March 8, 2021
Women of Letters is the first in a new series of short interviews. We begin with a collection of four interviews with creatives from New York to Saigon: Lynne Yun a NYC-based type designer, technologist, and educator; Deb Pang Davis, a product designer with The 19th in Texas; Coleen Baik, a designer and artist in Manhattan; and my local friend, Duong Nguyen, educator and Managing Editor of ELLE Decoration Vietnam. The questions are deliberately not confined to work-related themes as we celebrate not only the work but more crucially the women behind the work.
ILT: Something, I think, that sets you apart is your passion for both history (scholarship) and practice. Personally, I lean heavily towards the history; but you appear to be equally enamored and comfortable with both passions. Is it something that comes naturally to you, or is this duality something you’ve deliberately nurtured?
Lynne Yun is a NYC-based type designer and educator with a special flair for typography, lettering, and calligraphy. She’s a board member of AIGA NY and teaches for educational institutions such as Type@Cooper, Parsons School of Design, and the Letterform Archive.
This is an interesting question. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever considered them to be separate from one another. People often tell me I’m a pro-procrastinator — meaning that I’m continuously dipping my toes into various different rabbit holes that aren’t quite relevant to whatever I happen to be doing at the time — but they do become useful later on. For example, when I was doing a lot of research into Bâtarde, a form of gothic cursive, I was doing it because I found it fun to to be doing an online treasure-searching of sorts. Many digital manuscript collections don’t sort or tag their collections by calligraphic hands, and so it turned into a passtime trying to discover gothic cursive manuscripts. I’d go deep-diving into blog posts, papers, and then look up the references of references. For anyone familiar with the term ‘Wiki rabbit hole’, I think they may relate to what I’m talking about. After a while, it seems like a natural progression to try to re-create what you’ve been looking at for such a long time. I think this is how I’ve gotten into most hobbies and professions throughout my career.
ILT: It’s no secret that type design is still a male dominated occupation. Could you tell us how much of an impact this has had on your career, if any? Do you have any thoughts on why this is still the case? And are you optimistic that this will change in the near future?
The thoughts I have on this are continually evolving and changing. It’s true that when I started on my type design career, there were only a handful of women in type design. Type designers of color were even rarer. Imagine being in that intersection! I can’t deny it has impacted my career and practice. Although I’m confident in myself as a professional, the self-doubt, that I was given an opportunity due to tokenism, always crosses my mind. For example, every time I’ve been asked to be a speaker at an event, I always see if the organizers have a history of inclusivity before agreeing to it. This doesn’t stem from the type design industry in particular, but probably from being a woman of color in daily life. There’s a certain flavor of pessimism that manifests when you get mistaken for a laundromat worker every time you try to do your laundry. This is a huge part of the reason why I created my affordable online type design course and BIPoC scholarships. I want to see more diversity and inclusivity in the industry.
That being said, although the gender and ethnicity disparity still very much exists, I think there have been a lot of positive changes in recent years. There have been a number of women and designers of color who have become visible. Someone who I admire a lot is Juan Villanueva who has been running scholarships for BIPoC students in his Display Type class and running Type Crit Crew, a free resource to connect type design students to professionals for virtual crits. I’ve been meeting more and more women and students of color every year. So looking at changes like these, I’m cautiously optimistic that the type design industry is becoming more diverse.
ILT: Could you tell us Lynne Yun’s top three tips for better typography?
1. Do a ton of research! Then forget about it, and try to recreate from scratch. Guaranteed you’ll make something unique yet inspired by your references.
2. Sometimes just being aware of your surroundings brings great inspiration. One of the things I have in my cherished collection is a handwritten receipt I got from a coffee shop. The barista’s handwriting was exquisite!
3. Take care of yourself. You can’t do great typography running on Red Bull and 3 hours of sleep.
ILT: You recently moved to New York. What took you there, and what keeps you there?
Based in Manhattan, Coleen Baik is an independent product designer, artist, and writer. She has worked for the likes of Twitter and Medium. Her polymathy encompasses animation, illustration, & storytelling.
I moved to Manhattan three years ago to invest in my development as a visual and motion artist. I’ve wanted to live here since I was a teenager when I visited for the first time. Even then, New York didn’t feel so much a place as a vibe. And from minute one it has felt like home.
I’m fed by the constancy of expression here, the gamut of glamour, the conversation — I love overhearing people talk about plays and novels and food. I’m blown away by how easy it is to connect with neighbors. New York City is just good for my work and headspace; it inspires and refuels me.
