds, and departs from trends.
In a conversation with Stefy from this past fall, we discuss how practice, awareness, and re-channeling fear are the best antidotes to imposter syndrome. How to balance ones’ mental and emotional health while navigating feedback on a massive scale. And how researching, developing and communicating your unique perspective is the key to staying authentic in inauthentic spaces.
One Design: We’ve spent a lot of time with each other sharing articles and other communications about mental health and our own confidence-building. You've done an amazing job of illustrating what we're feeling. It's resonating with us, and obviously, it's resonating with so many other people. But it feels necessary to understand a little bit more about you—let’s start by talking through your first memories of the arts, your schooling, and where you're at now.
Stefy: My parents always emphasized being surrounded by the arts and being influenced by the arts and having that be a “number one” in my life.
From a very young age, we were always frequenting museums. My mom would give us notebooks to draw in and write stories in. We had piano lessons and art lessons. We'd go to the markets. We were really lucky because we got to travel all over the world as kids, too.
But I went into school completely not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I was always attracted to the idea of the arts, but I had this thing where I was like, ‘can I actually be successful in it?‘
My sister at the time was doing graphic design—I remember looking at the work that she was doing and thinking, ‘that looks pretty cool...that's something I would like to explore.‘ So I enrolled to study graphic design but I didn’t feel like I developed a real perspective until I studied at Central Saint Martins in London for a year. I started to feel, "design isn’t just business-oriented. It doesn't have to sell a product or only be about branding companies, it can be something that's purely conceptual and artistic."
That's the side of design that I really fell in love with.
The second semester of my senior year is when the pandemic hit, and that's kind of when I started posting some of that personal work on my Instagram. That started a whole another project for me. I started focusing on making these funny kinds of sarcastic little found objects and posters and different things, expressions that reflected this kind of dark humor reality that we're living in.
One Design: When did the tone shift from dark humor to these really simple, impactful mental health messages?
Stefy: It was whenever I finished my projects for class. There was a total shift where it's like ‘okay, that was the end of a project, now I'm just going to start making things that I think are beautiful.‘ I started making them just for me, this past year has just been really, really hard for me mentally. I figured I'd just put all my energy into making something that would help me I think.
Every post that I make typically comes from some existential crisis I'm having within myself and I try to channel that energy into making. Sometimes a design will come first, the image that I have in my head about a feeling, and then the words will follow it. And then sometimes, it's me literally looking for help—I’ll just Google ‘I don't know why I'm feeling this way.’
There's one poster I made early on that I reposted recently—it was about anxiety. And I remember making that in the midst of an anxiety episode like at 3 a.m. I can't even remember what I was anxious about, but I was looking at words that might help me and I came across this quote about how no amount of anxiety can change the past.
It's this therapeutic process, where I'm seeing the words and designing around it—creating, sort-of, a meditative state. It gives me time to be alone with the words that I find or with an emotion that I'm having issues with. I can just sit and process it.
I noticed that the more that I shared the designs that were more personal to me, like the ones that reflect a state of emotional vulnerability, people really started to share and to like and to comment, and it became more of an interaction. I figured, ‘well, if I'm making this and a lot of people are, it's resonating with a lot of people, I might as well just keep posting the things that I make.’
One Design: When we reached out to you, you had 20,000 followers. You're over 200,000 followers now!
Stefy: That's part of the thing that's stressing me out a lot actually I never expected it. It's one thing to be posting your work for yourself and for a small group of people. But 200,000? Just knowing how many people can see what I'm making, even if the reactions I get are positive, it's still so stressful.
One Design: There's a beautiful metaphor somewhere in there, that the thing that is so deeply personal to you in your emotional vulnerability is so resonant to other people. I think that’s super interesting.
What's so special about sharing your personal work sharing vulnerability—it's something we believe needs to be done in all human interaction. You're doing that with your work right now and using Instagram as a platform to engage and share with people. It's continuing to be more successful because it's driven by you and what you're feeling—not at the goal of, "Oh I need to get new numbers."
It seems like you're hopefully not feeling the pressure to be motivated by like keeping the numbers or—
Stefy: —If anything, I feel like the more people find me, I'm a lot more hesitant. I have to remind myself that the reason it's doing so well is that people feel the exact same way I'm feeling. Whatever I make, I might as well put it out there and people like it if they like it, if they don't, they don't.
Since the growth happened so fast, I wasn't able to have that opportunity of learning how to deal with social media. The sheer amount of people commenting and sending me messages? For me, I like the authenticity that I had back when it was only...20,000 people. That for me was manageable, and it felt good, and I had my small little community. Now that it's blowing up so quick, the speed of it is the stressful part.
But there is nothing more inspiring to me than the expression of vulnerability. That's what social media has allowed creatives to do, to share the most intimate parts of ourselves—our creations—to the rest of the world.
Last year I was living with my closest friends (all of us were in our last year of art school) and we subconsciously pushed each other to want to create, to want to achieve another level of creativity. We were surrounded by musicians, performers, painters, photographers, writers and it created a space where creative energy could thrive. With the pandemic and graduation, everything just kind of flipped and I found myself craving that sense of creative community.
I ended up finding that community on Instagram. It's definitely not the same, but it's unique and inspiring in its own right. I get to be connected to people all over the world each creating, from their perspectives,
One Design: Have you thought about how you are going to cultivate a relationship with all of these people or is that the looming cloud over where you're at right now?
