Monthly Archives: December 2013

Interview With Grace Lee

This interview was originally featured on the Desktop Magazine website

Grace Lee, a freelance illustrator originally from Sydney now living in Japan.

What brought you overseas and how has that move shaped your career/life?
I had been wanting to go to Japan ever since I was a teenager and became friends with a homestay student who was staying with my sister at the time. It wasn’t until after my first trip to Japan in 2007 that I decided to move. I also had some time constraints, as 31 was the cut-off age for working holiday visas. Initially, I didn’t really have a plan, I was working as a designer for Inside Out magazine prior to moving, so I half set out to try to do design if I had the chance. It turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. Mainly due to language barriers and also having to hold down a regular job to make enough money to keep living here. In hindsight, everything worked out. Japan has had a huge impact on the shape of my illustration career. If I hadn’t had those early knock-backs in design, I probably would never have thought to try illustration.

Illustrations for Stella magazine

Was there anything good or bad that surprised you when you moved overseas?
That I’ve been here for three years! For day-to-day things, the taxes in Japan surprised me, as did the initial cost of renting my own place. In terms of illustration, I was surprised by how much it is used here in Japan. It’s everywhere – from the most mundane items like utility bills and kitchen cleaning goods, or the use of illustration/animation for corporate branding. I was also surprised by how honest this country is. I’ve lost my phone and wallet a few times, and not once has it not been handed in. I’m not the only one with the story. (bike lights might be the exception however).

What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced as an ex-pat creative?
The first was trying to get work. I came here with only a very basic high school level of Japanese. I have enough Japanese to get around day-to-day, but in terms of finding work and being able to apply (and read about jobs on offer), it was quite difficult. In the first year of living in Japan, I did some work at a design studio here in Tokyo, it was a great way to be involved in a creative environment, but because I didn’t have the language skills to be properly briefed in, I ended up doing a lot of deep-etching work. There are opportunities out there, and I have heard of and do know people who have managed to get work without a native level of Japanese, so it is possible. The other challenge has been finding a balance between working a day job and trying to do creative work as well. I teach three days a week, and whilst it’s a lot less than when I first arrived, I still find it a little challenging to juggle both (especially during deadlines!).

Illustrations for Slow magazine

Tell me a little about your work situation at the moment, where you are working from, what sort of work, what a typical day might be for you.
I work from home. I basically sit at a little table with a printer, my laptop and a heap of textas. The bulk of the work I’ve done has been for magazines, but last month, I had a few really great opportunities to work on book illustrations, packing and… a small window display. Since the illustration work hasn’t been full time, I don’t really have a typical sort of day. It depends on how busy the month is. Most of the days that I work from home, I’m either drawing or scanning, or deep-etching or laying something out. I do most of my work at night.

The creatives I’ve met over here are incredible. The standard and the talent makes me want to try harder. I had a table at the Tokyo Art Book fair this year and was blown away by how clever, cool, and cute the works were. The artists, illustrators and creatives I’ve met are so committed to their work, really focused and hardworking. Incredibly humble and I’ve never heard anyone complain.

What’s the perception of Australian creatives and Australians in general in Japan?
I’m always greeted with a really positive response when I say I’m from Australia. The perception varies though. I’ve had questions about whether Santa rides a surfboard and others based around stereotypes, but these have been few. Most people want to know more about Australia and are really interested. There’s a lot of American influence here, I’m yet to find a cafe that serves flat whites! As for Australian creatives, my Japan agent was the one who told me about Lost at E Minor and how it was started by Australians. I’m not really sure if people automatically associate Australia with creative but there’s definitely a lot of interest and respect, from my experience.

Nidi Natsumatsuri Exhibition

Any advice for creatives thinking of making a similar move?
Go for it. Seriously. I wouldn’t change anything about the last three years I’ve had here. I wasn’t ready to have this career two years ago, as much as I wanted illustration work (and thought I was ready). Even if I had the language skills, there would’ve been no guarantee that I would’ve found work. I came here not knowing how long I’d be here for. I half feared I wouldn’t last six months, but, I’ve now been in Japan for three years. I think back on then and now, and so much has happened through timing, meeting people, putting yourself out there.. oh and having some form of online presence. I am hopeless at updating my blog (let alone actually writing anything in an entry) but having some kind of easy access link for people to look at really helps.

What’s the most important thing you’ve discovered about yourself living abroad?
Whatever you think you can’t do, you can do.

Art Vs Design

Can design be also defined as art? Can the two converge or should they be viewed as completely separate disciplines?

I am a graphic designer but that seems to be a job title that a lot of people have trouble getting their heads around. When I was growing up, I was referred to as being ‘artistic’ but I don’t ever remember thinking to myself as being an ‘artist’, as if such titles overly matter that much when you’re a kid and you just like to draw. Even now when people try to describe what I do I am more than often referred to as being ‘artistic’, I usually can’t be bothered to spend the time correcting that description, even though it often ends with people being put out by my refusal to paint a portrait of their baby or their dog.

It does get me often thinking about the relationship between art and design and just how each is perceived and defined. How much similarity are there in the processes and the final results? The type of work I do as a designer varies greatly. I can go from doing very corporate layouts following strict identity guidelines to the work I do for an independent record label where I’m given pretty much carte blanche over what I want to design and create, where I incorporate a lot of my drawing, painting and even sculptural skills. This is very personal work from my standpoint, sometimes someone might even look at it and call it a ‘work of art’ but I cringe at the title of ‘artist’ and the pretensions that the term implies. I’m not ashamed of being a designer, but if someone looks upon the work I produce and calls it ‘art’ is that enough to make it so?

I may not know a lot about art, but as the saying goes ‘I know what I like’ and as a designer and knowing perhaps a little about my chosen profession, I think I can at least define a few areas that might be seen differentiate art and design.

Art often creates questions in the minds of those viewing it.

Art should encourage some sort of emotional response in the viewer.

Art can instil different responses, emotionally or mentally from different people often depending on their individual circumstances.

Art is created for the artist, it is ‘selfish,’ there is no client or message to be communicated other than what the artist themselves wishes to impart.

Art has meaning (often to only the artist themselves or depending on the viewers interpretation) but seldom provides a tangible use other than decoration.

Design needs to be comprehended to fulfill its purpose.

Design solves a problem, provides a service and clarifies information.

Design has a distinct message to impart.

Design engages, whether that be to read the instructions on a medicine bottle, to operate your iphone or navigate your way through an interior space.

Design is created with an end client, purpose and audience in mind.

Design is collaborative is always a collaborative endeavour (even if that is just between the designer and client).

But the difficulty in these definitions is that they are not so cut and dry. Many are in fact interchangeable between art and design. Design can just as often create questions and emotional responses in the mind of the viewer and still be a ‘work of design’ under any other of the above listed definitions, while a work of art can also be collaborative and have a distinct message to impart.

So while I call myself a designer and tend to hate the term artist (I even hate it when someone else refers to themselves as an artist – it seems a title that should be bestowed rather than taken ad hoc) it’s easy to see where the boundaries can become blurred. It doesn’t help that in an industry who’s very job description is ‘to communicate’ doesn’t do a very good job of actually communicating what that job is to the general public.