Creative Director at Facebook & Instagram. Formerly, he was the Creative Director at Google. His personal projects include the Bubble Project, Word as Image, Univers Revolved and Drawings for My Grandchildren
Interview: Ljubov Dzuzhynska
What have you learned about yourself through all of your projects?
Well, since my childhood I was always interested in doing creative things, like drawing or painting. I’ve always wanted to become an artist like Picasso or Van Gogh without the suffering part of the authors. I went to art school at Parsons here in New York. I was actually studying graphic design and after I graduated I went to a corporate design studio and designed logos or catalogs and I wasn’t particularly enjoying the work because it was very dry, and well, corporate. It wasn’t as creative as projects I was doing at school. I switched to advertising, hoping that things would be a lot more interesting and creative. I also realized that it was the same in the advertising industry, people were not really taking risks. That’s when I decided I should do things on my own without depending on the client. So that’s when I started a project called the Bubble project: I printed 30,000 stickers in the shape of speech bubbles and placed them on top of advertisements. That was the first important personal project I did after I graduated while I was working for a company. And I realized how easy it was to make something and how fun it was to do it and to see people’s responses. The project went viral. This was in the mid 90s before social media. There was no internet as we know it.
But there was a blog at the time and they somehow found out about my project and wrote a small article so the whole thing went viral. A lot of people ended up knowing about it. Magazines, newspapers and TV stations wanted to interview me and publish the story about the Bubble project. And that was really the turning point for my mindset and my career actually because that gave me the confidence that I alone can make projects that can reach millions of people in the world and in the process, become famous and have other agencies and clients want to hire me because of the whole thing. Professionally it opened up a lot of opportunities and, more importantly, it made me realize that with technology I can actually create something and make a project become known worldwide.
So since then I’ve always been doing both small and big personal projects, and in the process of doing them, you learn a lot about yourself. So to answer your question,
it’s only through your personal projects that you are really expressing yourself as a person.
You know, when you’re doing client work, for example, a soda brand or a bank, or any other brand, then the purpose of the work is to sell something, to sell the client’s product and service. There’s nothing wrong with it, but your creative expression in doing this project is in the service of selling something. So it’s never your personal expression, it’s the expression of your client. So you never get to know who you are as much when you’re working on such things. A purely personal project is all about what you’re interested in and in expressing yourself: your thoughts, feelings and opinions.
I’m interested in humor, I’m interested in expressing my political views. I discovered that I like to hijack things. I’ve learned that my creative expressions can mean many things, sometimes about myself but also about my relationship with my family, or it can be an opinion about things that are happening in the world.
You’ve had a lot of interviews, what questions do you hate answering?
I’ve never been asked a bad question, actually. Sometimes the questions are the same, because most people who interview me are interested in finding out the basic things about my projects, why I started, what’s the process, how it changed my life etc. Which I completely understand, I would probably ask these questions too. So I never really dislike any of the questions. Maybe, ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ – that’s a very bad question.
I think people who are interested in interviewing me are those who are also interested in personal projects, who are interested in culture and going even deeper.
What is your definition of beauty and does your perception of beauty differ over time?
I personally don’t think a lot about beauty unless someone talks about it so it’s something that I have to think about now. Beauty for me, is a feeling, you know? When I look at a beautiful landscape, when I go to a museum and see a beautiful painting. Or when I see a beautiful person, or when I see a beautiful piece of clothing…. It’s a feeling of being enthralled, attracted, overwhelmed. Looking at it makes me stop and really be in the moment. Maybe that’s one way of defining it – being in the moment of connecting deeply with the object that you are looking at. It’s a feeling of connection that you have which I wouldn’t necessarily have with something mundane.
So whenever something beautiful stops me, then I feel connected in the moment, and that’s for me, I suppose, is my perception of beauty.
And yes, I think it changes over time because when I was younger, I didn’t really appreciate nature, I couldn’t really understand why my mom would buy a bouquet of flowers or why would people be talking about a tree being the most beautiful thing. I just couldn’t understand. But as I grow older I appreciate nature much, much more, which I think is one of the most beautiful things that men can experience – being in nature and gazing at a beautiful tree or a small flower. So yeah, it does evolve.
What was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced in your life?
It’s a very unusual question. This would make sense with someone who is very famous, like Lady Gaga because everybody knows her and heard her sing so you would have the context about the person and you could appreciate the answer. I don’t know if that sort of thing would apply in my case, because if your audience doesn’t know who I am and what kind of work I’ve done, then they would think, ‘Why should I care about what Ji Lee has to say?’.
