Josh Chen: Hands-on Designer, Author and Creative Team Leader

by NoD Staff | July 26, 2007

Josh Chen

We met San Francisco-based Graphic Designer Josh Chen at the HOW design conference, where he made a presentation about using handwork in graphic design. Josh is the founder of Chen Design Associates, and has over twenty years of experience in design, broadcasting, journalism and music. Named one of the “50 People to Watch” by GraphicDesignUSA, Josh is also the author of three design books and numerous articles for HOW magazine. He recently released a book entitled Fingerprint: The Art of Using Handmade Elements in Graphic Design.

The book showcases projects from an impressive roster of designers, using handwork techniques that range from lettering, illustration, mixed media and surface embellishments, to printing methods such as letterpress and silk screening. It is an inspiration and a call-to-arms for all designers to step back from the computer and reconnect with our repertoire of non-digital tools, especially the brain. Josh and his team of designers shared with us their collective thoughts and philosophies about handmade design. Afterwards, Josh mentioned he was struck by the synchronicities in his team members’ approaches. “Personally,” he said, “this reminds me again what a special group of talented, intelligent designers I get to work with day in and day out, and how thankful I am to have them be part of the CDA team. I wouldn’t be able to do half the things we’ve done as a design studio without these guys.”

CDA team members who participated in this interview include:

Josh Chen, Principal & Creative Director, Chen Design Associates

Max Spector, Senior Designer

Jennifer Tolo Pierce, Senior Designer

Kathrin Blatter, Designer

Shadi Kashefizadeh, Junior Designer

Q. Your presentation at the HOW design conference was called “Perfect Imperfection: The Art of the Handmade in Design.” Do you think adding handmade elements to design connects the process more with art, rather than feeling like a strictly commercial endeavor?

Josh Chen: I guess it’s not so much just a connection to art that’s the most important thing to me, as it is how it adds to the human connection that we all are craving for. After all, the basic motivation behind all the work we do as designers is to communicate an idea, a thought, or a message from sender to receiver. That might be accomplished completely with computer-generated art, or it might be completely handmade, or somewhere in between. I cringe when designers come up to me and ask whether handmade is the new “trend.” When they ask that, my assumption is they are just concerned about aesthetics once again. Isn’t the challenge we already face as designers, in order to be taken seriously by clients, to show that design is about more than just aesthetics?

That said, I do think that a handmade element of some sort, at whatever level it may be, if used appropriately, can communicate deeper emotions and passion than something completely computer-generated. We joke around a lot about Photoshop filters, i.e., “just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it.” Well, I wouldn’t want someone to blindly “go handmade” just because now that’s the new “cool” thing to do. The most crucial tool for a designer remains the same: the brain.

Max Spector: Handmade elements only connect the process with art to the degree that those elements represent interesting and intelligent design solutions. While it is true that most people associate the handmade with “art” and digital elements with “design,” the distinction is merely one of association. Handmade elements simply represent one set among the countless visual tools at the designer’s disposal, and should only be used to aid in the achievement of good ideas.

Shadi Kashefizadeh: Nowadays, with computers around, some people think adding more handmade elements to design will connect the piece to art, but if we go back to the time before computers, everything was handmade and still considered design and commercial art. I never think there is huge disconnection between art and graphic design, except that graphic design is made for a client, with a need of the client, concept and target audience in mind. Sometimes the project might require a handmade element in there, and sometimes it might not. It all depends to the type of the client, what industry they’re in, who their audience is and what they like to achieve.

Josh: “Stern Grove Festival, the country’s oldest free outdoor concert series, commissioned CDA to promote their 65th anniversary season with the objective of appealing to a more diverse audience. The festival’s rich tradition, as well as its vision for variety and reinvention, are communicated through the typographic vernacular of letterpress event posters in combination with a contemporary illustrative style—hand painted and incorporating collage elements.”

Q: What do you think are the “enemies” of handmade design—beliefs, mindsets, habits, or conditions of today’s design work process that tend to ward a designer off from saying, “Let me do this part by hand?”

Max Spector: I think laziness and rigidity are the greatest enemies of handmade design. Many designers look to their computers as the sole provider for their visual solutions, but of course an honest, well thought-out design solution is just as likely to employ hand work as digital.

Josh Chen: We seem to get into this mindset that we have a need, and almost an obligation, to keep up with the latest and greatest when it comes to technology, and that’s the thing that will solve all of our problems. We are way too tied to our Macs, and as cool and amazing as they are, and we forget that they are no more than just another tool in our toolbox. Combine that with the ever-increasing demands put on us by clients or outside forces to produce more with less time, it’s no wonder we rely on the computer so much. We think, with the computer we have a “sure thing,” a solution that will be fail-safe. We think, what if I venture out and do something non-computer based, and what if it fails? Then I would have wasted all this time.” My response is always, yes, that might be the risk, but what about the potential? Do you trust yourself enough as a designer to take that risk? At what point is it important enough to say to your project manager, client, or art director: “Maybe it’s not the most important thing to do this on the fast and cheap. Maybe this part of the project is important enough to spend just a bit more time in fleshing out, in exploring ideas, so that the project can be so much more successful, memorable, and distinctive.”

