A Lesson in Reinventing Yourself: Marisa Sanchez-Dunning’s Journey to Opening If Only Studio
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/13/2022 | 5 Minute Read
“Oh man,” Marisa Sanchez-Dunning says, deep in thought, when I ask her about her hopes and dreams for the future of her recently opened design studio, If Only. “I want to meet Miley Cyrus.”
It’s a lighthearted comment. But, at its heart, it's also completely true.
“On a serious note, she’s been a huge inspiration. You find these people along your journey, and it’s just like I understand what she’s been through.”
Disney stardom aside, Marisa felt a kinship with Cyrus, a musical artist with a distinct voice and devil-may-care attitude. It’s no wonder that Marisa’s personal and professional experiences have shaped her into a designer who knows what it means to reinvent herself and forge a new path ahead.
Originally from the Bay Area, Marisa studied abroad in the United Kingdom and majored in marketing, where a class in branding opened her eyes to her passion for design. From that point, Marisa made it her mission to learn as much as possible from as many design and advertising agencies in the UK as she could—both interning and as an employee—before she had to move back to California. She ended up working at an agency for about a year after graduation until she switched to working on an in-house team, also within the UK.
“I quickly got burnt out on the agency culture and agency life,” she explained. “So I found a way to still be within the creative realm, but on the client-side for a craft brewery working as their marketing manager.
“Making that transition from agency life to in-house was crucial. It gave me a completely different insight into how the creative team is structured and managed and what it’s like only working for one brand. I was able to be so creative and intentional with what I was doing with one product and one brand.”
After three years, though, the scales tipped the other way. Marisa felt like she had lost sight of who she was really doing her work for, and the world of craft beer started to feel suffocating. Both this and shifts in her personal life from a divorce prompted Marisa to move back to the States and consider where she wanted her career to go.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I need this next step to be meaningful. I need what I do to have a good impact on me and the world,'” she explained. “I had found myself in a position where I was working for the same sort of person, the same sort of human at all my jobs, whether it was a design agency or a craft brewery. I found myself working for pretty privileged white men. Coming from a completely different background, I was ready to make that change.”
Marisa began working in business development for a design studio back in the Bay Area, which ended up being what she needed at that point in her life. Throughout her two years there, she worked on projects like their Sustainable Packaging Supplier Guide, which helped the studio acquire clients like Whole Foods and Dell. She found the position fulfilling until, after a while, it wasn’t.
“I was tired of hearing, ‘You're right, we should have done it your way,’” Marisa said. “It was something that I heard a lot, and it evolved from being somewhat of a funny thing to something a lot more disrespectful and frustrating.”
So she decided that if she could do this work for others, she owed it to herself to at least try taking that kind of a chance on herself with her own studio. Marisa doesn’t just view If Only as a new business venture, though; for her, it’s the chance to work with others who have the same values as her. She aims to have a community of like-minded individuals and clients who prioritize sustainability, equity, authenticity, transparency, and quality.
While If Only started mere months ago in October, their services of product photography, stop-motion, and strategy continue to attract incredible clients like business consultancy Hand & Heart and Bay Area business Lady Falcon Coffe Club. There’s also indie San Francisco retailer The Peach Fuzz, a storefront that makes activism accessible and aesthetically pleasing with the goods and artwork sold in the shop.
As a Mexican woman, Marisa’s keen to highlight incredible women and people with diverse backgrounds in the creative world. She has clients like Casa Dos Chicas Café, a mindful coffee brand that supports and brings equity to women coffee growers, Pisqueya, a Latina-owned food company, and beauty company ROUT, all of whom she has also guided sustainable packaging initiatives for.
Even with new clients coming in from word-of-mouth and an official studio space as of a month ago, Marisa still battles imposter syndrome. Luckily, she’s not alone. “The community within designers and photographers helps me a lot,” Marisa said. “Everybody’s pretty open. I’ve found that it helps to know I’m not the only one with questions or that I’m not the only one going through these things. And on a personal level, therapy is great and making sure that I am getting a dose of what fills me up, like hiking and being in nature.”
Aside from meeting Miley Cyrus, Marisa’s plans for If Only’s future are simple: continue working with women-owned companies and helping small brands get their names out there. She also wants to share the intention of the studio and its mission because it can be easy for designers and studios to lose sight of why they’re doing the work in the first place and who they’re doing it for—something Marisa understands all too well.
“I think we’re special in a way, with my journey and how we’ve come to be, and all of our experiences. It informs our work, and that's what makes us see the world a little bit differently.”
All images courtesy of If Only Creative.