Let's face it, navigating work in 2022 is different. So we're picking the brains of design leaders across the industry to help us navigate it all. As part of our ongoing interview series, we’re asking designers to share their work life advice, design do’s and don’ts, and secrets to effective collaboration. Consider it our take on the Proustian questionnaire, with the aim to give you insight on how top designers work and think about design in a time unlike any other. (And they might just spill a few work-life secrets along the way.)
Designing title sequences for movies and TV shows like Spider-Man: No Way Home, Lisey's Story, and Little Fires Everywhere requires a lot more than expert type skills. For Karin Fong, Emmy Award-winning creative director at design studio Imaginary Forces, it also involves working with pyrotechnic teams, professional puppeteers, animation specialists, and a huge internal team of collaborators. In fact, Fong made a point to emphasize just how important collaboration is to the Imaginary Forces creative process, rattling off the names of team members she worked alongside to bring their mega projects to life. And although, as Fong put it via email, "our society loves the lone creator story," Imaginary Forces is building its own narrative around a more collaborative design process. And it all happens before your favorite show's opening scene.
Here, Fong shares her advice for leading design teams, her work mantra, and some behind the scenes scoop on how she and her team brought the title sequences of your favorite shows to life.
Title design for Cowboy Bebop and Boardwalk Empire. Images: Imaginary Forces.
What's the key to effective collaboration?
Trusting people to do what they do best.
What's the most surprising difference between in-office collaboration and remote?
How close Taiwan and London can feel.
When is collaboration most important?
Whenever you want the work to be better than what’s already in your own head. Which for me is always.
What is your advice for leading a design team?
Choose your team wisely.
And what's your advice for making a design team more collaborative?
Don’t make it a competition.
What is one quality you always look for in a designer?
What was your biggest learning moment?
Whenever I’m shooting. It makes me focus in real-time like nothing else. I also learn so much from the crew–like for Lisey's Story, rehearsing with the puppeteers with actual marionettes or how fire behaves (or doesn’t behave) from the pyrotechnic team for Little Fires Everywhere.
Title design for Lisey's Story and Little Fires Everywhere. Images: Imaginary Forces.
Your biggest realization from the past year and a half of working amid a pandemic?
That WFH can mean much more than that. Work from Hawaii, for instance!
What’s your work mantra?
Go too far then come back.
What's the best advice you’ve received? (And from whom?)
“Remember, when a doctor goofs up, they bury it. When we goof up, they project it large on a big screen” –Larry Plastrik, editor, who told me this as I was entering the film industry in my 20s, and he was still working in his 70s.
What's one design you wish you thought of yourself?
The Japanese flag.
What's a design faux pas you’re secretly a fan of?
Pushing title safe.
What's a design skill that’s overrated?
What's a design skill that’s underrated?
Difference between a good designer and a great one?
Consistency– with the ability to surprise
What is your favorite question to ask during job interviews?
When can you start?
What's your favorite typeface?
Anything with a perfectly round ‘o’
How do you avoid team burnout?
Which song do you listen to when you’re the most productive?
Something without lyrics.
Title design for Spider-Man: No Way Home. Images: Imaginary Forces.
Which project from the past year that most excites you?
The title sequence for Spider-Man: No Way Home stands out, in part because it also happens to be the first movie I’ve seen in the theater since the pandemic started.
And what excited you about the film from a title design perspective? Were there any particular challenges or design firsts that excited you about the title design sequence?
The film’s math themes had us mashing up inspiration from MC Escher, Fibonacci, and Steve Ditko into a sketch-book come to life. Part of the thrill was working with the killer SWAT team of artists and animators who came together to make it happen, including Max Strizich, who rocked Saul Steinberg-style drawings, Alex Rupert, on constructing impossible figures, and Henry Chang, who, as usual, bent time and space to pull it all together. Oh also Tosh Kodama, creative partner in crime, our producer Steve Garfinkel, and Lexi Gunvaldson on drums—that is to say—editing.
"[Spider-Man's] math themes had us mashing up inspiration from MC Escher, Fibonacci, and Steve Ditko into a sketch-book come to life."
What keeps you up at night?
What gets you up in the morning?
What’s a piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
Better with the right soundtrack.
Going to love you back.
Title design for Wheel of Time. Images: Imaginary Forces.
What’s a question you wish we asked? (And what’s the answer?)
Q: Will you get mad at me if I skip the titles?
A: Furious! ;) Listen, of course I want you to watch our sequences. And, that’s part of our job—to make something so compelling that you want to. But seriously, as much as they function to open the shows, the titles might even have more value as short films that get viewed independently and shared. They can make a connection with the audience that stays long after the episode or even the series has ended.
And since we’ve been talking about collaboration, I must add that there’s something great about how a show documents the names of the cast and crew on screen. It’s a way of honoring their professions and what they’ve made together. As the director Harold Ramis once reminded me after I proposed using way-too tiny type for the credits of his film, “Karin, the people need to see their names.”