Interview : Ian Lynam

This month we interview the inspiring Ian Lynam, a designer and educator who has been living and working in Tokyo for the last 10 years. Ian’s work is well considered and highly crafted, the depth of thought behind his work is evident throughout every job.

Ian has made an impressive contribution to the local design community through his work, frequent presentations at events like Pecha Kucha and Ride the Lightning and numerous written contributions to blogs and websites. We’re glad to have been able to interview Ian and hope you enjoy the read.

To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My full name is Ian Michael Lynam. I am from New York State—a very small town called Averill Park about two hours north of New York City. I am the Principal of Ian Lynam Design, a multidisciplinary design studio based in the Hatagaya neighborhood of Shibuya. I am adjunct faculty at Temple University Japan and faculty at Meme Design School.

I am the Chair and faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Graphic Design program. I travel to Vermont a few weeks a year to participate in our residencies there.

I’ve been curating a new blog for the program there called Perpetual Beta that I am really pumped about—it has tons of interviews with some of the best designers, design writers and design thinkers active today.

What kind of work did you do before moving to Japan?

It was the basis of what I do now—identity design, type design, UI/UX and editorial direction and print design… and, of course, writing about design!

I hopped around the US quite a bit prior to moving to Japan—I lived in different parts of New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and Los Angeles prior to moving to Tokyo a bit over a decade ago.

What were the main reasons that made you want to live and work in Japan?

I’d make a distinction here— I was interested in working in Tokyo, not “Japan”. I grew up in a small town and my parents drove 25 minutes to work every weekday in Albany, the state capitol. I would drive into Albany with them occasionally as a child, and just always hated the bland FM music, the lurching of the car in traffic, and the palpable disconnection from a centralized local economy.

By the time I got out of high school, I was dead set on ensuring that I’d never have to commute and that my life would be part of the fabric of a city. I wanted the opposite of where I grew up—I wanted functional urbanity. In the words of Sarah Schulman, “Urbanity is the familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together… The daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes you innovative solutions and experiences possible.” Growing up in the countryside was the opposite of this for me. It was insular and isolated.

I have always been interested in urbanism and in living in places where one doesn’t need a car. Much later, three years of living in LA sealed that for me. As Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world and one that is based on urban density, I always found the city fascinating. I can cycle everywhere or use public transit. It is, in short, a dream—the home I’d always searched for in terms of livability.

Culturally, I found the futurism of Tokyo fascinating when I was just a visitor, but now being a resident, the allure of Japanese graphic design history here is all-pervasive to me. There is just so much that other cultures don’t understand or mis-comprehend, and studying Japanese graphic design history is fascinating. It’s a funny contradiction—akin to coming for love, but staying for the food.

What did you think working in Tokyo would be like before moving here? Could you tell us about how it was different to your expectations?

I was never interested in doing things ‘correctly’, and I didn’t have any real expectations—I just wanted to have a transdisciplinary practice that mixed studio work, design education and design writing. There aren’t many folks interested in this kind of practice, and as each generates different streams of inquiry and income, one can do it in any major urban area.

Could you tell us about your clients and the challenges of running your own business in Japan?

Our clientele is a mix of super-local Japanese businesses, international businesses, and international businesses with a foothold in Japan. Most work with our studio because they comprehend our sensitivity to many cultures, our decidedly internationalist feminist perspective, and that we are organized, efficient, thoughtful, honest and friendly.

The biggest challenge was finding our initial clients a decade ago—people who were forward-thinking and honest. Luckily, I came to Tokyo with a healthy roster of clients already, and it was just time and meeting people—sorting out who would be good to develop relationships with, and the slow process of attrition. I came to Japan with a healthy roster of clients from the US, many of whom I still work with today, but as American clients fell away, we picked up Japanese clients.

Additionally, we work with a number of international clients who are not based in Japan—just folks we have met over the years and along the way whom we feel a kinship with and with whom we collaborate well. It’s great—we’re just lucky to work with so many great people.

You split your time between designing, teaching in Tokyo and teaching in the US. How do you find this mix influences your work and perspective on Japan?

Designing and teaching really feed off of each other. In my opinion, the very best design education should offer a deep understanding of conceptual approaches to design, a variety of methodologies and skills for form-giving, and the ability to synthesize both, as well as a thorough understanding of design history and design theory. I teach in a process-oriented way, encouraging creative thinking and transdisciplinarity through speculative projects which really push students to put themselves into the work, not portfolio-driven class work. It encourages odd results and engagement—utilizing chance processes as much as visual acumen, and this method of teaching encourages a sense of authorship and ownership amongst students. This totally feeds back into studio work—trying unexpected methodologies, asking questions, poking, prodding, and trying to wring the very best out of client work by involving the client in the process and encouraging that same sense of authorship and ownership.

I encourage understanding sociopolitical and socioeconomic power structures, gender stereotypes, and to think as entrepreneurs and explorers, not service providers.

Directly, it reflects in how I teach my undergrad students at TUJ, particularly minority students and female students. I encourage understanding sociopolitical and socioeconomic power structures, gender stereotypes, and to think as entrepreneurs and explorers, not service providers. So many wonderful students of mine have graduated with really good design chops and gotten hired at amazing creative hubs, only to be relegated to administrative work because they are bilingual. It is disheartening when corporations cannot see the real potential of recent graduates. Luckily, an equal number make it in the creative fields, but those are the really tough ones.

