|ressed comfortably in jeans, blue sweater, and Nike jacket, Ian Bonilla greets me in the cavernous, dark-marbled lobby of the GE Building, more famously known as “30 Rock,” in New York City. After asking if I found the place OK, he escorts me to a security desk where I sign in, and get photographed and tagged. We drag our badges across the scanner so the security gate opens up, and we head for a bank of elevators, leaving the lobby opulence behind for quiet, typical North American office work space (long beige halls, cubicles, and offices).
We take a turn, walk past a work space, and enter Bonilla’s small office. I perch on a folding chair and immediately feel cool air creeping in from the computer server room directly across from the office. With an apologetic shrug Bonilla tells me it gets a little cold in his office, as he leans on a chair back shrouded with a New York University jacket. He answers a couple of calls, tools around a bit on his computer, and then we talk.
Working as a motion graphics designer for NBC Universal, Bonilla might be the envy of many young designers. It is a prestigious position with a good salary—and how cool is it to work on graphics for NBC’s sports telecasts? And what about actually going to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to work at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games?
But Bonilla doesn’t have an inflated sense of self. “I guess it’s cool,” he says. “I just don’t usually think about that.” Each weekday, this “regular guy” hops on the subway from his Brooklyn neighborhood to Rockefeller Center, meets with his art director first thing, and then works straight through the day with lunch at his desk. Occasionally he hits the restaurant scene with friends after hours, but he stops short of participating in the after-dinner bar hopping.
On the weekends Bonilla heads “home” to New Jersey, where family, friends, and church await. At church, he usually sits in the audiovisual room, helping the congregation hear platform participants and see PowerPoint presentations. Yes, in many ways, Bonilla is just a regular guy. But ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you something different. They’ll tell you his dedication, his kindness, and his love for God really make him anything but average.
Not a Lifelong Dream
As a child, Bonilla liked to draw. “I remember him drawing action-type figures, the kind you might see in early 90s cartoons,” says longtime friend Jonathan Luste. “Ian could draw all kinds of things; he definitely had a talent for it.” This interest and affinity for art, however, didn’t immediately influence Ian to pursue it as a viable career option.
“In my second year of undergrad [studies], I had to pick a major and had absolutely no direction until one of my friends mentioned he wanted to major in graphic design,” explains Ian. “At that exact moment it clicked, and I became an art major. Strangely, it never occurred to me to pursue a career in something I enjoyed. It was a very elucidating moment.”
Bonilla graduated with a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, with honors—and a better idea of what direction he should take. He landed a job as a graphic designer for print for a small in-house art department of a paintball company in southern New Jersey. But he realized rather quickly that he needed—and wanted—more. Bonilla contemplated going back to school for a graduate degree, but costs had him hesitating. Not sure what to do, he placed it in God’s hands, having faith that if God wanted him to go He would make it possible.
Feeling led, Bonilla decided he’d try graduate school. “First I needed to get in,” Bonilla says. “I applied and was accepted into a program at New York University. Then I needed a way to pay for it. I was able to get student loans to pay for tuition with a little left over to live on. Last, I needed a place to live. My cousin, who had been living in New York, had a room in her apartment open up a month later. It was amazing, but it all worked out.”
Bonilla finished at NYU a couple years later in 2006 with a master’s degree in digital imaging and design. While attending NYU he interned at ABC News, and was offered a job after graduation. Only a year later he was offered a promotion to art director. Bonilla took the offer, but after a couple of months “I reached another point where I needed a change,” he says. Bonilla left ABC and was offered a position at NBC Universal, where he is currently employed.
“For the most part I have been blessed with employers and coworkers who respect and even encourage my religious convictions,” says Bonilla. “By staying faithful to my convictions, God has made a way for me through His good graces.”
“Throughout this entire stretch,” Bonilla adds, “I feel that God has been placing me where He wants me to be. I feel really blessed to have had all these experiences. I realize He opened these doors, because I know these opportunities are few and rare.”
On the Job
“I chose graphic design because I enjoy it,” says Bonilla of this competitive field. “My favorite part of what I do is that sometimes the work really doesn’t feel like work. There are moments when I am so inspired that all I want to do is get all the ideas out of my head onto the screen.” These creative moments have paid off for Bonilla as he’s garnered several important accolades in the field, including an Emmy nomination in 2007, a BDA World Award in 2006, the BDA North America Award in 2006, and selection to MetroCAF 2006, New York, NY—not to mention being a finalist in the 2006 Global Student Animation Awards while attending NYU. And the graphics packages he helped create in Vancouver this past February serve to enhance his already impressive list of accomplishments.
“Ian is an incredibly talented designer, and has a strong creative foundation, but overall, he is a good person and I find him purely enjoyable to work with,” says David Barton, senior lead designer, NBC Sports & Olympics.
