Bennett Peji

1963, Manila, Philippines
San Diego, California

“When Spanish galleons docked in the Philippines centuries ago, they were there to stock up on food, water… and Filipinos,” says Manila-born, San Diego-based designer Bennett Peji. Those ships were on their way to the Americas, where the Spanish used Filipino slaves and sailors—who outnumbered crew members five to one—to build many of the soaring adobe, tile and brick missions that line California's coast. It is a largely forgotten part of U.S. history that Peji made it his goal to resurrect when his firm, Bennett Peji Design, was hired in 2003 by the City of National City to do district branding and master planning for the Filipino Village, and later by the City of San Diego to do district branding for the Asian Pacific Historic Thematic District right next to the famed Gaslamp Quarter.

Peji wasn't just trying to prettify an area of town. District branding, to the determined designer, is a way to create a community. Instead of walking in with preset designs, Peji's aim is always first to seek out an understanding of the culture of a neighborhood and, second, to give physical presence to those parts of its history that were not preserved with a building or a memorial. “The fact is,” says Peji, “the choice of what becomes preserved, recorded, destroyed or built contributes directly to our memories of place.” The project, which included physical monuments to the district's Filipino past, proved the viability of Peji's self-coined aphorism, “Form follows culture,” a twist on Mies van der Rohe's famous pronouncement, “Form follows function.”

Today Peji runs a two-decade-old design firm that has received hundreds of national and international design awards, and employs people from around the world, including his Mexican-born wife, Lilia. He was called upon by the San Diego mayor to be an arts and culture commissioner for the city and was honored as an AIGA Fellow. Peji's current position may be enviable, but the journey there was a long one.

On overcoming obstacles:
I am an immigrant from a working class family. I paid my own way through college and inherited no resources to start a business. I overcame this because I had truly loving and honest parents who taught me how to work well with people. I owe everything to those people who believed in me.

Like all good immigrant success stories, Peji's starts with his parents. His father was from a farming family and grew up in the slums of Manila. He tried to break through by going to college but was so ill-prepared that he dropped out after the first semester and became a martial arts instructor instead. At a social, Peji's father met his mother, a young woman from the right side of the tracks: her seven siblings were all engineers, accountants and teachers. She herself taught at a university. Despite their different backgrounds, the two fell in love immediately, and in an attempt to earn a secure living, he joined the U.S. Navy, a move that enabled him to immigrate with his growing family to the United States.

As did many other Filipino servicemen, Peji's father could not gain officer status and worked primarily as a cook; the family moved so frequently between military bases that Peji didn't complete a year at the same school until he was in sixth grade. Early on, they lived in Barrio Logan, a working-class Latino neighborhood in San Diego, in a now-condemned house next door to an auto-wrecking yard. “Most people would think that moving that often would be extraordinarily stressful,” says Peji, “but I learned how to quickly adapt and let go. I didn't have to be entrenched in my own perspective, I was very interested in and adaptable to all my new surroundings.”

Those surroundings were really shaken up when Peji got a job as a picture framer at an art gallery and was sent to the homes of wealthy collectors in La Jolla to hang their prized purchases. “I didn't even know there was such a thing as an art collection,” he laughs. “I saw things that I never would have seen; it was an introduction to a broader art scene that I now live in, day in and day out.”

On increasing diversity in the profession:
It's not enough to be welcoming—we must create an atmosphere that highly encourages diverse thinking and expressions.

Being surrounded by art was particularly important because Peji was also a fine arts painter. In a nod at practicality, though, he applied to architecture programs. When he took a drafting class, he promptly abandoned any hope of being an architect because, he recalls, “No one ever told me that pure drafting is not architecture. If just one person had told me what architecture really was, I would have stuck through it.” As the oldest of four children and the first branch of their family to immigrate to America, Peji had no guidance when it came to understanding careers beyond lawyer, doctor or engineer.

After enrolling at UC San Diego and deciding to major in math and fine arts, Peji happened upon an extension class in commercial art during his junior year. There, he met two key designers, brothers Eric and Bill Teitelbaum—they currently pen the Pink Panther comic strip—who took the students on a field trip to their studio in Los Angeles. It was the first professional studio Peji had ever seen, and he was so impressed by the energy and excitement that he immediately transferred again and set out to get a degree in graphic design.

In his final year, in 1987, a friend of a friend told Peji about a phone company that was interviewing design firms to do corporate identity branding—everything from logos and signage to vehicles and uniforms. “Out of ignorance, I said, 'OK, I'll go pitch it!'” remembers Peji. He took all of his savings—a grand sum of $50—and bought a briefcase so that he would look professional, read every book on corporate identity that he could find in the library and bookstores, and bravely, naively, went up against two of the biggest firms in San Diego.

Advice on getting started:
Become deeply engaged in a community of generous-minded people who find true pleasure in discovering and passing along amazing stories about others. Good things follow.

Peji got the job, which launched his career. That same willingness to dive into a completely unfamiliar world got him the Filipino Village project, marking the first time that a city had ever given a master-planning contract to a graphic design firm. It also led to his role as president of the AIGA San Diego chapter just a few years after graduation, and with an equally ambitious board of directors, the launch of the annual AIGA San Diego “Y Design” conference in 1996, which continues to this day. It resulted in his co-founding of the AIGA Center for Cross-cultural Design and, finally, serving on the AIGA national board.

“The bottom line,” says Peji, “is I have little fear of failure.” But he wouldn't advise new grads to follow in his footsteps. “I always tell them, don't do it the way I did!” He explains, “I've had to create my own path every step of the way. I'm driving the bus, but I'm paving the road along the route, too. I never worked for an agency, but am a voracious reader and dedicated student, so all of my perspective is academic and self-taught.” Instead, he suggests, “mentor with the best, brightest person you can. Learn all that you can about the creative, business and community-building aspects of design. Then, when it is deep inside of you, forget all that and find your own voice.”