“Vernacular” design—or at least trained designers mimicking it—has been having its moment for a while now. It comes under many guises (“ugly” design, “retro” design) and in bright colors, an unabashed mashup of multiple system fonts, ClipArt, and a general throwing of grids and caution to the wind.
You can count designer Jae Ee as a fan, but his work isn’t just born of trendiness. Rather, it’s an integral part of the visual culture he grew up with in Seoul. Both his parents are signboard designers, though neither was formally trained.
“They would also use pre-made images, ClipArt, and free fonts,” says Ee. “They do almost exactly the same thing as me, but I’m the one who did a graphic design course.”
Ee’s grounding in such a style is clear, but is by no means the defining characteristic of his work. He’s developed a deft and subtle approach to typography and layout, crediting his MFA in graphic design at CalArts. Such a technical and focused course was exactly what Ee was after; he’d found his undergrad course at Konkuk in Seoul to be too sprawling.
“The curriculum didn’t focus on one medium or theme, we were expected to study all media,” he says. “I chose motion graphics because at the time it was kind of trendy… everyone wanted to be in that club at the time. When I was at university in Seoul, I think I was afraid to express myself in my work. That’s why I wanted to go to CalArts, to learn about a more expressive graphic language.”
Now based in New York, Ee works on the brand design team at design agency 2×4, but spends a lot of time working on personal projects for cultural clients, from band posters to promotional imagery for design talks. “I feel like there’s more freedom in designing for cultural clients,” says Ee. “I get to have more authority than with corporate clients.”
One of the strongest pieces for us in Ee’s portfolio is an image (at the top of this article) created to promote a talk by Amsterdam “performance design” studio The Rodina. When it lived online, the surface graphics on the poster were coded to move, “unlike traditional posters in which everything becomes flattened,” Ee explains. What was both the challenge and the joy of the project was in the content itself. “The Rodina has a really specific, brave aesthetic,” says Ee. “Their graphic language feels raw, with 3D modeling and primary colors, so I used those, but put them through my own filter. I used the typefaces I like using, and my own way of typesetting, so that I would make a weird visual that had their feeling, but also my style.”
Ee makes a point of often using system fonts and straightforward, simple typography in his work. “Before I went to CalArts I read a quote from one of the professors, Mr. Keedy: ‘There is no such thing as a bad typeface… just bad typography’,” Ee says. “That’s why I prefer to create interesting designs through typesetting or layout or other elements, rather than just the type itself. I made the Typound manifesto poster, for instance, only using free fonts from DaFont.”
That’s not to say, however, that Ee’s interest in type is purely functional: his thesis project saw him create the typEmoji book, in which letters and emoji were combined to create a peculiar and often very cute new alphabet. “Although the distance between type and emoji is just a few pixels in text messages, there is a ton of forms of expression between them, if we consider them at their essence: texts and images,” says Ee. “It’s all about exploring the subtle nuances in text communication as a typographer.”
The project was also partially informed by Ee’s arrival in the U.S., and the realization that this was a wholly different (and very iOS-led) way of using emoji than he was used to back in Korea. “I wanted to look at these sorts of everyday things, and daily life, but as a graphic designer,” he says. “Emoji are interesting as they’re really joyful and playful, but also have a limited means of expression.”
While Ee is excited about the recent developments in the design scene back in Korea, he’s hoping to stay in New York for the foreseeable future. But the big question is: what do his parents think of his design style? “We don’t talk about work. Would they like my designs? Maybe!”