Costa Rican immigrant Diego Casco takes his graphic design and communications firm from a humble basement to a posh studio in Toronto’s entertainment district
Meet Diego Casco. He’s an up-and-coming design professional in Toronto. He’s energetic, friendly and driven — all of which came in useful in his rapid settlement in Canada, even though he didn’t speak much English when he arrived 10 years ago.
The 32-year-old founder and creative head of Casco Design and Communications — originally named Graphic Point Design — says adapting to your new environment as quickly as possible is the best way to succeed in whatever you do.
But, of course, there is more to it. The young professional could not have climbed the ladder of success in such a short period without a burning ambition to reach the top.
Casco came to Canada from Costa Rica in the year 2000, without any plans of staying on. The established graphic designer was here to visit his brother’s family in Keswick, Ontario. But, as fate would have it, he came across an advertisement that sparked his interest.
“I saw this poster by International Academy of Design in the subway, when I came to Toronto,” Casco recalls. “I thought this could be an opportunity for me to enhance my studies and just explore the new horizons in my personal [life] and professional career.”
Casco didn’t take long to make up his mind. He had always been interested in setting out from his tiny Central American country to go explore the big, wide world. “I was always interested in moving abroad, learning English … just living a different experience … so I applied for a student visa and it got approved.”
Casco went on to enrol in a one-year digital media course, and upon graduation, he secured a one-year work permit to work in Canada as an international student. He landed a contract to work at a shoe distribution company. “[That’s when] I realized I’d like to make my life here and see what opportunities I come across,” Casco notes. “At that point, I was also hoping that I find a job with a design studio or agency in Toronto.”
However, getting his foot in the design door wasn’t easy. “I had a couple of interviews, but I realized I didn’t have the right connections and that helps newcomers,” he observes. Casco, who applied for his permanent residency at the end of his work visa period, still could only secure occasional freelance opportunities through his friends or family.
He believes that larger and established companies should volunteer to hire immigrants who have the required expertise and qualifications. “Especially in this industry, bringing in people from different cultures will bring fresh perspective, so it’s a good thing to consider,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I think there is a little bit of discrimination.”
He was indeed disappointed for he had never faced such a situation back in Costa Rica, where he had an established graphic design career that spanned seven years, with three progressive jobs in large firms. “Those were offered to me through my connections. And, here, of course, I had to start all over,” he says. “I was making friends and connections, but I guess those were not as strong as they were supposed to have been.”
But by being an outgoing person by nature, Casco was able to strike a few substantial, long-term freelance contracts. “I’d talk to people I knew to kind of get out there … and talked to friends and connections so I continued to get referrals,” he says, sharing his strategy on getting steady business.
“Now that I had a couple of clients on the go, I decided to keep track of my work and started marketing myself.” So he stopped looking for a full-time job working for someone else, and started his own company from the basement of his brother’s home in 2002.
“I started doing graphic designing, marketing, and then a couple of opportunities were presented to me. I got a contract to produce a magazine for Aurora in New Market,” Casco happily recalls. “That was a nice little contract, because that allowed me to have some more of a steady income … and I started building my portfolio.”
That year he also got a contract to create advertising for a custom leather sofa manufacturer as well. “So my work was getting out there … at that point I started establishing my business and, by 2003, I had an office in my New Market apartment and then I moved to Toronto, looking for better clients and better opportunities. Just being in Toronto you know … more happens here so …” he says with a shrug.
But Casco knew it was going to be a tough transition, because there were going to be more expenses that came with moving to a larger city, both in the office situation and personal front. “I moved in with my partner — my girlfriend at that time. We were helping each other. Lifestyle becomes kind of large,” he notes.
“You have to decide where to draw the line! So many restaurants and that’s one thing I enjoy of course [in Toronto]!”
In 2004, he made a big shift — he moved his office out of his home and hired a second designer. “And that was a nice new beginning … I had a couple of designers and a project co-ordinator, and so I was happy that this was going somewhere.”
Casco eventually hit the lottery, so to speak, when he clutched a plum contract from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLGC) that same year. He says he got the job by quoting competitive pricing while promising high-quality services to promote its slots and racetracks. Presumably he delivered satisfactory service because the OLGC retained his services for years to come.
“They liked our flexibility and creativity,” Casco says with pride. “We started doing a lot of work for them, from developing consumer programs, coming up with names, logos, signage, event decoration … we became a full-service agency for them.”
Working with OLGC also put them on the provincial government’s vendor of record list, which means his firm became qualified as a vendor for all government agencies and ministries.
Casco notes that now as a well-established firm, Casco Design and Communications, located in Toronto’s entertainment district, would also like to expand its services extensively to the private sector. “I think I should start doing more marketing in order to get our name out there and get more new accounts,” he says.
In terms of long-term future growth, he adds, “I would like to open a few more offices. One would be in Canada and another perhaps in Costa Rica.” He hopes to build his business between the two countries, making the most of his unique experience serving clients in both nations.
I am successful in the multicultural community that I am catering to because of where I come from,” he says, explaining that growing up in Costa Rica played an important role in the way he thinks and works. “That helped me become creative in how I use material, shapes, structures and colours. It’s like a bonus to go back to your roots.”
He adds that the Canadian community is more and more receptive to such cultural influences.
The young entrepreneur who is now in a position to advise fellow immigrants on what can make them successful as well, points out, “When you come here, you pretty much restart your life from zero. You have to admit that you have moved to a new country and be part of that society.
“And my approach, whether consciously or subconsciously, has been to try to adapt as fast as possible. So one thing I did was I tried to talk to everybody and make friends with everybody, just to expand my network.”
He opines that many people try to find shelter in their own ethnic community, but he advises against that. “If everyone sticks to their own community, that’s when segregation happens … It’s a great thing to be in your own, but it is better to let go and be open and try to adapt as best as possible. That will create great opportunity for you.”
For him, it also helped in improving his English skills. “Even though I was outgoing, the biggest challenge in networking was my language. Especially when it came to the professional context,” he recollects. “Language is important. You have to try to do your best — at least to be fluent enough to write decent emails, expressions and be able to convey your thoughts.”
More than language, Casco urges new immigrants to immerse in Canadian culture overall — even it means learning to enjoy a game of hockey. “Just blend in and learn the culture. And you bring your own culture and blend it in,” he says earnestly. “You have better chances of succeeding here and achieving the goals that you came here for.”