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One Thing Always Leads to Another

Chris Dickman Thu, 02/27/2014 - 10:57

Excerpted with permission from Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives
by Brian Singer (F+W Media)

Essay by Ji Lee

The following story shows how a small project I experimented with while I was at school lead me to meet one of the most important people in the history of mankind and then to find my dream job.

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I studied graphic design at Parsons New School for Design. While I was in my third year, the school introduced its first computer lab. This was a very historic and exciting event. I learned the first design programs such as Quark Xpress, Photoshop, Illustrator and a crude 3-D program called Adobe Dimensions (which doesn't exist anymore). One of the tools that I was playing with was called revolve, which allowed you to draw a two-dimensional shape and revolve it around an axis to form a 3-D object. I thought this was a really fun thing to do. In one of my fun experiments, I decided to revolve the letters of the alphabet. It was amazing to see how each letter when revolved, formed a beautiful and unique 3-D shape. When I rotated the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, I realized I had created a new 3-D font by accident. I wanted to give it a cool name, so I took a font with a futuristic and spacey name Univers and I called it Univers Revolved.

After my graduation, I worked in several design firms. Although the work was busy and I was learning a lot, I really wanted to work in advertising because I was interested in ideas and scale. So I quit my job at a corporate design firm, and I started to freelance while I was trying to get my foot into advertising. But I didn't really know how I could do this, since I didn't know anyone in advertising. I was freelancing at a well-regarded design studio called Design/Writing/ Research founded by Abbott Miller. At the time, Abbott was publishing a book called Dimensional Typography, which featured several computer-generated 3D fonts. He saw my Univers Revolved font in my portfolio; he liked it and included it in his book. After the book was published, The New York Times was publishing a special Sunday magazine dedicated to technology. One of the editors saw the Dimensional Typography book, liked my font and contacted me. The font ended up published in The New York Times.

At the same time, Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the most famous advertising agencies in the world, was organizing its first Innovation in Communication Award. They invited several influential and famous artists, scientists and authors as judges. One of the judges for the award was Laurie Anderson, a musician and a poet. Laurie saw my 3-D font in The New York Times magazine and told Saatchi people to contact me to enter the award. One day I got an email from Saatchi inviting me to enter the award with my Univers Revolved font. I did and it became one of the ten finalists. Saatchi & Saatchi organized a dinner with all finalists and judges at a fancy midtown restaurant in New York.

I was so excited. As a young designer who dreamed of working in advertising, this was beyond my dream come true. At the dinner, I was seated at a round table of about ten people. Right next to me, there was a gentleman in his 70s. He had white hair; he was dressed in a power suit; he had an expensive watch on his wrist and a huge presence. For some reason, I was certain he was one of the Saatchi brothers I had read about in newspapers and magazines. To be polite, I struck a conversation and here's exactly how it went.

Me: Hi, I’m Ji Lee. Nice to meet you.
He: Hello. Nice to meet you.
Me: So, do you work at Saatchi?
He: No.
Me: What do you do?
He: I’m an astronaut.
Me: Wow. [Pause] When was the last time you were in space?
He: 1969.
Me: (silence)

I tried to figure out what exactly happened in 1969. It took me about three seconds to realize he was one of the first three men to land on the Moon. He was the Buzz Aldrin.

I felt immediately humbled and honored, and my heart was racing. Eventually I calmed myself down, and Buzz and I ended up having some great conversations. One of the most memorable parts of our conversation that night was when I asked him if he believed in UFOs. He quickly said, “No,” and followed with: “But I have seen things I can’t really explain.” And I was thinking: That sounds just like UFOs.

In the end, I didn’t win the Saatchi’s Award, but I did end up meeting Bob Isherwood, who was then Saatchi’s worldwide creative officer. Bob liked my work and offered me a job as an art director at Saatchi.

I think about how a fun school project led me from one person to another over the years, until I got to one of the first men on the moon at a dinner table, and later, to my dream job. It’s funny how the universe has its way of granting your wish. And it made me realize that
personal projects that I have passion for—that I have fun with—always lead to amazing people and life-changing opportunities. Experiences like this have made me into an evangelist who spreads the message about the transformative power of personal projects.

Ah, and one more amazing story resulted from this extraordinary chain of events. I ended up meeting Laurie Anderson, who discovered my 3-D font in The New York Times Magazine. To thank her, I invited her and her boyfriend, Lou Reed, and their dog, Lola, to my apartment for a dinner. (But this is a story to be told in the next book.)

Born in Seoul, Korea, and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Ji Lee moved to New York to study graphic design. Ji has been working in the fields of design, advertising, technology and art.

Ji works as a creative strategist at Facebook. His past jobs include Google, Droga 5 and Saatchi & Saatchi. In addition to his professional work, Ji is also dedicated to his personal projects. Some of his well-known projects include the Bubble Project, Word as Image and Wordless Web.

In 2011, Ji was listed as one of the 50 most infl uential designers in the United States by Fast
magazine. Ji Lee is the author of three books: Word as Image, Talk Back: The Bubble Project, and Univers Revolved: A 3-D Alphabet. Ji’s work has appeared in ABC World News, Wired, Fast Company, and Oprah. Ji is a frequent contributor for the New York Times.

The preceding is an excerpt from Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives by Brian Singer. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, F+W Media, imprint HOW. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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