Isabel Gatuslao: The Making of an Icon

MANILA, Philippines - If a picture paints a thousand words, the same could be said of an icon in the form of a logo. And no one creates logos and visual identity systems like graphic designer Isabel Gatuslao.

 Design has been her obsession since she was 10 years old. Her brother Len (one of her six siblings) would tinker and play with visual design programs like Adobe Photoshop while Isabel would watch precociously. While her siblings were out playing, she would leaf through the pages of her mom’s Architectural Digest. She fondly recalls, “I designed my first website when I was 18. At that time, the Internet moved at a glacial pace of 56 mbps. It was really slow, really old school. I taught myself everything and learned how to use the ‘old’ Photoshop. Back then we didn’t have National Book Store in Negros so I’d have my friends buy books about Photoshop in Manila and have the books sent to Bacolod just so I could learn how to do it.”

Being surrounded by her tech-savvy brothers and father, Isabel easily grasped the complexities of Photoshop. Her love for the art of visual design followed soon after. It has captured her heart ever since. “I think about design in the morning and before I sleep. And while I sleep, I dream about it. Maybe because when you love what you do, you can’t get enough of it.”

At 31 years old, she has found her place in the world. But it took quite a frightening a leap of faith (on her part) and luck’s helping hand to get her there.

The black sheep

To begin with, Isabel, the sixth of a brood of seven, considered herself to be the “black sheep” of the family. Enrolled in St. Scholastica’s from grade school to high school, she had a hard time fitting into the extremely conservative mold of an all-girls school. She wasn’t the studious type and her grades showed it. “My parents are very understanding of who we are. Everyone in the family is free to pursue whatever he wants to do. But while we were growing up, grades were very important. I guess that’s why they were frustrated with me,” Isabel explains.

After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod, she sold her cassette player and bought a one-way ticket to Manila, the first flight out on the day after her graduation. This was her new beginning and her farewell to 23 years of life in Bacolod.

She first set off as public relations manager for Hyatt Hotel and Casino in 2007. “(The experience) was excruciating,” she reveals. “Some parts of it were fun but it just didn’t feel like me, you know?” She then landed her “dream” job at Nike and what followed was a whirlwind affair. It was short-lived, however. The recession took its toll and she had to leave Nike just after two months.

Devastated, Isabel retreated to her home province where a cloud of gloom stayed with her for a year. “(After losing my job at Nike), I finally decided to listen to my gut and go with it, once and for all. I thought, ‘What can I do that doesn’t feel like work?’” She realized that it was graphic design.

A new leaf

“I always go back to graphic design because that’s the only thing that doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s scary when you’re 28 and you’re starting something new and its something you didn’t study for. It was tough,” Isabel narrates.

With clarity and peace of mind, she finished a one-year course at the Philippine School for Interior Design (PSID) so she could manage doing large-scale graphics and environmental graphics. Like most designers, she started her career by doing work for friends. She garnered greater attention after posting a blog online wherein she described in detail her design process. Her unwavering conquest for the perfect design led her to more clients. To date, she has worked with renowned brands like Medicard, Daphne Oseña-Paez, National Book Store, Dove and the School of Fashion and the Arts (SoFA), to name a few.

It is no surprise that Isabel has garnered praise from the big wigs as she takes particular care in understanding the history and the vision of a brand before she presents clients with a design. It takes about two weeks to a month for her to create a brand identity, a process done with precision and not by haste. Isabel shares how, in one of her more recent works, she was able to integrate the owner’s German roots into the brand identity of the Filipino company: “(For the company), I chose a German typeface so it is relevant to his brand. Everything I chose for the visual system had a meaning so the visual cues they send to the public are authentic. I chose the colors and the typefaces they were to work with to make the brand look consistent,” she says. Isabel also points out that a well thought-out design sends a message that the company is professional because it knows that branding and identity are important.

What sets her apart from those in her field? This Scorpio-born lady firmly states, “I like to strive for things that are elegant and I like to make sure the identities I design last a long time. Not trendy. I hate trends. There are so many graphic designers out there and I’m not one of them.”

Now renowned for her sophisticated and intelligent designs, Isabel admits that her way to the top was not peachy. “Letting go of the people who drag you down is the most important lesson I’ve learned. Not to be afraid of something better in front of you, just because of something that’s already behind you – getting back up on your feet.”

She lives every moment inspired by a quote from an Italian modernist graphic designer named Massimo Vignelli − “If you do it right, it will be timeless.” She doesn’t consider her work as work. “I’m doing it for myself even if I’m doing it for clients. I have so much fun! Reading about fonts, colors, it’s a part of my life,” Isabel talks gleefully and endlessly as though she could almost burst into song from the happiness that fills her. The image of Isabel, a person fulfilling her purpose in life – just like the icons she has worked on – is one that is timeless itself.

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