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Interview with Yunzi Liu

Home > Designer Interviews > Yunzi Liu

Editor Frank Scott (FS) from DesignPRWire has interviewed designer Yunzi Liu (YL) for A’ Design Award and Competition. You can access the full profile of Yunzi Liu by clicking here.

Interview with Yunzi Liu at Monday 4th of May 2020
Yunzi Liu
FS: Could you please tell us more about your art and design background? What made you become an artist/designer? Have you always wanted to be a designer?
YL: Being an artist is a childhood dream for me. I studied painting for nearly ten years before high school. However, at that time, the artistic atmosphere in my country was not so active so I chose a more practical way: studying English literature in college. During the last year in college, I realized that the desire for creation and innovation was still sparkling with excitement at the bottom of my heart. So I picked up my pen and started drawing again, and then opened an online store to sell hand-drawn postcards. In this process, my lack of design skills gradually became an obstacle. Therefore, I decided to learn graphic design professionally and worked for a design agency in Beijing for a year. Later on, I went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for a graphic design MFA. I never distinguish art and design as completely separated fields, and my design or you could say art practice is always trying to bring them into each other and yield some inspiring results.

FS: Can you tell us more about your company / design studio?
YL: I am a freelance designer and also make art at the same time, or you can call me a part-time designer and a part-time artist. For the graphic design part, I usually do some branding, advertising materials, and packaging. When it comes down to earth, graphic design is saying other people’s voices in your way so it is not your ideas that are propagated. This is also the reason why I also create artwork while doing design. I work with paper, cement, foam board, and fabric, almost everything at hand.

FS: What is "design" for you?
YL: For me, “design” is everything that is evolving. At the very beginning, I was a half-outsider of graphic design and I thought “design” was a logical problem-solving process. So I highlighted this on the first page of my portfolio when I applied for the MFA program at MICA. While our program director, Ellen Lupton, had been focusing on “design is not only problem-solving but story-telling” for years. Very embarrassed. I cannot describe how huge her influence is on me. All in all, my understanding of design is always evolving. For now, “design” has become a much broader notion than simply a problem-solving process or even storytelling. It comes to an interdisciplinary level. Designers are no longer a messenger, but more like a pathfinder.

FS: What kinds of works do you like designing most?
YL: I would like to design an experience. Instead of feeding people with information, I would rather create a pleasure or unique memory for my audience.

FS: What is your most favorite design, could you please tell more about it?
YL: There are a number of great designs and we can talk day and night. If I have to name one, I would like to say MUJI’s whole brand concept. It sounds like a cliche because so many people have talked about this design. However, it has been a guiding star for me since I started my career as a graphic designer. MUJI proves that a themed shopping experience can make a huge difference. The whole team’s design process and teamwork are also like textbook examples. Besides, I am a big fan of Ikko Tanaka, the original graphic designer for MUJI. I heard Tanaka was really skillful at cooking fish. Attract person, right?

FS: What was the first thing you designed for a company?
YL: My first project as a graphic designer was doing illustrations for a Chinese App Store called Peapod. When I first worked for an advertising agency, I was not allowed to do graphic design. My role was as an Account Executive who communicated with clients and shared their feedback with designers. To fit into our client’s’ schedule, we usually submitted designs in the morning, let them decide where they liked or disliked, and got feedback in late afternoon, so graphic designers always worked overtime. To learn more design skills, I stayed with them every time and once even worked 36 hours non-stop. I guess my endeavor touched one team leader and he allowed me to do an illustration for a PeaPod project. This is very small, but significant for me.

FS: What is your favorite material / platform / technology?
YL: Definitely paper. I am not very fond of screens. Generally speaking, papers have a huge impact on the final results of printed matters. This feature opens up many possibilities for designers. Personally, instead of making videos or something that moves by itself, I prefer to design products and let people interact with them in their own ways.

FS: When do you feel the most creative?
YL: I feel most creative after talking with other people, especially people who think opposite with me or work in other industries. They will ask me questions that I have never thought about. Those will probably become my inspirations for future projects.

FS: Which aspects of a design do you focus more during designing?
YL: I value the audience’s physical interactions most. When I start a project, I constantly question myself if I were one of the targeted audiences, what I would act towards the design product, and how to elevate the experience. I seldom follow the design trend. For me, a good designer should lead the trend instead of following it.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when you design?
YL: Of course most of the time I feel driven. But when I run into the bottleneck, I will divert my attention from my uninspired brain by learning some new irrelevant things, such as some words or sentences in a foreign language.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when your designs are realized?
YL: To the surprise of many, usually, I feel upset when I finish a design. Very rarely do I feel satisfied with my final results. I always expect them to be better. But meanwhile, I am glad for the feeling of loss because it is proof of my growth. This is why I always do self-critique on my previous work and sometimes even redo the whole project if I have time.

