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 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)

At first glance, you might think that Montreal-based graphic designer and art director
Kevin Yuen Kit Lo is either trying to pull your leg or even perhaps get you a tad riled up about something.

First of all, one is struck by the name of his Montreal-based creative studio: LOKi design. The studio was founded in 2001 in response to the reissuing of the
First Things First Manifesto and specifically out of Kevin’s very real desire to explore alternative approaches to design practice. As a designer, Kevin does his best to couple intensive design research with a commitment to progressive social objectives and values, seeking to create work that seeks to bridge the gap between art and activism. He also works diligently to maintain his traditional graphic design practice – balancing as well a job in the field of interactive communication with the design firm Fjord Interactive (as it’s known in Canada) and also teaching part-time at Concordia University.

But if we’re going to get the clichés started: that is all perhaps easier said than done. By his own admission, Kevin wishes he would draw more. What, you ask, a skilled graphic designer that doesn’t engage in or practice regularly his drawing? In addition, he readily admits that he has a general disdain for the advertising industry as a whole, apparent from not only several of his prints but also his hauntingly reflective film
Warover. Still, as mentioned, does he not remain gainfully employed by a very successful advertising agency (albeit a somewhat loosely stated description there)? Is there not some contradiction here?

Even the award-winning, self-published ‘zine, ‘
Four Minutes to Midnight’ or ’23:56’ that Kevin produces with John W. Stuart is brimming with contradiction and challenge. As one recent review stated: ‘For the design aficionado with a ‘progressive’ leaning, 23:56 is a satisfying, well-crafted typographic and compositional piece. The typography utilizes a limited base set of stylish contemporary faces, which imply “serious reading” without being staid... however, there is a constant sense of menace, of gravity about the content... The issue as a whole mixes light and dark: day is invoked along with night. A tempering and counter-pointing of emotions occurs throughout. But shadows are always looming.

Again then, perhaps it lies in the very nature of the name of Kevin’s venture. Whether you adhere to the more
staid descriptives of the great tomes of Norse mythology and it’s poetic renderings, or get your opinion from his long-standing appearance as the nemesis of Thor the God of Thunder of comics fame, it seems to be clear that Loki was (or ‘is’, depending on your own beliefs) a person of great mischief, often stirring up troubles and even going so far as to delight in the misery – and demise – of others.

But alas ... we do not and indeed can not offer up someone as devious as this Loki in this interview. Instead, we are happy to introduce Kevin as a very well-educated young designer looking to make a difference in the world around him. His works are both extremely creative as well as very thought provoking and his following continues to grow with each new offer. Besides, you’ve got to love it when the publishers throw great release parties for every issue of their magazines, no?

Ziggy Nixon is very pleased to have caught up with this fast rising star:


Kevin, welcome. First of all – and I hope this isn’t taken wrong or seems rude – but is Kevin your given name? It’s just that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with various cultures insistence that Asians take a ‘Anglo-Saxon’ name.

Well, from my perspective, your question does come off a little strange. Kevin is my given name, I was born and raised in Canada, and pretty much consider myself Canadian. Of course, my heritage and background is Chinese, and I do keep Yuen-Kit in my official name. I certainly don't take offence to questions about nationality. I also have a serious dislike for the homogenisation / Westernisation of culture these days.

Still, your question actually did make me think a bit. I mean, it is something that I regret slightly in terms of not keeping up as well as I could have with my Chinese heritage, you know like learning the language better. But it certainly wasn't a conscious choice.

Can you tell us more about yourself and how you’ve found your way to a career in design? Also, after reading some of your on-line biographical information, I’m dying to know about what it was like living on a mountain!
Well, again, I’m Canadian. I was born here, and raised in this culture, alongside my Chinese culture.

As for the mountain, that’s a looooong story. But basically I attended an alternative school at a young age in Nova Scotia. Didn’t much have to do with being Canadian or anything like that, but I certainly learned my fair share of wilderness survival skills. I think the perspective I gained that year has stuck with me in many ways. But it was definitely a bit of an adjustment learning how to socialise and ‘fit in’ again coming back to Toronto in grade 7. A challenging time to say the least.

