How This Athlete Became a Lettering Artist Thanks to a Series of Serendipitous Events

If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of the amazing women we’ve worked with, met, and interviewed, it’s that no one’s creative journey is straightforward. Even the folks who dreamed of being an artist from a young age get thrown a few wrenches along the way. And in the case of swoon-worthy artist Nicole Miyuki Santo, the dream began with goals of coaching soccer in South Africa, landing in a surf shop, and has resulted in two published books on hand-lettering and dozens of creative workshops across the country.

For our latest edition of Creative Crushin', I'm thrilled to share Santo's story so far ;) Still in her late 20s, it's safe to say that this designer, artist, and teacher is just getting started.

Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co and imaginary BFF of Miss Nicole Miyuki Santo ;) When I met Santo, it was somehow like seeing an old friend I’d lost touch with, but felt instantly connected to. Her warmth, exuberance, and passion for creativity radiate from her ear-to-ear smile, and you can’t help but want to make things when you’re around her.


Santo's love for building community through creativity and lettering is a mission we can wholeheartedly get behind.

And truth be told, Santo’s been in the Brit + Co family for a few years now, from teaching an online class to attending Re:Make to co-hosting our very first SF Design Week event! You can even take her colorful and v. grammable Water Brush Lettering Class right here on Brit.co.

Now, let’s hear all about how Nicole stays inspired, how she got started, and what her go-to karaoke song is (spoiler alert: It’s "Ignition" by R. Kelly).

Brit + Co: First, the basics. Where are you from? What did you study in college? Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional creative?

Nicole Miyuki Santo: My roots will always be in Northern California (San Jose), but I’ve lived in Southern California for over 10 years! I went to college down here and haven’t left since. I studied graphic design, but my “identity” was actually being an athlete, not an artist or a creative. I had my eyes set on coaching soccer in South Africa after college, but life happened, and I got injured, so things had to shift (which I now see as a blessing in disguise). So no, being a professional creative was not on my radar!

B+C: Before you went all in on freelance, what did your career path look like?

NMS: First off, I had no desire to run my own company or be my own boss. After college, I had two part-time jobs in LA — one at a wedding design/planning company called Bash Please and the other at a small surf clothing brand; both doing graphic design.

So how the heck did I get here? Small steps in a direction I didn’t even know was meant for me. I slowly started to take on graphic design jobs and lettering projects with friends of friends as they came my way. And in 2014, I got asked to teach a brush lettering workshop at a small retail shop. Keep in mind, at this time, workshops were still new. For the next few years, I kept both my part-time jobs, continued doing side-gigs and teaching a few classes here and there. In 2016, I took the leap to go full-time freelance, five years after graduating.

B+C: What made you realize you could take the leap and go full-time freelance?

NMS: Ultimately, it took a push and me just taking the plunge. I learned, like with most things in life, you’ll never feel fully ready. My situation was a combination of getting let go from the clothing company, realizing the wedding design job wasn’t the right fit for me anymore, and having enough freelance clients that it felt like the right situation to just give it a try. I had nothing to lose and I told myself that if I didn’t enjoy it or I couldn’t make enough money, I could always go and find another job.

B+C: What do you love about being a freelancer? What’s the toughest part?

NMS: I love being flexible, and yet that is also the toughest part of being a freelancer. In the beginning, me being flexible meant feeling taken advantage of because I would say yes to everything and anything, work all the time, and didn’t know how to say no. But what I’ve learned is to preserve my energy and be more mindful of my actions; my yeses and my noes.

B+C: How do you balance your time and manage your workload given the ebb and flow of freelancing?

NMS: I’m still figuring it out. Or I should say, I’m always learning! Different things work for different seasons of my life. But my one tip would be to find that one non-negotiable that keeps you sane. For me, that’s working out. Every day, I have to do something that feels active (even if it’s just walking outside). I used to skip workouts because I felt I needed to continue working; I didn’t have time. But now I know I am more productive if I step away from work for even 20 minutes, and then come back to it with a clear head, rather than being sluggish and pushing through. Maybe for you, it’s cooking, reading, talking with friends or family once a day. Find something that can keep you level and honor yourself with that.

