September 16, 2009

It's 23:56! Do You Know Where Your Designer Is?

An Interview with Graphic Designer and Art Director
Kevin Yuen Kit Lo
Click on any image to enlarge it to original size

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)

Kevin, this may go into the collection of strange questions I’ve asked so far, but do you or your colleagues ever feel that there is even something innately conflicting for anyone producing ‘activist’ work that gets paid for it or receives in other ways exposure, income, etc. (noting as you say, we all of course have to put bread on the table...)?

To put it simply, no, not at all. I don't see any problem with getting paid for work, be it commercial or 'activist'. If we could all get paid for doing something we believe in and enjoy doing, I think the world would be a much better place.

How about turning that around: do you think that your ‘day-time employers’ at Fjord ever want to kind of tell you to turn it back a bit and if yes, how did/would you respond? What do you think the reaction, even backlash, might be if Fjord lost an account with a big corporate account because they didn’t want to be associated with this platform of opinions you’re presenting?
So far, I really haven't had to deal with this, and to be honest, I don't think I will. I try to do good work for Fjord and if my activities outside of work ever became an issue for them, I wouldn't want to work there anyway.

Again, I don't think this would happen. I have the utmost respect for the people I work with, and I'd like to think that respect is mutual. Anyway, I don't think anything I do (at this point at least!) is really controversial or radical enough to cause any serious problems.

With the Obama election and the successful use by his campaign of branding and advertising, even logos, have these fields moved into a new arena of significance?
I don't think they've necessarily moved into a new arena of significance per se. I've always thought they were incredibly significant.

Still, I do credit the Obama campaign and current administration for recognising the importance of good design and taking full advantage of new communications tools to communicate with the American public.

How do we differentiate then something like the ‘Hope’ or ‘Yes We Can’ posters from propaganda posters of other regimes, or perhaps not to be so extreme, with viewpoints that we don’t necessarily agree with or support? For example, is it any more right or wrong for someone to counter your own ‘pro-Gaza’ poster perhaps with an anti-terrorist poster or some other theme or work in support of what Israel’s activities?
Objectively, we shouldn't differentiate. Questions of right and wrong are up to the individual – though they are obviously shaped, and enforced, by the moral/legal fabric of a given society. This is obviously where things can get muddy, because in general the media, and propaganda specifically, plays a large role here.

So personally, if someone created a poster calling for the elimination of the Palestinians, I would find that repugnant and 'wrong' (hopefully, most people would), just as some people have reacted strongly to my poster calling for a Boycott.

This being said, I think there are (semi-)objective ways in order to evaluate a piece of communication as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on an ethical level. First and foremost, we have to ask ourselves: does the message lie? Obviously, the truth is debatable, but there are clear differences between saying something truthfully and untruthfully. Also, there's the fine but very important line between being persuasive and manipulative.

The bottom line is that it's up to each of us to make up our own minds. My problem with advertising and the media is that they often don't provide us with the information needed to do this. The political economy of the communications sphere is a really interesting subject, and something I'd love to explore further, especially in relation to design practice.

In fact, I started looking at this for my graduate certificate thesis. It was during the research phase of this project that I developed a short Flash animation entitled Warover in order to present my concept to my tutors. It turned out that this animation worked very well in it’s own right – remaining still very relevant today! It was featured on several design, art and/or political web-sites and was even screened on national television (on CBC’s ZeD).

If you want, you can download
my complete thesis here. (ZN : Achtung! 12.1 mb / 114 page file!)

You have enjoyed some success – and also less successful times – throughout your education that has ultimately led you to where you are today. What advice would you give someone just starting out in ANY field of design or communication?
First of all, develop a critical eye. Look around you and question why things are the way they are. This applies as much to a coffee shop's logo as to the way a news program is structured to the current fashion trends. Find meaning and draw connections, as this ability will provide you with an invaluable toolbox to express your own messages in the future.

Also: work for love, not money. I think this cliché is pretty self-explanatory; but design is not an easy profession to work in, and if you're working for love, you're not likely to give up as easily. Which ties in to my last and most important piece of advice: don't give up.

