Ji Lee: Everything is connected

  • Ji Lee:
  • Everything is connected
  • From the Archives Open Manifesto #7: Kevin Finn in conversation with Ji Lee, one of the top 50 most influential American designers, as they discuss the transformative power of personal projects.

Kevin Finn: It’s clear your work is centered on ideas and much of it is driven by your personal interests. But an underlying objective also seems to be that other people can also interact or benefit from those particular projects. With this in mind, would it be fair to describe your personal work as an exercise in enlightened self-interest?

Ji Lee:  Yes, I think so. However, enlightened is a big word. I don’t claim there’s any aspect of me that is particularly enlightened. I think the enlightened part is a process towards better understanding myself, and also trying to connect with other people through this process.

But you do get a lot more enjoyment when people do interact with the work that you’re creating…

Absolutely!

So it’s not just about your own growth and learning, and becoming more enlightened. Would you agree it’s more about asking: “How can others participate?”

Yes. My process, which is often participatory, really wasn’t something that I did consciously—it just sort of happened naturally. I think the first project where I fully realized the power of opening up for others to participate was The Bubble Project, which probably goes back ten years. It happened when I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi.

I studied graphic design, but I originally came to New York to study fine arts. That was my goal. As a child I always wanted to become a painter—Picasso and Van Gogh, those were my childhood idols. I always liked to draw and paint and my parents were always supportive of what I did, in terms of artistic activities.

Then, with the support of my parents, I came to New York to study fine arts. The first year consisted of studying general liberal arts. In my second year I chose fine arts as my major. I did the first semester and I realized that fine arts really wasn’t that interesting because the education of fine arts in my school, and I think generally speaking, is very theoretical—a lot of discussion; it’s less practical and more theoretical.

I didn’t really feel inspired by the teachers. In fact, I felt they were sort of unsuccessful, frustrated artists themselves. I saw that a lot of students, who graduated from the fine arts department, didn’t actually become successful artists. They were either waiting tables or becoming construction workers. They were really struggling financially and artistically. In the end, a lot of them simply gave up in order to pursue something else. That didn’t encourage me.

I switched my major to graphic design because I saw a lot of interesting projects coming from the graphic design department and quickly fell in love with it. I really liked the fact that graphic design had very artistic aspects that I enjoyed in fine arts, but also had very practical elements. It was commercial arts, so you could be artistic, and have a job, and make money.

Creativity really thrives with limitations.

I also liked a certain structure—the rigour and rules that you had to follow because I think creativity really thrives with limitations. For example, when studying typography you really have to understand the techniques of the font, the kerning and leading and all that stuff.

A good example is my Word As Image project. For me, that was when I really started to experiment with typography. I absolutely fell in love with the amazing possibilities you could do with typography. It’s worth noting, Word As Image really started in my second year in college—in art school. It was one of my first typography assignments. I loved this project because it was so hard to come up with something really good.

[Laughs] Yes, and considering those restrictions you mentioned earlier.

Absolutely! It is restriction because you have to represent the meaning of the word, but only through using typographic elements contained in the letters of that particular word.

In that assignment, you couldn’t add anything else. It’s almost like a puzzle and you have to follow those rules. But there’s an amazing reward when you actually crack that piece of puzzle. I love it.

When I first saw that project I referred to it as the joy of typography. It is so evident there really is a lot of joy coming through the work…

Exactly! And when I was introduced to the work of Herb Lubalin—his Word As Images like “Families” or “Mother and Child,” in particular—I was amazed at the simplicity and pure conceptual aspects of how, through typography, he was able to show such a clear idea in a visually simple way. So I really enjoyed studying graphic design.

I studied typography, and color theories, and editorial design, and identity design, and packaging design. My school years were really some of the best times. It’s also where I began to experiment in new ways, for example a project called Universe Revolved: A Three Dimensional Alphabet. A lot of those typographic projects actually came from my school years.

After I graduated, I was offered a job in a corporate design firm called Frankfurt Balkind. They did a lot of annual reports and corporate identities, but the firm doesn’t exist anymore. It was really interesting because, at the time of my senior show, I had already accepted the job with them. However, Stefan Sagmeister (Open Manifesto #2) had also came to my senior show and was interested in speaking with me. He was already a well known designer then and said: “I really love your work and I’d love to talk with you. Why don’t you come and visit me in my studio?” Of course, I went to see him at his studio. It was a small studio in 14th Street—and he offered me a job.

I respectfully declined his job offer because I had already accepted a job. And that’s where Stefan became my mentor throughout all these years. He has been an amazing inspiring mentor and that was the beginning of our relationship.

After graduating Stefan Sagmesiter offered me a job, but I respectfully declined because I had already accepted a job.

Wow! You turned down the job. Why?

I don’t know why. I know I could have gone back to Frankfurt Balkind and retracted my acceptance so that I could work with Stefan. But, I didn’t. The fact that I had already said yes to the other guys meant I felt I was already committed to them. It was like: I should honor that commitment. But, in retrospect, I think it was really the best thing I could have done because I learned so much from working with lots of people in Frankfurt Balkind. I think if I had stayed with Stefan, perhaps I would have stayed under his shadow, sort of not being able to flourish on my own. But I guess it’s funny; the things that happen when you’re in New York, when you’re meeting up with all these amazing designers.

So anyway I went to Frankfurt Balkind and some of the best designers I know came out of that firm. Todd St. John was a really amazing designer, and still very much doing amazing work here in New York. He’s the principal of HunterGatherer.

I also met my best friend Jeff Greenspan there, who [at the time of this interviews was] the Chief Creative Officer at Buzzfeed. He has also done some amazing products on his own—personal projects. I met Arturo Ronda there, who I still work with today at Facebook and who was also the Creative Director of the Digital Department at BBDO.

And they were all originally at Frankfurt Balkind?

Yes they were all at Frankfurt Balkind. While there I was working mostly on annual reports. I worked on annual reports for LG, I worked on annual reports for NCR (National Company of Registry). I worked on identity projects for Sony. And although these were not the most exciting creative projects, I learned a lot—how to present the work, how to work in a group, how to be professional. However, by the end of the first year I felt I knew the environment was a bit too corporate and a little too dry and boring for me. And I ended up quitting the job to freelance at Abbott Miller’s studio which was called Design Writing Research.

He really loved that my portfolio contained lots of conceptual typographic work including Word As Image and Universe Revolved: A Three Dimensional Alphabet. It so happened that, at the time, he was publishing a book called Dimensional Typography, which is kind of a seminal book on 3D typography.