B+C: What inspires you? Why do you love to make things?

NMS: Connection and creating a feeling. I believe that hand lettering is my way of communicating with the world, and my favorite part of this stumbled-upon career is helping others find a spark inside themselves to create with their own two hands.

B+C: What artists and designers do you turn to most often for inspiration?

NMS: Lately, I’ve been inspired by people like Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shauna Niequist, and other authors. In addition, a few podcasts that I love and are always inspirational are Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, Goal Digger by Jenna Kutcher, and How I Built This by Guy Raz.

B+C: You note that teaching is an important aspect of what you do, and we’re proud to include your course Water Brush Lettering in our roster of Brit + Co classes! What drew you to teaching and education?

NMS: Yes, thank you for having me! Teaching was an opportunity that came to me and I was honestly scared. I remember when I first started teaching in-person classes, I felt imposter syndrome. I didn’t know what I was doing and no one taught me what the right and wrong way to teach a workshop was. But after my first class I was hooked. I love being able to help others stop the narrative in their head that they aren’t creative enough or that they have bad handwriting. I’m able to adapt to people’s personalities and I realized I love giving people the tools to do it on their own.

B+C: On that note, you’ve also written TWO books! Overachiever much? Tell us more about the inspiration and process of creating your newest book, By Hand: The Art of Modern Lettering.

NMS: Oh man, yes, what a ride it has been! I was able to write these books because of all the people I have taught. I saw others' frustrations and their hiccups, and I wanted to create something that was accessible and approachable. All while giving them projects to apply their new skills to and add hand lettering to their life, home and gatherings. Hand lettering and calligraphy have become popular the last few years with the rise of social media, and I wrote my book as an invitation for anyone to give it a try.

B+C: What artsy books are on your coffee table at the moment?

NMS: How to Draw Modern Florals 101 by Alli Koch and Jenna Rainey’s Everyday Watercolor. They both are cool human beings and talented artists! And I know Jenna has a class with Brit + Co too :)

Favorite Quote: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their own battle.


Trivia About You: My AIM was sweetnikki :)


Go-To Karaoke Song: "Ignition" by R. Kelly


Favorite art tool: Princeton Art & Brush Co Lauren Series - round brush size 2/0


Late Night Snack: Honey Nut Cheerios


Currently Reading: Girl, Wash Your Face

B+C: When you’re feeling creative burnout, how do you reset?

NMS: I workout, I talk about it with my friends, and/or I journal. I’m a thinker and a feeler, so usually when I feel burnout or overwhelmed, there’s something deeper going on that I need to flesh out or work though.

B+C: You describe yourself as a believer, dreamer, and adventure seeker. Tell us about your most recent adventure!

NMS: I recently went to Bali and I absolutely LOVED it! It was my present to myself after writing and releasing my books. I of course enjoyed the diversity of ocean and jungle, but it was actually the hospitality and the kindness of the community on that island that I loved the most.

B+C: What advice do you have for emerging artists and designers who are considering that freelance life?

NMS: Know that it is going to mentally test you. And that is totally a-okay. You won’t have someone telling you what to do, telling you what is right and wrong, motivating you and keeping you on track. That is all you.

Surround yourself with people who are going to bring you up, and if you don’t have that at the moment, find other groups and communities either in person or online with other like-minded people!

B+C: In five years, where do you see yourself?

NMS: To be honest, I have no idea. If you asked me five years ago where I’d be, there is NO WAY I would have said that I’d have two books sold all over the world. But what I can say is that there’s something I’m being pulled towards with creating community. Not sure what that means, but hey, I’m saying that and putting it out there!

Y'all feeling inspired to start lettering up a storm or what? You can keep up with Santo on Instagram at @nicolemiyuki and at NicoleMiyuki.com. And you can shop her books on Amazon via the links below. We can't wait to see what's next for this radiant gal!

Know of a game-changing creative whose story we should share? DM us @BritandCo and stay tuned for next week's Creative Crushin'. Until next time, eat, drink, and bust out your old school calligraphy pens and watercolors and start lettering ;)

Author: Anjelika Temple (Photography courtesy of Nicole Miyuki Santo & Kurt Andre for Brit + Co)

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