What prompted you to also put into writing various thoughts about your time and experiences from Post St. Joost in Breda (NL)?
I went through a very trying time in my life while I was in Breda, but ultimately the piece is not about that, it just starts there.

I think I wrote the piece because I felt lucky that I had managed to meet (or at least communicate with in the case of Graham Wood and Stuart Ewen) so many amazing people. I felt I had learned a lot over the course of those two years (that I spent in Breda and London). It was so interesting to me how the personal and professional connected. So I decided that in one way or another, I just needed to get it out.

Also, I’m just curious as you’re not the first person I’ve interviewed with their own design ‘zine and I’ve seen you also contribute even to others (e.g. allmaple). Why do you think so many design students or design-oriented professionals are interested in creating outlets for their work like this?
As a professional designer, there's a lot of the process that you don't control, not least of which is the origination of the message. I think it’s therefore only natural for creative people to want to express themselves and have control over the various aspects of their work. And the self-directed work comes from that drive.

At the same time, most of the work in Four Minutes to Midnight is not created by me: there's a process of collaboration and remixing involved that I really enjoy. I don't have the natural talents of a writer or visual artist, but I do think my design and editorial skills can add something to a work and bring out new forms and meaning.

What is it do you think they – or specifically you – are looking to achieve? Isn’t the market pretty much flooded with such endeavours and if yes, how does one manage to raise their own flag out from under the stampede of the various offers available (noting I did see as well that you both won the
first Expozine award for the Best English Language zine)?
It's a good question. There certainly is a lot of stuff out there, and I do often ask myself why I'm making more, killing trees as it were.

As I mention above, I think I (and many others) just have a drive to create and hopefully connect with an audience. It seems far better than doing nothing. I'm not looking for fame and fortune (though it might be nice), I just want to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. And making things that communicate responds to this for me. I'm at my lowest when I don't have something I want to be working on.

As for getting noticed, I haven't found the answer to this one yet. Despite your kindly mentions of my success, I still have boxes of ‘zines sitting in my apartment (ZN: order now! Operators are waiting on your calls!).

A key aspect of both your work with 23:56 and also work you do in terms of politics relies so heavily on the ‘community of artists’ either locally or around the world. Why do you think this aspect is so strongly pronounced in terms of the communication, sharing and contributions designers make to one another?
Community is something that's really important to me, however, I also think that it's something that is sadly lacking in our modern world.

Not to go on too much of a rant, but Capitalism (with an uppercase ‘C’) succeeds by isolating individuals and turning them into consumers rather than actors. Nurturing your communities – be it geographically, ideologically, or creatively – is an effective way to fight back.

On a practical level, I don't see any way anyone can really have any success without the help and support of others. And in order to get this support, you generally need to help others as well. Sharing is caring...

I also see that you have participated as a Jury member for Memefest, correct? What is that like, having to judge others work and in many ways, affecting their careers or even future motivations?
I judge work constantly, that's part of developing the ‘critical eye’ I mentioned earlier. More specifically as a professor, but also as a working professional, knowing how to evaluate work is a basic and necessary skill. But I really doubt that I had that much of an affect in the careers of the students and artists that submitted works to Memefest. I was judging the work, not the individual and I hope my comments (both positive and negative) weren't taken personally.

It's true that I may have been quite critical of a lot of the work I judged (Memefest gives tough briefs and accepts everything submitted). But what's really special about Memefest is that the judging involves feedback, and as critical as my feedback may have been at times, it was always constructive. Hopefully in the long term it helps breed better, more conscious, designers.

Ultimately, if you had to pick one and only one (gasp) aspect of what you do in design today at the expense of all the others, what would it be and why?

This is a tough question. I would have to say drawing, even though I don't do much of it these days. I really wish I drew more and more naturally.

At this point it's something I need to force myself to do. But when I was younger I would draw all the time, and it was such a satisfying, freeing form of expression. Yeah, I really need to draw again.

I see you’re also looking for a potential internship?

I'm not actually looking for an internship, but an artist's residency. I’m trying to ‘swing’ my work as an artist in order to see if I have the chops to get out of the rat race. I have to admit though that I really don't understand the process of applying for these.

