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Friday, January 4, 2013

Black, white, and graphic design — a look back on my typography in my Yale college days

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1995 marks the beginning of my graphic design career. I went to Yale originally to study architecture but I decided to take some graphic design classes because I thought that it would help as I didn’t know anything about design.

The decision to study art was mostly rebellious in nature. Unlike my classmates who mostly come from a fine art background, I was a science nerd in high school (1). I decided to study art mainly because I was sick of living under the shadow of my older sister (2). I also thought that it would make sense for me to utilize the opportunity to study something I know nothing about (3).

The graphic design program at Yale was mostly typography driven. That is, Yale does not really teach graphic design the way other art schools do (4). The only actual “skill” that was taught is typography. There are no rules. Assignments are extremely open-ended. Typically the assignments are something that can be summarized in a sentence—e.g. “Do something with the the dollar bill.” You can interpret the assignment in anyway you see fit. So it was fun to see what ended up showing up in class the next week.

“Black, white, and graphic design: a look back on my typography in my Yale college days” #design #smlphil / SML.20130101.PHIL.SML.Design.Typography.History.Yale.Edu.Opinions

In my free time I work on designs for student events and journals because it was fun. Usually I designed everything in black and white first because my HP LaserJet only prints black and white (5) so using colors would mean not being able to see how things are until I spend money to then print them in color at the printshop. Color printing (Fiery) was expensive in those days, so to save costs for most projects we also ended up printing things in black and white. What I learned doing this was that black and white is usually a good first step to do any designs. If something does not work in black and white then there is no reason to go color. This is a philosophy that I utilize even when I design for interface these days. It is a good metric as a small percentage of people are colorblind, so to fulfill true universal usability requirements, the interface must work even when viewed in black and white.

I was introduced to the beautiful designs by Emigre (6) and Eye Magazine (7) by my Yale professors (8). As such my designs during my college days also feature a ton of Emigre fonts—mostly I think because I don't really know of other foundries maybe. I learned the fine art of grid layout mostly by reading Eye. Yale does not teach layouts (as noted above and also in footnote 4), so I learn by observing how the masters do it and interpret things on my own.

The Yale design philosophy is simple: question everything—why and why not. There are no rights and wrongs. Critiques at Yale are very open ended. But we need to justify every single decision we make. Questions: why is the type set in this font? Why this size? Why is the image placed here? We ask only why, and we must be able to reason everything. In the end, what was taught is removal of all things unessential until the final product becomes an extreme reduction of TMIs. When I look at designs today, I see all kinds of added ornaments: swash, drop shadows, rounded corners—decorations. To me, good designs need no embellishment. Good designs speak for themselves.

Good design is clean and clear. Good design communicates. Good design is transparent. When you see good design, the apparent design disappears and all you see is the message.

Pictured from top:

  • Discourses: an Asian American journal of arts and criticisms. Volume 2 No 1. PDF amazingly still live on the web: Edited by Pearle Lee and Jaya N. Kasibhatla. Pearle is now my client for a hedge fund after I moved back to Hong Kong — crazy yes? Seems even though I was a social-phobe in college some friendships do last forever.
  • Program notes from Jonathan Edwards College Chamber Players. Brett Austad and Joshua Richman, music directors. Olivia Blander MUS ’98, Heather Losey CC ’98, Daniel Adamson DC ’98, Rafenna Michalsen TC’01, Betsy Tao BK ’98, Rebecca Reich DC’00, David Blasher DC’01, Andrew Guenzer DC’01. April 28, 1998.
  • Kurasawa Film Festival program notes. A tribute to Akira Kurosawa by the Yale Film Society, Council on East Asian Studies, and Yale College Japan Association. Organization committee: Rene Brar, Andrew J Cohen, Aaron Epstein, Makiko Kitamura, Shoshana Litt, Geoffrey Sledge. January 24-29, 1999. Whitney Humanities Center.


