As we prepare for the inaugural AIGA Eye on Design Conference, we meet some of our esteemed speakers to find out more about them, their work, and what you can expect from them on the big day.
Ping Zhu is an illustrator based in New York whose impressive client list boasts the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Instagram, Harper Collins, Slack, and Penguin. The first thing she ever designed was something of a dream come true: an editorial illustration commissioned by Leanne Shapton in 2009 for The New York Times Letters. She’ll be speaking on our Women in Illustration panel at the conference.
You’ve created work for brands from The New Yorker to American Express and Instagram, which all have very different identities and audiences. How do you ensure your approach translates across commissions that vary so much in scope, and in who will be seeing your work?
I like to give the audience more credit in understanding what they see by not going down the most obvious route, but also remembering that people will see things how they want to see it despite my best intentions. It’s also important to try to let go of how people receive your work once it’s been put out into the world and trust yourself that it makes enough sense. I wouldn’t be able to make much if I was prioritizing my time on how to avoid negative opinions.
The Amex job was meant to be abstract, and therefore mainly color and gesture based, so I let the materials speak for itself. One person remarked that the Amex pieces had what appeared to be “a rotting old leaf” and didn’t understand why it was worth having an artist interpretation, but that’s part of the range of possibility.
The things I ask myself during the making of a piece are whether or not I like what I’m doing, and if there is at least a thin line drawn that ties together the concept and the brief. It’s trusting your own instincts, and sometimes that falls short, but if I can’t rely on or nurture my own confidence, I’m probably not going to last long in this industry. The audience will always vary, so it’s about developing a visual language that has keywords and nuances, and knowing when and where to use them.
What 3 things do you love most about your job that’s unique to being an illustrator?
Living a dual life between your imagined ideas and others is a challenge, but one that I enjoy. It’s a constant collaboration and one that relies on your voice but also empathy.
I like that my personal experiences and perspectives supply a richer backstory for my ideas, and that they shouldn’t be diminished. Lastly being able to say that I’m a “drawer” but pronounce it like the furniture.
You have such a distinctive aesthetic that incorporates very vivid colors and strong lines. What helped you develop this personal style?
I think that people’s personalities and tastes come through their work naturally, so that’s most likely the reason. I find vivid colors and strong lines attractive, but typically when it exists or belongs to a different plane. The attraction exists externally, and mimicking the feeling those elements give me starts from the within. The contrast between vibrancy and calmness is like the separation between the maker and the result.