At first glance, Jennifer Xiao’s illustrations are an enchanting celebration of happy characters, playful colors and adorable personified objects. Take a closer look and you’ll discover there’s more to this deceptively naive story. Through the medium of illustration, Jennifer explores the fine line between humor and seriousness, addressing themes of human interaction, personal development and everyday life affairs. Keeping to her signature style all the while, she depicts highly relatable situations that are bound to make you “ooh,” “aah,” giggle – and if you’re anything like me, possibly also sniffle a little, too. We chatted with her to find out more about how this quirky visual language came about, as well as her work process, doubts, dreams and more.

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Short #comic about saying #no

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Drawing inspiration from her childhood  

With a recent BFA in illustration from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and having gone to an arts high school, Jennifer has quite an academic arts background. But her interest in telling stories began long before. In fact, Jennifer finds that the kind of media she consumed as a child had a huge impact on her work and helped shape her sense of humor – a quality that is very dominant in her illustrations.

Growing up in the suburbs of North Carolina, Jennifer claims there wasn’t a lot to do and she was bored much of the time. “I was obsessed with everything on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon,” she tells High on Design. “I also spent a lot of time on the internet playing games like Neopets.” These childhood influences are apparent in her works, shining through with her use of loud colors and simple lines. However, don’t be fooled – these optimistic visuals are often contrasted with darker undertones. An illustration of a girl smiling on a deck chair appears jolly enough, until you realize that the piece is actually referring to the not-so-bright side of social media that encourages us to constantly appear to be having a great time and “doing really well.”

From imagination to reality

Using what she describes as a straightforward process, Jennifer creates all her pieces using Photoshop. “I do a lot of thinking in my head before I start any drawing and sometimes I’ll scribble and write out stuff on paper,” she explains. “I’ll then do a digital sketch and do the final art on top of that.”

When working on 3D objects, the general process is quite similar. Jennifer begins by mentally visualizing what she’s going to make, then moves onto sketching. Her merchandise ranges from a t-shirt featuring a six-legged tiger (sporting super trendy sneakers, of course), to an assortment of pins, patches and cups boasting some of her most lovable characters. “It’s always a little more fun and special for me when the work is 3D and I can physically interact with it,” Jennifer tells us. “I love playing with scale changes, so it’s fun to make things really big and really small.”

Illustrator Jennifer Xiao's merchandise - pins and t-shirt

Illustrator Jennifer Xiao's merchandise - socks
A selection of Jennifer Xiao’s merchandise.

Pairing words and images 

Using cuteness as her weapon, Jennifer explains, “Cute things tend to be more immediately approachable, so it makes it easier for me to write and share sad things when I pair it with a drawing.” While these “sad things” vary from the reasonably lighthearted challenge of never being able to see the stage at a concert, to learning how to say “no,” these touching autobiographical works often combine text and visuals. “Writing and drawing definitely help me think through my feelings,” Jennifer tells us. “I use my work as an outlet when I should really just go to therapy.”

Despite her wonderfully subtle yet emotive pieces, Jennifer claims she’s not a great writer or drawer. “I like to think that when I pair writing and drawing together they become a new, stronger thing. They work in such different ways and they both let me say different things.”

This connection between text and image can be seen in the editorial illustration work she does for The New York Times, in which she reads through the text and explores out how best to visualize it. “I figure out what I connect to the most (a.k.a what do I want to draw) and see how that aligns with the main topic,” Jennifer tell us. In this recent piece, Safe Topics to Discuss This Holiday Season, the article’s humorous tone fits perfectly with Jennifer’s illustration language, as she transforms any and every object into a legitimate character with a clear sense of personality (I mean, it makes total sense that forks are constantly a little taken aback and that each green bean has a distinct identity of its own).

 

Putting yourself out there in the online world

Despite having an active Instagram account in which she regularly shares her illustrations and merchandise, Jennifer’s views on social media aren’t as clear-cut as you may expect. “The internet can make me feel terrible, but if I don’t check my phone every five minutes I’ll die,” Jennifer tells us. This “it’s complicated” relationship is all too familiar in this day and age. Although Jennifer believes the online world offers a great platform on which you can do amazing things, she tries to keep in mind that it’s a “performative space and everything is fake. It’s dangerous territory when you get too wrapped up in the numbers game of social media. That being said, I owe my career to social media and it’s great being able to put work out in the world and get a response to it. I think it’s just important not to put your sense of self worth on how many likes something is getting – even though I totally do that. Easier to give advice than take it!”

Illustrator Jennifer Xiao's t-shirt design

That being said, Jennifer successfully harnesses the power of social media to share her illustrations with the world. Although she doesn’t have any magic tricks when it comes to promoting your work on Instagram, she says it’s important to create first and foremost for yourself, as opposed to pandering to whatever seems to get more likes. “It shows in your work if you’re excited about what you’re doing,” says Jennifer. “Also, follow other artists you like!”

Another way of attracting more eyes to your work and potentially getting hired is by creating an online portfolio. “It’s the digital age, so having some form of online presence is so important now,” says Jennifer. “It’s also a way to fully curate how people see and experience your work.” Her own website, created with Wix, invites you to dive head-first into her land of peculiar characters that, with just a few simple lines, manage to say so much. The homepage of her portfolio greets you with a confetti-like gif and buttons that transform from sad to happy, or bored to cheeky (check out the t-shirt!) when you hover over them. Don’t miss out on the ‘About’ page that provides basic information while staying true to Jennifer’s character, offering a heartwarming example of how to write copy for your design portfolio.

Jennifer Xiao’s portfolio, created with Wix.

Life as a freelance designer

Together with the joys of working on a variety of projects, come the difficulties of being a freelance designer. “Freelance is nice, because I can work all day in my pajamas and not leave the house,” Jennifer tells us. “But sometimes it’s also not nice, because I don’t leave the house all day. Biggest downside of freelance is the instability and biggest upside is the freedom. There’s also a lot of extra stress surrounding it. I think you need to be a bit of a workaholic to make it work.”

Finding motivation as a freelancer can be quite the challenge – a topic that Jennifer addresses in her illustrations, using her heartwarming humor to lighten the subject. And when the majority of your schedule is dedicated to creating commissioned works, it can be even harder to ensure you still make time for your own personal projects. To tackle this, Jennifer’s recent approach has been to create quick drawings, as well as “writing about my dumb feelings” – feelings that we, as her audience, just can’t get enough of.

Illustrator Jennifer Xiao's comics

Many more surprises to come

As she continues to experiment with various materials and methods, Jennifer certainly isn’t ready to stop exploring any time soon. She is keen on doing more animation, a medium she loves but doesn’t get to work with that much (“I like seeing pictures move, but I hate actually animating”). Speaking of her aspirations for the future, Jennifer says, “I want to do it all! I like seeing my work in all types of mediums, so I’d love to do more installations where I translate my drawings into big sculptures or furniture.” Well, we know we would definitely love to see a huge beaming apple table, or a menacing-but-actually-totally-harmless tiger couch.

And it seems that this somewhat comical mix of light and heavy, cute and serious, is exactly what Jennifer is going for. She says, “I like when people tell me I’m funny. Also, people will tell me my work makes them happy and that’s always nice to hear.”

Illustrator Jennifer Xiao's merchandise - t-shirts

Want to delve deeper into Jennifer Xiao’s world? Head over to her Wix website!