  1. To give a perspective on this, my organic chemistry class in high school fulfills the lab requirements for “freshman orgo” designed for premed students under the tutelage of McBride. I also took Physics 220 and other classes while at Yale with other premed nerds.
  2. MSL also went to Yale to study Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. She graduated summa cum laude / second in her class (CC’99) and went on to study at Harvard Medical School and Columbia Medical School and become the MD PhD that she is today. She snapped a ton of patents in AIDS research and published several papers on Nature for discovering the protein related to Alzheimer’s. Looking back, my decision to study art was sound because there is no way I will ever become anyone stuck behind the expectations from other people to achieve as well as she does.
  3. Most people I know go to school to earn good grades to look good on their CV. I thought that the tuition was hard earned money by my dad so I studied a ton of things which I knew nothing about: accounting, gender studies, computer law, operational research. I did not get very good grades from these, but the knowledge I gained from learning these subjects are beneficial to my day-to-day work to this day.
  4. The philosophy (I believe) is that you can learn software on your own so no classes will teach you how to use them. Design as a visual language is highly subjective so it does not really make sense to critique what is good or bad. So unlike many art schools where the graduation show is filled with designs with a particular style, the graduation shows at Yale are always very interesting because students show projects which show a huge range of diversity.
  5. I had the HP LaserJet 4MV. It prints 11 x 17 in (US Tabloid). It was awesome.
  6. Emigre, also known as Emigre Graphics, is a digital type foundry, publisher and distributor of graphic design centered information based in Berkeley, California, that was founded in 1984 by husband-and-wife team Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko. The type foundry also published Emigre magazine between 1984 and 2005. Note that unlike the word émigré, Emigre is officially spelled without accents.
  7. Eye Magazine, The International Review of Graphic Design is a quarterly print magazine on graphic design and visual culture. First published in London in 1990, Eye was founded by Rick Poynor, a prolific writer on graphic design and visual communication. Poynor edited the first twenty-four issues (1990-1997). Max Bruinsma was the second editor, editing issues 25–32 (1997–1999), before its current editor John L. Walters took over in 1999. Stephen Coates was art director for issues 1-26, Nick Bell was art director from issues 27-57, and Simon Esterson has been art director since issue 58.
  8. I owe much of who I am today to the years of patience and encouragement to my graphic design professors: John Gambell, Paul Elliman, Jenny Chan and Michael Rock. SML Thank You.

/ SML.20130101.PHIL.SML.Design.Typography.History.Yale.Edu.Opinions
/ #smlphil #smlhistory #smlopinions #smledu #seeminglee #smlme #ccby #smlphotography #smluniverse
/ #yale #edu #history #design #typography #philosophy #us #graphicdesign #opinions #ux #userexperience #usability #eye #eyemagazine #emigre #fonts #grid #layouts
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Thursday, January 3, 2013


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“Believe.  If you believe in ___________, it will come true.” / SML.20121225.PHIL / #smlphil #ccby #smluniverse

“Believe. If you believe in ___________, it will come true.” / SML.20121225.PHIL

The human mind is capable of a lot. If you believe that something will happen, you can will it to happen. It does not actually matter what you believe in (aka through which). Some people rely on a philosophy, a religion, a chant, an object.

Although I am not religious, my parents are and so I grew up going to church every sunday. As such I am familiar with the various forms of religious doctrines in Christianity. Different religions in the world consider their god as the “one true god”. It is somewhat true—because whether you see energy as a thing or god, the result is the same. In my opinion, it is not necessarily that a being is allowing you to reach the result—it is the focused act of belief (or faith as Christians like to call it.)

We are all connected through energy. Energy which binds us altogether, and I believe that the mind is capable of manipulating such energy. Scientists suggest that we only use 10% of our brains. So I research ways to use my brain which are not practiced by others.

When I was young, I use this same methodology to develop something I coined “modeling” which I now realize is something very similar used in the Buddhist visualization meditation technique.

The way I see it, if life doesn't go the way you wish it, hack it. Hack your brain. Model your outcome. You will get everything that you wish for if you are willing to believe.

/ #life #belief #believe #energy #religion #science #christianity #buddhism #philosophy #opinions #smlopinions #method #hacks #lifehacks #mindhacks #visualization #modeling #meditation #humans #mind #brain

/ #中國 #中国 #China #香港 #HongKong

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Order + Chaos

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One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chaos / SML.20121219.IP3.SMLU.Desk.Chaos

Chaos / SML.20121219.IP3.SMLU.Desk.Chaos

I am very messy. I am aware of that. I try to stay organized but it is very hard. People often ask me how I can find anything in my mess. Oh but just because you cannot doesn’t mean that I can’t. I have a very good visual memory. I won’t say that it is photographic but if I have read or seen anything I usually remember them. It just has to be visual or audible. They don’t work as well if they are just some abstract things such as words. But if I have seen it then I remember it.


When you see all these neat desks at showrooms + furniture stores + photo shoots, you are often lead to believe that it is possible to maintain a very clean environment when you work. Don’t believe the hype!

SML Workspace / SML.20121204.IP3

Moment of peace and order before chaos resumes”—new “desk” from MUJI (technically speaking it’s a dining table)—like you have to ask! Also like I said, I own every Apple product except the iPad Mini. You don’t see the iPad because it’s used to take this photo. :)

I try to stay organised sometimes—usually when I ran out of space, but it is difficult. The neat workspace will never stay long. I swim in chaos daily. I am glad that I am not OCD because if I were then I will never have time to work.

When I used to work for large agencies, I was always amazed that some people’s desks are very neat. Actually most of their space are. I just don’t know how they stay so organized. Do they actually work? I ask myself this question all the time.

A working space is a messy space. Input is always messy. Input is always full of chaos. Input is always disorganized. Output though is usually clean. Output is clear. What you see at showrooms, furniture stores and photo shoots are output, not the input.


My second husband was a clean-freak. We lived in a small studio apartment together for two years. He has good taste and we lived in a space filled with Philip Starck furniture and designer goods. Everything in the apartment is white. It looks good but it is completely unusable for me. I had to tiptoe inside my own apartment because he decided to buy a white carpet for the entire room. It was crazy—#notallcrazyisgood you know.

