Walby Letoile

In honor of Women’s History Month last month, Minnesota United recognized several special women doing great work in the Twin Cities as our L'Étoile du Nord. This award is given at halftime of every home match to an individual that aligns with MNUFC’s core values: resilience, inclusivity, dedication, passion, teamwork and respect.

While our wonderful community has plenty of people that fit the bill for this award, Melanie Walby was one of the individuals we selected for her impactful work in social change. After recognizing her at our match against LAFC, we took a moment to sit down, learn more about her personal journey, and share the story of this special storyteller.


A Specialist in Communication Arts

A designer, director, and generally creative individual, Melanie Walby has been plying her trade in the Twin Cities for the last 14 years. Though she’s a Midwest transplant, hailing originally from Charlotte, North Carolina before growing up in Eau, Claire, Wisconsin, she’s spent her entire professional career serving businesses in the Twin Cities and learning about a lot of different industries along the way.

Shortly before graduating from the Art Institutes International of Minnesota, Walby began her career as an intern with Vision Van Gogh, an agency focused primarily on producing merchandise for bands. From there, she’d go on to work for a few more agencies, working on projects that brought her into a variety of professional spaces and teaching her about everything from brewing to construction to agriculture and more.

“Being a designer's weird sometimes because you learn really random things,” Walby said of her experience. “I’ve learned about different medical devices, and I know a lot of really random stats about soybeans. And a lot of my work includes those nerdy processes that I think are really interesting. It's just fun to be seen by people who have the nitty-gritty expertise in all these niche things through the art that you make. It's a fun part about being a designer; it's kind of a way of honoring the work they do.”

No matter what she was working on, Walby took lessons with her. She was witnessing stories, absorbing the environment around her, and growing into someone capable of connecting the world through her unique perspective.

“I think I have this inherent curiosity because I've had the opportunity to work with so many random things,” she said. “I've learned a lot about a lot of different people's jobs and industries. And so I have that curiosity about how all those learnings can apply to what I'm doing, even if it's not the same work.”

After witnessing other people’s stories for so long, Walby’s time volunteering with the Sustainable Design Committee of AIGA Minnesota presented her with an opportunity to transition into telling stories instead.


A New Kind of Project

In 2017, Walby left advertising to pursue a career that more closely aligned with her own passions when she joined Pollen, an artistic storytelling platform dedicated to narrative change. After observing the work that they did through several of her peers, she decided that she wanted to feature the storytelling organization in her role with AIGA Minnesota, providing her with an initial connection to her future employers.

“Through that connection, I decided I wanted to leave advertising and go work at Pollen,” she said. “So I made it happen for myself. I redid my website, and I was preparing to reach out to them to see if they were hiring a designer and let them know that I'd be interested. And the day I got my website done, they posted that they were hiring a designer.”

At Pollen, Walby got involved in storytelling in a way she hadn’t been able to before as Creative Director. Pollen gave artists a platform to beautifully and authentically share the stories of incredible individuals, pairing moving designs with equally moving stories. It was a fusion of intentional artistic expression, bringing important issues into the light and never shying away from lifting the voices of those who needed to be heard.

Through their website and collaborations with local artists, this organization has utilized narrative change in real ways. One of the great examples of their work is the voter guide they produced in 2021, giving voters something easily digestible before they made their way to the ballot boxes. This and other projects designed to make an impact made Walby’s time with the organization more than worthwhile.

“Pollen fed my soul, and it was the work I wanted to do,” she said. “I was constantly in the community connecting with new illustrators and artists, and I'm leaving with skill sets I didn't have beforehand, including a deeper expertise of narrative change and storytelling. It's about identifying what existing stories people believe, whether they're true or not, and getting to the root of why they believe those things. Pollen taught me how to use my graphic design work as an agent for change in ways that I didn't have access to before because it wasn't my full-time job. And I knew in my heart of hearts that was what I wanted to figure out. I’ll always be grateful that I didn't have to start from scratch; I got to just join a team and an established organization and for seven years make some of the things that I'll be proud of for the rest of my life.


What Now?

Unfortunately, after 15 years of inspiring the community, Pollen is winding down its operations. As the door closes on Pollen, though, Walby is prepared to take on her next chapter.

“I'm going to be making a huge shift, because this is just opening the door to whatever I want to happen next,” she said. “I'm excited because I'm actually about to publish a book. I started writing in 2019 because of some racist incidents that happened to me and some things that happened in the town I grew up in, and it turned into an art exhibit. Then in 2020, I rewrote it to be less about educating other people and more about affirming people who’ve gone through the same things as me, and I kind of started thinking about it as a letter to my sister. It keeps getting put back up and keeps getting bigger because people really resonated with it in ways that were surprising to me.”

Moving forward, Walby is planning to share designs that strike a chord, taking all of the lessons she’s learned from her past experiences to make her own way. After the response she’s seen to her Clear Water exhibit, she’s excited to see what she can do with full creative freedom in the future.

“You can put a lot of art out into the world, but then you pay attention to the art that has an impact on people,” she said. “I've always dreamed a little bit bigger than what I was told in school—what my only path was as a designer. And I've already disproven that because I've had so many different jobs.”

With a book—and perhaps more—on the way, Walby is ready to take control of her own professional life. She’s certainly dreaming bigger than anyone told her to, and given all that she’s already accomplished, only a fool would bet against her. Check out more of her work on her website and stay tuned for what's next.