Jennet Liaw


The 9 Verbs of Jennet Liaw

 / knowing / Drawing to Figure Things Out 

Emerline: I recently came across your talk online and heard a little bit of your back story. You mentioned that you weren't really living in a creatively supportive environment?

Jennet: So, I'm from the Bay Area... and I know that looking at SF today, there's a thriving creative and start up environment for young people. But when I was younger, I felt it was all about making it big. No one really looked at my artistic abilities and encouraged me to explore... They were more like, "Stop drawing..." But drawing was the best way I knew how to express myself! Even when I needed to solve a science or math problem, I would need to create my own symbols and draw to figure things out. No one else understood them, but it made so much sense to me. So I kept going with it.

Emerline: When you were younger, did you actually think about doing design specifically or were you not sure?

Jennet: I knew for myself that design was what I needed to do. Nothing else made much sense to me. There's a lot of aspiring designers that will say, "I don't know if I should do this..." I was really really sure in a way that would freak other people out. People would question how I could be so sure that I wanted to do something that was considered unstable and full of uncertainty. But I was weird... because I knew I had to do it. It didn't make sense that I wouldn't pursue it.

 / believing /  

Those Far Away Individuals

Emerline: If you didn't have a creative community around you... I assume that the Internet played a big role in all of this?

Jennet: Yea. I would see individuals online that were really not from where I was from. They had done so many amazing things and seemed so far away. They weren't the kind of people that I encountered in my daily life, but I saw that they were out there. I think that without the Internet, I wouldn't have been so brave about pursuing this career path... just because everyone else around me was always discouraging me from being serious about it. The Internet made me believe strongly in myself and that it was possible.

Emerline: I find it funny that when you're at that age and you say you know what you want to do... everyone starts questioning you. Once people are older, they're always talking about how they wish they had known what they wanted earlier in their lives. Even though I'm still young, I sometimes regret that I sat and pondered too much about my own interests. Setting your mind to something earlier seems like it would get you there a little earlier.

Jennet: I actually don't think that there's necessarily a timeline. When someone decides that they want to pursue art or design now versus when they were younger... I don't think that there's any real loss. It's more about that moment and spark that you know something. More power to all those people who have moments like that.
Everyone else around me was always discouraging me from being serious about it. The Internet made me believe strongly in myself that it was possible.

/ pushing / Picture Yourself There

Emerline: From there, you went to UCSD and studied studio art... and it wasn't exactly what you thought it would be. What was that disconnect like?

Jennet: Looking back now, I'm actually really glad that it's not exactly where I wanted to be. I think that since I didn't go to design school, I was able to escape the reality of just being another design student in a pool of other design students. My mindset became extremely different. I had all the freedom to explore in every direction versus competing for the top against my peers. I could wander and had the room to figure out what I wanted to be. (Laughing) I knew it wasn't what they were making me do.

I think the right amount of competition gave me balance between freedom and direction. At the time, I was really sad that I couldn't go to design school... but looking back now... I think it was a good thing.

Emerline: I think that's true for a lot things outside of design too... So then you know that gap people face when they're not 100% sure on how to get started? How did you deal with that?

Jennet: Well, I was really hungry to get work. You know those self-help tapes that tell you that if you want to make it on time to an appointment that you should picture yourself being on time there? Versus... just trying to get there. I think that was the mentality I had - "I want to make this." And everything in between, I would force it into place so that I could make my visions come true. I would have an image of what I wanted to do next, push for it, look for the right people, and hold onto whatever it was that I could get.

Steps start to fall into place if you just ask. People are always asking me about what classes or lessons they should take... and I'm like, "Don't think of it as clear linear steps." To me... that's not how it works. You want to make this amazing thing that you're going to be really proud of? Then figure the sh*t out in the middle! It's in the middle that you'll start to learn along the way. Besides that... I don't have good advice for people. (Laughing)

Emerline: I think that's all true. Especially for people working in the creative industries... There's no step-by-step plan that'll get you that unique style of your own.

Jennet: Yea... and I'm sure you feel that too with your writing and projects!