As to my choice of career in design, I didn’t even realise that this sort of profession existed when I was growing up. It basically came down to a love of drawing balanced by an understanding that I would probably also need to make money. And when I saw the program description while applying for the University, well this thing called graphic design seemed to fit the bill.

The ironic thing is now I can hardly draw anymore, which is something I’ve been trying to motivate myself to correct for a while now.

Okay, I have to ask: why Loki design? Does it have to do more with your name (pronunciation or otherwise), or is there some sort of connection to the fact that ‘he’ is the Norse god of mischief, as your ‘logo’ and site header certainly seems to play up the Norse connection as well?

You’re spot on there. It’s basically a combination of my name and a direct reference the Norse god of mischief/chaos.

In addition, one of the most interesting aspects of art (and design) to me is it’s capacity to act as a catalyst for change and transformation, and in many ways that was Loki's role as well.

Now one of the most difficult aspects of doing ‘research’ on you and your work is trying to peg it down, so that you can be neatly placed in one of these carefully arranged boxes that the general public (and bloggers) always like to put clever folks like yourself into. You’re a graphic designer, magazine producer, teacher, poet, web-site designer, artistic manager, and much more. How would you best describe then to someone just meeting you what you do?
If I were to chose a title, it would be 'graphic designer'. I think that's a broad enough term to encompass all the various interests and practices I have.

However, most people still don't really understand what it is that graphic designers do, so I don't know if the term helps that much. Basically, I would say I work with words and images in order to give them form and meaning. And if that's still too abstract for someone, I'll add that I make websites, and books, too, as well as posters and logos.

Also, how would you best describe what a ‘visual poet’ is, and how did you and your colleague and co-editor John W. Stuart really get started with this?
I think visual poetry can be best described as poetry that investigates and exploits the materiality of language, of words and letters themselves, where the visual (or physical in some cases) aspects of the poem play an intrinsic role.

I'm certainly not the best person to describe it though, as I entered the world of visual poetry rather obliquely. It seemed that my design approach with Four Minutes to Midnight spoke to a certain audience of practitioners. My interest in the form has blossomed since then, but generally from the perspective of a graphic designer as opposed to as a poet. I wish my writing was stronger, but it isn't so I tend to focus on the visual side of things.

On the other hand, John's got an incredible talent for both the written word and it’s visual interpretation. So it’s been a natural fit working on these kinds of projects with him.
(ZN: our apologies to John, however, we did not find a link to him prior to publication of this interview. If we can rectify that, we will immediately update the blog)

As you’re at least co-editor for two released font-types, I’m interested in what is meant by ‘experimental typography’? Isn’t that in some way redundant?
No, I don't really see it as redundant. Typography (and type design) can certainly be classical or traditional, and there are many beautiful typefaces designed in this fashion, with practical goals of legibility, consistency and elegance alongside the myriad of technological factors that are taken into consideration.

Experimental typography, for me, is using type (design) to explore and express certain ideas, with those traditional goals tossed aside (at least for the moment). The fonts I designed are certainly raw, conceptual, experiments, with the aim of exploring visual/cultural trends and archetypes through type.

Just briefly:

Hel is an exploration on the parallel preponderance of Blackletter and Helvetica in contemporary culture.

Paranoid is a commentary on the still-growing trend of bold, counterless and geometric typography.

When you work, are you able to keep the various aspects of your design ‘practice’ separate, when needed (if at all)? For example, if you’re working on a typography solution to meet a client’s needs, do you drift in and out of your poetic mind-zone?
I'm generally able to keep things separate, especially for the work I do for my day job. There's not much room for poetry in the commercial sphere (though I do look for the cracks whenever I can).

On the other hand, when I’m working on my own projects, a lot of my interests will overlap. But there's generally a clear communication objective that places one aspect of my work above another.

Is it important for you to combine different aspects in new ways, including poetry with visual performance, or even through film and other media?
I'm not so much interested in the new as the expressive. In the end, I'm just trying to communicate something visually, and I'll use whatever skills or media I have at hand to do so.

