The Cindy Li Interview
One of the first thing you get to know about Cindy Li is her tendency to get to the point of things. Be it her work, playtime, her relationships, she cuts to the quick while I’m just starting to get out of the basic framework of a situation.
Add on top of that her unique illustration and design style which has been put to use for clients like AOL, Yahoo! and Ma.gnolia, Cindy is a very sharp Web designer and illustrator.
She donated a moment of her time (actually, she took pity on me and gave me a couple extra) so I could ask her questions about her design background, her American assimilation story, what it was like to win an Emmy, and many other issues. Read on and I believe you will, like me, find Cindy to be one of our industry’s treasures.
Christopher Schmitt: How would you describe yourself?
Cindy Li: Currently? I’m feeling like a workaholic, photo junkie, human ping pong ball and trying my best to be a person my nieces can look up to as an example of what a woman in the workforce can be.
CS: You were born in Taiwan. How did you find yourself in America?
CL: My Dad’s the youngest of three boys and the older two were already in the USA. My grandparents would never move unless my parents, my sis and I moved. Since I was five, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. I remember the boxes and having to give away my cherished bike that looked like a motorcycle, it was orange.
CS: What was the motivation for moving to the United States?
CL: My parents thought it would be easier for my sister and I to attend college in the U.S., plus we were both women so it was another consideration because for all of the complaining about the sexes not being even, it is still better here than in other countries.
CS: English wasn’t your first language and getting used to a new culture, I can only imagine, can be daunting. What was your experience?
CL: We first moved to San Diego, that’s where my dad’s oldest brother and wife live. I remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood—my favorite show till was 12—and, Captain Kangaroo, and Sesame Street. Those shows were one of the ways I learned English. We moved to Jacksonville, FL—where my dad’s other brother lived—a year later because it was more affordable for us.
The drawback was it wasn’t diverse and growing up which made me really want blue eyes and blonde hair. There was a lot of self hate for years.You’d laugh, but I had a southern accent til the age of 12.
Then I realized I shouldn’t have one so I worked on getting rid of that but you’ll hear me say “y’all” every now and then. Most people think that I was born in the USA and if you just heard me speak I think you would agree that. It was all part of trying to fit in.
CS: I think hearing you give off a “y’all” would be great, but I was born and raised in Florida. Was it hard to get rid of the accent?
CL: I have a karaoke video online where I’m singing off key but I worked in the southern twang so you can laugh at that. It was easier to get rid of than the torture of not fitting in.
CS: Aside from PBS shows, how else did you go about learning English?
CL: From my classmates, of course! I would come home with words I had learned from class that day and teach my parents the correct pronunciations.
Plus growing up there was the Superintendent’s reading program in Duval County. I can’t remember if there was a prize but it made me fall in love with the “Boxcar Children” book series.
CS: How did you know you wanted to be in graphic design?
CL: I wanted to draw the moment my grandfather—mom’s dad—did a caricature of me. He was great at it and I begged my parents to enroll me in a drawing class. I think I was about 7 or 8? Memory’s fading me with each passing year.
Art was only supposed to be a hobby though. Being an immigrant kid my parents were very focused on my sister and I attending college and being an “artist” was never part of the plan.
I started testing myself in the 10th grade by entering poster contests. I would stay up til 4am—with mom yelling at me for staying up late—but I wanted to prove that it was something I could do. I placed in most of the contests or won so I was feeling like this was something I was able to accomplish. I was also enrolled in the two Advanced Placement courses that my high school offered me.
Keep in mind my parents immigrating to the USA and having a kid go to art school wasn’t the big plan they had in mind, or the rest of my family for that matter. I defied them and it took years for them to understand. They were worried I’d starve or not be able to make ends meet.
My entire college experience was working on my projects, interning at a magazine and a part time job. I know UF gets a reputation for being a party school, but I wouldn’t know. I was on a mission to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted it bad enough.
While most people I knew were going to Daytona Beach for the summer break I was working on my final project. When I turned in the project my professor Brian Slawson told me I was beyond Type A.
My dad was working 6 days a week, 12 hour shifts at his job earning overtime to put me through college. The deal was that I go to school and they’d pay for it. Failure was not an option, and sometimes I forget to slow down.
CS: With all that pressure, it sounds like you grew up fairly quickly and were clearly motivated. Do you find yourself still intensely motivated?