FS: What makes a design successful?
YL: This is a big question. For me, if I see a design and think “It could be like this? It could be like this!”, then it is successful.

FS: When judging a design as good or bad, which aspects do you consider first?
YL: I will consider if the design delivers the correct message, and then the right emotions to serve the design purpose. For example, If you are designing a popular science book for children, the text should be as simple as possible and the images should be easy to understand. Children should find it fun and eager to read it. For better designs, sorely serving the users purpose is not enough. It will be difficult to push forward the design industry. Actually, designers are endowed with the power to shape users behavior patterns and thinking mode. New designs and technologies will inevitably “force” people to do something they have never done or thought they would do. Designers should take advantage of this and contribute to our better future.

FS: From your point of view, what are the responsibilities of a designer for society and environment?
YL: Designers should look beyond customers and inspect the social, political, and environmental climate to indicate and address future issues and opportunities. This is what speculative design focuses on. We should look into the future, solve problems in advance, and use sustainable materials. And culturally, graphic design styles sometimes can distinguish themselves geographically, such as we informally naming “Japanese style”, “Scandinavian style”, and “European style”. Here we need to treat this dialectically. Cultural background is a treasure, but sometimes it will become a stereotype. To evolve the cultural legacy and to push it forward is an important responsibility.

FS: How do you think the "design field" is evolving? What is the future of design?
YL: I think the design field will more tightly combine with technology and science. Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality have become a trend for a while. Also, speculative design and sustainable design will play a more important role in the future.

FS: When was your last exhibition and where was it? And when do you want to hold your next exhibition?
YL: My last exhibition was in ResoBox, a cozy site in Manhattan. The next exhibition has not been decided yet due to the Covid-19. I hope everything will get better soon.

FS: Where does the design inspiration for your works come from? How do you feed your creativity? What are your sources of inspirations?
YL: Almost everywhere. I get inspired by exhibitions, books, and conversations with friends. Exhibitions might be a big source of my creativity because every work is talking about a different topic. Those artworks put up with many aspects of life that I usually ignore, which stimulates me to pay attention to different social groups and issues.

FS: How would you describe your design style? What made you explore more this style and what are the main characteristics of your style? What's your approach to design?
YL: My style is pretty modern and clean. I am an OCD in life, which determines my style I guess. Even my sculptures and installations are quite neat. For my approaches, I think both outside-in and inside-out. I will consider the customers’ needs and create a more innovative solution.

FS: Where do you live? Do you feel the cultural heritage of your country affects your designs? What are the pros and cons during designing as a result of living in your country?
YL: Let me tell you about an embarrassing experience. Since I am a typical sensitive Asian girl, I encountered a severe culture shock when I first came to America. During my first year at school, there was an assignment to design a blindfold. I came up with a scenario where a girl was saying goodbye to her boyfriend who had to go far away for a long time. My idea for the blindfold was to hang thin willow (which means “stay”) branches down from the blindfold. Emotionally, the girl wanted to persuade her boyfriend to stay. But he had to go, so she covered her watery eyes to avoid him feeling too heartbroken. These tangled feelings excited me and I could not wait to realize this design. At this moment, my professor only said one sentence to kill my buzz: why not cry? The biggest obstacle that my cultural background gives me is how to make things simple and living in the US helps a lot with simplifying my visuals and specifying my ideas.

FS: How do you work with companies?
YL: I am a project-based freelance, and most of the time, I am not able to pay office visits. So usually I communicate with a specific person by email and telephone meetings.

FS: What are your suggestions to companies for working with a designer? How can companies select a good designer?
YL: I do suggest companies to hire account executives to communicate with visual designers. It will greatly shorten the duration of a project. For choosing designers, my advice is to see if the designer has his or her own style. A mature designer should have been formed a relatively fixed personal style. The final visual results will be within a realm that the company is looking for.

FS: Can you talk a little about your design process?
YL: Most of the time, I get briefs online and do telephone meetings or office visits to discuss more details. Then I will give my schedule and quoted price and set off the project after receiving dawn payments. If my clients have really specific ideas about what they want, I will design some proposals right away. But most of the time, they do not realize that they have any ideas towards our final results. I will show them some existing examples and get to know their taste. After this, I will work on several design proposals. When my clients decide their favorite proposals, I will complete the designs and modify them several times before submitting the final design.

FS: What are 5 of your favorite design items at home?
YL: Number one should be the adjustable footrest. My legs are not long enough to sit comfortably when I am working and my footrest can perfectly solve this problem. Because it is adjustable, it can suit every table in my place. Another item is a coach coaster which can hold mugs on my coach. Also, I have an adjustable garment rack that props up from the floor to the ceiling. I have to say this one is not pretty but very practical especially for people like me who are renting small places in cities like New York. Number four, I will say my capsule soybean milk machine. As a Chinese, I prefer soybean milk to coffee. Compared to the soybean milk machine I used before, this machine is much smaller, and I only need to buy soybean milk capsules, put it in the machine and wait for a few seconds. Much quicker and convenient. The last one is not so practical: the chatty feet artist socks. They are so amusing.

