In Conversation with Akiko Baron

Akiko smiles next to a bookshelf.

Designing the World that We Want to Live In

Minerva Strategies is privileged to partner with professionals from around the world who share our values and excitement about communicating to support positive change. We are fortunate to partner with Akiko Baron Design, LLC across several client relationships, including projects with the Client Justice Resilience Fund, Seattle Foundation, and so many others.  

Whether creating a new logo or designing stunning collateral, Akiko understands the unique needs of our clients as they advance their social good causes. Below, we discuss the path that led to her freelance design career and how design is another avenue to create positive change.  

This interview has been edited for clarity.  

Akiko, you’ve partnered with Minerva Strategies since 2016. That’s quite a long time! If you had to choose, what’s one project that has stood out to you?  

A slide deck project for PATH was huge–it had close to 100 slides. It was really the beginning of my partnership with Minerva. 

Before this project, I had never been on a project that involved coordinating with people from other countries. Part of the deck included a complex infographic. After it was done, our client sent a photo of that slide being shown on a giant screen and said, “Thanks for all the great work.” I remember feeling so good about what I did and hoping that I could continue this on my own.  

I felt so lucky and really thankful to Joy and Sara for trusting me and bringing me on as a partner.  

Do you see the result of your work fairly often?  

Not really! But it means a lot when a client takes a photo or sends something and says, “Hey, look at your design!” The PATH photo showed people sitting in front of the presentation and you could tell the deck was on a big projector. Everyone was looking at it! That really made a huge impression on me. It’s definitely nice to see my designs in action.  

Why did you decide to become a freelance designer?  

I spent around 15 years working at different design firms.  

After I had my first child, I went back to work part-time for about two years. Once our youngest was born, my husband and I moved our family to Seattle, and I decided to focus on raising the kids. But as I thought about what I could do down the road, I recognized that I really liked working and designing. I needed to figure out a way to be at home and manage our childcare needs. I also didn’t want to work in an office.  

That’s when I embraced the idea of going out on my own. It has been a slow growth for me, but I’m also happy with the way it went because I didn’t need to scale right away. I get the chance to work closely with people and control the quality of the work. I’m still figuring out if I want to expand a little bit more, but I’m at a good point right now. I love the amount of work I have–I love the clients I partner with.  

Your journey has been quite a progression! We know your motivations behind freelancing, but what made you want to become a designer?  

My paternal grandfather was an artist and a curator for a museum back in Japan. During the early part of my childhood, I used to live with him. He was there every day when I came home from school. One day he said, “I’m going to teach you how to draw a person’s face.” And that’s how it all started for me. I can’t say I was ever good at drawing people’s faces, but I still remember when he came to my elementary school to see an art show. I was excited! My grandfather looked at my drawing of my friend’s face, and he kind of nodded, like he really didn’t know what to make of it! Some kids’ work was good, mine probably wasn’t… but I tried my best! It was just great to have him there.  

That’s funny! What else influenced your journey?  

I went to a small high school outside of Chicago, and I just loved the art teacher there. He really encouraged me to pursue the field of art. I went to Connecticut College, and I majored in studio art, with a focus on graphic design, and I really liked it.  

My first job was at Houghton Mifflin designing websites and working with illustrators. Then, I tried to create my own path and switched jobs every 2-3 years. I really learned a lot when I took a job at a small design firm in Boston. It was a husband-and-wife team, and they were both inspiring and created a great place to work and learn. That experience really helped me become the designer I am now. 

One of Minerva’s values is making time for yourself. As a freelance designer, how do you balance and protect your time?  

I’ll be honest, I’m probably not the best person at this. I could work more on making time for myself and really shutting everything else out. On vacation, I’m always checking email! But I’m working on shutting my computer off during the weekend and at night. I think this is something that a lot of freelance designers struggle with.  

I do rely on the Todoist app (thanks to my husband) and my Google Calendar. I also have sticky notes everywhere to make sure that I complete assignments on time. I love post-its. 

Yes, “making time for yourself,” is something that the Minerva team is always trying to do! It takes practice for all of us. I’m glad to hear that you’re trying to set boundaries and protecting your time on your days off.  

That’s true. One thing that really helps is being part of a virtual network of independent consultants, called Mightier. We’re often asking each other, “What are you doing for yourself?” We also talk about strategizing and growing our businesses. It’s been really helpful to have that community and support. 

That’s great that you have that support system! Let’s talk about a recent project you did for us: Seattle Foundation’s 2022 Annual Report. What’s it like to see your work finalized and out there in the world?  

I’m just really happy with it. We started the design of the annual report with the insert of the Grantees Learning Report. I’ll be honest, I struggled with that part of it! I saw all these visual elements, but I hit a “block” because I didn’t quite know how it was going to come together.  

Writing is like that as well—having the pieces but not quite the full story.  

Yes, once we figured out what concept to elevate and went through the revision process, it really came together. I also thought deeply about how this portion of the report would fit into the larger annual report. How could we connect the visual elements and the idea of looking into the future? It’s challenging, but it’s fun when it comes together.  

Okay, last question: how is design a tool for positive change and social impact?  

Well, I think about it like this: if you have a group of people who don’t speak the same language and don’t come from the same background, then the words and letters would mean very little to them. The design elements help their understanding. Design helps bring people together.  


About The Author

Elise McGlothian

Elise McGlothian


Elise thrives when creating a positive social impact through communications. She has a passion for equitably relaying information and moving people to support organizations tackling critical social challenges – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about Elise.