It’s a difficult place to be, too, obviously, particularly now with the animus and paranoia, the pandemic and its ravaging effects on the city. I walked from Harlem to Times Square at the height of the pandemic last April, as a sort of communion with Manhattan. It broke my heart. Before the pandemic hit, I loved gallery-hopping with friends, or dining out alone. About once a week I’d have a glass of wine at the local bar after work, chatting with the bartender who also happened to be a painter. I hope he’s doing alright. I don’t know how different it’ll all be going forward, but I’m hopeful. I miss so many things — even tourists.
ILT: You speak several languages and have broad artistic and intellectual interests and passions. Why is that? Where do you get your inspiration from?
Korean was my first language. I learned English when I was eight, Spanish when I was about 12. French was my college major and I lived for a bit in Paris, then Provence. I’ve always loved letters, language — reading has been a passion from early childhood. I thought I’d end up as a novelist, in fact. But ten minutes into taking my GREs (a standardized test for admission into graduate schools in the United States), I decided that I was sick of exams and got up and walked out — and that was that. It must have alarmed the other students, the proctor chased after me to ask what was wrong. They thought I knew something they didn’t! And maybe I did.
I feel like most of my loves stem from an infatuation with the lyrical and the strange. You can see this in my taste for literature and poetry. Carson’s Autobiography of Red reads like a photograph, as does Duras’s L’Amant. The written word can be have a musical quality too, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I love that expressive modes can complement each other this way. The synergy between language/music/images/time excites me, and I think that’s what’s led me to explore animation.
My mother took me to see Fantasia when I was little, and she said that I was mesmerized. I want to affect people like that with my work too, to strike and linger and haunt. I’m inspired by traditionalists like Miyazaki as much as I am by artists like Lynch, Polanski, Kar-Wai, the Quays. All of them are masters of intuition. They take things that are dull or dead, and they recognize which to put next to which else, and when, in order to spark life. They’re open to engaging with the unknown.
I’m about to wrap up a minute-long animated short called Tuscany, which is exciting. I’ve been sharing 5 seconds a week on Instagram for about a year, and will launch the finished piece as a whole on Vimeo and elsewhere soon. I still consider myself a neophyte but I’ve put in enough time now that I can spend less on mechanics and more on expression. That’s a huge milestone. I wrote a series of articles on how to get started with hand-drawn animation a few years ago and I’m happy that folks seem to find them helpful. I’m considering writing a biweekly behind-the-scenes for folks who’re curious about my process, how I work through problems, what tools I use, the lessons I’m learning along the way. A sort of artist’s journal though, more intimate and ruminative than a straight ‘how-to.’ I’m fascinated by process in general — I think most people are, though we’re outwardly so obsessed with finished products. I’m not sure which platform I’ll use — Substack is the leading option right now, but once it’s definitive I’ll announce it on Twitter and Instagram as well as port subscribers over from Substack in the coming weeks.
Deb Pang Davis
ILT: You’re a product designer. In a recent unscientific poll of friends, I asked them to explain what a product designer does. All but one (a product designer) failed. So, can you please tell us what a product designer does?
Coming from a background in editorial design and photography, Deb Pang Davis has worked for The Globe and Mail, The Chicago Tribune, and National Geographic Traveler, to name a few. Deb now works as product designer for The 19th.
I asked a similar question! It’s a tough one to answer. First I believe it is important to define ‘product’. For many people product means physical objects. For example: cars, furniture, toys, and kitchen gadgets, to name a few. Then, there are digital products such as websites, dashboards, software, and apps. So without getting into the history of industrial design, human factors, human computer interaction and the impact of computing, where these types of products intersect and where disciplines converge is how I would define product design today.
The role and responsibilities of a product designer can vary depending on the industry and the size of an organization. I work at The 19th, an independent newsroom reporting on the intersection of gender, politics, and policy. As the product designer, I feel like a bridge internally and externally. I’m also constantly thinking in layers. My primary responsibility is to support reader experiences and our journalism. So, our audience is top-of-mind during every sprint. The business of journalism and engineering also factor into what I do and how I think about why, what, how, and when to solve and approach design problems. So, I guess my job is to think holistically. It’s a very collaborative role and one that has loads of variety day to day.
