Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram

Poppy Thaxter
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Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram

With studies in illustration and design forming her focus, LA-based creative Janny Ji enjoys switching between both disciplines, depending on the challenge. Her ability to utilise both mindsets is something that has helped immensely throughout her practice, providing a broader and unique perspective. In our conversation, Ji shares her creative experience and journey, from the variety of projects she’s completed working with design and illustration, to her role at TBWA\Media Arts Lab.

PT Hi Janny, how’s everything going?

JJ Hi! So nice to hear from you! It’s been quite busy recently. 

PT Following your degree in illustration, what led your decision to pursue a Master’s in graphic design? 

JJ I have had a deep interest in drawing since a very young age. I was a nerdy kid that loved observing the surroundings and visualising ideas into images. This led to my decision to transfer to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) after being an economics student for a freshman year. RISD has a great illustration programme that helps illustrators to build their own style, voice and approach to stand out within the industry. 

And it was then I realised that instead of having a strong consistent personal illustration style or approach, I’m more interested in switching styles to find the best solution in response to the situation or challenge.

During my first year out of college, I immersed myself in books, talks and the history of graphic design, along with a daytime job as a marketing designer in a tech company. Very soon, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in graphic design.  

Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram

Besides storytelling, my experience in illustration also trained me with a focus on form-making.

PT Would you say your experience with illustration helps your approach to graphic design, and vice-versa? What can the two mediums learn from each other? 

JJ Yes, for sure! To me, these two disciplines are like two close friends that support and enhance each other all the time. 

Both illustration and graphic design have a focus on storytelling. When working on illustrations, we tell stories through images. When working on graphic design projects, the means are even broader. The idea can be conveyed via a combination of illustration, typography, animation, logomark, space, object, etc. Besides storytelling, my experience in illustration also trained me with a focus on form-making. This aspect is very valuable when it comes to typography and typeface design. 

Vice-versa, the experience with graphic design really teaches me how to think systematically – starting with a big picture/a core idea and then filling the kits of parts. This helps me to always have the context in mind when switching gears to illustration which is very important to the creative process.

The rebrand of the Moravian University is an exciting project I did at Pentagram that can be a good example of how illustration and graphic design work seamlessly together. The identity system is thorough and comprehensive. Our team created a system that encompasses a customised wordmark along with the Moravian star symbol, a bold and functional typographic layout system, a timeless University seal, a special via Lucis wordmark, a welcoming illustrated mascot, and many more. This gave me the opportunity to work both on the graphic design and illustration sides of the identity system.

PT What was the biggest learning curve for you when you entered the industry?

JJ I think my time at Pentagram – working on Abbott Miller’s team and Luke Hayman’s team was definitely the biggest learning curve for me. The teams have a range of exciting clients (American Express, Platoon, The Motley Fool, University of Chicago, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, etc) that provided me with the opportunity of creating brand identities for a variety of industries. A lot of the time, we worked as a small team on projects that were big and challenging. I was able to constantly step out of my comfort zone and push boundaries.

Being part of every phase of the project is extremely valuable to me. From researching to conceptualising creative directions, from presenting creative ideas to making brand guidelines, every aspect of the process helped me to grow quickly. It is also amazing to be working with a group of incredibly talented people in the industry and to be supporting and inspiring each other, especially when teams collaborate on projects. 

Netflix Queue is an ongoing editorial collaboration between Luke Hayman and Emily Oberman’s teams. Designers from both teams work on aspects encompassing art direction, art commission, photoshoots, motion graphics, visual concepts and editorial design for the Queue journal. We had multiple meetings every week to discuss and share the creative process and to present the ideas to the clients. I learned a lot during my time there and got to understand the business, the creative process, and the industry a lot more.

Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram

When working under limitations and constraints, the most exciting outcomes always happen.

PT Throughout your career, which project has been the most rewarding to work on?

JJ There are quite a few projects that are pretty rewarding to me. One project that was very unique is a social campaign project called Neighbourhoods Now. During the COVID pandemic in 2020, the Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute initiated the campaign to help struggling small businesses in NYC with their reopening strategies. Our team at Pentagram was teamed up with the 82 Street Partnership in Jackson Heights, a diverse immigrant neighbourhood in Queens. The challenge for the project was to develop something that would work across language and culture, and that was friendly, engaging and helpful, without looking too ‘official.’ The timeframe of the project was very tight – we had to ideate, execute and produce in less than two weeks. 

Our team did thorough research to learn about the neighbourhood and to understand the actual needs of the business owners and came up with a series of multilingual posters as a solution. The posters incorporate fun creatures without race or gender, bright colours, cheerful graphics and bold typography to outline COVID-19 safety requirements in an inviting and digestible way. The project went surprisingly well. And I think this is one of those examples when working under limitations and constraints (time, resources, etc), the most exciting outcomes always happen. 

Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram
Janny Ji on working with both graphic design and illustration, and honing her skills at Pentagram

PT What kind of work do you do in your current role at TBWA\Media Arts Lab for Apple? And how does the experience differ from working at an agency like Pentagram?

JJ I currently work as a graphic designer at TBWA\Media Arts Lab creating advertising campaigns and identities for the Apple brand. Often, I approach projects from a branding perspective and always think about the core big idea and the system things live in. The experience differs a lot from Pentagram in many aspects. To me, the biggest differences are the people and the team structure. At Pentagram, we worked in small teams and reported directly to the partners. Designers were the core members of the team, and we were involved in every part of the process. At Media Arts Lab, teams are much bigger. We collaborate with the account, strategy, and production teams to bring ideas to life.

PT Can you tell us about your Remote vs. Non-Remote project? Where did the idea come from and how did you develop the visual direction?

JJ Yes, sure! Back in 2019, I accidentally found an article online by Nathan Yau talking about the stats of remote and non-remote workers presented along with a list of data visualisations. At that time, working remotely wasn't a common thing for a lot of us. And the topic seemed very interesting to me so I decided to create a visual narrative animation to share the content with more audience. The visual direction came pretty intuitively. I wanted to make something fun to watch and easy to digest. I read through the stats, pulled out the keys and translated them into an animation that utilised simple and minimal illustrations, fun and easy-to-read typography and inviting colours. Now looking back at the project today, it’s quite unbelievable that I have experienced working remotely for more than two years now, just like many of us around the world. 

PT What do you like to get up to, outside of the studio?

JJ Outside of the studio, I am quite addicted to running! I love going for a run without a planned route to discover the hidden gems in the city.

PT What would you say your biggest strengths are?

JJ To me, I think my biggest strength is persistence and a learner’s mindset. I think it’s important to keep on trying instead of easily giving up in a creative process. Sometimes projects take struggles and time to get to a good place, if we treat it as an explorative journey, we gain a lot each time. The creative industry is constantly changing and evolving, and having a learner’s mindset just opens up so many windows and opportunities that push and inspire us. Learning from others is the best part!

PT ….and weaknesses?

JJ Haha I have quite a lot of weaknesses. The biggest weakness for me is indecisiveness. As a creative person, a lot of the time, we need to make decisions quickly and to be able to bravely kill ideas. I am still learning to be better at it! 

Graphic Design & Illustration

Janny Ji