Do you feel even that there’s something missing from your portfolio that you’d like to add in the coming moons?
There's a lot missing. And I don't want to sound too self-effacing, but I'd love to see myself produce some great work, something that would make me stop and really appreciate it. I haven't achieved that yet.

How about any last messages you’d like to share? What’s next for Kevin Yuen Kit Lo?
Well, I would like to add that I’m currently working on two important projects:

One, is that I’m involved with Artivistic, where we’re looking to raise money for the TURN*ON Solidarity P2P Fund. This is a great thing! To give you the ‘mission statement’, TURN*ON’s p2p (peer-to-peer) solidarity funding project is meant to help participants – who for various reasons have less access to funds – receive support from their peers or supporters, other participants, sister organisations and/or affinity groups.

Secondly, of course, we’re busy trying to get together the next issue of 23:56. There’s issues left ready to distribute of past issues as well! We’re getting a lot of really good feedback and we’re really looking forward to continuing full steam ahead!

So in both cases, if you have any extra money laying around (under the bed, between seat cushions, etc.) please consider donating to these two important projects!


In conclusion, we’re going to ‘ghost write’ over a very concise and
entertaining summary Kevin once provided about himself with some other added bits and bobs included. In deference to his own tendency to talk in the third person, we’ve changed the pronouns slightly (to protect the innocent and all that rot). Note that nothing has been cut from the original text (when there’s a full-stop, it’s a full-stop!). Enjoy:

Kevin Yuen Kit Lo was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1978. In 1989, he lived on a mountain. He moved to Montréal in 1996 to attend Concordia University's design art program (where) he learned all sorts of stuff. As an apparently willing victim of intense education, he holds an MA in Typographic Studies from the
London College of Printing and a BFA in Design Art from Concordia University.

He mentions that he had a professor that made him and his classmates watch a MBanx commercial 12 times in a row to force them to realise how manipulative and co-optive advertising is (apparently it worked). Very importantly, he learned design is not advertising.

He became interested in Communication Theory and Political Science and their relationship with culture. He graduated in 2000 and returned to Toronto to work for a small marketing company.

In April 2001, he went to Quebec City to protest a trade agreement and was gassed and chased by jackbooted police officers. To quote Tibor Kalman: "What I witnessed that day was ugly and nasty, and it radicalised me."

In September 2001, he returned to Montréal to do a graduate certificate in Digital technologies in Design Art Practice. He wrote a thesis on the social and political context within which graphic design operates, graduating with Honours in August 2002.

2001 must have been busy for him, because that same year he participated as an organising member of the
Declarations Design Symposium in Montreal. He has also worked with the Artivistic collective since 2006. His professional and personal work has been widely exhibited, recognised and awarded, including certificates of design excellence from Print and Communication Arts Magazine.

As mentioned, he publishes along with his pal John W. Stuart the ‘zine (cool-speak for magazine... we think) ‘Four Minutes to Midnight’. This is published annually, exploring the intersections of experimental typography, poetics and politics. He is also a part-time faculty member at Concordia University where he teaches classes in typography. He must be a cool professor because he also took time to post work by his first class. If you must know more, you can download his CV also known as résumé here.

He continues to work and try to consistently put bread on the table. You see, he is not a robot... not a robot... not a robooooo...*

This is his current Facebook avatar and yes, we think this is significant. He is in a relationship with code-name (or given name?) Danger Cat.

Thank you and have a pleasant tomorrow.


For more about Kevin, we highly recommend checking out his home web-site or also this very well presented article. If you want to keep up with his various web offerings, then type fast, because more comes out all the time! For one recent campaign he was involved in, please see here. And to answer your next question: yes, beer counts as a good cause! And good beer all the more so...

Kindly note that all images are used with the express written consent of Kevin Yuen Kit Lo and may not be reproduced or otherwise used without permission of the artist. For further information, see for more.


Kevin said...

Thanks Ziggy, that was great! Strange to read it in a different light.

oubliette said...

sweet interview! and, no, danger cat is not my given name. neither is oubliette. ;)