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Friday, January 4, 2013

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

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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