Analog Girl in a Digital World | Nike Designer Jennet Liaw
DateDecember 16, 2016
As we move into a more digital society, design is becoming more important by the day. Designer/illustrator Jennet Liaw is redefining how we view the world with her striking designs that are shifting the way we perceive brands. Her down-to-earth personality, paired with the dreamy visual landscapes she creates, has earned her a pretty solid following. We had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Liaw about her endeavors as a designer at Nike, her upbringing in the Bay Area, and more. Read the full interview below.
Tell us about yourself and what drew you to the world of design. Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you realized you wanted to pursue this craft?
Since day one, drawing has given me a sense of self. As a soft-spoken kid, I was still able to have a strong presence, via art. While others were more easily identified by how they were – loud, brainy, smelly – I’ve always been defined by what I did. I received payment in Pokemon cards for illustrating my classmates’ book reports, and made up for weak participation points by redesigning teachers’ coursework to become more visually appealing.
My response to everything, from my desires to struggles, was always to make something. When I was 12, I taught myself Photoshop 6.0, which, firstly, gave me street cred as your go-to girl for a tricked-out Xanga. More importantly, it helped me start to put the pages of my sketchbook into perspective with the world around me.
This is not to say, though, that deciding to place the weight of a career path on an “intense hobby”, as it was seen then, was without a lot of fight. But I was aware early on that design brought out the boldest side of my otherwise soft-spoken self; Every part of me since then has aimed to match that boldness, to pursue design by whatever independent means it would take.
Where did you grow up, and did your upbringing influence your career?
I’m a Bay Area kid, born and raised. Eventually I’ve moved up and down the West coast, as well as overseas for school and work. I can’t say that my environment necessarily nurtured my design career goals, but it definitely shaped the kind of designer I became. If LA is flashy, and NYC quick and cutthroat, the Bay that I knew was steady, and deep. From the moody hills to the underground music scene, I draw a lot of inspiration from the tone of my hometown. But the Silicon Valley also has an intensity beneath the surface that really affected the way I dealt with pressure. The expectations in our first-generation bubble were narrow and extreme. Each year, some statistic would coldly inform us how high we ranked nationally, for academic pressure-related suicides. I created my own world, and escape, in art and design. In it, I knew I wasn’t competing for the sake of competition or doing things to fit in. I stayed conscious of what I truly liked and didn’t like, and I just never stopped drawing.
Describe your typical day.
I have yet to read an interview about someone else whose only agenda in the early a.m. is sleep. My mornings exist solely as the consequence of late-night doodling. No yoga, no insta-worthy homemade breakfast. Fortunately, the tree-lined commute from my Portland apartment to Nike world HQ in Beaverton serves as my detox. 9:00 AM: I arrive. My schedule at work is any combination of meetings, reviewing samples, fitting garments, and of course, concepting and design time. 5:30pm: I pack up, and squeeze in a workout to split up the day. After cooking dinner at home or going out for pho, I gear up to get back in the zone by 9:00pm. This ‘night-shift’ is critical for my sanity. I give myself this time to connect with people as an a freelance artist, to build on my individuality. It keeps my creative momentum going, and gives me the satisfaction of shipping work on my own terms. Midnight is my zone, 2am is my limit, and my head hits the pillow when I’m content.
“Put in those unseen hours. Get comfortable with yourself in the quiet. Especially with social media now inevitably playing some role in our self-perception, it’s easy to accomplish likes before accomplishing anything real…which is a bearable reality if we stay conscious of which of these has true longevity. “
How do you tackle a creative block when illustrating/designing?
There is something to be said about the power of a taking a walk. A good stroll out in the sun, rain, whatever – just out – has set the scene for so many perfect solves to situations that had me running in circles for days. Even if my mind wanders while I’m away from my desk, that’s the point. You never know how the dots might connect. Every detour is part of reaching the destination.