For example, even though I'm interested in film as a viewer, I've never really worked in the medium, and don't know if I ever will. On one side, the technical aspect intimidates me, and on the other I find there's something so much more satisfying in creating a physical object. Of course, I do a lot of work on the web, but my true passion still resides in making something that you can hold and smell.

John and I have both performed different parts of Four Minutes to Midnight before, and that has always been fun. It's really interesting to see the relationship between the visual treatment and it’s auditory component.
One thing that is often covered in various interviews and inputs on the web about your work is your adherence if you will to the ‘First Things First Manifesto’ or better said perhaps it’s re-issuance. Can you describe to us what this manifesto entails and how you use it or follow it to help guide your own work?
The reissuing of the First Things First (FTF) Manifesto in 2000 was basically a call to arms for designers to work for the social good instead of squandering their skills just trying to sell things. It criticised the role of design in fostering a commodity-based culture and at the time, sparked a lot of debate within the profession. For me, it really hit home.

And though I've tried to follow it in practice, it's been difficult to say the least. Unless you're very lucky, I think it's hard these days to put enough bread on the table without flirting with the advertising industry. Nonetheless, I do as much work as I can on the side that I hope will contribute to our culture in a different, more positive way. At times, when I'm discouraged, I think back to the idealism I had at the time of FTF, and with a mix of nostalgia and optimism, use it to keep truckin' on.

I'd like to add that there are a lot of successful alternative practices out there, exploring design outside of the commercial sphere. I just haven't found how to make it work out for me yet. But I'm still trying.

I was also struck by your comment : ‘I owe a lot to my professors at Concordia University, who exposed us to the social and political dimension of graphic design.’ How would summarise what this dimension encompasses or perhaps even ‘expects’ of a designer today?
On a very basic level, I think it's simply about being aware of the importance of our visual environment, how it reflects upon and shapes society. Once you genuinely understand this, I would hope your responsibility as a creator of images and messages becomes clear.

Its about asking questions, questions like does your work propagate harmful stereotypes or encourage diversity? Does it limit the realm of thought and action or instead does it open up possibilities? Obviously, there's a lot of complexity in asking these questions, a vast grey area, but I think it's important for designers to at least start asking them.

A couple of my professors at Concordia were very good at opening up and supporting this line of questioning. In truth, many of my fellow students were critical of this approach, as it didn't seem very practical. But I really appreciated the depth that it lent to my conception of design, allowing me to develop a passion for it that has since grown into a rather unique ‘career’.

You’re also involved with quite an impressive design agency, that is,
Fjord Marketing. It seems as well that you’ve had a lot of success with this group, with several projects where you played a key role in their realisation receiving prestigious awards (see for example here and here). How are you able to balance your ‘professional’ career with Fjord with your other activities or even beliefs and ideals?
It's a tough balance for sure. I struggle quite a bit to find the time and energy to commit to doing my independent projects.

So basically, I end up working a lot, including in the evenings and on weekends. I'm hoping to take some time soon to step back and THINK about what it is I want to do next, that would be great.

Does it sometimes ever seem to you that with your work at essentially a large Corporate advertising agency implies that you’re, for lack of a better term, ‘sleeping with the enemy’? I mean, after all, they have a Mission Statement and everything! To put it a little differently, do you sometimes feel conflicted in terms of your activist views or works and your role at Fjord?
The short answer is yes, I do feel conflicted at times. I think there are far more important and interesting things I could be putting my skills to use for on a day to day basis.

As mentioned earlier, I have a general disdain for the advertising industry as a whole. But luckily my work at Fjord is mainly focused on the art direction and design of websites, which I find a little less nefarious than traditional advertising. This being said, I've also mellowed a bit with age, and when it comes down to it, a job is a job.

And with the way things are today, I'm happy to have one right now where I can still be creative and get paid for it.

Continued in Part 2

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yeah, not the Kevin Yuen I was looking for from San Francisco, CA - pretty cool though.