Emerline: Exactly!

/ streamlining / How Time Passes

Emerline: One of the things that I've been really interested in is the habits that help people grow and push towards their next step. It's one thing to wake up and try to develop a mindset, but it's another thing to put it into daily action and to make it happen. How do you personally go about making things happen?

Jennet: As a freelancer, you're acutely aware of how time passes. I think it's totally different when you're full-time because you can just be sitting there waiting for lunch. As a freelancer, what if lunch becomes 4pm and you haven't finished that thing? I think it took me a year to really learn how to structure myself to be productive. Everyone is different. For me, I started doing simple but effective changes like saying, "Before 9 don't go on e-mail... because if not it makes you stressed." You have to create actions for yourself that fuel you productively. I'll post about something I'm working on on Instagram. It's quick feedback, but it's a win because that keeps me going.

Emerline:: Like keeping yourself accountable?

Jennet: Yea... in a half personal and half public sort of way. From a freelance perspective, you need to figure out what motivates you and forces you to kick yourself! It's a struggle. It's not like everyday is super productive... because it's not.

Emerline: People seem to assume that freelancers just eat and work from home!

Jennet: I hate that!

Emerline: It's actually a lot harder because you don't have someone looming over your head telling you what to do.

Jennet: Yea, you have to be super concious all the time.

Emerline: It's yourself looming over yourself. (Laughing)

Jennet: "Turn off the Internet right now!"
You want to make this amazing thing that you’re going to be really proud of? Then figure the sh*t out in the middle! It’s in the middle that you’ll start to learn along the way.


Emerline: How did you start working for Pure Fix Cycles?

Jennet: It was kind of funny how it happened... I was living in San Diego at the time and it was a full year of... a total rut. I was feeling like how I felt when I was younger. Nobody really understood me. People would say, "Oh, she's the artsy one. She designs... She's good." But it didn't matter because I didn't truly have an identity as a designer. So I decided to change my environment and move to L.A. I didn't need to have the most amazing job... I just needed a change in pace.

I went around getting interviewed at a lot of great design firms. Throughout that time, I randomly applied to a scrap designer position at a bicycle company. And then that very day, this guy called me saying, "Yo, do you want to drop by?" And I said... "All right." (Laughing) I was literally apartment hunting with my friend. She came with me to their warehouse because she needed to use the bathroom and I was in regular clothes! But as soon as I walked into the warehouse, I said to myself, "This. Is. AWESOME." I knew and felt that there was potential with them. All the other design firms I had been interviewing with already had great clients. At Pure Fix, I felt that I could really change the place and that they were open to it.

Emerline: Did you feel like it was a cool place, but it needed some... improvements? (Laughing)

Jennet: It was more that I felt that they had the right mindset. I think it's really important to work with people who have the same level of energy as you or higher... than to work with very accomplished people. I totally said "no" to all the great studios and came into Pure Fix where they were coming in and out with their skateboards and dogs! (Laughing) They told me, "We move fast. We're on Forbes 30 under 30..."

Emerline: They really sold themselves to you!

Jennet: Yea! But they didn't really have to... There was just an equal level of excitement about creating things. That was fun. It was a good experience.

Emerline: Were you more excited or were you afraid at all of taking on a job in the middle of chaos? You said you were apartment hunting, moving...

Jennet: (Laughing) Yea, everything was in the air! I was living on my friend's couch for the first week when I was just getting on the job. I was just happy that they let me bring my dog to work.

But... and I don't want this to come off as sounding arrogant in any way. But no... I've never been fearful even if it's a really big company. I get in this blinders mode saying to myself, "I'm going do it... and it's going to be the best thing... I don't care what it takes, I am going to make you guys look GOOD." As soon as I went into Pure Fix, I started listing all the things that I wanted to do for them and they felt that mutual energy and emotional investment from me too.

Emerline: Hm... You said you wanted to improve things... what were they?