At the time, that was a really interesting book, because it was the first platform to showcase computer generated 3D alphabets and he included the Universe Revolved. I did lots of interesting book projects for Abbott while I worked with him. During that time I also worked in other firms like Tsang Seymour Design, where I did lots of editorial design and museum catalogs for Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I imagine most people would have thought, after leaving Frankfurt Balkind you’d be thinking: OK, I’ve done a year in this firm. I’ve learned all the rules. It’s a bit dry and boring, but it was good discipline. Now, I’ll go and knock on Stefan’s door, because he likes my work. But you didn’t do that. I know in hindsight it was a good decision but, at the time, what stopped you from immediately going to see Stefan?

I don’t really know why I didn’t do that. It just never crossed my mind. I always kept in touch with Stefan and showed my projects to him, but for some reason I never really thought about asking to work with him. Actually, I didn’t go to Abbott Miller’s studio, either. I went to a small firm called Tsang Seymour Design first, where I did a bunch of museum catalogs. I have no answer for why I didn’t go to Stefan’s studio. But, at Tsang Seymour Design it was pure editorial work on museum catalogues. It was fun. But, I started to feel the limitations of what the design required; I was really interested in concepts. Designing annual reports and museum catalogs, they weren’t necessarily conceptual.

I tried to get as conceptual as possible, but they were mostly aesthetic projects. I grew up in Brazil from the age of 10 to 20, and Brazil is famous for amazing TV and print advertising. I grew up seeing these ads, and I remember being amazed by some of these really funny ads, which became part of the cultural conversation. If there was a famous ad, it would become part of everyday conversations with Brazilians. Advertising creative directors were almost like rock stars.

I really like the fact that conceptual work had huge impact on the society and culture—and on a massive scale. I was interested in the scale and conceptual side of advertising. As a result, I really wanted to find my way into advertising, but I had no connection to the advertising world. So, I kept doing design work.

When I quit Tsang Seymour Design I ended up going to Abbott Miller’s studio to freelance; while there the 3D Dimensional Typography book came out; and, at the same time, there was a New York Times Sunday Magazine issue dedicated to innovation in technology. The editor of the New York Times saw Dimensional Typography and liked my Universe Revolved font. She contacted me and asked me if they can use the font for their issue. I said “Of course!” They ended up using the font for that issue. It’s really funny how one thing leads to another in your life and how the universe has this way of guiding you—opening a door which you least expect.

It’s really funny how one thing leads to another in your life and how the universe has this way of guiding you—opening a door which you least expect.

It’s a really interesting example of how these threads—going to Abbott Miller’s, being part of Dimensional Typography, being part of the New York Times magazine—can connect. And at the same time, Saatchi & Saatchi was organizing their first Innovation in Communication award, which is something Bob Isherwood [former Worldwide Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi] initiated. They had invited a bunch of famous people, like Buzz Aldrin and Laurie Anderson, who was one of the judges. Laurie saw my font in the New York Times magazine, and she loved it. She told the Saatchi people that they should contact me to enter this work to the award, which they did. I was thrilled, and I spent three days preparing this book about the 3D alphabet. I submitted and I became one of the 10 finalists for the innovation award.

That’s how I met Bob [Isherwood] for the first time. I remember going to a dinner for the finalists. There’s a funny story where I was sitting next to this gentleman who was probably in his 70’s. I thought he was one of the Saatchi brothers, because he was in a suit. I even asked if he worked for Saatchi’s. Since he didn’t I obviously asked what he did do. He said he was an astronaut. I replied: “Oh, that’s incredible. When was the last time you were in space?” He said “1969.” It was Buzz Aldrin! That’s one of my favorite stories of being in the industry.

And that was my first experience of being exposed to the world of advertising. Bob wanted to see my portfolio, which he loved. He introduced me to the Saatchi people, and I ended up getting hired by Saatchi & Saatchi. They doubled my salary and gave me my own office. I thought it was my dream come true. I always wanted to work in advertising, and now I was at one of these famous ad agencies—which I had only heard of when I was growing up. So, I thought: “Wow, this is it. I’m going to do amazing work and be happy and make a lot of money.”

But when I started working at Saatchi & Saatchi I was working projects for Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Johnson and Johnson—really huge corporate clients. I realized to produce work was not as easy as I thought.

At the time, it was the height of political correctness in America. Any idea that had any innovative or different angle was getting killed simply because the client did not want to innovate or try new things. They just wanted to do formulaic things, which they knew had worked in the past. Every idea went through testing. And in the testing stage, every idea got watered down and ended up becoming dull and boring. They always looked for the lowest common denominator. Lawyers were always involved to make sure there was nothing that could be potentially offensive or troublesome. I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi for about four years. During those four years I was able to produce one TV spot for Head and Shoulders shampoo. One!

I know you left after those four years, but during that time it must have been increasingly disillusioning because of the perception you’d had of Saatchi & Saatchi-—because the reputation Saatchi & Saatchi has; because of the industry you wanted to get into. You were doing more creative work on your own than you were doing being in an ‘advertising powerhouse.’

It was disillusioning. And it was a slow process. I always believed that if I worked hard there would to be opportunities and I would be able to produce work. But ideas got killed. One idea after another—they started getting killed. I began to slowly realize: “Wow, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to produce work here.” Even that one TV spot I mentioned earlier, the one I was able to get out the door. It was for Head and Shoulders and was targeting a teenage audience. The TV spot had this guy with his hair on fire, and he was skateboarding down the streets. He jumps into a pool and when he came out it was revealed that the pool was in the shape of Head and Shoulders.

It was supposed to be a fun visual spot. The client spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. We shot it in Vancouver. We spent a month shooting it and it was finally aired on TV. The moment it got aired, a few mothers from Texas called the TV station to complain that their kids had told them that they wanted to set their head on fire. It was enough to have one mother to complain for Procter & Gamble to cancel that spot. That was it. That was the end of the spot, which we had spent hours and hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars producing. This is an example of what was happening.

Another experience—which I give in my talks and which is one of my favorite examples—is Cheerios. The client was General Mills and in the brief they reminded us that Cheerios is famous for its classic yellow box. American audiences know the Cheerios’ yellow box; it has been part of their childhood; it’s been an iconic product throughout a generation. In recent years, they had started making other Cheerios flavors like ‘Honey Nut Cheerios,’ ‘Multi Grain Cheerios,’ and so on. They had five different flavors, all housed in the famous yellow box and they wanted us to communicate that Cheerios comes in five different flavors—which is the worst kind of brief. It means they want to show all the products. Our job was to create a billboard to communicate that Cheerios comes in five different flavors.

