Thinking back to her Graphic Design studies at Yale’s graduate program, YuJune reports of having experienced imposter syndrome, surrounded by knowledgeable and expertly trained peers. “I believed that at any moment I would be asked to leave the program,” YuJune admits. At the time, she had just taken the leap from furniture design into graphic design, and the discipline was still new to her. But she also fell in love with the challenge. “Visualizing communication felt vital and living, and still feels that way today.”
YuJune is co-founder of New York multidisciplinary design studio, Synoptic Office, together with Caspar Lam, and a full-time professor at Parsons School of Design. Until recently, she also served there as the Communication Design Program Director. Her interactive design projects range from apps to data visualizations, visual identities, typefaces, and more.
It might be YuJune’s and Caspar’s inquisitive approach to design that enables their practice to continuously feel this fresh. YuJune explains that through a combination of hands-on design at the studio, and design teaching at the academia, both she and Caspar aim for a full circle process – from raising the right questions in class, to proposing solutions to those questions in their design work.
“Teaching allows us to ask questions about the future – where our industry will be in five or ten years,” YuJune says. “Our studio allows us to posit possible answers to these questions in the present.” It’s a method that keeps the duo constantly in learning mode, alert and curious as to how we understand and communicate with the visual world around us.
Typeface design that welcomes change
One such project by YuJune and Caspar is their Chinese typeface, Ming Romantic. It started, like any of their projects, with a question. “How might Chinese characters from the Song and Ming dynasties look when divorced from the effects of the brush?”, they wanted to know, after failing to find certain formal Chinese typefaces for their own design needs.
As they started the project, the scope of the task began to unfold: there are over 100,000 variant characters in the Chinese language. “The idea that a typeface is an immutable group of forms is easier to entertain when you can contain and control that group,” YuJune comments, making the 26 letters of the English alphabet (or 52, counting both lower and upper case) seem like a typographer’s walk in the park. “When the group scales up, there is a corresponding loss of control and the design becomes more about the system rather than a fixed set of parts.”
In order to get their heads around the complexity of designing such a font, YuJune and Caspar decided to create it as a ‘living typeface.’ YuJune tells us that “a typeface of such scale cannot be thought of as a static set of glyphs that can be completed in one go.” Instead, they approached the design as a long-term process, collaborating with a team of contributors for several years until its release.
In the future, YuJune and Caspar plan to open the typeface for users to add their own modifications and variants, eventually resulting in multiple versions of the font and its glyphs. It’s an idea that YuJune says can make typeface design a more feasible undertaking for smaller studios. “Rather than releasing one big typeface, they can release parts of it over time,” she suggests. “You see this historically in typefaces that have super families, and initiatives like Future Fonts begin to hint at this idea.”
That kind of comment offers a good indication of YuJune’s perception of design. She views her own work through a wider understanding of the field, drawing from both historical insights and educated predictions for the future of the industry.
When interactivity can empower users
YuJune’s belief that design should be flexible and adaptive is evident in more than just her Ming Romantic project. “In the past, design revolved around fixed elements: a poster, postcard, logo,” she tells. “Now, design is increasingly experienced over time and in response to user interaction.”
This idea receives an interesting interpretation in the Artstor Arcades web app Caspar and YuJune created for Artstor Labs. The project invited users to take part in cataloging the James Dee Archive, a collection of photographs of contemporary New York art. This vast archive of thousands of artworks was never labeled or catalogued, which was a major obstacle in the hopes to release the collection in its entirety for research usages.
To achieve this seemingly unimaginable task, the duo decided to transform it into an interactive, crowdsourced game. Users were invited to describe the images in order to score points, and the information provided by players, cross-examined by answers given by other players, went on to become the metadata for the collection. Artstor were able to release the first batch of images, tagged and catalogued, within just two months.
“Interactivity and play in this context empowers people to come together to create something meaningful,” YuJune remarks. “It sounds quaint, but we really believe that people are able to come together for a greater cause.”
Artstor Arcades web app.
Debunking the myth of the all-knowing instructor
For YuJune, teaching at Parsons School of Design is a valuable asset in enriching her own design practice. “Teaching is a dialogue,” she remarks, referring to it as a conversation that “challenges me to think more deeply about culture and design.”
She aims for her teachings to equip her students with the skills that the future workforce of the design world might require, whatever they may be. In light of that mission, we asked her what she considered to be the most important lessons for designers.
Here are YuJune’s top insights:
1. Learn how to learn: According to YuJune, the software tools you learn during Freshman year might be irrelevant by the time you graduate. There will be new skills required from designers, in tandem with the new communication platforms and technologies that constantly arise.
Case in point: During graduate school, YuJune thought that Flash was her ticket to success. Today, it’s pretty much a distant memory.
2. Slow down: One of YuJune’s favorite quotes is by philosopher John Dewey who said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” Following that sentiment, YuJune encourages her students to take the time to stop. Reflecting upon our actions, rather than merely performing them, will get you where you need to go faster than running from one task to the next, she says.
3. Embrace criticism: Receiving feedback isn’t always easy. But keep in mind that when someone criticizes your work, it’s only because they see the potential for improvement. Responding to criticism with “Tell me more,” YuJune promises, will get further than you can imagine.
Congress Now, a mobile app designed to increase legislative transparency.
This article is a continuation of YuJune’s recent career therapy session at the Wix Design Playground in NYC. Keep up with our upcoming design events at Wix Playground Presents.