My perspective on teaching, especially in Tokyo, was profoundly changed when I joined the faculty at the MFA program at VCFA. Our institution is based on the teachings of American pragmatist John Dewey, a great humanitarian, and now more than ever, I fight tooth and nail for my kids. I try to get them jobs, or introduce them to people who can get them jobs, and I just try to be the best teacher and ally and friend to them. Japan needs more design educators who make opportunities for their students and smash old senses of hierarchy. There are some that I have met and worked with, notably Akiyama Shin, Nakagaki Nobuo, and Shirai Yoshihisa, but more than anything, there are just folks who teach because it’s a job and that’s it.

What are your thoughts on design education in Japan? How does it compare to that of the US?

I think that they’re both pretty messed up, honestly—too much hierarchical yuckiness and too many outdated Modernist methodological models. Operationally, most universities are reliant on an array of adjunct instructors today—this system rewards neither faculty nor students in terms of outcomes.

Temple University Japan neatly mirrors American universities in tone and operational methodologies. Most Japanese universities do, as well, though they pay adjuncts far worse than TUJ does, so at least I have that going for me.

In terms of the content part, most Japanese universities lack the ability to impart an understanding of the importance of formal/conceptual synthesis and different models of design process. It’s strange. Additionally, most are deficient at teaching design history and theory, as well.

Apart from design and teaching, you do a lot on writing and design criticism of both local and international design. What are you thoughts on design criticism and design thinking in Japan?

I used to complain about it, but the thing is that Japan has IDEA, one of the longest-running graphic design publications in the world. The Editor-in-chief Kiyonori Muroga has made sure that IDEA is a venue for criticism, history, and continual assessment/evaluation. Compare IDEA with American publications and you can see how trade-oriented, populist, and ‘lite’ American graphic design publishing is. PRINT and HOW, America’s ‘two top graphic design magazines’, are fucking terrible. Thin content, mediocre writing, and utterly non-compelling writing for experienced designers. Japan is lucky to have IDEA.

Looking back at your 10 years in Tokyo could you tell us about how you’ve seen the local design industry and culture evolve over this time?

In Tokyo, there’s a lot more room for foreigners, and that seems to be primarily due to the most recent tech boom—Japanese companies need talent with varied skill sets, and if one has some development experience, some design chops, and a desire to learn another language and is open to experiencing Japanese culture, there are many more options these days.

Additionally, as the number of foreign designers has grown, so have events that are more inclusive. Tokyo is always in flux.

How has working in Tokyo influenced your work and you as a designer?

In countless ways—spending a decade in Tokyo has completely shifted my sense of color, pattern, typography, and influences. I tend to fixate on bright colors and fluorescent colors, and this is a distinct reaction to how the vernacular streetscape of Tokyo is fairly drab and grey, but punctuated with an amazing color palette. For example, most small fences that separate pedestrians from the street are painted this otherworldly leaf green—pair that with the red/orange and yellow road cones, then look at the streets themselves and the thick diagonal lines that signal that a stop sign is coming. Just looking at the street outside my house in Shibuya is visual inspiration for days!

I’m a giant fan of vintage sign painting and vernacular signage in Japan. I document a ton of it on my Instagram feed and put together a free downloadable PDF zine of some signage I love here.

Plus, Japanese typography is quite different than Western typography—there are four different visual orthographies (ways of setting type/writing) in play—horizontal, left-to-right reading; horizontal, right-to-left reading; vertical, top-down, left-to-right reading; and vertical, top-down, right-to-left reading. I had to learn Japanese typography from scratch when I moved here. It is still extremely challenging, but fun.

What advice can you offer to other designers who want to live and work in Tokyo?

Probably the best bet would be for folks to check out the Quora post that I wrote here that aggregates strategies, potential contacts, and possible ways of approaching working in Japan.

You very recently Kickstarted and published your book Parting It Out. Could you share a little about this project with us?

Parting It Out is a collection of essays that I have written over the past six or seven years, interspersed with some of the assignments I have given my students at Temple University Japan and Vermont College of Fine Arts. It also has the most comprehensive list of graphic design essays ever published, as well as a collaborative essay I wrote with design critic and friend Randy Nakamura, an essay by Seoul-based designer/design educator Chris Ro, and a lovely introduction by my fellow Néojaponisme co-founder W. David Marx.

The book hops all over the place—it’s got the penultimate biography of Oz Cooper, the designer of Cooper Black, an essay about my time in Cuba, writing on assorted designers I admire and loathe, and a range of essays about design as compared and contrasted with architecture, authenticity, and pop culture. There is actually a fair amount f sex and death in there, as well.

600 amazing people helped back the project so that the book could see it’s full print run of 1,500 copies. Readers can check out the Kickstarter project here, an essay I wrote about running a Kickstarter campaign here, and can check out the book here.

I’m amazingly proud of Parting It Out—it’s a really thorough collection of writing that helps convey my worldview as a designer, design critic, design writer and design teacher. It is primarily conversational in tone—there is stuff for both designers and non-designers to relate to.

Riccardo Parenti

Italian. Art Director, interaction design enthusiast, occasionally photographer. Riccardo is the founder the TGD community, starting the LinkedIn group when he first moved to Japan in 2010. He is also a volunteer for Behance Tokyo. He loves to spend his free time seeking and exploring abandoned buildings in the Japanese countryside.

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