225plan: Phillip Starck + IKEA / 2003-05-21 / SML

225plan: Phillip Starck + IKEA / 2003-05-21 / SML

On the one hand it was nice that there was someone cleaning after me and unchaotize my mess. On the other hand it was completely unlivable. How do you live when you don’t feel at home at your own home? If I accidentally spill anything in the also completely white kitchen I get yelled at. Wow, seriously—how do you cook without making a mess? We ended up eating salads everyday. I did lose a lot of weight as a result. Maybe that’s a good thing!?


“Chaotization has begun.” / SML.20121205.IP3

“Chaotization has begun.” / SML.20121205.IP3

People who try to be helpful often would attempt to organize my things in ways which make sense to them when they visit. The problem with that is that they don’t have photographic memory and so when they “helpfully” organize my stuff I would end up not being able to find anything because they have no photographic memory. This sucks. So mind your own business ok?

In general I do respect public / private space. Any space that is public and shared I try to keep them as neat as possible. But within my own private confine where it does not affect anyone else, I just let them loose because what works for me might make no sense to you whatsoever but if my mess does not affect your being then you have no right to come in and tell me what I do is wrong and proceed to change things in ways which fits you—especially when you yourself cannot find what I need in your “better system” when I can always find what I need in my “chaotic system which makes no sense”—that is all.

Artists’ studios

“One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.” —Friedrich Nietzsche  / Chaos / SML.20121204.IP3

I visited a lot of artists studio in the past and they are always chaotic. They often keep on apologizing that it is not clean. But I really don’t mind it, really. In fact I enjoy seeing the messy chaotic working studios instead of the times when they are doing open studios and everything feels completely out of place awkward. Things just don’t feel real when they are neat. This might also be why I don’t really like seeing art in galleries and museums when they are all clinically cleaned everyday.

I love the messy workspace. I celebrate it. Mess / chaos / active vs inactive piles tell me a lot about someone. Removing all the data tells me nothing about the person. I love data. I want to see people as they are. Alter-egos are boring. Embrace who you are. Be yourself. Be.

(Yes I do clean up from time to time. Usually when I have no space to work. But my working surface consists mostly of the monitor + tablet + Moleskine so messy desks do not affect me really.)

Update 2013-01-02: now available as a single-image

Humans don’t like to click and no one wants to read a super long post but somehow most don’t mind reading if it is in a single image. Oh humans. SMLBioBot gets you. Here it is as a single image, made with love especially for you:

“Order + Chaos” / SML.20130102.SMLProBlog.Chaos

Original version 6400x6400:

Order + Chaos
/ #亂 #chaos #ccby #smlphotography #smluniverse #smlprojects
/ #意見 #opinions #smlopinions
/ #stuff #computers #desk #chargers #cables #nerds #mess #tools #geeks
/ #馬鞍山 #MaOnShan #香港 #HongKong #中國 #中国 #China

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Share / SML Network Theory


“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” —Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Habit 5  ”Seek first to share, then to be shared. Seek first to like, then to be liked.” —SML Network Theory / SML.20121230.PHIL

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
—Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Habit 5

”Seek first to share, then to be shared.
Seek first to like, then to be liked.”
—SML Network Theory

I know a lot of people (artists in particular) who are completely dumbfounded by social media. Following the advice of their friends, they signed up on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, on Flickr, on LinkedIn, because their friends told them that if they sign onto one of these networks they will gain exposure.

Yes, you will. But you need to participate. Simply creating a Facebook account and a page and not participate in anything is much like appearing on an island in the middle of nowhere and expect travel tours to flight over as a travel destination.

If you talk about other people and be interested in other people’s work, people will be curious about your work in return. The same philosophy opined by Covey is the same in social media.

But be sincere about it — often I see companies / brands / people liking all kinds of random things in hopes of gaining followers. You won’t go far. You might be able to fool the dumb search bots in hopes of gaining linkbacks via SEO but ultimately humans are the ones who care about your content. If you want people to care, then care about others. Never follow accounts in hopes of being followed back.

That tactic is seen all over Twitter. I see it all the time—they follow you, as soon as you follow, they send you a direct message as spam and then unfollow immediately—it was so annoying that I have stopped seeing who is following me anymore. I blame that unhealthy number-game on Twitter to the promptly displayed stats. And is the number 1 reason why I suggest companies to not actively display stats visibly on people’s profile as it creates an unhealthy ecology.

In the hayday of social media analytics, the follower/following ratio is often used to calculate one’s influence and thus popularity. If being well-read is a sign of intellectual maturity, then one must question how logical that influence analytics data really is. Thus you will see that better analytics engines such as Klout calculates influence based on engagement, and I think that kind of calculation is much more accurate.

/ SML.20121230.PHIL
/ #smlphil #ccby #seeminglee #smluniverse #smlnet #smlopinions #smlanalytics
/ #network #theory #socialmedia #facebook #likes #twitter #flickr #LinkedIn #Klout #philosophy #marketing #strategy #opinions #analysis #analytics #influence #engagement
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