Yet these answers may bring out interest in who you are and what your work is all about.
Nowadays it’s very difficult to get people’s attention because you have to create flashy content to get noticed. Okay, well, going back to the question… . You know, I’ve had a lot of such experiences these days. I have two children and my wife, we’re locked down in our place in Brooklyn, New York, so I have a lot of time to spend with them. I feel very fortunate that, first of all, we’re healthy, we have a good space, I don’t have to feel worried about money, whereas a lot of people have lost their jobs. If you are facing a financial problem then you cannot appreciate the things around you since you’re so stressed out, and you’re so worried. I don’t have that, fortunately, I have a job. There are still lots of difficult things being in a lock down, like for everybody else. We also feel the stress and anxiety, yet it has also been a gift to spend so much time with my family, especially with my kids. My daughter, her name is Lua and she is eight months old and my son Astro is five years old. They grow very fast, as if every day they become a new person. So spending entire days with them is a true gift. Both my wife and I are constantly overwhelmed about how cute they are and how much love we feel for them. Each moment is the most beautiful moment and is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever felt. I’m not really interested in looking back and reminiscing about the beautiful moments of the past – it doesn’t really interest me that much.
What have you learned from your kids?
Love. The feeling of love and how to be in touch with my own feelings.They really open your emotions and they really open you anew as a parent, you become completely open to love and you feel loved.
What are some of the things you’ve learned through your own childhood that you still use to this day?
Hold on, I need to get another glass of scotch before I answer this question. After the kids go to bed I like to have a little bit of time to myself and enjoy a drink to relax. Because you’re asking quite personal questions, you know.
Yeah. Do people always give personal answers to these?
It really depends on the person. Online interviews are harder, whereas face to face conversations may well last for over an hour.
I never liked written interviews, it’s too time consuming. It’s so much easier for me to just talk and get it done.
Also, a lot of those who I’ve interviewed face to face said that it felt like a therapy session.
It does! Back to the question about my childhood lessons. I don’t think these are things that I’ve realized when I was a child, because I wasn’t really aware of it. I became aware of it as an adult and more so as a parent. It’s what my parents have given me and it’s the case for almost everyone. The most important influence in someone’s life is the first three years of your life. Studies reveal that the first three years of your life is 90% of what makes you as a person. So the most important people in your life are your parents, because they’re the closest to you. They’re the ones who shape your environment and we are the product of that environment.
And what I’ve realized is that for all the good and the bad that I feel about my parents, they gave me the foundation for the person who I am now: a critical thinker, who isn’t ignorant, who has an open view on people, religion, sex, and politics. All of that came from my parents. That I think is a huge realization, and probably the most important realization that we all go through.
Like it or not, you are the way your parents were.
This is a lesson that I try to apply to my children. The most important thing for a parent is to love each other as a husband and wife, so your children can grow in a loving environment. It doesn’t matter as much what kind of education you are giving or what kind of values you are trying to teach – if you, as a father and mother, aren’t happy then you are going to impact the children negatively. My wife and I talk about this quite a lot. So the lesson I try to apply is that we should love each other and love our kids, which will hopefully make them open, loving, and more accepting of the world. Also, for them to be aware of what’s happening in the world environmentally.
If you could travel in time, where would you go and why? Would you go into the future or into the past?
I’d never go to the past. And frankly, I’m afraid of the future. Maybe in 2070 the world won’t exist anymore. Maybe it would be a lot worse than it is now. That’s more likely haha. Or maybe we end up going to a different planet, which would make life very harsh. I think right now is a good place and a good time to be in. Nonetheless, it’s a difficult time for obvious reasons, but even before Corona, environmentally things were very difficult and things are getting really bad really quick. If you think about the past, when I was born in the 70s – it was one of the few generations in history and human civilization that didn’t go through any major conflicts. My parents went through a war, the same goes for the situation in Ukraine for you. There was the First World War, the Second World War, the Spanish flu. I mean, there are all kinds of crazy things that killed massive numbers of people, and people died of hunger, famine, and disease. In the spectrum of the history of mankind, those living in the 70s, 80s, 90s 2000s witnessed a relatively peaceful time. I think the Corona lockdown is the first major global crisis that is affecting millions of people.
So we’ve been living a very privileged life for the most part unless you’re poor and hungry. I think we tend to romanticize the past.