Kathrin Blatter: We are intimidated by time pressure, or the thought that things would be a lot faster on the computer, which is often not the case. In order to achieve the same personality with a computer as a hand done image has, it takes a long time. Handmade work always has an incredible amount of detail, and it’s very irregular, which would take forever on the computer. Unfortunately, hand skills are rarely taught at the design schools these days. Classes that cover a wide array of different ways to create images by hand would be extremely beneficial, and classes that are specifically designed for designers would help tremendously. They could cover the basics, such as teaching what methods there are, and students could invent new ones.

Q: In reading the lettering chapter in Fingerprint, I was particularly struck by the way our relationship with type has changed so fundamentally since the digital age began. Your book showcases methods such as hand-lettering, stenciling, and stamping with a tempera-paint-soaked sponge. I got the impression that handwork was an opportunity for designers to reconnect with the warmer, more human origins of type. For people who may only be used to working with type digitally, what exercise or method would you recommend to break out of that and try working with type by hand? Can you suggest one our readers might try right now?

Josh Chen: I would say work into your daily routine one or two 10-15 minute slots where you PHYSICALLY get up from behind the monitor, and use your hands to interact with objects other than the keyboard. Pick up a book, flip through it. Pick up objects, touch paper, materials for no other purpose than to regain sensation of touch (not to spec paper for a project, for example). Write a note. Go outside, sit in the park and feel the grass. Touch the leaves on a tree. Sounds hokey, and maybe doesn’t directly answer your question, but I think it’s related. We’ve gotten lazy with our hands, they’re now conditioned to only be clicking away at the keyboard (or doing just whatever we need to accomplish with them in a very limited manner).

Max Spector: Design assignments with tight budgets or other constraints often lead to interesting solutions because they have to. The designer is forced to solve his/her problem in an unusual way because the common method is not allowable. In the same vein, a simple exercise to get acquainted with handmade type is to shut off your computer, then force yourself to think about other ways to solve the problem. Techniques such as collage, cut paper, hand lettering, etc., are not difficult for most designers, but the crux of the challenge is in recognizing those techniques as viable options for commercial design solutions.

Kathrin Blatter: Take Calligraphy classes! The designer gets a much better understanding of letters, their history, and letter spacing. You also notice how real ink looks on different papers. Also, consider your household inventory and find different tools to draw with and explore how each creates a different look. Then pick a letter and draw it with these various tools. Examples of tools include a toothpick, bike spoke, butter (draw on paper and bake to brown in), beads, or loose tea. Go outside and create letters in nature, with sticks, leaves, and on different surfaces. Use a camera to document it. Find a 100 different ways of tracing large letters and see how they all look very different. Use different surfaces, different tracing tools, knives, project them onto different surfaces and trace, submerge them in a glass of water and trace onto the glass.

Shadi Kashefizadeh: The best exercise I did was assigned to me by my instructor Christopher Simmons (of MINE). We were required to work with our initials, compose them together to create a feeling that showcased the adjective that was assigned to us for that week, for example, organic, confident, and so on. Based on that, we were supposed to pick a typeface that represented the adjective and trace our initials. The exercise really made me to pay attention to all the details that go into designing a letter, and made me appreciate type even more.

Q: Your book features a piece by Jennifer Tolo Pierce of Chen Design Associates, a representation of San Francisco for AIGA SF done with watercolor, pencil, pen, mixed media, and Photoshop. How did Jennifer integrate Photoshop with the rest of the hand-work processes she used to create this piece?

Jennifer Tolo Pierce: This piece emerged from a tight deadline and the need to move away from the computer for some hands-on design exploration. The final design incorporates elements rendered in pen, pencil and watercolor, as well as select sections of lo-tech photographs shot by me, and a sampling of found materials. All of the components represent the diversity and vitality of San Francisco in some way, both individually and as a whole. Photoshop was used as a tool to help mesh these disparate elements into one cohesive design through the editing of photographs down to their basics and the introduction of additional typographic details, by allowing for the scanning and placement of found materials, and by enabling a layered collage sensibility that combines the assets of both the handmade and digital worlds.

Q: How does working with handmade elements such as type, illustration, or applied texture in a design affect the production process? As much as there is for designers to understand about the handoff of their digital work to production, is there anything additional they need to factor in for handwork?

Max Spector: Most hand work that ends up in a digital file goes through Photoshop at one point or another, and often there will be some touch-up necessary, so it can be important to have a good grasp of the software. Otherwise, with a decent scanner or digital camera, handmade elements need not affect the production process at all.

Kathrin Blatter: It requires access to a good, and sometimes large-format scanner, because everything has to be scanned at some point so that it can be reproduced. There is usually some cleaning up that needs to be done in Photoshop, but it doesn’t go beyond what a graphic designer needs to know about Photoshop. Sometimes, it requires that you have a good camera. Certain things need to be photographed in order to digitize the image.


This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.


This blog is powered by Sessions College, the leading online school of visual arts.

NoD Newsletter

Enhance your inbox with our weekly newsletter.