Jennet: I mainly had ideas for packaging and presenting the product. They had a great product and I knew that they were very good business minded people. So I just knew that I would be the one that would help other people see that too by translating it all visually. There were a lot of layers of what I had to do. After meetings, I would keep bringing up ways on how to keep the brand more cohesive and what little tweaks to make to the foundation of the brand - like the logo. I created a style guide for them, three years after they started, so that things could always be more consistent. I directed photoshoots too. Those were just some of the first steps.

/ crafting / PROCESS, STYLE, & VOICE

Emerline: You mentioned more than once that you were hungry to do good work. How do you maintain that hunger? Was it enough to be around other good people to keep you going?

Jennet: Well... I definitely wasn't satisfied with where I was was... Even though, I knew that they were the best company and people that I could work for at the time. I was freelancing the whole time that I was working there and I wanted to make cool things, work with more people. I was working so much. After work, I would go to a café and I would work some more until 11pm, go home and knock out... wake up at 6 and then go to work... go to café... repeat. All of my conference calls and my freelance plans had to start right at 6! (Laughing)

Emerline: In your freelance and company work, what do you try to generally express?

Jennet: There's a quote that says, "Good design is invisible." If I were to characterize myself as a designer, I'd definitely like to be clean but human and have a personality. I feel that even if it's a client's project, my personality does come through even in the smallest way. I always try to present something extra. There's a lot of great designers out there and to compete... to be "the best" designer is really dull to me... You come to a point that you want to be YOU as a designer.

Emerline: What is it like to find your own style and voice as a designer?

Jennet: I think great design is always in the editing. I really don't think that each person's style comes in the creation process because I think that becomes habit. If you don't take time in the editing phase for yourself then you'll never really grow because you'll just stick to the same habits. I spend a lot of time crafting my visual voice, self-reviewing. It's still changing.


Emerline: What happened after Pure Fix?

Jennet: Pure Fix was growing so fast. They had just expanded to Europe and they were about to hire designers under me. I was already acting as a creative director with an intern. But at the same time, I could see that there were so many opportunities on the freelance side of things. I was getting offers from Apple, television shows, and many other places. I just felt that it was time to move on. Pure Fix knew that I was growing and they were so great and understanding about my decision. We talked and they were like, "Go grow!" We were all super sad and crying! I let them know that I just wanted to grow as a designer, but that I really loved working there.

After Pure Fix, I just dived into freelance.

Emerline: How long have you been freelancing then?

Jennet: I've been freelancing for about a year and a half now.

Emerline: Wow! So when did you start your shop, Fictional Supply?

Jennet: I launched it at the beginning of this year January 2015. I don't think a lot of people know, but it's something that I've been wanting to do since college... that was before I even knew what I was going to be doing! I've just always wanted have my own thing to just own as my baby! I would've started it a lot earlier, but I felt that there were so many expectations with the more followers I gained online. Simultaneously, there were so many people that I found stealing my work. Even right now, I'm always finding t-shirts and merchandise that other people are selling without my permission. They were selling in a way that I was not happy about and not how I would curate or present my work. It set me back a good two years.

Emerline: How do you plan to battle the imposters? Any legal measures?

Jennet: I'm still struggling with that a lot... because the Internet is weird. The way things are now are on the web and on Instagram, people selling things, makes it complicated. I'd have to send out letters every morning if I really wanted to deal with every instance of it. But it's such a negative energy that I don't do it. I know that people are selling my stuff still, but I've decided not to let that get to me. I was feeling like the most robbed designer of 2015 (Laughing)

Emerline: Man! I'm really sorry to hear that. I have a friend who's also an illustrator that is constantly struggling with people stealing her work.

Jennet: Yea... I want to be part of the movement that works to battle and educate on that topic. Some people just don't understand fully what they're doing when they're posting my work on their own accounts.

Emerline: Would you say that your shop and brand will evolve with your growth as a designer?

Jennet: I think that it's evolving right now. I'm trying to build a brand that I wish existed in the world for myself. It hasn't reached that level yet, but it's a starting space for me.
I think great design is always in the editing. I really don’t think that each person’s style comes in the creation process because I think that becomes habit. If you don’t take time in the editing phase for yourself then you’ll never really grow... I spend a lot of time crafting my visual voice, self-reviewing... and it’s still changing.


