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Walker: I’m curious about your methods of inspiration, especially as you have some bigger brands as clients.
Yee: I think we have a wide range of clients in terms of size, both big brands and small brands. The one thing is that we are attracted to the project first rather than the brand. Obviously having a big brand helps. They have resources. Then again, the flip side of that is that you have bureaucracy. You have many layers of people that you have to get through. The smaller brands tend to be more nimble and they have less bureaucracy to wade through. So as far as a big brand is concerned, that attracts me less than just seeing what the project is and what we can do with the project.
We try to just balance everything out. Having worked in advertising, I feel less seduced by the idea of brands. I worked on Nike ID when I was at RGA and when you work on stuff like that you feel like it’s just another brand. This is a brand that is trying to sell shoes. Another brand is trying to do something else. The whole thing with that just makes you think how do I fit in with all that and how do I make something out of this? How do I personally fulfill myself through this? Brands themselves don’t fulfill me. I don’t get that much out of it, whereas some people are really into brands. Some people are really into forwarding a brand and getting out there and stuff. I actually could care less. I’m not into pure advertising per se. We do some aspects of it. But pure advertising in its form, I don’t really want to do or I don’t see doing that in the future. I actually wanted to do this design studio because then we would get away from that and just concentrate on interacting and design and not necessarily deal with too many brand issues that come up.
Walker: If you’re not concerned about the brand, I guess you’re more concerned about the solution for the brand?
Yee: I think so. Cyril and I, who is my business partner, work together on all of our projects. I think the solution does interest us more. We are attracted to visual design. That’s something that wakes us up in the morning. We love designing things. That in itself is one part of what we do. The solution is something we are interested in. How we can solve essential problems as far as communication, in terms of interactivity or what the web can do for a particular client.
Walker: What got you out of architecture and into graphic design?
Yee: It’s interesting. I did architecture as an undergrad at Berkeley. I worked in it for about three or four years and I was feeling discontent with it. I wasn’t feeling the professional life of it all. School was great. I felt like I was able to really do some interesting things and get engaged in a project. I loved the whole process of it. Working in it was a different story in itself, and I worked for some pretty good companies. I guess the kicker for me was I would look at my bosses and I couldn’t see myself in their role. I didn’t want to be in their role, actually. I kept on after two or three companies, if I couldn’t see myself in their role 20 to 30 years from now, then I felt like something was wrong. There’s some other path that I don’t know about or I need to figure out why I don’t see myself in that role. So that was the main thing why I decided to – actually the first thing, I moved to landscape architecture, which actually I found a lot more interesting. In fact if I were to return to environmental design, I would do landscape architecture over architecture.
In the course of trying to figure this stuff out, the whole dot-com boom was happening. I started seeing the stuff that people were doing online and I was intrigued by it. I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t have a lot of background in it aside from a design education, so I decided to make a clean break. I needed some time where I could dedicate a hundred percent to it. So then I applied to Parsons and the NYU ITP program and SVA. I was accepted and had my choice as far as what I wanted to do. I picked Parsons and that was the clean break. Since then I have not done much architecture. I thought that maybe I would do architecture websites or something like that where I would have some sort of little foot in architecture. Interestingly enough, I haven’t had the opportunity. I would love to. It’s not to say I wouldn’t want to.
Walker: If you would move to environmental design will you begin working interactive work into spaces?
Yee: I think, for us, that’s the next step. We are really interested in mobile, like everyone else. But we’re also interested in seeing how we can get out there, whether it’s environmental or exhibit or something like that. We’re intrigued by it. Our background is always going to be interactive and web, but we’re obviously very intrigued by it. Maybe trying to branch out maybe we just have to take a project to do that. I think that’s probably something organizationally we’re going to have to do if we want to go for a certain market is to target it and an aggressive fee proposal.
Walker: In my experience with traditional design implements, there is this element of having a tactile object to hold and feel and smell. I’m curious if you think that website or interaction design is missing the tactile element?
Yee: Not at all. I actually feel the opposite. Print design and these objects, while they are beautiful, I think about how much stuff you get in the mail and how much you throw out. The good stuff you might keep for a while. I tend to think in terms of permanence, the online space is much more permanent, so to speak, than people think it is. Things get put up, taken down all the time, but you can see the speed and ferocity of how things happen online. And that’s really interesting to me. At first, I remember thinking that I want to have something permanent. Now I don’t think that way at all. I just think it’s actually more permanent to have something online.
Walker: Because you’re doing a lot of mobile and web, there’s a very strong restriction to scale, what you can do, size, etc. Do you think this leads to a degree of predictability within the aesthetic?
Yee: Purely in terms of aesthetics? I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty open as far as aesthetics. Aesthetics is one thing. I would say that the thing about technology, it does restrict you to what you can do online. That’s the one thing that tends to be the controlling, somewhat of a controlling factor. I think designing with constraints is as good as or as interesting as designing without constraints. Because, when there are no constraints on you, everything feels a little hard to materialize. When you have certain constraints, the road seems a little bit more clear. Also, designing for constraints is somewhat like being an artist. I make a very clear distinction that what I do is not art. I’m definitely not an artist. There’s a clear definition between designer and artist. I’m very happy to be a designer and not an artist. Even though I graduated MFA in design and technology, I’m very happy to be a designer.
