This 24-Year-Old Was a Patron at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Bar. Now, She’s Her Campaign Designer

The brain behind the materials for one of the country's buzziest political candidates

Like Ocasio-Cortez, 24-year-old Arenas has achieved quite a bit for her age. Caiti Borruso
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Two years ago, Maria Arenas had just graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (where she earned a BFA in graphic design and worked in the school’s print labs). She sent her resumé to “over 50 places” before she was hired as a graphic designer for New York design agency Tandem in September 2016. At the time, she was Tandem’s third employee, and the company was about a year old.

Around the corner from the Tandem offices in Union Square is Flats Fix, a Mexican restaurant that previously counted congressional hopeful Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a bartender. Arenas’s bosses were frequent Flats Fix customers, and through their visits, they developed a friendship with Ocasio-Cortez. When she left Flats Fix to run for Congress, the candidate asked the Tandem team to create her campaign materials.

Along with Tandem co-founder Scott Starrett, Arenas designed those materials, including the bold posters and purple logo that have become synonymous with Ocasio-Cortez’s David-and-Goliath congressional run. The early stages of the design process were a collaborative effort, not only with the Tandem team, but also with the candidate and her campaign manager. Drawing on inspiration from previous populist movements, “our approach was to really try to understand the candidate, who they’re trying to talk to and what they’re trying to communicate,” Arenas said. To do that, “we looked to the past to see what other graphic design materials have been effective” and what appeals to voters.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, 24-year-old Arenas has achieved quite a bit for her age. Though Arenas can’t comment on current Tandem clients, she said that her world has rapidly morphed since Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win in June. “When she won, it blew up,” she said. “We never expected it to get this big. We were just helping a friend. Now, I’m getting so many emails.”

Working on that project exposed Arenas to the world of designing for political campaigns, but there are still more areas she wants to explore. “Design touches a lot of different industries and materializes in different ways,” she said. “Every time I work on something, I’m going to learn something new.”

Big Mistake

“Biting off more than I can chew. I used to spend almost all my waking hours just working away on several freelance jobs,” Arenas said. “As a recent grad, it felt like part of the ‘hustle.’ I realized how easily you can burn out, eventually translating to a declining quality of work—never good.”

Lesson Learned

As a result, Arenas is “trying to be more mindful and honest about how much I can take on without sacrificing the quality of my work—and my personal well-being.”

How She Got the Gig

Arenas’s bosses hired her right out of college—after she had applied to over 50 jobs. “I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have this much responsibility right out of school if it wasn’t for them,” she said.

Pro Tip

“You can’t design in a vacuum, or no one will understand what you’re trying to communicate,” Arenas advised.

This story first appeared in the August 6, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@dianapearl_ Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.