Stefy: That's the part that I'm figuring out right now. I still want to have some kind of interaction, and now, I think that'll be selling my prints. Before, I never really thought about selling prints or was in it for the followers.
This is something that's so personal to me, I want it to be a part of the process from beginning to end. I want to be the one in the print shop using the Risograph machine, going through the files, writing notes. If I ship something out, I want to be the one writing the little message and signing the piece, keeping that personal interaction alive.
But again, I’m taking everything slow just because I didn't want to do anything too quickly and then end up disappointing a bunch of people.
One Design: Did we glaze over just how this following happened? What were those triggers of growth that went from a positive response to, "Holy shit I now have 20,000 followers?"
Stefy: I was posting multiple times a week. And I think once I started doing that and kind of getting a flow for things, I noticed that more and more people started sharing it, growth was kind of exponential.
I would also interact a lot with other graphic designers through hashtags and commenting to grow a community within the design space on Instagram. We would all kind of share each other's posts. But the people I would tag or the hashtag [my posts were] under would get reposed by various design accounts who had massive followings themselves.
Then sometimes things would just go ridiculously viral. For instance, my post about “the art of going through.” It was something that really resonated with me—I was thinking about all of the different transitional phases I was in. I wrote down all these words and figured out opposite ends of the spectrum for them. Loss, change, failure, rejection, love, hurt, success, acceptance. I wanted to make some sort of really simple kind of visual communication through those words.
So many people found that one–455,000 people—and it's gotten a bunch of likes.
One Design: When you see that number, the 400,000+ people, what are your immediate feelings?
Stefy: At first I was like, "Whoa, that's kind of cool, look at all these people." And then slowly it started becoming “it's just a number.”
Sometimes I'll sit there and be like, "Holy shit." I'll visualize that as the number of people in a room or in a space and I'm like, "That's like a city.” It's weird that so many people are looking at it—at this point, I'm not even computing the numbers. I remember when I reached 10,000, I was really excited. And 20,000, even 30,000, I was really excited. Once I hit 50,000, that's when my mind kind of flipped, and I stopped thinking about numbers completely. It was just growing so fast, I kind of became disconnected from it.
One Design: Based on everything that you've said to us so far, that's probably the best defense mechanism to maintain the integrity of your original purpose with your work.
Stefy: It's definitely probably a defense mechanism. If I sat there and started really thinking about how many people are looking at my stuff, I would have a mental breakdown every second. And I've noticed that now, I try to use my phone less and less.
Early on, I was on my phone way more, going through the hashtags and liking other people's work. I was getting really excited about potential collaboration opportunities. Once I was getting all these emails I had a really hard time responding to everything, working with the collaborations I already started, and trying to finish everything. It became really overwhelming.
So for me, shutting the numbers off is the only way I could keep posting. I try to remind myself that just being able to put something that I made on the internet is something I should be so proud of, aside from the fact that all these people are looking at it and I've grown so much on a social media platform. It's so hard to share what you do when you're so self-critical of the things that you make.
One Design: How do you put the foot off the gas in the making process if you are so self-critical? How do you talk yourself down from continuing to needle and say, "Okay this is the best it can be for right now and I'm going to release it into the world."
Stefy: I just have to stop. I have to just be like, ‘No, it's done, it's done.’ Because nothing will ever be perfect for me—I'm so particular about things. It helps to have a designer for a sister, too, because we can critique each other and share ideas.
One Design: Let’s talk about when someone has approached you online and has said, "You’ve stolen this from someone else."
Stefy: I never wanted to sit there and explain to someone why I didn't steal their design. I mean, they don't know me, I don't know them, I've never seen their work before. But how do I sit here and tell someone to not feel a certain way?
In the thick of that, someone sent me this message that was so interesting. She said, "I'm so sorry you're being accused like this by the guy who thought I stole his design. I think creatives need to acknowledge that because we are all using the same digital tools and platform, similarities are certainly going to happen. It's more interesting to think about why similarities happen rather than accusing artists of stealing without reaching out and discussing.”
Instagram is affecting the way a lot of artists work in a rather toxic way. There is always such pressure from Instagram to make yourself a clear identity or brand, and creators become so perceptive of their work.
We're also afraid to talk about it because you don't want to say something and then have all these artists or designers attack you for it. They're not even giving a space to be able to talk about Instagram's platform and what influences us, why we're designing this way, and why like creating an identity for yourself on the internet.
You block the person behind the account out of your mind, and you don't know them anymore. When you see when someone has the number of followers that I do, I think their initial thought is this person is doing everything just to gain likes or gain some kind of notoriety.
One Design: How do you come to terms with those conversations or misunderstandings?
Stefy: These things are inevitable and the best way to grow. At the end of the day, we are human. Social media adds another layer of anxiety and fear when those misunderstandings are happening on such a public, massive stage. But nothing is ever black and white—we are all just trying our best.
For someone who is already so self-critical and finds difficulty in posting online, negative opinions of my work can actually significantly make me question my level of professionalism as a designer. Am I good enough? Do other designers think I’m a joke? Will this page affect future endeavors in the professional design world?
I can really start to spiral into a self-deprecating state. I found that speaking my emotions—whether to someone or to myself—helps me process and find confidence in myself, to trust my intuition and creative perspective. Not everyone is going to like my work, and that doesn't mean the work is inherently bad.
One Design: So you, Stefy the designer, artist, maker, being authentic in a manufactured, digital space looks like—
Stefy: —it looks like me simply comparing myself to myself and no one else. That is how I’ve found true authenticity.