A team player, Bonilla brings a lot to the job. According to Barton, he takes criticism well, and knows how to handle projects, large and small. “We have had previous designers on our team that were talented and creative, but were hard to work with, and so they were let go. . . . Ian continues to create great work, and continues to have a good spirit.”
That spirit served Bonilla well during his biggest project to date: the 2010 Winter Games. Bonilla describes it as the best assignment he’s had so far in his career, but it was also the most grueling, draining, and stressful. Says Bonilla, “I learned how God sustains you, once your limits have been surpassed. I made it through, but not without His help.”
In regard to his work in Vancouver and New York, Barton responds, “Ian has proven himself throughout, and I appreciate all that he has done and continues to do for our team. Ian is above all a really warm, friendly person, which I find to be the most important part of who he is. It affects how he approaches everything that he does at work and in his personal life.”
Bonilla’s approach to work—to life—functions as a witness to the God he serves. “Our very nature is a selfish one,” he explains. “We live in a society of rationalized self-indulgence and paranoia. It’s very hard to fight one’s own nature. I know I struggle with it every day, and I feel that every time I put myself first I end up losing rather than gaining.
“When I put God and others’ needs before my own, my own problems and worries seem irrelevant. I believe genuine love and compassion are the most effective form of witness because they require no reciprocation or condition. And that’s Christ’s example to us.”
Downtime at Home
It’s no secret that there’s a lot to do in a city, especially one as big and diverse as New York. For a young, single adult working in the heart of Manhattan, the off-hours recreational possibilities are endless. And yet, while Bonilla sometimes hangs out in the city, he very often chooses to decompress on weekends at “home” with family and his closest friends, saying that “one of my favorite things in life is just being around them.” He also attends the church he grew up in, where he encounters peers from his Adventist elementary school days and a congregation that cares deeply for him.
“My husband, Bill, and I have been blessed to know Ian since we came to the church more than 13 years ago,” fellow church member Catherine Schofield says. “He is a rare individual indeed. Not a ‘lime-light’ kind of guy, he is a truly selfless individual with a heart that is tuned to God. Ian is a quiet leader devoted to his family and his ‘church’ family, and is a vital worker for the Lord.”
“Ian is my nephew,” says Claudia Ramirez. “He is kind, quiet—and has always been. I remember when [he and his family] first came to church and I had Ian in Sabbath school. He was a kind child even when he was little. Some fall by the wayside when they get into high school or college, but Ian remained true to God. He has made his parents so proud—and we are all proud of what he has accomplished. I see only great things for him in the future.”
While each member of his immediate family contributes at church in very public ways—whether it be through serving as an elder, Sabbath school superintendent, deaconess, bell choir director, or praise team leader—Bonilla brings his graphic expertise behind the scenes to the sound booth each week. With a demanding job during the week, and long commute to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, one might think he’d just watch and relax. But that is not the case. “As created beings we are here for God’s glorification,” explains Bonilla. “He is the source of all our talents and all our abilities. What little I do have to offer is His. Cherry Hill is my home church, it’s something I am part of, something I feel responsible for. If I just sit there in the pew, I would essentially be a frequent visitor.”
His mom, Zinnia Bonilla, agrees. Pleased with all her three boys, she says, “Ian is always willing to contribute and is very sensitive to the feelings and needs of people around him. He loves and serves Jesus—and always finds a way to help.”
Ramirez echoes this sentiment, “I know that Ian loves God and it shows in not only his work and talent that God has given him, but in his daily life. I am blessed to have him in my family.”
In the End
Some see Ian Bonilla as an amazing designer with an extraordinary career in a city whose rapid pulse is felt around the globe. For others, he is an ordinary person who wears Converse sneakers and happens to like his job, cherish his family, and love his Lord. But make no mistake: this “regular” guy’s character does make him special. “Ian is humble,” Luste says. “He is a great guy, thoughtful and genuine. I am honored to call him a friend and fellow Christian.”
As I once more walk across the elegant lobby to the warm sunshine outside, I think about these words, and of the conversation I just had. Giving me instructions on how to get back to Penn Station a different way (it seems I took the “less safe” route on the way in), Bonilla and I part ways. I look back, and as he’s swallowed up into the dim interior, I understand that perhaps what he’s said about himself illuminates the best: “Sometimes I am conflicted with my field of work. Most television is essentially steeped in secularism, sensationalism, and entertainment. Although I have been fortunate to work on things I do not object to, I am part of the medium. I don’t blame television itself; I guess it’s more the culture that demands it.
“I know there is more that God intends me to do, where it is I don’t know. I do believe there is a purpose yet to be realized, just based on the fact that I believe there is one. If it had been realized, I’d have no need to entertain the question.”
Kimberly Luste Maran is the youth and young adult editor of Adventist Review. This article was published May 20, 2010.