FS: Can you describe a day in your life?
YL: When I am working on a project, mostly it depends on the project schedule. I still try to cook myself. Cooking is a good way to release pressure. When I have some luxury time of my own, I will have a big breakfast, exercise, and read some books.

FS: Could you please share some pearls of wisdom for young designers? What are your suggestions to young, up and coming designers?
YL: Keep innovating, and do not be afraid of skeptical voice.

FS: From your perspective, what would you say are some positives and negatives of being a designer?
YL: The greatest thing about being a designer is that you can get involved in different projects, meet people from other industries, and influence the general public by your designs. The negative point, for me, is that the power of your own voice is limited compared with doing art. Probably I have too much to say.

FS: What is your "golden rule" in design?
YL: Do not follow the trend. It is so easy to be ignored when we do design. Trending design styles are changing very quickly and some designers tend to follow the trend. I used to be one of them for a short period of time and I realized that this is the last thing that I would do as an innovative designer.

FS: What skills are most important for a designer?
YL: Comprehension ability and communication skills are very important. First, you need to understand what your clients want. It is not just literally understanding. You need to stand in their shoes and read their minds. You will also need great communication skills when you present your proposals and better solutions for problems encountered to your client.

FS: Which tools do you use during design? What is inside your toolbox? Such as software, application, hardware, books, sources of inspiration etc.?
YL: I use the Adobe Suite. Adobe Illustrator is the most frequently used software in my design process. Some times I use Rhino and Cinema 4D, but I am still a beginner in 3D software. For books, I would like to mention BJ Novak’s The Book Without Pictures. He has a very witty and funny conversation with the reader by wording and phrasing, as well as typography. This is my personal “textbook” for story-telling.

FS: Designing can sometimes be a really time consuming task, how do you manage your time?
YL: I have to admit that I am really bad at time management. It does not mean procrastination. On the contrary, I am too eager to fix a problem so that I usually stay up late which is really unhealthy and unnecessary. Follow a healthy working schedule is a big task for me.

FS: How long does it take to design an object from beginning to end?
YL: It depends on the clients. Some projects can be finished in several hours, and some may take over a year.

FS: What is the most frequently asked question to you, as a designer?
YL: I have always been asked if I consider myself as a graphic designer or artist. Because of my personality and background, I love to talk about philosophical thoughts and tell rather complicated stories which are a kind of contradiction with the matters that graphic design deals with. So I cannot say that I am a pure graphic designer, but I always strive to bring graphic design into a more physical and more experiential level and let graphic design products itself become a part of the art.

FS: What was your most important job experience?
YL: My most valuable jab experience is when I got my first job in an advertising agency as an account executive. At that time, I had been learning basic graphic skills for half a year and had no ideas about design methodologies. The art director did not allow me to do graphic design. I could only perform as a bridge between clients and designers. However, my goal was to become a graphic designer, so when I worked in teams, I sat next to designers and watch them doing their projects. I learned more than I could have learned at school during that time. This is how I started and I will never forget.

FS: Who are some of your clients?
YL: Some cosmetic companies, fashion industries, and beverage brands.

FS: What type of design work do you enjoy the most and why?
YL: I like hands-on practice, so I enjoy printed matters, print-making, and some projects that I can collaborate with artists or designers from other design fields.

FS: What are your future plans? What is next for you?
YL: I would like to develop some artworks and hopefully hold some exhibitions.

FS: Do you work as a team, or do you develop your designs yourself?
YL: For now, most of the time I do designs by myself. For large-scoped design projects I work with friends.

FS: Do you have any works-in-progress being designed that you would like to talk about?
YL: I am working on packaging for a set of essential oil perfumes right now. I will do some paper-cut pieces to exhibit the atmosphere that each smell creates.

FS: How can people contact you?
YL: Please email me at: yliu03@mica.edu.

FS: Any other things you would like to cover that have not been covered in these questions?
YL: Since I used to work in China and I am working with Chinese companies recently, at least I have a basic understanding of the development and drawbacks of the Chinese design market. As one of the Chinese designers, how to form a style of modern China is still a challenge. We need to be more creative towards our cultural legacy. This is my vision and my task.


FS: Thank you for providing us with this opportunity to interview you.

A’ Design Award and Competitions grants rights to press members and bloggers to use parts of this interview. This interview is provided as it is; DesignPRWire and A' Design Award and Competitions cannot be held responsible for the answers given by participating designers.


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