Emerline: Another thing that I wanted to talk about with you is curation.

Jennet: It's such an odd word isn't it? Curation?

Emerline: (Laughing) It is... What's it like using Instagram as a channel for communicating your work and curating it all? How do you maintain just the right amount of versatility?

Jennet: I definitely think about that a lot. There's so many different perspectives that people capture about their lifestyle on Instagram: food, dogs, etc. Then there's also people on the other side who are using Instagram for marketing purposes and there's also others who will post drawings consistently that are very very similar. This is all great! But... you can't get a large amount of people to follow you if you're posting content that is too similar in style! If people followed you based on that one style of content, then you'll feel obligated to that one style. For me, I think about how to be balanced. I don't want my Instagram to be a place to self indulge, but I do want it to be a place that generally portrays my actual life. If I'm posting a lot of work it's because that's mostly what I'm doing, literally sitting in a coffee shop working... Even then, I don't want to just post lettering all the time because it's not what my life is completely consisted of...

Emerline: I tend to think pretty positively about using the Internet to display your work and getting it out there because I feel that it was much harder in the past to get your work out there.

Jennet: Yea, slower and a different audience for sure.


Emerline: The last thing that I wanted to talk about was the idea of validation. What do you do to stay grounded and not get distracted by short-term social media feedback? Not just posting for the sake of being followed and things along that line.

Jennet: I think I've just always known what I wanted. A lot of younger creative people in college and high school, they'll look to Instagram for inspiration... but when I started out I didn't have that. I had these amazing designers and studios who were very true to themselves and who had made very solid achievements and covered a significant amount of ground in the realm of design: Pentagram, Interbrand, Olly Moss, Jessica Hische, Erik Marinovich, Jessica Walsh ... People and studios that... it doesn't matter if their Instagram dies. They are so amazing at what they do. Those are the people and the world that I'd like to feel empowered by. Not from Instagram. I'm proud when someone I really admire reaches out to me because that's when I feel like I've made it.

Emerline: You're the first designer that I've interviewed... and one of the main reasons that I reached out to you was because starting last year, I became obsessed with reading and listening to designers talk about their careers and work. I ended up devouring The Great Discontent and also regularly listen to podcasts like Design Matters. I'm always extremely inspired by how committed designers are to their world and craft.

Jennet: That's so cool! Yea... that's the world I grew up in.

Emerline: What're you working on these days that's exciting to you?

Jennet: A lot of the stuff that I can tell my mom about and that she's proud of (Laughing) is some work that I've done for Apple and FOX last year. But... the ones that I feel are the most fun for me are with person to person collaboration, building off of each others excitement. I like to definitely sprinkle that into my life. I've been working a lot with Wong Fu Productions since they need a lot of graphic work for their movies. It helps that I know them personally because I know what they need and what they're looking for... It's great as a freelancer. I never know what I'll be working on in the next couple months. The freelancing life is definitely not for everyone. (Laughing)

Emerline: Where do you want to take your brand for the next year?

Jennet: Fictional Supply and I are not the same thing. I don't want the brand to be tied too much to me. It's already going to be picked up in a few stores, but I'd like it to be at a strong place where I can present it effectively. For my personal brand, I just want to be working with cooler and cooler people. I think that when I was younger it wasn't as celebrated to be an independent designer. It was all about the studio and I thought that I needed to go into a studio. Maybe I will someday, but I think it's pretty exciting that big companies want to hire individual designers. I want to be an Asian American woman that's making it on my own, you know? It drives me more than anything. It makes me very determined to show that I am serious about what I do and that I can stand alone.

Emerline: The one word that really caught my attention in your talk was the word "caliber." I think it's really admirable that as an Asian American woman, you're really going after what you want.

Jennet: Yea, I think that this is our time! I really do.
I think that this is our time! I really do.

All pictured works in this post were created by Jennet Liaw. 

You can follow her work on DribbbleFictional SupplyInstagram, & Facebook Twitter .