Design Alumna on the New Yorker and Being “IN LIMBO”


Deborah Lee, an alumna of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design (BDes ’18), recently had a cartoon published by the New Yorker.  The cartoon depicts the daily struggles of an artist when dealing with free art requests.


This cartoon debuted on on 10/6/20. 

“Honestly there isn't too much behind the story other the all-too-familiar trope of artists being asked to whip up something on the spot by strangers,” said Lee.

Lee is currently a freelance illustrator who works primarily on publishing and editorial projects, after serving as Product Illustrator at Lyft.

“By the end of 2019, I realized that staying up until 3 AM every night to work on my freelance projects was very bad for my mental health, even though I enjoyed those assignments so much more,” said Lee.

In addition to her freelance work, Lee is currently working on her debut graphic novel IN LIMBO, a memoir of Lee’s life. IN LIMBO will be releases by First Second Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, in 2022.

“It’s the most daunting and laborious project that I’ve taken on my whole life, as it’s 340 pages of intricate drawing and story,” said Lee. “Each page takes me about 8-12 hours to draw, and it’s currently what I work on as my 9-5.

“The book covers my time in high school as a severely depressed and suicidal Korean-American teenager in an abusive household, who is also having an identity crisis as one of the only Asian kids in her school,” continued Lee. “It’s a VERY dark book, so much so that one publishing house had to turn this pitch down because of how sad it was! My editor at First Second had to constantly remind me to add happier moments to the story,” joked Lee.

On top of IN LIMBO, Lee is currently illustrating the virtual backgrounds for the Adobe Max Conference, partnering with Class101 to make a full class course on drawing IN LIMBO backgrounds, and she is also illustrating the graphic novel The Tune Without Words by Tina Cho for HarperCollins, set to publish in 2023.

Looking back on her time at Carnegie Mellon University, Lee fondly remembers learning that sometimes “the most effective solutions are the simplest ones” in Dan Boyarski’s Time Motion and Communication class and her senior year independent study with Associate Professor Dylan Vitone.

“I got really serious about illustration and wanted to start building my portfolio from scratch,” said Lee. “So every Monday he’d (Vitone) make up an assignment—a 20 year old article from the New York Times, for example—and I’d have one week to make one header and two spots for it. That built my portfolio fast over the course of just a few months. And more importantly, Dylan helped me understand looking at a piece as a whole narrative and not so much the nitty gritty, which I was more invested in at the time. 

“The School of Design has transformed into a place where you can learn about how to think systemically and come up with design solutions that aren’t limited to apps or pure visuals.”

Deborah Lee's Personal Protfolio >>

"Can You Draw Me?" at the New Yorker >>

Deborah Lee on Instagram >>

Date Published: 
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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