Esther Wu is a graphic designer and educator. In this interview Professor Wu shares a little bit about her life, interests and projects. Professor Wu currently teaches Typography 2, and has previously taught Advertising Design, at Queens College, CUNY.
KW: Tell us a little bit about your background?
EW: I grew up in suburbs very close to Philadelphia. My father is a retired microbiologist and my mother a retired computer programmer. As kids, I was the “Good Grades Girl” and my brother was the “Cool Artist.” He could always draw really well. His talent, my apparent lack of it, and our upbringing probably kept me from considering any creative endeavors until much later. But he also introduced me odd and unusual art and to off-the-beaten path culture like Tetsuo The Iron Man and Raw. You might say he introduced me to the idea of creativity. I also had a cousin, Justin, who was very into modern art and he took us to see Anselm Kiefer and Duchamp, among many others and these trips stand out in my memory as eye-opening.
KW: You have a degree in Biology and subsequently worked as a biomedical researcher. What was your favorite all time science course?
EW: I liked Physiology and Evolutionary Biology. I liked the principles of science and the theory more than the practice of it, and the Evolutionary Biology course gave me a deeper appreciation of Evolution. It’s an elegantly simple and (in retrospect) obvious idea. And nothing in Biology makes sense without it. Physiology taught me the intricacies and complexities of physical processes. The kidney is so amazing!
KW: How were you able to transition into a designer?
EW: I had been taking Continuing Ed classes for a year or two when I naively thought I would switch to being a designer. I didn’t have a drop of real experience and in retrospect I really didn’t know anything about the industry. But I figured if I went back to school and got a degree in design, I’d be a designer. So I applied to a bunch of grad schools.
I decided to go to SVA and it was possibly the best 2 years of my life so far. We lived in a big, candy-coated bubble of Design. And by the end of it, through a professor in the program, I was freelancing at SpotCo, a Broadway ad agency, which was a huge foot in the door.
KW: Did you have any connection to the theater before you started working at SpotCo?
EW: Not really. I like theater as much as an average person. I’ve seen a lot of shows now, just from working in the industry. One of the big perks is free tickets.
The only theater I used to seek out, before working in the industry, was Shakespeare. I think I liked seeing different interpretations of the same material. I love that about design as well. If you give people the same source material, each result will be completely different.
KW: What were your favorite projects from SpotCo? Did you have much artistic freedom?
EW: My favorite has to be one of the last projects I did there, The Last Ship. For some reason, we had tons of time to work on it. It was around the holidays; maybe that had something to do with it. But in any case, I and two other designers had weeks to work on it (which is rare), so we just kept making comps. We were all painting things, which I hadn’t really done before, and really pushing it. It was a lot of fun. And the producer on that show has a great, artistic eye and vision for what he wanted, but it wasn’t a limited vision so we had a lot of room to create.
Our Creative Director, Vinny Sainato, gave us a huge amount of freedom, and just the right amount of direction. All the designers I worked with were pretty exceptional. There was a lot of mutual trust and respect in our department and for me, working with amazing people really kept me on my toes and wanting to pull my weight. My work improved a lot as a result.
KW: How would you describe your style? Your process?
EW: It’s evolved a lot over the past few years. I can’t seem to stick to any routine, so it varies a lot too. Sometimes I do lots of research, reading, looking for reference imagery. Sometimes ideas simmer in the back of my mind and now I know from experience if they will work out or not. Then I sit and start to make things and it comes out quickly. It took many years of trial and error to get to this point, and I still do go down some blind alleys. Many times, I have one kernel of a thought, I start to make something, and it turns into something else, and the act of making also very often leads to other ideas.
As far as style, I don’t think I have one. But I think I have a sensibility. As an historically shy person, I hope that my work is un-shy.
KW: What are your favorite types of projects?
EW: I like to do things that are different stylistically or technically from things I’ve done before. And I like to work with my hands if I can. I do a lot of brush type these days, and I like to do calligraphy. I like buying different pens and trying them out. Sometimes I cut paper, gouge wood. For a project I’m working on, I am trying to create insects out of cloth. Not sure it’s going to work out, but it’s fun to try.
KW: Do you have any desire to create motion-based projects?
EW: I did some in school, and realized I was not good at it. But I have collaborated on commercials based on key art I’ve designed, which I enjoyed and would like to do again.
KW: What’s currently on your reading list?
EW: I’ve been full time freelancing for a little over a year. I’m currently reading The Money Book. It’s about setting up a financial system for freelancers.
KW: Why did you decide to go freelance? And what have been the greatest pleasures and challenges?
EW: Things were changing at SpotCo, and I had been there for four years, so I felt I wanted to try something different. The freedom is great. I’m not a person who can easily maintain a daily routine so taking the obligation of showing up to work every morning was very freeing. I like making my own decisions about time. That said, time management is one of the greatest challenges. As a freelancer, you have to do EVERYTHING yourself. And I prefer to do things myself, but time management becomes the boulder you push up the hill every day.
KW: What designers/artists to you look to for inspiration?
EW: I believe anything you see anywhere that makes an impression can be inspiring.
The last Valentino couture show was amazing. I look at lots of type and lettering artists: great technicians like Doyald Young, Mortimer Leach, Herb Lubalin, Louise Fili; contemporary artists like Dan Cassaro, Simon Walker, Kate Moross and Ken Barber.
Photography is really inspiring, especially when designing for theater. Erwin Olaf, Frank Ockenfels. Today I’m looking at David Slade, who is DP for tv and movies, but has a beautiful, creepy style.
Most of the people I work with are super creative and have great vision. I find that very inspiring.
KW: What have you learned from teaching Graphic Design?
EW: I am still in the infant stages of learning to teach design, so I haven’t come to a lot of hard-won insights. Design (especially typography) is an elusive, slippery thing and sometimes seems like something not to be talked about, only to be done. Yet here we are talking about it. And we have to as a way to perpetuate it and to learn about how things are perceived by others. I suppose that’s the only way it can work. I’ll be sure to ask myself this question again.
KW: What skills are needed to become successful in the field? What advice do you have for students on how to break into the field?
Learn to see.
Do good work (Good work opens doors).
Be a pleasure to work with.
KW: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
EW: “Go too far.” The first person I ever worked for as a design intern (Darren Cox, CD at SpotCo) told me this. And I say it now in my classes too. If you go too far, you can always walk it back, but if you haven’t gone far enough, it will never be good. Milton Glaser has said, “Just enough is more.” Sometime you have to go past “just enough” to see the line and head back. And there are really no consequences to going too far in design, especially if you’re in a supportive and creative environment. I sense that a lot of students are afraid to go too far or afraid of breaking “the rules.” I think it’s good to take rules with a grain of salt.
KW: Kathryn Weinstein, Associate Professor, Graphic Design, Art Department, Queens College, CUNY
EW: Esther Wu