As for being stumped with coming up with content for self-authored work, I’m all about prevention – a shorthand list of thoughts, puns, and questions, is something I always have on hand so I can scribble down the gist of it, right when the idea strikes. A peek into my recent bullets: Life is but a meme. F*** luck. Colonize the colonizer. Butt first. Nike(s). Carmen.
How did you get your start as a designer for Nike?
The actual start isn’t especially enlightening to share – I got tapped by a Nike recruiter, visited, eventually accepted and made the move from LA to Portland. But to put it into context, this all went down during a time in my career when I stopped over-analyzing whether everything I did was putting me on the “right” track to becoming the best designer.
In those two years, post-epiphany and pre-Nike, a lot of my career dreams became a reality, and I was approached by brands that I wouldn’t have known how to approach myself. I attribute this to simply blurring out what everybody else was up to, so that I could build on what makes me unique as a designer – my tone, style, even my gut. I’m not even close to being the best at Illustrator, or any tool for that matter, but I’m the only one around who can be me. That level of cheese is painful for me to write out, but truly, the people that seek you out for who you are as a creator, as opposed to for your skill level, become the best working relationships.
Can you tell us about some of your favorite career moments?
Nothing really beats seeing your work out there functioning in the world. I can’t say, though, that any one design has been more exciting than others to catch in the wild. Each time I bump into one, it’s a reminder that the things we dream up can tangibly enter another human’s life, that it might even become integral to them, and that maybe sometimes it’s a lesson learned, if said human has chosen to peel off the branding or something. The invisibility of the designer is something I really enjoy, so the biggest moments for me are quiet and not at all glamorous. My favorite moments in general are the ones that inspire me to keep designing.
Tell us about someone who was a great mentor to you and why.
My grandfather is the only one who comes to mind. He is so innately creative. Three values that he drilled into me:
1. Solutions are made, not discovered.
2. We have everything we need when we are clever and;
3. Complaining is just.. not even a thing.
To clarify, he’s never actually verbalized any of these. He would show me by repairing every broken hinge, every appliance without ever stepping foot into an Ace; by building me everything I associate now with a happy childhood such as stools to watch the sunset together; and by being the most colorful storyteller, instead of the victim of a past filled with unfathomable hardships that he actually is. When I struggle with navigating through the noise in my adult life, I know by example that it can always be distilled to the simple, hardworking, and positive.
Is there anything you really want to pursue in the next 5 years?
I have a rambling list of things I want to tackle in design and product creation. But outside of that, I’ve always itched to affect arts education in public schools. I know that sounds either like a monstrously daunting thing to take on, or just completely left field, because I have no particular knack for instruction. It stems from my personal journey, and my memory of how creativity was presented to us during our most formative years – looking back, it does frustrate me. We all know how it is. Art is a throwaway class. Anyone can bull their way to an A, but what if creativity were presented early on as a powerful tool instead of just a trait? How many young artists would then have the opportunity to layer purpose into their talent, instead of shy away from the subject because ambition isn’t associated with “artsy-ness?” As an artist that had no plans to starve, I had to be excessively stubborn with teachers, and even guidance counselors, in order to discover that becoming a designer was even an option, and a respectable one at that. I want to bring my experience and heart to this cause at some point, and ideally save at least a few creative souls from suppressing something the world could really benefit from.
What advice do you have for aspiring graphic designers?
Put in those unseen hours. Get comfortable with yourself in the quiet. Especially with social media now inevitably playing some role in our self-perception, it’s easy to accomplish likes before accomplishing anything real…which is a bearable reality if we stay conscious of which of these has true longevity. There will always be more sweat behind something than is visible, and more rejection and failure than will ever be shared. So let yourself be alone with your work, and make sure you have defined what your art is to you before it gets defined by the masses.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH means redefining femininity. Feminine is bright, fearless, forward-thinking and ever-forward-moving. Don’t blink.
Photos by: Nesrin Danan