Walker: Because you are digitally driven and using new software, programs, coding languages – are these technologies driving the aesthetics of it because you are able to do new things, so let’s try these new things because we can now?
Yee: Technology will be a driving force, but I think for us, Cyril and I, are not ones to go out and buy the latest thing or try the latest thing. Compared to the general public, we are adopting things sooner than they are but as far as the really early adopters, I wouldn’t consider us the early adopters. We tend to look at things with a little bit of skepticism first. Maybe other people can try it first and see how it goes. But technology can limit what you do in terms of functionality. I think aesthetics is that other layer that then gets applied on top of technology or is complementary to technology. I don’t see technology necessarily restricting aesthetics as much as restricting functionality and things you want to do.
Walker: Have you made any major mistakes in your career?
Yee: Oh yeah, of course. How can we not?
Walker: Anything that may relate back to your design world?
Yee: I think getting fired from a job is always very difficult. We got fired once from a job, and it was because we had a really incompetent [employee] who overbilled his skills and didn’t deliver what was promised and so we looked bad as well. That’s always very difficult. Then after that you learn from that, and you just make sure that it’s not going to happen again. Something like that can be very fatal in terms of your relationships with clients. That can be pretty tough, but you learn from it. We definitely learned from it. That’s one professional thing. As far as mistakes –
Walker: Would you consider your architecture degree kind of a positive mistake, because you wouldn’t be here?
Yee: Yeah, actually I think of it as very positive. Even though I’m not working in it now, I really enjoyed the education. The whole idea of project and process was very instrumental in getting me here. I think above being detail oriented and seeing the bigger picture, now that I’ve worked with more people, it’s interesting how something that we would consider just reflex, like the whole idea of process or project, is really alien to some people. They have no idea that you would have this process to get a project done from start to finish. It’s very loosey-goosey or they have no idea how to do things. Then you have the other people who have all the ideas, but have no idea how to actually implement anything. The realities of the day to day and all that. I think it’s great. I got a great education in that it allowed me to be here. I’m happy for my architecture degree. And who knows, I might go back to it some time in my life. I still love it as a hobby. It’s still something that fascinates me.
Walker: Do you have a favorite style of architecture?
Yee: At any given time, when I was in school a long time ago, it was Richard Meier. I loved his stuff. And more so now I think Steven Holl is one of my favorite architects. I think I tend to like buildings more than the architects. There are certain buildings that just are really special. I don’t necessarily have this cult of designers - it’s more about buildings.
Walker: You are surrounded by thousands of them. Architecture is generally seen as the penultimate design style. People see them as the best with other design disciplines below them.
Yee: It’s kind of interesting that you mention that, because I think architecture has a very long history behind it. That’s what gives it its gravitas, so to speak. People can look back many centuries. But graphic design hasn’t been around that long.
At first, when I was doing architecture, I really liked that there was a sense of history and you can go back. When I got into interactive design, graphic design, it was definitely a free for all. Someone cannot call themself an architect without a license, but anyone can call themselves a designer. At first I was really disconcerted by that.
These imposter designers, these garage designers, they don’t know anything. But at the end of the day, who cares? The good designers rise to the top. The bad ones stay at the bottom. It’s almost like calling yourself a writer. Anyone can call themselves a writer, but if they’re just so-so, you’re not really a writer. You have really good writers, like any good author. Then as I got more into design, I kind of liked the fact that you don’t have these constraints above you. Like in architecture, you need a client. You need someone to fork over thousands of before you actually work. While we do need a client here to do what we do, what I love about this is that if we’re slow or something like that, we can just build our own stuff. We can design our own stuff and I think that is just really amazing. An architect can’t do that. They can do paper architecture. They can have ideas and stuff but it’s a tougher road. Who’s going to look at that? Whereas interactive web, I just love the fact that it’s such a free for all. It’s scary at first, but now I love it. It’s the way to go.
Walker: It’s kind of like a Wild West scenario? Working in an architecture firm is very structured.
Yee: Very structured.
Walker: So, here it’s really something where can do anything you want in any way you want, and you don’t have to use certain programs, you can use all these different things.
Yee: Yeah, I think it’s great. It took a while for me to emancipate myself from that thinking. Once I got into it, it was just like, Wow, this is great. This is really what I think I was looking for. Personally for me, I realize that for architecture you probably have to be in your 40s or your 50s before you get any significant commissions. And at the time, when I was younger, I was wondering how come things aren’t going faster? Why aren’t I designing that big building over there? And the thing is, I was young at the time and really naive. I’m thinking now that it takes a lot of years of experience to design a proper building and that’s something that takes years. That is understandable why that would take so long. Whereas what we do—I mean, it takes years to get good at what we do, but it’s not of the same level as architecture.
Walker: Do you think there’s anything you could do that would be as important as a skyscraper, the equivalent to that kind of impact on a neighborhood?
