Janny Ji on working at Media Arts Lab, how Pentagram shaped her creativity, and designing for communities
New York-based graphic designer and illustrator Janny Ji talks us through working with some of the biggest studios in the industry and how she earned a place at Apple's coveted Media Arts Lab.
Janny Ji's CV is packed with enough achievements to make even the most high-profile designers green with envy. And that's barely scratching the surface. The designer and illustrator has already hosted several exhibitions, been crowned a Rhode Island School of Design Honors Student, won the Creative Quarterly graphic design award, scooped gold for typography at the Indigo Design Awards, been crowned top talent at the Adobe Design Achievement Awards, and been recognised for her typographic excellence by the Type Directors Club.
Despite all this, it appears she is only getting started. Having worked at Pentagram New York as a designer, Janny is now enlisted at Apple's Media Arts Lab – the bespoke global agency that works exclusively on projects for arguably the world's most iconic brand.
To learn more about her illustrious career, we caught up with Janny to hear how her time at Pentagram shaped her creative approach, why she chose to move to Media Arts Lab, and how she juggles her multiple disciplines as a graphic designer, illustrator and burgeoning typographer.
You currently work at TBWA Media Arts Lab for Apple. Can you tell us a little about how you got to this point?
As a kid, I was obsessed with drawing and painting, and I wanted to be a painter so badly. During college, I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration. There I fell in love with typography and graphic design after interning at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and working at Chartbeat. Later, I went to Maryland Institute College of Art to pursue a graduate degree in graphic design. Those experiences allowed me to explore the creative journey along the way. Around a year and a half ago, I left my job at Pentagram in New York City and decided to explore something new at TBWA\Media Arts Lab in Los Angeles.
What attracted you to the agency?
The people, the culture, and the projects. Media Arts Lab is a great place to work. It's full of talented, thoughtful, and hardworking people. We get to immerse ourselves in a collaborative environment bringing ideas to life while constantly inspiring each other. The projects that the teams work on are exciting. It's a unique experience to create work for the Apple brand.
You used to work as a designer at Pentagram. How did that help shape your work?
Working at Pentagram was definitely a precious experience for me. There, I worked on Abbott Miller's team and Luke Hayman's team at two different times. Being part of their small teams and working on various projects pushed me to undertake more responsibilities, understand the business, and grow quickly as a creative person.
The clients we worked for ranged from big corporations to startups across different disciplines, including American Express, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Platoon, The Motley Fool, Netflix, Tomo, the University of Chicago, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and many more. Managing multiple projects at the same time can be challenging but also rewarding.
The diversity of clients also exposed me to different fields and taught me to always think in other people's shoes. Our projects included editorial design, environmental graphics, exhibition design, brand identity design, ad campaigns, and so on. The creative processes require us to constantly think outside the box and develop the best solution quickly. It can be stressful, exciting, and satisfying!
How do you balance your aspirations as a designer and an illustrator? Or do they work together instead of against each other?
It's actually hard for me to balance! I tend to have different focuses in different phases. Six or seven years ago, I considered myself an illustrator. I was in the world of editorial illustrations and children's book illustrations.
Currently, I work as a graphic designer, and I bring illustrations to some of my design projects depending on the situation. And I think that's when things get so exciting! I can think about the big picture, build the visual system, and simultaneously create the illustration elements to support the system. I'm sure it feels the same to many of the graphic designers/illustrators out there.
What has been the most significant influence on your work?
Ellen Lupton's Thinking With Type is one of the books that influenced me and led to my pursuit of graphic design. I encountered this book when I'd just started learning more about the discipline. It was quite eye-opening and helped me see typography from a brand-new perspective. The book talks about the history, the theory, and the nitty gritty parts of typography engagingly. And I love the famous quote by Ellen: "Typography is what language looks like". That idea has influenced a lot of my work since then. In 2017, I got into Ellen's graphic design graduate program at MICA and was able to take her classes in person. I was so happy!
Which piece of work that you've created so far are you most proud of and why?
One of the projects that I loved working on and am proud of is a campaign called Neighborhoods Now, created at Pentagram during the Covid-19 pandemic. The project was an initiative from the Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute to help struggling small businesses in NYC with their reopening strategies.
We collaborated with the 82nd Street Partnership in Jackson Heights, Queens, and created a set of approachable, playful, multilingual posters to share Covid-19 safety protocols and other important information.
The posters needed to be friendly and helpful without looking too 'official'. As a solution, we incorporated fun creatures without race or gender, bright colours, cheerful graphics, and bold typography in the layouts. I love that projects like this allow us designers to utilise our brains and skills to design for a good cause and make something meaningful for the community.
What's your biggest challenge as a designer, and how do you overcome it?
The biggest challenge for me is when I'm out of ideas, especially after many rounds of iterations. One way I found that is pretty effective at overcoming this is to step away from the computer for a reasonable amount of time and do something else that interests you.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers? And what do you hope to achieve next?
Being a designer is never a smooth journey; enjoying the process is the key. As for goals for 2023? I hope to get better at running!