People: Saharah Isles on shifting gears and harnessing design to power through difficult times

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — When the construction industry experienced a slowdown due to the pandemic, Sahara Isles, a licensed architect, was forced to choose between her job and her health.

Before Covid, she received a small salary that was augmented by overtime pay in exchange for long hours. But when the pandemic came, this was reduced further, and she would need to increase her overtime to cope. Unfortunately, a recent asthma diagnosis meant she was more susceptible to Covid-19 and needed to limit her time in the field.
Sahara hoped that the pandemic would be over quickly. She comments “I decided to stop working and wait for the situation to subside – but it didn’t. Monthly necessities ate-up my savings and I only had very little left in my account, with no job.”

Success by design


By May, the licensed architect started looking for freelance graphic design jobs. Sahara, who has held a passion for design since childhood, enjoyed it so much that she chose to work full time as a Graphic Designer. She said, “During that time, I decided to specialize in designing on Canva and found projects through freelancing websites. I was surprised to get my first gig quickly and found that my skills were highly sought-after. I was pleased to see that Canva is relied on widely by students, professionals, businesses and beyond.”

Her freelance work presented many advantages, she says. “I can earn money from home, and often takes no more than a couple hours of work to complete a project on Canva. From July to December 2020, I made more than my Annual Income when I was an employed architect!”

For several months, she focused on various graphic design projects such as designing brand collaterals, book covers, flyers and posters. “My most in-demand service is creating social media visuals. Most of my high-paying clients are agencies that manage social media. I also have patrons and repeat customers. There was also a time when I got so many gigs that I had to hire an assistant to help me with minor design jobs so I could meet deadlines. It was exhausting but fulfilling.”

Girl boss

After discovering Canva and reconnecting with her interest in designing, Sahara powered through the challenges of the pandemic. More than just surviving, she was able to succeed and have a regular source of income until circumstances allowed her to gradually go back to the field. Her freelance work proved that she is a boss of her own and she gained more confidence to go back to her practice in architecture after all the hurdles she overcame.

With some restrictions being lifted, Sahara has started going back to her profession as an architect but designing still remains a very important part of her life. “I was commissioned for a project as lead architect to design a 2-hectare subdivision in Candelaria, Quezon, but because designing has been so close to my heart, I still accept graphic design commissions on the side. Looking back, I now feel more empowered and encouraged to trust in myself, my skills, and my ability to adapt.”

Raised in a single mom household, Sahara knows first-hand about the innate strength and determination that women can lean-on when pursuing a goal. “My upbringing helped me grow as an individual and helped me to pursue a career in the male-dominated field of architecture. I worked in a construction company where I was the only woman in the project team, and it wasn’t easy to voice my opinions.”

She notes the hints of chauvinism in her experience but shares how she came out on top. “Whenever a task or project was assigned to me, I gave it my all, and in less than a year, I was promoted.” For her, being a woman in today’s society means overcoming limitations and breaking barriers.

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