2 Minutes With ... Norma MacDonald, VP of Design for Engine Digital
Norma was a founding member of Fjord's Toronto studio and helped grow its headcount to 40 over her tenure. Most recently, she served as visual design director, overseeing global client engagements. In this role, Norma led digital transformations for Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, LCBO and BMO.
In addition to Fjord, she has worked for studios including Tribal Worldwide (DDB), SapientNitro, Teehan+Lax and Henderson Bas. Norma currently serves as the vice president of design for Engine Digital.
Outside of work, Norma trains horses on her family farm north of Toronto. She was formerly a member of the University of Ulster's Equestrian Team in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Norma holds a B.A. with honors in fine arts from the University of Waterloo, and she graduated from the new media design program at Sheridan College.
We spent two minutes with Norma to learn more about her background, her creative inspirations and recent work she's admired.
Norma, tell us...
Where you grew up, and where you live now.
I grew up in Hockley Valley, Ontario. It’s about an hour and a half north of Toronto, a picturesque countryside with rolling hills, forests and farms. Of course, I didn’t appreciate it until I left. Which is why I recently moved my own family back into the area.
How you first realized you were creative.
I was a pretty restless child. I would often be in my fathers workshop building furniture or making my own clothes on my mom’s sewing machine. When I got bored, I would change the letter board signs at local shops to something more amusing. It all clicked when I was 15. I befriended a well-connected family who introduced me to the world of art. They'd invite me to join them in Toronto at the ballet, galleries and shows. It inspired me to get into painting, drawing, photography and dance. It set me on the path of finding creative expression as a career goal.
A person you idolized creatively early on.
Marcel Duchamp. He found a platform in the art world and used it to exercise his distaste for exclusivity. His work challenged social norms and flipped centuries of tradition on its head. It made me realize how powerful your voice can be when communicated in the right form.
A moment from high school or college that changed your life.
I studied fine art at the University of Waterloo and jumped on an exchange at Ulster University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a pivotal year. First, realizing how this small town girl had to gain street smarts in a climate still facing the aftermath of civil war. But more than that, how tiny I felt in comparison to my peers who were creating art at a conceptual level I had yet to realize. It’s there that I fell in love with the beauty of idea coupled with the beauty of form. It was also there that I felt imposter syndrome to the core. By the time I headed back to Canada, the entire direction of my work had changed.
A visual artist or band/musician you admire.
David Shrigley. I have a weakness for satire and his work is dripping in it. He is honest and relatable. He offers insight into the human condition in a way that leaves you both nodding and shaking your head.
A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.
The History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne
Your favorite fictional character.
Buster Bluth. The coddled man with a mother complex complements the weirdness of every other character in the show.
Someone or something worth following on social media.
How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.
Covid-19 left many tragedies in its wake, so I feel guilty to say that it wasn't the case for us. I had lived in Toronto for two decades. I train and sell horses on the side which means trekking out of the city every weekend. Feeling most at home in a rural landscape, my husband and I had always dreamt of buying a horse farm when we retired. Working remotely for two years proved that we didn't have to wait until then. In 2021, we stumbled upon the perfect little farm with a four-stall barn and black board fencing that backed onto conservation land. So we sold our semi-detached in Leslieville and made the big move to the country. The transition felt less jarring due to the fact that we are now 15 minutes away from where I grew up. It felt like coming home.
One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.
I am someone who is passionate about sustainability. I put up my hand to support Wilder Climate Solutions and the National Tree Seed Centre as a side-of-desk passion project this past year. After six months of in-depth field research, we produced a report that will serve as a foundation for native tree species diversification, which is the base for old-growth forests. This 88-page document is rich with playful illustration and data visualization and will feed insights into a digital application that will connect seed collectors, growers and distributors. Canada's mission to plant 2B trees in ten years is now less of a stretch goal.
A recent project you're proud of.
Triangle Loyalty App. A quick backstory. Canadian Tire was a little shop that opened 100 years ago and turned into one of Canada's favorite department stores. It now holds 98 percent brand recognition rate and the record as Canada's oldest loyalty program with 9M+ subscribers, equal to over 25 percent of Canada's population. Triangle was born when the program was digitized in 2014, but acted as an earn-and-burn model. With a 1.9 star rating, the app wasn't living up its brand promise. Seizing this as an opportunity, I directed the redesign. We used the first five weeks to paint a blue sky picture by way of a light-hearted prototype to establish a playful look and feel, improve the user experience and be used as a tool for internal upsell. It was well received and we went on to build it natively on iOS and Android. Shortly after launch, this fun uncle of their family of brands jumped to a 4.8 star rating. It also built confidence for the client to invest in a much needed redesign for Canadian Tire and all of their banners, which I also had the good fortune of leading. It became the biggest e-commerce investment in North America at the time.
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.
Photographer Theron Humphrey. I have been a follower of his for years. His work is beautiful, heartfelt and honest. He has the ability to capture the very soul of his subjects, be it humans or animals.
Someone else's work you admired lately.
Mexico City based studio, Anagrama, has always possessed an enviable bench of talent. They designed Yema's flagship store. It offers alternatives for everyday products with a sustainable leaning and an underlying purpose of changing consumption habits. I have always been a sucker for the simplicity of Scandinavian design and Yema hits all the marks. The branding through to architecture presents an clean, approachable and friendly collection of works.
Your main strength as a creative person.
Seeing the potential of beauty in everything.
Your biggest weakness.
Perfectionism. I have trouble with pencils down as I always see room for improvement.
One thing that always makes you happy.
One thing that always makes you sad.
The ongoing feud between cyclists and drivers
What you'd be doing if you weren't in design.
I have filled Toronto Wildlife Centre with my share of various types of injured creatures that I have stumbled upon. If I weren’t in design, I would be opening a rescue centre of my own. I’m sure TWC would be quite relieved.
2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.