Personalizing education: how a business grad reinvented herself as a creative

Business grad Elyssa Abi Karam tells her incredible journey from her roots in finance and marketing to a new life as a graphic designer.


Elyssa Abi Karam is a recent graduate of the Master in Visual & Digital Media from the School of Human Sciences and Technology. Before that, she was a business grad. She’s come a long way to be here.

Her journey of professional reinvention took her from studying finance and marketing at the American University of Beirut to an internship at Deloitte, before working in digital marketing and social media coordination. Looking to move beyond marketing to the center of content creation, Elyssa made a plan to give herself a parallel education in graphic design. Here began her double-life, if you will. Now, after years of self-teaching and studying at HST, she says she can finally call herself a designer.

“Talking to designers who are experts, and knowing they consider me a designer gave me the approval that I’d made it—even though I studied it on my own—and that I can think in a design-thinking style.”

A few years ago she took a two-month seminar in hand-drawn illustration in Barcelona.

“Since I didn’t know how to use any of the big design programs, I said maybe illustration would help me determine whether I’m good at this or not, and develop my creativity.”

At that point, she says, she wasn’t ready to work in the design world: she needed to teach herself to use Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. But she found that while knowing how to use the programs was crucial, digital skills aren’t everything.

“It’s like a word-processing software: Microsoft Word is not going to help your writing, and design programs aren’t going to do the designs for you.”

She read a lot of books, recommended by an art director colleague and mentor, and took online classes. With this basis, she slowly took on graphic design gigs around Beirut. Then she came to HST.

From business grad to proud designer

“There was still room to grow to be considered a designer. I couldn’t say it yet. Before October, I wouldn’t put it on a business card. Coming here, I knew that I wanted to change that after graduating.”

In her user-centered design course, she learned a crucial lesson about her process. “What’s the consumer going to think? User-experience thinking is beneficial in every part of the process.”

Meanwhile, her infographics course taught her that:

 “Nothing is hard. It’s so easy once you come up with a system and start thinking in the design way. Everything is easier and will look esthetically prettier. And you’re proud of what you create.”

But besides her classes, sharing her dream with her professors allowed them to give her the boost she needed. Graphic design professor Bea Canut recommended a list of books on everything including grids, typography, systems, logos, brand identities, and graphic design history. Elyssa read them all.

“I spent five hours a week on top of whatever schoolwork exclusively working on this, and spending time looking at different inspiration, on Behance, on 99 designs, and what people are submitting to graphic design challenges.”

Making a plan, sticking to her guns, and giving it her best shot allowed Elyssa to customize her education to achieve her goal of becoming a professional creative. With her business background in her back pocket, she’s ready to enter the design world and kick some butt.

Nicolas Haddad is a Canadian journalist and producer who came to IE to get his Master in Visual & Digital Media at the School of Human Sciences and Technology. He cares about giving a voice to voiceless communities, promoting sustainable development, and putting people first. In his spare time he enjoys cycling, live music, and Madrid’s many terraces, and he previously served as Editor in Chief of Rewire Magazine.