The Designers: Athletics’ Boyang Xia reflects on his key industry insights and project highlights
Our interview series The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the thirty-second entry into our series, we caught up with Athletics’ Boyang Xia who tells us about joining the New York studio; pursuing meaningful collaborations; and the joy of designing for his favourite Chinese writer.
PT Hey Boyang! How are you?
BX Hiya Poppy, I’m doing so well, thanks for asking. I’m a little disappointed with the amount of snow we’ve had this winter. I just came back from a walk, and the snow we had last night has already gone.
PT To kick things off, how did you land your current role at Athletics? What about them stood out to you?
BX I have a very short list of the design studios I would work at that I compiled through college and grad school, and Athletics is obviously on it (top of the list, since it’s alphabetical). During peak COVID, I experienced burnout and desperately needed a change. And through my previous internship connection, I landed an interview with the Athletics team. But I was not accepted until the second time around, and I’ve now been working there for almost two years.
I was attracted to the wide range of projects Athletics took on and their thoughtful and confident execution. I could tell how much care they put in through the clear messaging and nuanced visuals in each project. My initial interactions with the team were super positive, which spoke volumes about the great studio culture I’d be joining at Athletics.
Experiment whenever, wherever you can.
PT Since joining, what have been the biggest lessons or insights that you’ve learned?
BX Ohhh, but there are so many…
You and your clients want the same thing at the end of the day. It’s okay (better) not to know where you are arriving with early explorations. Don’t be precious with your sketches. Experiment whenever, wherever you can. ‘Should’ is a dangerous word. To successfully convey your ideas behind the graphics, and clearly address the tasks you’ve been given is half of the work. Design for not only the designers.
PT What is your typical work setup?
BX The red sticker on the wall stabilises my eye line and makes me look less frantic on Zoom. Hot tip from a speech coach.
PT Looking back, do you recall when you first became interested in design?
BX I have studied drawing since elementary school. And like many Chinese kids growing up in the early 2000s, I was obsessed with reading manga, Hiromu Arakawa, Clamp and Ai Yazawa, to name a few. Later, in middle school, I really got into Taiwanese pop music (of course). While my passion for the genre diminished as I aged into high school, my passion for the work of these album designers like Xiao Qing-Yang and Aaron Nieh went on. I started to make covers for the CDs my cousins burnt for me. I believe all these events led me to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and it was only then that I realised it was an actual curriculum I could study.
PT Following your Bachelor's Degree, what led you to pursue postgraduate study?
BX I spent a semester in Denmark during my senior undergraduate year, and the experience was so fun and eye-opening that I knew I had to explore further after I graduated. I had a good idea of what research areas interested me, plus the fact that I really wanted to live abroad. An MFA seemed like a natural trajectory for me.
It’s crucial to showcase your best abilities in the ‘language’ they speak.
PT How would you say the experience of completing a Master’s Degree has enhanced your practice and approach to design?
BX The programme encouraged me to think about problem-solving beyond graphic design solutions. In addition to the technical skills, how can we address the issues with more comprehensive approaches? What’s the best format to tackle this specific problem? Can it be more than a poster? Can it be more than design? Additionally, it fosters critical thinking, allowing me to approach design challenges in a more systematic and analytical manner.
PT Can you tell us a bit about your favourite collaborations?
BX I co-run Little Sound, an independent bilingual publication featuring sincere conversations with people from various backgrounds in the art world. The goal is to share the stories of those who have carved our unique paths and found a way of existing in our current time. It was most definitely a huge learning curve for my collaborator Jasphy Zheng and me when we first started it right after school. We were our own clients, PMs, editors, and designers. Aside from the unsettling amount of optimism I needed to move the project forward, I also learned about time management, task assignment, and, most importantly, how to work in a team. As frustrating as the project could be, the rewards were equally fulfilling.
PT Throughout your career thus far, which projects have been the most important to you? Either from a learning point of view or for sentimental reasons?
BX It’s funny, but I still think that it's way too premature to call what I have a career. Recently, I had the privilege of completing the second cover for my absolute favourite Chinese writer, Wang Xiaobo. Pleasure of Thinking is a collection of essays on the importance of critical thought. Working with Rodrigo Corral on this Chinese intellectual’s body of work is definitely a dream come true. It is such a personal project.
PT Having worked with some fantastic publishers, how did you start working in this field?
BX It is really the oldest trick in the book. I tracked down a list of creative directors from these publishers. Rodrigo Corral responded with a project in mind that he thought would be perfect for me based on my portfolio at the time. Then one project led to another, blah blah blah...
I do think when you first reach out to a new design community/industry, it’s crucial to showcase your best abilities in the ‘language’ they speak. For example, when I sent out a portfolio without any book cover projects to book cover creative directors, I made sure that my branding work featured enough compositions in pamphlet and poster formats instead.
PT Who or what inspires you the most creatively?
BX Friends, and their projects. Design blogs. My non-design-related newsletters. Museums (museum pass is such a steal!). The City.
PT Whereabouts are you based? What’s it like living and working there? Is there anything you’d change?
BX I’m based in Brooklyn. It is certainly compact, as advertised. I live in an apartment with a really, really high ceiling and a little rooftop, so it doesn’t feel as claustrophobic.
PT What do you most enjoy doing outside of work?
BX Sun-soaking on my rooftop. Cleaning my download folder. Citi bike everywhere. Pickling. Mixing drinks for friends. Sauna. Lunch at the park. Early movies with the elders. Make lists (I finally made the list that tracks all my lists).
PT Is there anything that you’re particularly looking forward to at the moment?
BX At this very moment, the trailer for the final season of Succession just dropped, so there’s that.