Here are a few things I do on any given day: interviewing participants during a user testing session, scoping out projects, pair programming with our engineer to make front-end code changes, explore and test new tools, designing mockups or social cards in Figma, writing use cases, scenarios, documentation, and reports, presenting to stakeholders, teaching co-workers about accessibility, image optimization or data viz best practices or loads of secondary research and competitive analysis. Our team is very small, so I help out wherever I can.
ILT: You recently moved across the country to Texas and started a new role with The 19th. Can you tell us a little about the 19th, and why you chose to work with them?
The 19th is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy. It was named after the 19th amendment but with an asterisk because the 19th amendment remains a work-in-progress. This is straight from our mission statement because I cannot say it any better: ‘Our goal is to empower the people we serve — particularly women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community — with the information, resources and community they need to be equal participants in our democracy’. I applied and chose to work at The 19th because the mission aligns with my values and in the nearly eight months I’ve been here, The 19th has, so far, proven to be a different kind of newsroom. I’ve been given plenty of opportunities to get out of my comfort zone, given the time to learn and given a voice. It is an environment that allows you to grow and succeed. The people I work with empower me. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like a token this or that.
ILT: Besides starting a new job and moving across the country during a pandemic, have there been any other recent challenges?
Going back to school in my late forties to pursue an MFA was exciting, challenging, and truly a privilege. Frankly, it was also flat-out scary. When I was in the thick of juggling multiple classes plus a part-time job, I thought it would be the end of me. Let’s be real: The physiological changes happening for a forty-something woman aren’t aligned with pulling all-nighters. There were many days when I felt alone, completely out of my element and in the dark swamp of despair. That said, it was worth every one of those moments because I was also free to immerse myself in my classes, think and write about design, research, make, experiment, test, critique — rinse and repeat. The freedom and space to practice every day in a focused, structured environment was the best gift to Self. I learned from some of the best in their fields. It was a must made possible with the support of the people I love most.
Thuy Duong Nguyen Phan
ILT: What advice would you give to female designers just getting started? And, if you could time-travel back to the beginning of your career, would you do anything differently?
Duong Nguyen graduated with Masters degrees from SCAD and SPD Milano. She is Managing Editor of ELLE Decoration Vietnam, and teaches professional communication and graphic design at two Ho Chi Minh City universities.
That’s a tough question for me to answer. I consider myself more a communicator than purely a designer. Nowadays, in different projects, I work as designer / art director / project manager, or even as a communications strategist. However, I think women designers should be aware of their unique thinking traits. Women possess certain powers of sensitivity and sophistication, and very often are more sociable than men, in general. I think if each of us can utilize these abilities and the assets of being a woman in this era of more equal opportunities, especially in this less gender-biased creative field, we might very well make an even greater impact. If I were to give advice, then I’d say to fall in love more often. I believe our creative juices flow as our hearts flourish.
Personally, I don’t regret any of the career decision I’ve made. I’m blessed to have met such wonderful partners and mentors, but to get to this point, to where I am now, took more than luck.
ILT: You wear many hats in your career: as a teacher, a managing editor, and as an art director. How do you balance these roles? And do you have a favorite hat?
I get this question a lot. I’m not particularly proud of wearing so many hats. There’s a Vietnamese proverb that goes, ‘It is better to excel in one profession than to practice nine.’ (Một nghề cho chín còn hơn chín nghề). I admire those people who have keen eyes and the patience to pursue and ‘ripen’ the ultimate art of making a product; daily, I read and learn a lot from them. In my case, being a communicator means being cross-disciplinary, speaking different languages, and necessarily wearing different hats — that’s part of the job. I’m not sure whether I’ve found the perfect balance. Every day is something of a tightrope walk, but the people around me are both my cheerleaders and my safety net.
At the core, I find more joy in teaching. My mentor Robert Fee, from Design Management at SCAD, used to tell us that ‘teaching is the most rewarding job’. But it is also the most challenging, and certainly the most energy consuming.
ILT: Can you tell us your top three design tips?
First thing is research, research, research. Nowadays, there are so many tools, methods, and other resources available that it’d be a crime to start any design without some preliminary or preparatory research.
Duong literally wearing her favorite hat
Second tip would be to try to develop common sense. It might sound funny, but to me it’s crucial, especially as we’re talking about design, rather than art. If you know what common sense is, then you can develop your own sense of humor and sense of aesthetic in each and every design context. Eventually, it will become a more intuitive and natural thinking process.
My third tip would be to remember that you are unique, just like everyone else. Think a lot about that! ◉