I ended up bringing Jeff Greenspan—my friend from Frankfurt Balkind days—to Saatchi & Saatchi to work with me as a partner. He’s a copywriter. We came up with an idea that showed the five Cheerios boxes with the headline: “Only their holes have the same taste.” When we presented that idea, the client loved it!

When we presented the TV spot, everybody laughed. The clients and agencies were saying: “This is such a funny idea, we love it.” We were very surprised that a meeting could go so well because we knew how meetings usually went: a really difficult process! But they had such a positive reaction to our idea. We thought: “Wow, this is amazing.”

As we talked about producing the idea one of the clients raised their hand and said, “Actually, our corporate term to describe our product is to use flavor instead of taste. We don’t really use the word taste to describe our product, we use the term, flavor. How do we turn that into flavor?”

Our feeling was that: “Only their holes have the same flavors,” didn’t sound as nice as “Only their holes have the same taste.” This discussion went on and on for 20 minutes. By the end of the discussion, we were so frustrated about the final outcome—the idea ended up being killed.

That’s a classic example of what was happening all the time. The clients or the agency just seeing from their own perspective and not realizing that it doesn’t matter. The consumers and the audience don’t care if it is the flavor or the taste. The clients and agencies? They’re just talking to themselves.

Those type of experiences just chiseled my excitement away from being in that agency. At the same time, it was very frustrating for me to see the kind of ads that were being produced: they were always hitting the lowest common denominator, always boring, and always unimaginative. They weren’t even pretty or interesting to look at!

I saw those ads being part of bus stops, subways, and billboards in New York. And it was just a terrible reminder of being part of this agency, this machine, which produced ads that I didn’t really appreciate. The worst part was that I was part of this machine.

Which is very different to Brazil.

Exactly. Right! Yes. In Brazil, I remember seeing amazing ads that took risks, potentially offended people, and were funny. Brazil is not politically correct. People have a great sense of humor. You can talk about sex in a way that’s not offensive. America is a very prudish country, so we can’t talk about sex, or race—you can’t talk about anything. In the end, you end up having this really watered down boring stuff.

It’s interesting when we look at it from different cultural perspectives. If we consider America and Europe—actually, lets just take America because you’re pretty disillusioned and critical of the traditional advertising agency model there—what do you think the future of the advertising agency looks like?

Thankfully, I think they’re now being forced to adopt a whole new mechanism if they want to be relevant because of what is referred to as “Social marketing” via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The traditional method of one-way broadcast doesn’t work any more. The content agencies are creating has to be retweeted, liked, shared, and pinned. This gives consumers the power to make the message heard, to be shared and broadcasted on the agency’s (or client’s) behalf. Traditionally, you were basically forced to look at an ad, to watch it in between a TV program. Traditionally, you were forced to look at the ads in a magazine. Nowadays, a lot of people are spending time on their social media. The way it works with social media is people have to share and spread the message on the brand’s behalf. There’s a fundamental shift in the way these messages are created and shared.

A lot of the agencies are adapting and some of the agencies are more successful than others. But it’s a completely different way of presenting content. It has to be real time. You don’t have as much time as before, where you could have months of planning for your TV spot. Now, brands like Oreo are reacting in real time. For example, when there was a Superbowl blackout, they were publishing on their page about the blackout because they want to be part of the conversation with people—in real time. That’s why a media platform like Buzzfeed is so successful. Now, brands have to be part of that conversation.

If we go back to your original desire to get into the creative field, you were interested in art. Then you went into design, and then advertising, and so on. Initially, I guess there was an art versus design question for you, so do you see your personal projects as art or design? For example, the [American] ABC News report covering The Bubble Project described you as an “artist.” Then, there’s your Delete Billboard project, which could be classified as “street art.” And, of course, your miniature models have been exhibited at MAD [Museum of Art and Design]. Considering your personal work, do you see them as art, as design, as ideas? How would you describe them?

I talked to Stefan about this and asked him this specific question: “Do you see yourself as an artist or a designer?” He’s adamant about calling himself a “designer.” He doesn’t believe he is an artist. I disagree, I think he is an artist. I consider myself as an artist, too, but I use the technique of design, street art, and simulation through the different kinds of media. I think I’m all of it: I’m a designer, an artist, a street artist, an instillation artist, a web designer—a little bit of lots of things.

This new breed of creative we’re seeing in advertising and design have a tendency to be multifaceted. When I used to work at Google Creative Lab we hired people who were multifaceted. They had to know how to work in video format, be a great designer, be able to create their own content, and they should be able to code—because that’s how we communicate nowadays. You’re not only doing TV spots if you work in advertising, you also have to also come with an idea for a website; you have to come up with an idea for Facebook page posts; you have to be able to create an app, or a game. It’s all of that. And it’s a good thing.

When we consider your experience in the advertising world, particularly the politically correct advertising world of America, your personal work is the extreme opposite. One could argue it’s even subversive—humorously so. Even right through to your White Feed project, it’s humorously subversive in a nice way. Is that a direct response to some of the experiences you’ve had, or is it simply a personal approach?

Perhaps, yes. ‘Subversion’ is a word I hear a lot from other people when they’re describing my work. Again, I never purposely tell myself: “I want something subversive.” I think there’s a part of me that always enjoyed being a little bad boy.

[Laughs]

I don’t know where that’s coming from, but I like to be provocative and I like to be subversive. Some of it is a reaction to my experience of being in a corporate world, my frustrations of not being able to create great work that I believe could benefit the brand, the consumer, and the agency. So yes, I think part of it is a response to what I’ve experienced. And I love using humour as a method of disguising, or softening a subversive message because once people smile and laugh, their guard is down, which means they’re more susceptible to new ideas.

As a matter of interest, because The Bubble Project was quite subversive—and described by many as being illegal—have the authorities knocked on your door, considering your identity is now pretty well established?

Yes, I plastered over 30,000 stickers and I continue to do so. Not in the massive scale that I used to—back in the day. Over the (many) years I’ve been bubbling, I got caught by police on the streets and in subways. They stopped me and gave me violation tickets directly.

Were you in disguise?

