Jimmy Chen

Jimmy Chen

Jimmy Chen

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on July /files/includes/10.css, 2001

Digital Web: Jimmy, could you start out by telling us a little bit about your background?
Chen: Hi Nick. Well, my father was the first one who first taught me how to draw cars and building. He was a very inspirational guy. He was an architect, and I wanted to be just like him. As I got older, I got into drawing and art. Then I went to Univ of South Carolina as an Art Major, then changed to PreMed. That definitely didn’t work out at all. So I went back being an Art major. Then I moved to California. Changed to Architecture major, did that for 2 years. But due to the Californian economy, I switched to Design. That was back in 1992. Graduated from Cal Poly in Pomona 2-1/2 years afterwards. Then started my career in the field of design.


Digital Web: What first pulled you into the realm of web design?
Chen: Pretty much by accident. I was bored at my first job while I was working in an office job in Burbank as a designer in the health industry. Got hooked up with an internet connection at work, started surfing with text browsers, then eventually got Mosaic from one of those Internet books. I sort of have short attention span, so I thought that suited me well. Then I entered my first web contest with NBC, I submitted a wacky home page and I won first prize, came home with a new tv. And I thought, wow, that was cool. So I kept going with learning and designing. Looked at sites that were out there, and learn how to write HTML code.


Digital Web: Could you tell us how you made the transition from doing traditional design in Burbank for the health care industry, to doing web design in Los Angeles for MTV and Elektra Records? How did you manage this transition?
Chen: Sort of explained that in the last response. After the job in that health care company, I applied for a job as a Creative Director in a company in Venice California. I guess because there weren’t that many designers who knew how to do web stuff and then code, I got the job pretty easily. After I started working there. I was lucky enough to do anything I want with anything. Things like redesigning the company web site every month. They also had record company clients, so I got to work in the music industry. Their clients were great too, they put their sites in our hand and we were able to design incredible sites for them. Then as time went by, I was recommended by my previous clients to other record labels and I got to do more work.


Digital Web: What kind of formal background do you have in design? I know you went to medical school but it didn’t go over well for you… to be honest, I would have a hard time thinking of you as Doctor Chen.
Chen: Graduated with an Art Major degree. Yes, that PreMed thing definitely didn’t work out, because I flunked out of school. I could never be a Doctor Chen. Good god.


Digital Web: Have you ever considered teaching typography?
Chen: Nah, that would be pretty bad. I mean, teaching would be pretty cool, sharing is a cool thing to do. And letting others learn faster through my trial and errors. Teaching takes discipline, I don’t have any. : )


Digital Web: In your opinion, what can schools do to improve the effectiveness of their New Media curricula
Chen: I don’t really know what’s going on in schools. Personally, I don’t think it’s the schools that need improvement, it’s the designers. They’ve got to have motivation. That’s something they can’t teach in schools.


Digital Web: You mentioned that most of your graphic design training “came from” TV and not school. You’re not alone there, because the same is true of me. Why do you think traditional schooling is not as effective as being immersed in the media?
Chen: I am sure that educational system in the “New media” has improved, but to be in the middle of something can get things going. Things such as television and /files/includes/print.css, there are inspiration everywhere. And if there’s time to spare, then it’s easy to be influenced by those masters that are in those fields. Going to school sort of lets you learn about fundamentals of design, but once getting out and into the real world, being immersed with all the chaos can sometimes lead a designer to their “path.”


Digital Web: Tell us what the phrase, “Design is not type,” means to you.
Chen: Design is not type… type is not design. That doesn’t sound right. Type is part of a design system. How can one say that the type face that was chosen for a page layout won’t affect the way the design looks. And how about a designer who designed a logo with type. Crazy talk. They are pretty much complimentary to each other.


