Columns / Insights

Subvert, Smile, Repeat

Ji  Lee
You were born in South Korea, grew up in Brazil and went to school in New York. How does the experience of living in different countries affect your work today as a creative lead at Facebook? There have been lots of communication challenges for me growing up in different places like Korea, Brazil and the United States. I was ten years old when I moved from Korea to Brazil. It was hard in the beginning because of the language difference. I had to learn a new language from scratch, and that experience forced me to think about simple and visual ways of communicating: purely visual, stripped down to the very essence of an idea that many people around the world can understand. It was the same when I moved from Brazil to the United States to attend Parsons School of Design.

Solving those communication challenges really helped me to become more of a visual thinker, and experiencing different cultures helped me better understand the audience and how they react to the way I communicate. In one country, you tend to become very myopic to its culture. Traveling and living in different countries really opened my mind.

We know advertising is trying to sell us something, but personal projects are the purest form of joy and self-expression people tend to connect with.


Do you have a personal mission as an artist and a creative person? To never lose my passion and excitement and to never give up doing personal projects. I have felt the transforming power of personal projects. Really, the turning point for me was more than ten years ago, when I did the Bubble Project, a global project that used blank speech bubble stickers to hijack advertising on the streets of New York. It went viral and spread around the world. It really changed my life because of the exposure, reaching millions of people around the world and offering a lot of new professional opportunities: agencies wanted to hire, publishers wanted to publish. That’s when I realized the power of personal projects. In the end, I work on these personal projects to stay true to myself and to have fun.

The pictures on the Bubble Project’s website show some of the things passersby wrote in the stickers. What about the Bubble Project inspired people to participate? Humor. People usually connect with humor much more easily than any other feeling; when you smile, you let your guard down and become more susceptible to an idea. People were also invited to participate in the Bubble Project by writing something inside the stickers. It gave them the ability to voice their opinions and feelings about advertisements, to express themselves in a public forum. So, the humorous aspect of seeing a speech bubble, which is usually related to a comic strip, and then the possibility of expressing themselves—I think that’s why people were susceptible. It also shined a light on how advertising can be very aggressive and take up a lot of the world’s public spaces.

The Bubble Project was not only my project; it became a project for others. On the website, I had placed a template for the speech bubble sticker: anyone could download, print and place it around her or his city. And a lot of people did that. A lot of people did it without even a template; they just created their own speech bubbles and placed them around their city.

It sounds quite rebellious, putting the sticker template on your website. I was very angry. Not only for the stupid, aggressive advertising that fills every space in the city, but also, I was angry about the whole creative process that was happening at the agency I was working for at the time. Although creative agencies are supposed to represent innovation and creativity, that agency was not receptive to these things. The ads were formulaic, very boring, unintelligent and not very interesting. So that anger inspired this project—it’s where a bit of the rebelliousness came from, and it shows my personal dissatisfaction with the industry at the time.

Do you still feel dissatisfied at Facebook? Just like many other people, I also have issues with advertising. I think a lot of people don’t like advertising because it’s not relevant to them. Advertising is a big part of our lives, and we can make it work better. Brands can create better advertising that is more relevant and helpful to their consumers. At Facebook, we work closely with our partners to help them create more relevant and meaningful ads.

You mentioned before that you enjoy simple ways of communicating. Does this same mindset also apply to the editorial illustrations you’ve done for the New York Times? Editorial illustrations are usually daunting challenges because the deadlines are very short, and you are solving a problem. You need to create something very quickly, something that’s universal, something that’s powerful, something that’s complementary to the story—there’s a lot of variables I have to hit.

One of the techniques I use most often is “hijacking.” Instead of creating something out of scratch—a purely original image—I take an already existing idea and hijack it. People already have ideas about certain images, so by twisting something to make the image different, I don’t have to do the hard work of explaining what the image is about. People already know. All I have to do is change a small element within that illustration and alter its meaning. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s quick.

One example is the visual you did for Condé Nast Portfolio of the dead Wall Street Bull statue. Tell us more about this piece. My Wall Street Bull image got a lot of interest; many people e-mailed me wanting to buy a print. It became a somewhat iconic image representing the financial crisis at the time. And it was, again, hijacking. Everybody knows what the Wall Street Bull is and what it represents, so when you see that bull on the ground, you know that something is wrong with the economy in America.

Often, I can do a hijacking project in a couple of hours. But this one required me to work with a California-based 3-D animator I’d found on Craigslist to build the bull, and I had to go down to Wall Street to take many pictures of the bull. It was more complex to create the image, but it was worthwhile.

Does your hijacking technique fuel your other personal projects? The Bubble Project hijacked advertising, and the White Feed hijacked the Facebook feed. But I’m interested in a few other aspects. One is mystery; I’m very interested in the idea of creating mystery. And humor, of course, is part of everything I do.

Subversive is the word I would use in connection to my work: to subvert an existing idea or a dogma or a system. A lot of the work I do is with tools of communication, like my 3-D alphabet project Univers Revolved. Or my word project Word as Image. Or my cyclical number project Nine Circles Number, which is a form of subversion because most people don’t really question fundamental things, like numbers, in their lives.

Why do we have to read our text from left to right, top to bottom? Why do we use number systems? When and who created these systems? And why are we bound to them? By creating something different, I’m subverting a preexisting notion that is widely accepted as the truth. By questioning things that nobody really questions, I hope that people will open their minds and question other things.

What are you currently questioning? I’m working on creating a 3-D chessboard and the Redundant Clock. The chessboard is an old project that I did when I was at Parsons. Over the years, I’d been receiving emails from people who wanted to buy this product, but I just didn’t know how to make a conceptual or 3-D product, so I kept putting it off. But because of the Internet, many possibilities are open—like Alibaba and Kickstarter—so the problems of making a product have become much easier for people like me. 

The 3-D chessboard is a subversion on an existing fundamental idea. We’ve seen thousands of different versions of chess pieces, but the chessboard hasn’t changed in many years. I’ve seen different boards, like a Star Trek–themed one, but there are one or two instances where people have challenged the idea of the board. A partner and I are developing the board as a modular cubes. You can create your own terrain as you’re playing chess by stacking the cubes on top of each other, like Lego pieces.

And the Redundant Clock is more of a self-ironical, meta work. It points to the fact that the numbers on a clock are not 100 percent relevant since we have become accustomed to the position of the dial on the clocks of watches. It’s self-referential and self-ironical, so when people look at the clock, they smile.

What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out as a designer? I’ve been teaching for many years, I’ve been giving talks around the world, and my message is always the same: focus on creating your personal projects. But don’t only work on them, share them with the world. Share them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogs and more.

People enjoy personal projects from a professional—and a human—standpoint because personal projects don’t really have a commercial message. We know advertising is trying to sell us something, but personal projects are the purest form of joy and self-expression people tend to connect with. People connect to them on an emotional level. Because of that, they enjoy them.

Ji Lee is a creative lead at Facebook, having previously worked at Google and Droga5. He is also an independent artist, teacher, author of three books and a frequent illustration contributor for the New York Times. Lee is passionate about personal projects and has been giving lectures and workshops around the world on the theme of “The Transformational Power of Personal Projects.” He was listed as one of the 50 most important designers by Fast Company in 2011. His work has appeared in Time magazine, Wired, the Guardian, Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and ABC World News, among others.

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