I never walk around disguised because that would be counterproductive and would draw more attention to me. I’m only in disguise when I’m giving interviews. If I walked around like that everybody is going to look at me.

[Laughs] Of course!

You don’t want people saying: “Who’s that weird guy?” The disguise is just for interviews, but it’s also about being theatrical because anybody is able to find out who’s behind this project. The most threatening thing that I experienced through The Bubble Project was the very serious letter from a lawyer representing the media agency, Clear Channel. They own lots of the billboards and bus stop space where they advertise. The lawyer’s letter was pretty threatening and called for me to stop bubbling or they’d take legal action.

I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do so I hired a lawyer. In a way, this goes back to your original question about making projects participatory. One of the many benefits is you’re not the sole person who’s responsible for this project. A lot of people were bubbling. They took the template, cut it out and pasted it on their own, or made their own bubble spheres.

In the end, I wrote to the Clear Channel lawyers and said I had personally stopped bubbling, but there are other people who are still bubbling and I have no control over that. I never heard from them again.

That makes sense. Even when you yourself were bubbling, you’re also collaborating with the public. You’d paste a sticker and then the public would essentially graffiti on that sticker. I guess if they were going to sue Ji Lee they’d have to also sue everyone that wrote on a Ji Lee bubble sticker—and that would be impossible.

I think they were mostly concerned about the act of putting the stickers on top of an ad. The fact that some of them were removable stickers-—when you rip it, some of the sticker stays, but it’s not spray painted graffiti you might see on a wall, which is harder to remove. That is seen as a more serious crime.

I imagine you didn’t approach The Bubble Project with any of this in mind. I assume it was fortuitous that stickers was the medium you were using.

Yeah. I’m very thankful that I went through this very frustrating experience of dealing with the corporation. If things had gone more or less well in the [Saatchi & Saatchi] agency, I don’t think I’d ever be focusing on my personal projects. One of the things I like to focus on in my talks is that frustrations are the best motivation, the best inspiration to do meaningful work.

Another project I was working on at the time at Saatchi & Saatchi was for General Mills. They wanted to come up with some kind of social awareness campaign to fight child obesity, and I was briefed to open this project. I came up with this idea: what if parents and their kids could communicate about the issue in a different way? For example, we would make magnetized bubble stickers they could use on the refrigerator.

They could then each write fun messages to one another about food, for example: “Hey, Billy don’t forget to eat your vegetables today”. We would use this fun graphic device—which kids are familiar with in comic strips—as a platform for parents and children to communicate to each other about healthy eating.

Then, of course, that idea got killed, too, because… I don’t know why, or whatever the corporate reasons were. I had really thought there was no way they’d kill this idea because it was for a social, positive awareness program. But they killed it! It was at this point I realized: I can’t depend on the client, I can’t depend on the agency to produce any good ideas. So I have to do everything myself. I’m just going to take on this project and do it on my own!

It was at this point I realized: I can’t depend on the client, I can’t depend on the agency to produce any good ideas. So I have to do everything myself. I’m just going to take on this project and do it on my own!

I decided to make the bubble stickers and, somehow, made the connection of putting those stickers on the ads in the street—the ones I hated so much. I spent around $3,000, produced 30,000 stickers and started to put them on ads in the streets.

At the time, it was a really therapeutic thing for me because for every ad that got killed, I didn’t mind anymore. I could just go out and create hundreds of new ads because bubbling transformed the boring ads into really fascinating things. Those speech bubble stickers completely changed the way people saw those ads. It became a real therapy for me.

Going back to the original question, that’s when I realized the power of opening up to participation with others because a lot of people started writing amazing things inside the bubbles. After a few months, it blew up and it’s all because of the Internet. Without the Internet, I think The Bubble Project would’ve been a quarter of the project it became.

This was also the first time I truly realized the power of the Internet because, in the beginning, I set up the website and I posted, maybe, hundreds of pictures. From this I was getting 30 to 50 visitors a day. But one day, I went to check the number of visitors and it had gone up to 50,000 visitors!

Did you promote it in any way, or did that shift in response just sort of happen by itself?

I didn’t promote it at all. I shared it with my friends, but that’s about it. I actually thought the increased number was some kind of mistake. But the next time I checked the website it had crashed because there were so many people visiting it!

And I realized it had happened because boingboing.net—which at the time was the biggest blog—had featured a small, tiny story about The Bubble Project. Because of that one little post, it really (and completely) changed my life. Tons of people started coming to the website: newspapers, and TVs and everybody wanted to make a story about it. I had no idea this was going to be such a big deal. But from the response I realized I can create a project—on my own—which can touch millions of people around the world. I can do everything myself. I can come up with an idea. I can finance the idea. I can market this idea. And I can put together a website.

The thing is, at the time I didn’t know how to design a website so I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book on Dreamweaver. I read it and, step by step, built this website.

It was such an empowering and liberating experience for me. My perception before was that, in order to produce an idea and get it out there, I needed a client, I needed money, I needed an agency, I needed the publishers. The Bubble Project was such an eye-opening experience because it proved I can do everything myself—with the help of the Internet.

That would pretty much be the antithesis of your experience at a big agency like Saatchi & Saatchi where, as you said, you’d spent months doing an ad, with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with lawyers involved, with numerous people you needed to keep happy, as well as needing to secure media placements. Essentially, with the The Bubble Project you simply used one of the foundation stones of advertising—the power of an idea…

Exactly…

And then just put that idea into the world, but in an incredibly economical, efficient way. And in a participatory way, as well.

Yeah, and I think more and more people are realizing the possibilities of this. It’s wonderful to see so many amazing projects. Are you familiar with the project Humans of New York?

It’s a Tumblr blog and also a Facebook page developed by a New York photographer who put together the project. He simply goes around taking pictures of interesting people in New York, and talks about their story. It really blew up. I think he has hundreds of thousands of followers, and he was interviewed in all kinds of TV stations. Again, it’s just one person going around, taking pictures, and just showing interesting stories about New Yorkers. Anyone can do that. You don’t need a publisher. You don’t need an agency or a client behind it to fund the project and make it famous. Any individual today can make that happen.