Yee: Yeah, definitely. I think you could definitely do things of that level. It’s just whether or not I want to. That would be the big challenge. It’s not to say that architecture is the pinnacle. It’s one thing in the design field of many that I find interesting. I tend to think that architects have a very dismissive attitude towards a lot of non-architecture-like designs. Things like graphic design, landscape, or urban design. They tend to be very arrogant in terms of thinking that what they do have so much gravitas, when I don’t think that necessarily carries.
Walker: Maybe it’s all attitude-driven? I had a discussion on how I probably spend more time on Google search and Facebook than I do appreciating my surroundings, my physical space. As if I’m living digitally more than I am physically.
Yee: Does that bother them?
Walker: I don’t think it bothered really anyone because they are all accepting of it. But it’s a weird state we’re in where we probably spending more time with things you’re building than with something an architect is building.
Yee: I personally like balance. I don’t like to do just one thing or staying purely digital. It all creates balance.
Rockel: I wanted to go back to our discussion dealing with the permanent medium. It’s a refreshing thought to hear you say. On the other hand, I know what you’re dealing with – very concrete, very specific technology. And then for the last five years it was Flash. It was all Flash, Flash, Flash. And now, since yesterday I guess, it’s pretty much in decay. Wasn’t it yesterday that [Adobe] was quitting Flash for mobile devices?
Yee: It’s interesting, that was our company. We started doing a lot of Flash. We actually thought Flash was going to be it.
Rockel: I think a lot of people thought that.
Yee: Then the market just dove, did a serious nosedive. And we started to get more database driven work, websites that were not a simple five-page – they were a little bit more complex. And we’re a small team of developers here. So the thing is we saw that the market was drying up and we decided, okay, we have to ramp it and do something else. It’s been fine. Flash is a tool. It was a really good tool. I don’t feel very strongly one way or the other about its demise. I’m kind of like, well, we’ll find other ways to express what we need to do.
Rockel: Have you ever thought of how you might archive your work?
Yee: I don’t have a huge incentive to archive. There are certain projects that we want to archive. But I don’t like to treat things too precious. Not everything. There’s certain projects I feel really proud of and want to have some sort of record of it. I think it’s definitely the thing to do. I wouldn’t say that everything needs to be archived or everything needs to be on that level.
Walker: There’s a history of websites and no one knows what they look like because they’re all gone. How can you catalog a style change or a movement? If this is considered a movement, there’s no way to recognize it.
Yee: That’s interesting. We did a lot of work in Flash, I remember as a student we did a lot of work in Flash. Where’s that going to go now?
Rockel: You can look at a poster from the 1930’s; but you can’t look in websites for reference. Which could be very interesting. I just heard an interview with the founder of Art and Com and he said that there was so much going on in the ‘80s online and it was so crazy. It’s kind of coming to a halt and focusing on beauty and data and beautiful installation, interaction rather than “what can this thing do?” I found this interesting because I don’t have an idea of how the web looked like at that time.
Yee: In the ‘80s?
Rockel: Yeah, it started in the ‘80s. In the beginning of the new technology, the media culture must be very exciting in the beginning, huge jumps. Then at the end it’s more refined and you know a lot about it. It’s very evening out.
I always like this question about inspiration, because I have the feeling that [Eyeball] is enjoying commercials for certain products or brands. It’s a very pragmatic way to get your inspiration, how you find a solution, and they are often very happy when you have something to show or some combination of things you find around you, and use that to communicate something that you have in mind.
When you do something interactive, when you do something very connected and something the user has to understand. You have to know about the language and you have to know about the social background and you have to know about what the reason why he should come to that web site and how you accessed it and whatever. All these little bits and pieces. You must understand the language and the text and the technology behind it. Also, how lightweight it is and the devices and the different sizes compare. It’s just so complex. But still you want to bring something that’s human or beautiful or innovative or just functional or if it’s just click or if it’s touch or if it’s should be something for both and it’s so complex. I would wonder if you feel you can still take something and translate it in to your work.
Yee: I don’t know. It’s certainly it’s good for us. And much how of it ends up that’s interesting to us.
Rockel: Do you feel you that you used to have that as part of your process? Or it’s kind of emerging from something else. You look at web sites and you see nice approaches to some part of it and you kind of remember that, kind of collect within that medium.
Yee: There is an element of that. It’s sort of that, little bit of scavenger type, little bit of, oh I like the way that’s web site is doing this thing and then you like remember that. As far as like a personal, trying to integrate the personal in to our client’s web site, I don’t think that happens very often. That is for my own personal inspiration. I think it’s usually my surrounding that I am seeing daily.
Rockel: That’s interesting, opposite in mind. I wasn’t interested in this, but it’s what I ended up doing.
Yee: There are a lot of distractions. Good distractions too.
James Walker currently works independently and lectures at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. A recent MFA graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Visual Communication and Design program, James is a native of rural southern
Illinois and earned his bachelors degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Art Center College of Design recently announced a $2 million gift to the College from the Lowell Milken Family Foundation in honor of legendary Professor Leah Toby Hoffmitz Milken, who passed away on October 25 after an extended illness. We take a look back at the renowned letterform expert's life and her many contributions to design.
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Section: Why Design
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