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How did you get started in design? I always defaulted as the artistic kid in school. The thing is, I grew up in the Bay Area, where many of my peers, myself included, were first-generation kids whose families had immigrated specifically to the Silicon Valley to chase tech. So, while there were constant points of validation for my artistic abilities, there was just as constantly the nervous reminder that certain career paths promise success while others—mine—were, quite frankly, selfish. It was very confusing. I knew I was creative, but I also knew I was ambitious, and I was told many times that I had to pick being one or the other.

When I found design, I found a purpose to my creativity, and it gave me every reason to stick to my guns, despite a lack of outside support. To this day, I still have never taken a single design course. Throughout high school and university, this was due to it being too expensive or frowned upon, so I resorted to designing my own coursework, purchasing textbooks according to top design school materials requirements and studying design autonomously until I graduated with an unrelated degree. Those years taught me to be a resourceful problem solver, which probably translated better into my future design career than a design degree could have.

Why do you think hand lettering has become so popular amongst brands lately? Lettering is popular because people crave a sense of authenticity, and the aesthetic of hand-drawn words is currently the perfect vehicle for that. I also think, though, that this moment of appreciation for typography is unique to our times. We’re experiencing an era in which people don’t have time for the full stories, yet don’t hesitate to give their opinions on just the headlines. The popularity of typographic artwork is closely related to this way of responding to the world—hand-lettered words work because they are their own context. A hand-lettered quote is popular because it’s digestible. A UX designer could Instagram a screenshot of her super useful app interface, but without the context of the client or brief, a general audience has only so much they can connect to. A shot of something lettered, on the other hand, is both the story and the pictures. So many motivational sayings, so little time.

Do you think it’s a lasting trend? Type and lettering are integral to design whether it’s trending or not, but I do think it will have to evolve if the broader audience is to continue to appreciating it as they do now. How authentic will a line of hand-drawn script feel once that same aesthetic has been adopted by every other business? Is authenticity still authentic if it’s been replicated again and again?
It’s so exciting that today, it’s entirely possible for any person with a great idea—no matter what age, education level, budget—to build that idea into something real.

How did you come to join Nike? A recruiter from Nike contacted me a little over a year ago. At the time, I was perhaps the most content I had ever been with my hard-earned freelance setup. Not only were friends and family finally starting to wrap their heads around the insane idea of not having or wanting a boss, but I also had an insatiable hunger for variety in the projects that I took on. In the end, it boiled down to a gut feeling and a lifelong admiration for the brand—I had to get on the inside.

What is it like to work as a sportswear graphic designer at Nike? Full-time graphic designing for product is definitely gratifying, but the cadence of this lifestyle is very different from freelancing. When freelance was my full-time job, I spent a lot of time in my own head. As a freelancer, you have to obsess the setup of every day, because no one is going to do it for you, and by that same token, no one will feel the effects of a poorly structured day harder than yourself. It was an emotional lifestyle, but one that worked for me because I tend to get disgruntled in comfort zones—freelancing definitely made sure I stayed away from any of those.

The clearly positive side of designing under a hugely influential brand like Nike is that you can build a confidence and an excitement that your muses will actually wear what you make. While that is the ultimate dream, you’re also aware that this opportunity is only possible because you’re not designing under your own name. What I’ve learned to embrace is that knowing your invisibility as the designer behind a product really forces an honest design approach. I appreciate that it breaks you down as either being an effective designer or not—plain and simple. People buying the clothes do not know or care whether you’ve got a sick email signature or if you’re an Instagram model with 100K followers. There’s little glamour in this work, and I think that’s important in order for it to be good work.

How do you balance your freelance career with the work that you do for Nike? I actually try to focus on how my freelancing works with my full-time career to balance me. There’s definitely a symbiotic relationship between the job that earns you a living and the one-off smaller projects that you choose for yourself. I believe my position at Nike is as fulfilling as a full-time job could ever be, but like many other Nike designers, I crave lateral growth, too. I select my freelance projects as a way of steering my activities toward who I want to be as an individual artist. This year, for example, it’s a lot of murals.

Last year, you said about being an individual designer: “I want to be an Asian American woman that’s making it on my own, you know? It drives me more than anything.” Is this still what drives you as a designer today? Absolutely. It’s not that I’m trying to “make it” for the sake of being unexpected for my demographic. Simply put, I just didn’t have heroes growing up who looked anything like me. As I experienced higher levels of success, I couldn’t ignore that the more elevated the environments were where I held meetings or presented, the less those rooms contained people who shared a similar background to mine.

Meanwhile, I receive emails on a weekly basis from younger Asian American girls who found my work and story on the Internet and express to me that, frankly, they are petrified of pursuing a creative career for fear of disappointing their families and community. I remember feeling those silent fears and how often they were responsible for guilting me into shutting my sketchbook. I want to take each of their hands and tell them to push on, if not for their own sake, then everyone else’s—It is just as possible for one to become a depressed doctor or subpar engineer as it is to become a thriving art director or a brilliant screenwriter.

These types of things make me hyperaware of my identity, how these unique challenges have fueled my own determination and how they make me want to change some perspectives out there.

What excites you about design right now? It’s so exciting that today, it’s entirely possible for any person with a great idea—no matter what age, education level, budget—to build that idea into something real. This means that designers can focus on designing. Not being an expert at necessary things like raising funds or managing inventory is no longer such a roadblock. There’s always an app out there for it, and those apps are often more reliable than hiring help. Personally, I demand a lot out of my websites, both form- and function-wise, which wouldn’t be an issue if I were a master web developer guru. Being that I’m not, I relied on the amazing web-building platform Squarespace to fill in that typically ominous blank between what I dream up and a real-life e-commerce site I’m proud to put my name on.

What inspires you lately? People, in person. Real-life conversations this year have helped me see so much depth in the quieter ideas. “Inspiration” is so readily available on the Web now that sometimes, it feels like everything is constantly shouting at us. Within an hour of trying to land focus on an idea online, I have experienced the full cycle of “idea death by Internet”: Getting hyped about the world of possibilities, feeling the exhaustion of collecting inspiration without actually creating a single thing and finally concluding that everything worth doing has already been done. I’m not saying the Internet isn’t the indispensable resource that it is—just that I’ve been really, really enjoying ideating offline lately. Go grab a friend and take a walk!
Bay Area native, Jennet Liaw, is a designer and illustrator currently based out of Portland. As a freelancer, she has designed brand identities, screen titles and print direction for clients including Fox, Sony Pictures and Apple. A graduate of University of California, San Diego, her personal projects in the realm of type and illustration have earned her recognition by the likes of Adobe and AIGA. She currently works full-time designing for sportswear apparel at Nike World HQ.

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