JJ Moi, Design Partner at Prime Movers Lab

Looking back over your career, have there been any particular milestones where you thought, “I’m a better visual designer now”?

I used to collect other designer’s work that I liked. I ended up with 5,000+ images spanning 10+ categories from typography to UI to illustrations. I stopped doing that because there will always be new stuff coming out and it’s a lot of work to keep track of things.

I totally forgot about it, then several years later I rediscovered the huge folder. I was shocked by my taste back then. Most of the work I had collected was just amateur stuff, or what would be today’s Dribbble stuff, where it’s not practical or useful. Then I realized how much my eyes and taste have been improved throughout the years. I can easily see what was just eye candy vs what was really good and useful work.

Or when some other designers that I look up to produce similar work to mine. Then I know I’m on the right path.

Another point in time was probably when I was winning awards. That’s always a good confirmation.

Can you tell me more about the awards?

I’ve got a few awards that are based more on the aesthetic side of things than functionality.

The first notable moment, where I didn’t win but got into regional semifinals, was with my graffiti piece which is mostly wild stylized typography. Then I got a few best typeface design awards once for my first attempts at type design. So I guess I did something right.

And a few awards here and there with furniture design and packaging design.

I also won my previous workplace an oil & gas industry award given out for “new technology that could revolutionize the industry”, which is based mostly on the website design alone, since back then we didn’t even have the product launched.

How much of your improvement in visual design has been intentional, and how much do you only notice in retrospect?

I came from a more traditional design training; pencil drawing, still life, industrial technical drawing/drafting, and calligraphy/lettering, so most of my practice has been just following what others have been doing for centuries without really thinking.

Intentionally, I’d try to find other designers that have similar styles to mine, and learn from the best that I can find. Once I’m comfortable with a style and can take on most work easily, then I’d explore other styles that I’ve never worked on. For example, the style of boring traditional business, beer/whiskey breweries, or very feminine products like perfume. These really helped me in understanding the tastes and trends of different audiences and markets.

I also often bounce ideas off my designer buddies who work at different places to get feedback from very different perspectives.

What does it look like in practice when you learn from the best designs you can find?

I’d break down the design and analyze deeply what makes the design great. Is it in the subtle details of typography, what about the layout that excites me, how did the designer come up with the color combinations, etc. I’m basically trying to reverse engineer how they arrive at the final design, and imagine the steps and iterations prior to that.

Do you think you look at industry styles differently now that you’ve taken the time to pull them apart and see what makes one industry look different from another?

For sure, now I feel I can easily spot if a designer truly understands the industry they’re in or not, or if it’s more like a generalist who happens to work on that project, or… people who aren’t so great at designing but they are the industry veteran and they’d know exactly what images or graphics resonate with the audience even if it doesn’t look nice.

But they nail the communication/functionality part spot on. There are just some trends or concepts that only industry insiders will understand. But sometimes we unfortunately have to communicate to the general audience too.

Can you tell me more about the unintentional ways you improved?

Collecting other people’s work was definitely one of them. I think it helped shape my style in a way. Taking on any freelance work is another one especially in an industry I’ve never worked in.

I also study and take inspiration from other design disciplines like fashion, architecture, movies and music videos, etc.

Looking back, this quote by Ira Glass is what holds true for me. By just putting in more work, how can you not improve?

You mentioned taking inspiration from other design disciplines. Can you talk about how that happens in practice?

A particular style I’m studying is the music video style from the 90s. You know, the lomography style combined with vivid colors like the early music videos from Oasis or Blur or Linkin Park. There’s just too many elements to it that I’m having a hard time tracking down who are famous for it and who originated the style. Next I look for what are the exact ingredients that make the style. So I’d do a lot of research about each element (camera style, composition, editing, colors, costumes, etc.) and try my best to go to the source of a style, or what comes before it.

Then finally I break it down into tangible ideas that I can borrow to use in my work.

What have been the hardest areas of visual design to learn about?

Composition.

To this day, I still don’t get it. Do great artists really always follow those principles? What makes them so great? Can the work without those compositions be comparable?

And if I use those techniques, how do I make it different from other designers that are using the same? How can I make it stand out?

What do you think about the idea that some people naturally have an eye for visual design?

At the most basic level, people can tell what looks good or bad.

The environment of how people grow up I think also shapes their eyes/taste. If you grow up in a beautiful house with nice art and furniture, then you probably absorb some of the taste that was put into those designs, and you can tell when you see ugly things.

Would you say that you have a natural eye for visual design?

No, I’d say because I enjoyed art from a very young age and I was curious about it, I’ve trained myself to have the eye for good design.

Do you rely on any resources to keep your design skills sharp?

I used to read a ton of magazines like Communication Arts or Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, but they can’t catch up with the quick pace of how things move in the world. By the time it gets to print, it’s already outdated.

So I turned to studying more timeless masterpieces, specifically movies. I’d try to watch as many award winning movies as I could—the movies that have won awards with their stunning visuals. Then I track down the people behind it, and study more of their past work. And then so it can come in many forms of documentaries, books, or blogs. Most recently, I bought an amazing book about movie prop design.

Would you refer to a book like this in your everyday design process?

Mostly when I’m about to design things that I don’t know much about. If I were to design movie props, then yes, I’d heavily rely on this book.

Are there any professional visual designers whose work you follow?

UI design: Nicholas Feltron, Tobias van Schneider, Giorgia Lupi, Bureau Oberhaeuser, Frank Chimero, Dan Mall, Zhenya Rynzhuk, Ben Mingo, Bethany Heck, Claudio Guglieri, Tim Van Damme, Dann petty, Ben Cline.

More broadly: Off-White, Karl Lagerfeld, Jessica Hische, Bouroullec brothers, Es Devlin, Erik Marinovich, Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Walsh, Timothy Goodman, Jon Contino, James Victore, Zaha Hadid, Karim Rashid, Aaron Draplin, Tom Dixon, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-wai, Zack Snyder, Tarantino, David Fincher, Murakami Takashi, Banksy, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara, Ai Weiwei.

Agencies: Pentagram, Ueno, UsTwo, Fantasy, Anagrama, Fuzzco.

Basically most of the top design agencies, top fashion brands, graphic designers, and artists and film directors, both current and from the past like Saul Bass or Paul Rand. I guess I just follow and study everyone on everything.

Do you actively follow these people and organisations?

I have a separate Instagram account just for following these people and so the feed will be a mix of all disciplines. If they don’t put out much work, I don’t try very hard to actively track them.

I also check out the biggest awards like D&AD, ADC, TDC, GDUSA, Cannes, Emmys, Oscars, Grammys.

If you learned visual design again from scratch how would you approach it?

I’d follow an even more traditional route and study pure fine art + philosophy.

I feel like I’m severely lacking in art theories, art critical theories, and the ability to be able to generate unique and inspiring and original concepts, and to think beyond the surface. I’d like to do more conceptual art. Also some more understanding in performance art, cinematography, photography, music composition, etc. would be solid. All of these would help me shape more interesting and exciting design concepts.