We think about the 50s and the 60s through a romantic lens, but if you were to go back then you would face a lot of difficulties, for instance, sexism, where women couldn’t vote and were considered a second class citizen, or if you were black , the situation then was a lot worse. So
I do think that we live in the best time in human history, despite all the downsides. I’d rather be here than in any other time and place.
What book, film, cartoon reality would you like to experience?
I’m a big movie fan, I love old movies and sci-fi. This question really requires a lot of thinking because I think so many movies are interesting. “City of Women” – Fellini’s movie where the guy visits a city and he’s the only man. Hahaha. I don’t know what actually happens in the end, maybe he gets suffocated and it all ends up a miserable experience. Recently I watched Ready Player One, where everything happens in VR, which is not a distant future for us. But most of the sci-fi films and their depiction of the future is very dystopian, like, for instance, Blade Runner. I always romanticize about Fellini’s movies, like “Amarcord” – worlds of innocence, where people walk at night and are playful. A romantic notion of a black and white world of Europe in the 50s. But I think I’d get tired of living in that world. Then there’s “The Matrix”… Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. It’s what we talked about previously – going back into the past and things being not as romantic as we imagined them to be. So still the conclusion is that right now is the best time.
Would you agree that nowadays people are attracted to easier things? If so, does it bother you and do you think that everything should have a deeper meaning?
I did a project with my parents about grandparents and grandchildren. My father draws and my mom writes for their four grandchildren via Instagram. They’re 78 years old and they have 400,000 followers and now they’re doing TikTok. My sister is the one who is teaching them how to use it. So they’ve joined TikTok 4 months ago and now they’re at 250,000 followers. It’s great because they’re active, they’re having fun with their grandchildren.
These are projects that changed the lives of my parents and our family in a very positive way. And we couldn’t have done them without such tools. But I know what you mean in general terms, like young people being into the whole celebrity culture, the superficial selfie culture and attention. It’s easy to criticize and it’s easy to condemn it, yet I think it’s more complex than that.
The important word here is ‘media’ and how the media defines who we are. We define our tools and in return the tools define us.
And we are deeply influenced by the tools, the media, the social media, the cell phones, the internet. And yes, there are certain aspects of how social media is brainwashing young people, but at the same time, they are always the smart ones that are using social media to empower themselves, whether using TikTok, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Through these tools they either start their own businesses or get their projects out into the world. And they connect with other people. I’d rather see the positive side of that. I think that the vast majority of people who use social media, especially teens, are attracted to those easy things. If you’re smart, if you work and use these tools to express yourself then good things will happen. If my children were 13 and 14, I as a parent would be very concerned about how they consume this medium and how much influence it has on them. It’s a long discussion but it is worrying.
Is it important for your work to have a meaningful context?
I don’t think of it to be deeply meaningful but my work has meaning behind it. It’s not about being important or not important, it’s just the nature of my work – I’m always expressing something. I’m not interested in creating patterns or shapes, or cool looks, and don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against those who focus on that. But I’m just personally not interested in creating this next stylistic cool thing. That’s not what my work is about.
I’m more interested in creating meanings or expressing my opinions, creating things that hopefully make people think or make their brains a little bit more active or open.
Word as Image
Visualization of the meaning of a word through playing with typography within the word without adding any extra elements.
Is there anything that concerns you about the current industry of advertising and design?
Oh it depends, they’re kind of different industries. There’s nothing that concerns me really, because it is what it is. These are industries that have roles in the process of marketing. We do live in a market oriented capitalist society. Products are created and products are marketed. Advertisers and designers need to design things and create campaigns. From what I observe things are shifting tremendously. In terms of design, the shift is not so drastic as it’s just continual digitalization. If anything, the digital and social media has been very helpful for small designers that now use Instagram and are able to gather a massive audience, which wouldn’t have been possible in the past. Before only the famous designers would have a book published whereas the rest of the designers were not known unless they were published in a magazine. Now it’s great for designers because of Instagram or YouTube. So if you are not famous you can use these platforms to display your work and gain millions of followers, you can have financial independence and not work for some shitty corporate studio or company. So for design things are actually great. But for advertising things are different because the traditional agencies are crumbling: they are not quick enough to embrace social media and digital media. They’re still mostly about television commercials. I observe that big agencies are having very difficult times and more and more clients are working with smaller, independent, faster digital producers and agencies. They’re falling behind, so that’s what happening.
What do you feel when you look back at your life?