If we go back to your earlier point about how conservative corporate clients are in America and the experience you had at Saatchi & Saatchi, this is in stark contrast to the small risk you took to do The Bubble Project. Yet, you received immense participation from the public. And within a relatively short space of time you received significant media coverage, which those agency clients would kill or die to get—but they’re simply not brave enough to take what I refer to as a ‘considered risk,’ which is pretty much what you’ve done…

Yeah, because they live in fear. They are afraid to experiment with anything new because of the potential negative consequences. This is such a negative mindset—a very fearful mindset—and is the exact opposite of the mindset expected of a creative agency or an innovative brand. The ironic thing is that, because of The Bubble Project, a lot of agencies wanted to hire me to work as a freelancer or full time. And these were agencies who were making the ads that I was defacing in the streets!

My stance on The Bubble Project has always been that I was not destroying their ads. Through The Bubble Project, I truly believe I was helping those brands, simply because people were now actually looking at their ads. Otherwise they would have been ignored, but now people are participating and commenting on the ads that they see. I felt it was a win-win for everyone. For the brands: because they were getting more eyes looking at their ads; for the consumer: who had the opportunity to talk back to the advertisement (and the brand); and for me: who is having a lot of fun doing all these things on the side.

This is another extremely important thing for me: the idea of having fun. I think a lot of us who are in the creative field, we’re doing this because we have such a passion and get so much fun doing what we do. We didn’t go to law school, we didn’t go to business school, to make money. We went into the creative business because we feel we have passion and we love doing what we do.

It’s all about having fun. That was the reason for me joining the advertising industry. From the outside, it seemed to be such a fun job. You’re traveling around, going to places, coming up with ideas—and these ideas get produced, and lot of people love it. It just seemed like a lot of fun to be doing this. But the reality was very different: it really wasn’t fun. In fact, it was the opposite of fun.

If we look at The Bubble Project, and how you just described the win-win scenario for everybody involved, and helping those brands. There’s something that I find really interesting, and which I’ve heard you speak about before: it’s the idea of hacking. We generally associate negative things with the term hacking, but if we take The Bubble Project it’s a constructive, humorous, participatory hacking of an advert, which ultimately provides the brand with information they could never really find if they hired a marketing company tasked with uncovering honest feedback. The idea of hacking, in a positive way, to something that is already there, is this a central part of what you enjoy?

Yeah, I think hacking or hijacking is a reoccurring technique in the work that I do. I also feel at home right now working with Facebook because the entire culture of Facebook is also based on hack. In the world of Facebook the word Hack is plastered everywhere because Mark Zuckerberg is a hacker himself. It’s our mission to really change the perception of what ‘hack’ is because, for the most part, when people think about hackers they think about those people who steal your bank account, identity, money, and spam you—stuff like that. But hacking, or hijacking, is really the simplest way of taking what already exists and turning it into something new, making it your own, but in a very simple, ingenious, creative way.

Hacking, or hijacking, is really the simplest way of taking what already exists and turning it into something new, making it your own, but in a very simple, ingenious, creative way.

Like when you copy a line of code, and change a couple of things, then paste them to make it your own code. You save a lot of energy, and time, and resources than if you had to create your line of code from scratch. It’s an extremely efficient way and people either use that for good or bad. If you think about the terrorists of 9/11, they didn’t have the bomb because to produce the bomb would take a lot of time, and technology, and energy, and money. So they hijacked an airplane and used that as a bomb, which is an extremely efficient way for terrorists to achieve their objective. Of course, it is terrible, but it is an example.

But also, from a creative standpoint, you can take what already exists. In my case I took advertisements in New York City, and then I just used this little sticker device which completely changed the meaning of these ads.

If you look at a lot of the editorial art I do for New York Times, for example I did a cover for Time Magazine which depicts the Statue of Liberty holding surveillance cameras. The concept was in response to the Boston bombing: we have to give up our freedom for protection, for security. Other examples are where I created the dead Wall Street bull and the fat Christ. A lot of the stuff you see in my editorial art has to do with hacking.

I take really well known, iconic images—those which are universally well known—and I just change something, which completely changes the meaning. That’s so much more efficient than if I created a whole new message and try to communicate that idea from scratch.

Perhaps this echoes what the legendary Bob Gill (Open Manifesto #3) passionately believes: in order to do work that is meaningful and has impact, you need to have something interesting to say first.

Absolutely!

This seems to be a recurring theme with you, too—from the Time Magazine covers you just described right back to The Bubble Project. They are fun. They are participatory. They are driven by self-interest, but in an enlightened way because others benefit from the work. They are humorous. They’re a bit subversive. They’re based in an idea. But, above all, you’ve got something to say. That’s probably the most critical point to highlight for anybody who wants to go out and make an impact.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. I think what you are referring to is content. The message and concept. In fact they are very similar things. The Bubble Project was borne from my frustration of seeing ads and I wanted to say something about it. I wanted to highlight the fact that the ads were bullshit. We never asked for ads to be in public spaces. Why is it we’re forced to look at these horrible ads? I wanted to have a discussion around that. That was my message.

I wanted to highlight the fact that the ads were bullshit. We never asked for ads to be in public spaces. Why is it we’re forced to look at these horrible ads? I wanted to have a discussion around that. That was my message.

It’s great when I’m doing editorial art for the New York Times or Time Magazine, because they already come with a strong message. They have a point of view. I use this as a vehicle to communicate a message. Sometimes I inject my own personal view on the subject.

But I’m only interested in doing something that has an idea. Even if you look at the Parallel World project, which is an upside down miniature world. For some, this might seem like a delightful piece of art. But for me, it also has a message. For me the interesting point is that we, sort of, live in the The Matrix. I don’t think we’re very different from what is portrayed in that movie, where we’re just programs made by a machine and we’re just living our lives mindlessly and meaninglessly to produce energy for the machines.

Although we’re not products of machines, I believe that perhaps most of us are products of societies. We’re products of our parents. We’re a product of our educational institutions, where we’re told to live in a certain way, and we don’t really question those things. I mean, why does the alphabet have to be two dimensional? Why does it have to be read from left to right, top to bottom? Who set those rules? Why don’t we ever question these fundamental things? Why does art have to be always hung on the wall? Why don’t we ever hang stuff on the ceiling?

We live in this matrix of rules and conventions, which we are told about at a very early age. So much so, that we simply don’t question them. For me, my side projects are an exercise in breaking those conventions. In the case of the Parallel World project, the hope is that people might look at the ceiling with completely different eyes. Maybe this will prompt people to look at the alphabet and realize: “Hey, I don’t always have to read from left to right. I can read stuff from right to left and letters can be unconventional. Letters can also be set in motion. They can be stacked from bottom up.”

