In the Herman Miller “Get Real” ad, the word “real” swerves from line into word, then transforms into a road along which Charles and Ray Eames speed on their motorcycle. It's a jazzy, kinetic tour through the designers' furniture that stands as a testament to the intelligent, compelling and conceptually integrated work of its creator, Karin Fong. Where many designers working with typography and motion delight in making things move, Fong invariably takes her work a step further, melding thought and image into a figural whole that has become her personal trademark.
Indeed, “smart” may be the best word to describe work by Fong, one of the founding members of Imaginary Forces and the designer behind many of the last decade's standout feature-film title treatments and ads. She likes ideas, concepts and storytelling; they constitute the building blocks for her innovative work, which includes the playful extension of the Dr. Seuss style in The Cat in the Hat movie titles, as well as the line-drawn, illustrated-storybook style of the titles for the 2006 film version of Charlotte's Web. She likes the way an idea can take shape, moving from the abstract to the tangible, and she especially enjoys the way letters can become images, finding something magical in that transformation. She cites concrete poetry at the turn of the last century and the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists as inspiration, as well as Saul Steinberg's drawings for The New Yorker, where there's a playful straddling of the visual and the verbal.
On becoming a designer:
I always was a designer before I knew what to call it. I spent my childhood making my own newspapers, books and comics that my dad would take to work and “publish” for me on a Xerox machine.
Fong knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. The California native made elaborate comic strips with her brother, and although she was a cheerleader in high school, she found it more fun to make the posters that the football players would blast through at the start of their games. She was constantly making things as a kid, worked on her high school yearbook, and often inveigled her teachers into letting her create artistic projects in lieu of the standard five-paragraph essays. “I feel like I was a graphic designer all my life but didn't know what it was until I was in college,” she says.
When she arrived at Yale, Fong decided to major in art and enrolled in a long list of art-related classes, including drawing, photography, history, storyboarding and writing. Those courses helped build a broad background, but she says that some of the most influential training for her future design career happened through the projects she undertook with friends. She designed The Yale Record, the school's humor magazine, and made slide projections for a theatrical production, projects that helped her hone a set of conceptual skills that would allow her to move easily from project to project and medium to medium—skills that are essential in an age when the number of viewers' screens, and the sizes they come in, is continually multiplying. One of her main regrets about college is not that she failed to focus; on the contrary, Fong wishes that she had taken a class in sculpture, which would have helped her understand space more effectively, and screenwriting, since so much of what she does now centers on narrative and ad copy. Understanding the writing process, she says, has become absolutely central to everything she does.
While many educators urge undergraduates to pick a specific area of focus, when Fong talks to students, she does the opposite, using her own varied background to encourage them to try lots of different directions, claiming that she couldn't have known what she wanted to do as a freshman or sophomore in college. It was only after she'd tried multiple approaches, materials and disciplines that she began to see how graphic design in general, and an attention to ideas-made-concrete in particular, was where her passion was strongest.
On her first job:
It was sink or swim and I was gasping for breath, taking home the manuals, learning how to light and compose a frame, design storyboards—all the things that lead to directing both live action and animation.
Fong also attributes her interest in the fusion of design and ideas to the people she considers her heroes. One of those heroes is Joan Ganz Cooney, who founded the Children's Television Workshop in 1968, which in turn produced Sesame Street, pushing television as a medium in a new direction, with a social purpose. Fong is struck by the fact that Cooney took a powerful idea and made it real, transforming a cultural institution in the process. Similarly, Sheila de Bretteville, an artist and designer who joined the Yale faculty in 1990 as director of graduate studies in graphic design, resonates powerfully for the ways in which she advocated for the voice of designers. De Bretteville denounced the manner in which designers are subsumed by their clients, and argued instead that student designers should adopt a strong attitude and clear point of view in their work.
Fong embraced this idea after she graduated from Yale in 1994. She worked on a season of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? at WGBH in Boston, using an interactive alphabet book that she'd made as her senior thesis at Yale as a calling card to get the job. Her next stint was at R/Greenberg Associates, quickly picking up skills in the newly available Photoshop and Illustrator programs along the way and working with Kyle Cooper, whose level of dedication inspired a similarly focused attention in Fong. Although the transition to the computer—both for Fong and the industry as a whole—would radically shift the graphic design industry, Fong still insists on keeping one foot firmly planted in the material world, often working by hand before moving her work into the digital realm.
In her current work, writing well has become increasingly central. “I think it's so important to have basic skills, just so you can articulate an idea,” says Fong. “But I really wish right now that I could write dialogue. There's a way of triangulating from the page to the screen, and the more fluid you are with that transition, the better.”
Her advice to new graduates:
Find projects and people who inspire you. Don't rush. Early work has a role in defining what you do next. Also, learn to type—and check your spelling, especially people's names.
Fong's personal work returns to her primary passion, namely the tension between word, concept and image. One of her ongoing projects is a collection of words that have no translation in English, such as the German schadenfreude, which refers to the delight one takes in the misfortunes of others. Fong takes pleasure in the rift that opens between the word (which does not exist in English) and the feeling—which we all can identify with. She plays in the boundary space between concept and language, finding ways to give the ideas some form, whether in illustrated flashcards or comic-book characters. In 2002, she collaborated with Ayse Birsel on Wunderkammer: A Cabinet of Words, an installation that collected and displayed some of these words in illustrative ways at Artists Space in New York City.
Fong's work resonates strongly because it is at once situated in pop culture and advertising and yet feels smart and playful. Rather than being dismissive or condescending toward commercial work, Fong borrows the impulse for wordplay from artists and designers of the past and manifests it in a long list of her own compelling projects, which so often thrive on wit and the visual/verbal twist. “I envy people who have beautiful form, who are more formal, but I think the way I work is more concept-based,” Fong explains. “I think equally in words and visuals, and I like to push the idea of playing, especially playing in way where there's an element of surprise as something gets turned on its head.”