That’s a very abstract question in a way because I can give you a million different answers depending on all of the different moments I’ve experienced. It’s an impossible task. But I suppose in general… I’m 49 right now so I’m in the second half of the game now. For the most part I’ve had a really good life, I was very fortunate. When I was going through difficult times where I felt that there was no reason for me to continue and things couldn’t get any worse, these moments of desperation… I’ve had two or three of those in my life where I saw no sense in living. And I’m not prone to depression, which must be a terrible thing to go through for those who struggle with it. Most of my life I was blessed and even in those moments of despair I was able to seek advice and I had my family and friends who loved me so those things just went away. They now seem like a distant past.
One thing that I always think about a lot since I was a child is that your life can change in the blink of an eye.
I constantly remind myself of that fact. What if I’m driving and I get into a car accident? What if our house catches fire? I don’t worry about this constantly but I’m very aware of that because I went through a few experiences where I could have died in an accident, or something really stupid which would have made my life take a drastic turn. Life can change whether for the good or for the worse and we really have no control over things. We think we have control of our lives, in how we make money, how we create meanings for ourselves, how we build our family, how we find our own success – but we really don’t.
The only thing that you can control in a life full of uncontrollable things is in enjoying every moment of it.
That’s the only thing I try to remind myself of.
What are you most proud of?
A couple of things. I’m very proud of the fact that I can provide for my family without them having to go to bed hungry, without then worrying about where to sleep and being exposed to danger. That’s the reality of millions of people around the world every day. So I’m proud of the fact that my family is taken care of and they live in a peaceful, loving, comfortable environment. I’m also very proud of all the creative projects I have done. But I’m most proud of the “Drawings for my Grandchildren” project for my parents. It wasn’t just a creative project of doing something clever or something beautiful, it really changed the lives of my parents. It tremendously increased the quality of their lives. It also connected and brought our whole family together: my sister, my children, my nephews, my parents. That’s the creative project I’m most proud of.
What would you want to be remembered for?
I never put a lot of thought into it because it doesn’t really matter… Well, not that it doesn’t matter but… It’s not very important to me. I’m not a person who has a legacy to leave behind, like, let’s say, Bill Gates or the presidents of the United States, or a famous singer. I don’t have that kind of fame or influence.
The only thing that matters to me is how my family will remember me, that my children will remember me as a loving father and my wife will remember me as a loving husband.
What question would you like to be asked in an interview and what would you answer?
Maybe I can talk a little bit about my personal projects. The Bubble project with the stickers really changed my life because it made me realize, as I’ve mentioned earlier, that I don’t have to depend on the client or a company to create something that I really want to create. You don’t have to have a lot of money or resources to make something and put it out there. That really empowered me to work on more personal projects and share them with the world. So the more personal projects I did, the more opportunities opened in front of me, both personally and professionally. I was able to work for companies like Google and Facebook. It was all thanks to my projects because I wasn’t able to produce much in commercial work. So my mission in life as an artist, as a creator and as a designer, is to share my experience and my story with other people who consider themselves as creatives – not just designers, artists, art directors and writers, but anyone who is curious and think creatively.
In what way do you want to implement your knowledge into other non-creative spheres?
Well it’s not knowledge, it’s just a way of thinking – believing in yourself and making things that you are passionate about and putting it out there. So if you are passionate about cars as a bus driver, and you can build this incredible car in your garage, you should pursue that part-time and share that experience with the rest of the world. If you’re a carpenter working for a construction company, but you have this idea of making this beautiful table, then you should pursue that on the side when you have time. In my experience if you do that then amazing things can happen. For the most part people don’t do it because they’re insecure or they’re lazy.
The biggest barrier people face is the self because they don’t believe in themselves. Is it going to be good enough? Who will want to look at this? Am I wasting my time? All of these questions come to your mind and you end up postponing or simply giving up. We all face those insecurities – no matter how great you are, how famous you are. We’re all insecure but what makes the difference is actually working on something despite the self-doubt.
That’s my main message for whoever is reading this publication, no matter what part of the world. With the lockdown everything is changing: our entire value systems and the infrastructure, the way we define work. It’s a great time for all of us to invest in ourselves. Right now I’m investing in my family because it’s most important to me. But if you are an aspiring fashion designer, an aspiring writer or filmmaker, then
it’s a great time to be awake and to express yourself, it’s a great time to overcome insecurities and challenge those inner voices that are preventing you from doing things. Start making stuff and share it with the world, because when you do that, I know for a fact, that amazing transformational things will happen to you. Ideas are nothing. Doing is everything.