I’m always interested in this idea of breaking out and—through humor and through delight—encouraging people to realize we don’t have to look at the world with a conventional kind of viewpoint.

Taking your point, and in terms of typography, there is a wonderful quote from Zuzana Licko of Emigre where, in the 90s, she commented on the legibility wars: “We read best what we read most.” It comes down to conventions and the mainstream. Whatever we read most is what we are familiar with and anything else is usually not accepted. Whereas Licko is simply saying we can challenge things, because the more we challenge them, the more mainstream they become—and the more acceptable they become. In terms of new thinking, I guess the message is: Get it out there; Challenge things; Help it become mainstream. In some ways, this kind of sums up what you’ve just been saying.

Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that. There is a fascinating project by the really famous violin player, Joshua Bell. He’s world famous and he played his Bach sonatas in a Washington DC subway for an hour. Literally, nobody stopped to listen. The following day played at Carnegie Hall, and people paid $200 to come and listen to him—using the same violin and playing the same music. That just shows that we’re not awake. We don’t really pay attention to what’s around us, because we are just so trapped in our own matrix.

So I like to create projects like The Bubble Project and Parallel World as a means to create a little crack in the matrix, as a means to stop a person—even if it is for two seconds—to stop them and to be in the moment, to get them out of the mindless zone.

As a matter of interest, we’ve been talking about your projects and your experience in advertising, etc. But what was the transition like from Droga5 to Google Creative Lab and then to Facebook, where you are now Creative Lead? It must be a very different experience to that of an advertising agency.

When I joined Droga5 it was, for me, the epitome of the creative scene. I really had an amazing time working with David [Droga]. I think I was something like ‘employee number seven’ at the time.

Really? [laughs]

He had just opened the Droga5 agency. It was essentially a startup. Things were chaotic and fun. I worked on some of my best advertising projects, including the New Museum.

I really had a great time. There was certainly no corporate fear. David is a fearless leader and we believed in our ideas and would not take on a client who didn’t understand the creativity. It was really as good as an agency can be.

The irony is that David comes from the Saatchi & Saatchi stable…

Exactly.

It’s almost the antithesis—with Saatchi & Saatchi being the finishing school for both of you, if you like, to then set up Droga5 and be the absolute opposite of what Saatchi & Saatchi was doing at the time.

Yeah. Well, he was more fortunate in creating amazing work because for several years he was in Saatchi & Saatchi offices in Asia where things are a little less rigid, and there are opportunities to do great work. He was producing all the best work for Saatchi & Saatchi while he was in Asia. I think he also felt limited by corporate policies and he wanted to do things his own way. I was very fortunate to be able to be part of his response to that. He hired me on the spot when he saw The Bubble Project. It wasn’t because of my advertising work, because I really had no advertising work in my portfolio. Again, another benefit of doing personal projects!

So I worked at Droga5, but there were a couple of things that I was never able to connect with in the agency world. First, the whole emphasis on winning awards. That’s very strongly present everywhere, including Droga5. I never really cared about winning awards. For me, it was more important to do work that really helped a client sell his or her products. That’s my job. But to do so in a way that is creative, in way that’s motivating, in a way that’s engaging to the consumer.

I never really cared about winning awards. For me, it was more important to do work that really helped a client sell his or her products. That’s my job. But to do so in a way that is creative, in way that’s motivating, in a way that’s engaging to the consumer.

I thought things like creating puns or creating jingles were extremely effective and you can do it in a way that’s also creative. These things aren’t highly regarded in the award’s world. There are certain formulas people use to win awards. I never really understood people’s interest in creating work to win awards.

Also, I had a very tough time working for a brand that I didn’t really believe in. For example, certain sodas [soft drinks], which I didn’t drink but had to spend hours and months trying to crack a creative solution for. I had to do it, because that’s my job. But I had a hard time really pouring my heart into it because I either didn’t enjoy the product or I didn’t believe in that brand.

I think, I was getting a little disillusioned about what it meant to be working in advertising industry in general. At that stage I’d been doing that for almost 10 years. Then I got a call from Google. It was Robert Wong, who I actually met at Frankfurt Balkind when we both worked there.

It’s sounds like Frankfurt Balkind was an amazing company: the best kind of finishing school! [laughs]

I know. Working there was actually an amazing blessing in disguise. In retrospect, it was actually a great decision not to join Stefan’s studio.

So Robert Wong called because he had just joined Google and he had just started Google Creative Lab. He asked if I wanted to join him. For me, it was a no-brainer because I believed in Google, and I used their product—and it was free. The mission of the company is to make information free and accessible to everyone. Here was a company that I really believed in. So I joined Google in a heartbeat. Again, I was really fortunate to be one of the first employees at Google Creative Lab. It was an amazing experience. I worked there for three years with some of the most talented and brightest people I’d ever worked with before.

One thing about working at Google Creative Lab, which was really liberating and wonderful and which was very different to working at an agency, was that everybody was working together towards the same goal, regardless of whether you were from the account side, if you were an engineer, if you were the manager, they were all amazing and talented—and they were all working together towards the same goal.

Whereas, in an ad agency there is a huge split between the creative department and the accounting department. There’s antagonisms and often a lot of friction. There’s a mistrust. The two sides don’t really like each other. Creative people usually despise account people and account people think creative people are spoiled divas.

Not having that kind of division was, for me, an amazing experience. And just in general, to work for a brand that did amazing things for the world and which I truly believed in from  my heart, made my world easy. It was just a pleasure for me to go to work every day.

It was a big transition for me, and a blessing to be part of that experience. I learned a lot about technology and the impact of technology, to really understand about how to be ‘scrappy’ because, at the beginning of Google Creative Lab, we didn’t have the same kind of resources that ad agencies have.

For example, when we did the Chrome campaign, I went to Times Square with an intern to interview people. We asked one question: What is a browser? That resulting video got almost 800,000 views. I would never have thought to do this if I were in the creative agency side because there is a producer, there is a film maker that you hire, a videographer and you hire an editor…

But because Google Creative Lab was new there was no such thing as a creative department. We had to do things on our own. We had to go out there, take our video cameras, find an editor or we edited it ourselves with iMovie and just learn everything, right down to how to upload to YouTube.

For me, that was an amazing and enlightening experience; allowing me to understand that the best way to do things is to do it on your own. And by doing this thing on your own, you’re learning the most.