Digital Web: Typography is an art form of its own, and you seem to have a certain talent with the expression of typography in that light. With this in mind, can you tell us what made you decide to focus your creative energy on type?
Chen: Well, that’s luck. It’s really caused by a series of circumstances. I really like type. I doodle letters for a long time, don’t ask me why. I never really thought that I would do anything like designing typefaces. (not that I could ever make a career out of that) I licensed 2 typefaces to T-26 and I think I sold 3 of them. They are not the prettiest, or even presentable, but I did them and I enjoyed doing that. I had more, but I just gave up because it just took so much time. I still doodle typefaces, but those are just sitting in my sketchbook.

But back to the question… I don’t know why I focused on type. Maybe it’s because of the form(s) the letters created. I just love them.


Digital Web: How did Typographic come into being as a web site? Did you have an epiphany, or was it something you always wanted to do?
Chen: Hee hee, I prefer not to answer this question. : )

Just call that luck.


Digital Web: With Typographic’s success at the Flash Film Festival, are you going to be speaking at FlashForward2001?
Chen: I did, I spoke with Brendan Dawes about After Effects and Flash. More or less about integrating bitmaps with a vector application. It was pretty cool… I totally bombed.


Digital Web: Could you name the typographers who most inspire you, and why? You’ve mentioned David Carson specifically, and I’m especially curious about that.
Chen: Well, definitely Barry Deck. I managed to find him about 5 or 6 years ago from a web site and emailed him. It was pretty random, he probably think that I was a freak. Basically, I just thanked him for his inspirations. Neville Brody is also another great designer. And when I saw him speak at Fuse98, it was inspirational. And Vaughan Oliver, Why Not Associates, Scott Makela etc.


Digital Web: Aside from beer, what inspirations of yours haven’t we discussed?
Chen: What, beer is not enough?


Digital Web: What are your favorite families, faces, and fonts?
Chen: Heh… Bodoni. That is my favorite. Got everything, straight lines, and curves. A very beautiful typeface. Others that I like are Gill Sans, Frutiger, Optima… lately, I’ve been getting into Verdana.


Digital Web: Have you ever crafted your own fonts? If so, can we get a peek?
Chen: I can get you a jpg/gif of them. They are kind of old though, did them between 95 – 96. One note though… I just moved, and my computers are not set up yet. Maybe take a couple of days.


Digital Web: How would you define creativity, personally?
Chen: It’s an expression based on the combination of emotions, experimentations and experiences. Triple E’s.


Digital Web: In your own words, what is beauty in design?
Chen: Composition, with or without interactivity. If a design is static and still be beautiful in a few months (I am just being realistic)… then it’s cool. Sometimes people get caught in the trends of design, but after a while, it becomes /files/includes/date.cssd. Beautiful designs can stand the test of time.


Digital Web: What would you point out as good examples of effective typography in design?
Chen: Sorry, but the first thing I thought of was street signs. It communicates.


Digital Web: Where do you see typography on the web two years from now, especially in regard to the problems web designers face when it comes to specifying type in their designs?
Chen: I think there’s always going to be problems. It’s probably the evolution that designers will have to go through. If something is self-contained, like Flash without any dynamic content, then yes, it’ll be in control.


Digital Web: Could you describe to us what happens on a typical day at your job?
Chen: Crap… sit there in front of my computers. Watch Comedy Central, Food TV, Headline News, History Channel, The Simpsons, some day time crap movie… while working. I force people that’s in the room to watch what I watch. That’s not so bad. Don’t forget the working part. And then, happy hour at 6:30pm.


Digital Web: You’ve mentioned that your work on typography conveys personal information about yourself. It seems like you are really using the web and typography as a means of communicating with art alone. Could you point out some examples and the messages behind them?
Chen: Back when I was able to do that. Type, color, time, and motion does help to express my message without being too obvious about it. It does serve as a personal diary… you don’t let people read your diary do you? So now that’s it’s online, it based on interpretation. And that’s pretty much it.


Digital Web: If there’s something you could say to the next generation of web designers and typographers, what would it be?
Chen: Be brave, don’t be afraid to fail.


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Related Topics: Typography, Motion Graphics, Web Guru

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.