It reminds me of something I read about Facebook, which stated all of the executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, aren’t seen as executives, they’re seen as ‘entrepreneurial thinkers’ who actually get involved with the work, who get their hands dirty at ground level—they’re not removed from the process. It sounds similar to what you just described with Google Creative Lab, where you weren’t removed from the process of producing the actual work. It seems there’s a correlation between the philosophy of Facebook and the philosophy of Google Creative Lab. Everyone gets in, everyone gets involved regardless of your position in the company. Would that be true?

Absolutely true. Which is also very different to the advertising world, where there are ranks and hierarchies. The creative directors are mostly approving the ideas. They’re not really getting their hands dirty. Oftentimes, they’re not even coming up with ideas themselves because they’re so busy managing the accounts. They have teams of art directors and copywriters who are coming up with the ideas. Whereas, at a place like Google Creative Lab, at the time I was there, and now at Facebook—especially Facebook—it’s a very flat organization. Physically, if you visit the office there are no separate rooms. Everybody’s sitting on one giant floor. Mark Zuckerberg is sitting amongst engineers and product designers. And Sheryl Sandberg will be sitting there, too. It’s really a culture of entrepreneurs.

As a manager, you have to ship stuff. There is a huge emphasis on people shipping things. You see this word ‘ship’ appear in lots of internal communications—in posters, in emails, etc. In fact, your performance is only measured by what you ship. I really fit right in because I love to make stuff, I love to ship. If I don’t, I get nervous.

That’s part of the reason why I was having such a hard time at Saatchi & Saatchi in the beginning. It’s very seductive, because you have a high salary, you have a great office, a very supporting…

And a prestigious business card.

And a prestigious business card! You can get easily sucked into that… comfortable life. When you have kids and mortgage to pay, it’s very hard to leave that kind of seduction and security. But, at Facebook, it’s a completely different way of working. You really have to get your hands dirty and ship stuff. I like it. I feel most liberated, useful, and alive when I’m making things and shipping stuff.

Let’s talk about the entrepreneurial attitude of Facebook, and considering the trajectory of your career. A lot of your side projects have been hugely successful and internationally recognized. They’ve led you to other jobs—jobs you feel you’d never have had otherwise. Yet, you continue to work for other companies, rather than creating your own studio or agency, which would turn your side projects into a business. Is there a particular reason for the decision not to do this?

I’ve thought about doing that. Maybe starting my own design firm, doing my own thing, having my own startup. Those thoughts have always been present. But the experience of working at Google Creative Lab and the experience of working with Facebook has been so rewarding. Also, I learned so much by being part of these organizations. I work with some of the brightest people, whom I learn from every day. It’s all fine as long as I can maintain the balance between my personal projects and professional projects. I’m a big believer that these two worlds complement each other.

Things that I learn doing side projects—meaning I’m doing things on my own and making things—I can bring these experiences into what I do with Facebook, because now I know how to make stuff and ship stuff, which is valued by the company.

Things that I learn at Google Creative Lab and Facebook—with regards the power of technology and the latest tools on how to amplify your message, how media works, how to collaborate with people from different disciplines—I bring this to my personal projects, which end up becoming these amazing self-fueling systems. I see the benefit of being part of these two worlds.

Fortunately, both Google Creative Lab and Facebook have no issues with me doing side projects or personal projects. They even encourage it. I got hired by these two companies because of my personal projects. So, obviously, they see the value in that. They see the value in their employees being entrepreneurs.

I don’t have to be at work at a certain time. There is trust that I’m doing my work. As long as I’m delivering and shipping, they’re cool. This gives me more flexibility and freedom to do things that I need to do. It really works well. For now, I’m pretty happy.

Perhaps you don’t see it this way, but considering your personal projects—which have attracted companies like Droga5 and Google Creative Lab and Facebook—these side projects and personal projects have helped you develop your own personal brand. Is that something that you’ve intentionally tried to do or is it a by-product? Would you even encourage other people to look at their side projects or personal projects as a means to perhaps create a personal brand?

It’s definitely a by-product. It’s not something that I’ve intentionally tried to do when I started doing these personal projects. As I did personal projects I realized: “Wow, I’m getting calls from agencies. I’m getting calls from great companies to join them to work with them.” When I started doing The Bubble Project, I didn’t even think about naming it as personal projects. I just did it because I needed to do it and I wanted to do it. The more projects I did the more I realized there’s a benefit—not only a personal benefit, but also a professional benefit.

After a while I realized I can actually focus on—as you said—branding this as my personal branding tool, for my personal activities. I go around the world giving speeches and presenting at conferences, which I love to do, and I also work for companies that I love and believe in. That’s why I make a clear distinction on my website between personal projects and professional projects, which is a way of helping me position myself to the market because the personal things I do also help professionally.

I see a lot of examples where people are doing this. People like Jeff Greenspan, my partner at Saatchi & Saatchi together with Ivan Cash. Justin Gedak, Christoph Niemann; these are people who really have branded themselves doing lots of personal projects. And they’re also extremely successful professionally.

There may be a simple reason why they are successful. If you put talent aside—and even if you put profile aside—something you talk about quite a lot is that you can be more successful in a project when you’ve got total control over it. This is where the side projects allow you to create a personal brand, which is specific to how you want to be portrayed. It’s having that control.

You’re absolutely right. It’s very hard, as you know, doing a professional project where you can’t have that level of control, because there’s so many chefs in the kitchen. There’s a client. There’s a creative director. There’s a lawyer. There’s an account manager. They all have their opinions, and they’re not less important than your opinion. But, as soon as you involve so many people who want to control the project, it becomes something completely different from what you envisioned. Yes, you’re right. When I’m doing my personal projects I have complete control to do things exactly the way I want to do things, so that’s hugely important.

When I’m doing my personal projects I have complete control to do things exactly the way I want to do things, so that’s hugely important.

Just a couple of final questions. On a more serious note, the wider role of social media is increasing. We’ve seen this with the Arab Spring. We’ve seen this with the horrendous Boston bombings where social media, particularly Twitter and Reddit, shaped the news channels’ narrative, because it focused on immediate reports from people who were on the scene. Of course, this is good in some ways but it’s a hindrance in other ways. For example, the FBI had to respond to people who were incorrectly identifying the bombers. Although those accusations were incorrect, the FBI still had to investigate because people on the ground were tweeting or posting.

With this in mind, does this increasing influence of social media in any way influence how you would approach your position at Facebook, even at a creative leadership level?

That’s a complex question. Anything that’s powerful has both good and bad; has both the potential to be great and awful. That touches on what we talked about earlier, the power of hijacking or hacking, right?

Now the Internet is accessible and available for anybody, you can use that tool to do something great like start a revolution. But, you can also use it to steal people’s identity and go into their bank account. It’s the nature of anything that becomes powerful. I believe in the goodness of people. I’m a positive person. I am an optimistic person. I prefer to see—and tend to see—the positive before I see the negative. When I work on a project on behalf of Facebook, or on my personal projects, I never really see the negative things. My mindset is positive; my mindset is that this is going to turn into a positive project.

Obviously, you cannot be naive and ignore important things to protect people’s privacy and stuff like that, but there’s something about that mindset that attracts positive energy around it. The best thing I can do is to be informed about the tools and technologies that could potentially be used for negative purposes. That’s what I do: I try to be as informed as possible about things that happen in the news.

I try to be as informed as possible about things that happen in the news.

In terms of the power of social media platforms—even the very name we give them, ‘social media’—they’re moving out of the social side and moving into influencing the news media cycle. Could you ever see Mark Zuckerberg say: “Social media is growing up, into another form of media, which is not necessarily social.” Although social media is participatory, is it possible that Facebook might become more of a media power player rather than just a platform for people to participate?

Facebook’s stance is that it is a medium—and it is a media platform. Our goal is to be the most effective, fastest, and most efficient tool for people to build on top of this platform. That’s why we want to stay as neutral as possible when it comes to having an opinion on content. Our goal is to build the best product possible. It’s really up to people to decide whatever they want to do with this powerful medium and powerful tool. You can also see this with Google and others, like Reddit. You know the theory of singularity? It’s where the technology is evolving at such a rapid speed that we actually don’t know what’s going to happen.

One can say the same about where social media is going. In fact, we really don’t know where this is going, because it’s so fast. It’s evolving so quickly. As someone who works at Facebook, I can feel things are constantly changing within the company. In a way, it’s the most unstable workplace, because the product is constantly changing. People are moving from one group to another.

But it’s also extremely liberating, because it’s not rigid and resistant to change compared to places like the corporate creative agencies that I used to work in. That’s all about stability and status quo. Now, I work in the exact opposite environment to that—an environment that is all about change, speed, innovation, and constant iterations in real time.

There are two sides. It can be extremely liberating and extremely innovative and creative, but, at the same time, there is acute uncertainty, an instability that comes from working in an environment like this.

Which I imagine is both exciting and scary.

Yeah. It’s both exciting and unsettling at the same time.

I’m going to finish by hacking my own question. I was originally going to focus on two of your philosophies which I really love: “Ideas are nothing, doing is everything” and “Ship, ship, ship”, because inherent in these is a belief that one must have the courage to produce things, rather than just simply conceptualize them. However, instead I’d like to go back to your very first firm-—Frankfurt Balkind—where many of the people that you now work with or associate with came from. Obviously, as we discussed earlier, there’s a tangible benefit in creating your own personal brand. In the same way, there is a tangible benefit in fostering a really valued and collaborative network of people, which in your case goes right back to the beginning of your career. Is this something that you continue to consciously foster, having had the benefit of that initial group of people? Or, is it something that’s just simply organic and natural?

I’m increasingly more aware of the importance of ‘the network’ and connections with people. In fact, my job at Facebook is really to help. I have two roles: the first is to help some of the biggest brands in the world with marketing on Facebook. In doing so, I work with the brands directly as well as their creative agencies to publish and create apps, because they all need help in these areas. The other side of my role is to communicate the constantly changing, evolving—and sometimes confusing—tools and messages about Facebook to creative agencies, in order to show the amazing potential these creative agencies will have through understanding and working with the Facebook platform.

I’m increasingly more aware of the importance of ‘the network’ and connections with people.

You mentioned earlier that creative agencies often talk about, or think about Facebook, in terms of putting it in the social media bucket, alongside Twitter, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, and so on. However, I believe Facebook is the defining medium of our time. Over one billion people are tuned into it, and over 700 million people in the United States alone are logging in every day, spending hours on Facebook. Yet, still, the vast majority of creative agencies are just scratching the surface, in terms of the potential of using Facebook as a platform.

I work closely with agencies. I’m constantly in contact with Creative Directors, Art Directors and Executive Creative Directors of agencies—just engaging with them and really sharing what can be done, discussing the potential. These connections are really important. And it’s extremely important to be humble. It’s vital to really listen to what they’re looking for and what they’re confused about, what their point of view is, and why they may not be considering Facebook. A lot of this is just connecting with them and having a general interest in what they’re doing—and then humbly sharing my view of what can be done with this platform. It all goes back to the original point of having meaningful connections with people.

Throughout my career, there were times that I was arrogant and cocky, simply because I felt frustrated. In some cases, I didn’t really respect the kind of work the agency was doing. Now, I’m realizing that kind of arrogance and cockiness is only self destructive. It doesn’t really create anything positive or meaningful, or constructive. These days I spend a lot of time and energy even writing an email—being a little more caring. I try to put myself in the receiver’s position and try to be as warm and personal as possible.

I’m so busy. I’m constantly juggling stuff. It’s easier to hit that reply button as soon as possible. But because I see the value of a personal connection with everybody, I really try to put extra effort in connecting with people in a more meaningful way. In the end, that’s the most important asset: friendships and the connections with people.

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Image Credits:

Images sourced on Please Enjoy

Families, 1980, by Herb Lubalin sourced on The Red List 

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Biography

Ji Lee has an extensive and entrepreneurial career across design and design thinking. Ji is the Creative Lead at Facebook, and former Creative Director at Google Creative Lab. Prior to this, he was Creative Director at Droga5 and Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi. He is known for his personal illustrations (Time Magazine/The New York Times) and has exhibited at Museum of Art and Design (MAD), New York. Fast Company lists Ji as one of America’s 50 most influential designers.

He is widely known for his subversive and humorous Bubble Project, where he printed stickers resembling comic strip speech bubbles and posted them anonymously on advertisements throughout New York City. This created an unprecedented and live dialogue with the New York public where anyone could write their comments and thoughts in the speech bubbles. Following major media coverage, in 2006, Lee wrote the book, “Talk Back: The Bubble Project” which documents the project.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee moved to Brazil when he was 10, and later went to New York City to study at Parsons School of Design. He graduated with a degree in Communication and Graphic Design.

Ji Lee: Everything is connected

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