CL: I do. I am not one to sit idle and wait for things to happen. I believe that you have to work for the things you want and things don’t just fall into my lap—well, not all the time.
Things like winning the lottery or the stock option windfall don’t happen for everyone and my best asset is me, that is the only thing I have control over. There is no sense of entitlement here. I have worked the 5am-4pm shifts, the weekends, and late nights. I do what I need to do get where I want to go (even if it isn’t always clear where that is).
I went to SCORE.org for advice—they are a free service of retired lawyers/accountants/business owners—because I prefer to do research on my future and I’m a bit of a worrier. The advisor said I could just marry well and not worry so much. I laughed and responded to him and said that was a crap shoot too.
I am a firm believer in working hard for the american dream, maybe that was instilled in my head too much who knows. I want to be able to look at the person in the mirror and be proud of the person I’ve become then I’m happy that I’ve treated people fairly and created work I’m proud of.
CS: You seem to be doing well with your American Dream so far. What important lessons have you picked up so far or have stuck with you the most?
CL: Take care of yourself. While you may have partnered with friends that you think are watching out for you—that isn’t always the case—so pay attention.
Put away money each paycheck for taxes. Figure out what is deductible if you are freelancing.
Save at least a 6 months for living expenses, put away money for times when there aren’t a ton of projects going on.
Start your 401k early and keep at it. I prioritize what things I want. I’ll spend money on a MacBook Pro but not $400 on some new purse/wallet that my girlfriends are crazy about.
Never carry a balance on a credit card. If you don’t have money for it today, then save for it.
CS: What intrigues you about the graphic design profession?
CL: It mixes in the artist inside me, but pays better. I loved to paint and draw growing up but with being a fine artist your painting your view of the world, with graphic design your describing to the world someone else’s view. I’d like to draw for a children’s book or have a line of cards. The fun thing about graphic design is it also mixes in my love of Macs—cool gadgets. My first Mac was an Apple IIGS with an Imagewriter II.
CS: What cool gadgets do you have know?
CL: Let’s see I’m probably a poster child for Apple. I’ve got the iPhone, AppleTV, Apple G3—it’s a backup server—, Airport Extreme, and of course an iPod. I just picked up the Skull Candy Link backpack—it’s a great design, it has speakers on the arm straps and controllers for your ipod—, a 60″ tv (keep in mind I’m only 62″ tall), Nintendo Wii, HD Tivo, harmony remote to control the tv setup things. My Canon Rebel Xti—and three lenses—, Canon A95 with the waterproof casing and a Garmin Nuvi GPS.
CS: Wow. That sorta reads like a computer nerd’s James Bond wish list. What’s your current work setup now? I hope it’s not the same Apple IIGS.
CL: No, it’s my Macbook Pro 17″.
CS: You went to the University of Florida—over Florida State University, for some weird reason—and picked up a BFA. Why UF? And why a BFA? And just so that people that are reading and might not know, I went to FSU and our two schools have something of a rivalry.
CL: I was actually torn between those two colleges once I turned down Savannah College of Art and Design—had a presidential scholarship—and Maryland Institute College of Art. I had to make a choice as I said earlier between defying my parents and choosing my path. My parents were begging me to go to a university, I picked UF because it had a stronger academic record than FSU. When I went to the FSU campus I spoke to a professor there and showed her my portfolio she said I was a shoo-in for the program, but UF was harder to get into. I figured if I was going to go for my dream then I’d pick a harder program to get into.
CS: Why the BFA?
CL: I figured having a degree was the way to go because of my upbringing, you must have a degree in something. That and I didn’t want to be a doctor! I am way to squeamish. Ask any of my friends who have watched movies that aren’t rated PG.
CS: That’s great that you went for the harder, more challenging path at UF. What kinds of lessons did you learn while you are at college?
CL: I learned who my friends were and who I could count on.
Another lesson I learned was that attending a University that was large enough to have all the different ethnic groups were great, for a while. It cleared up a few things for me. When the kids in Jacksonville were teasing me for being Asian, I dreamed of going back to Taiwan because I thought it was easier. I dreamt of it because I wanted to fit in.
I joined the Asian groups to fill the void but discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t enjoy only having “Asian” friends, I liked having a diversity in who I spent time with. Just because you may look like the rest of the group doesn’t mean you only belong there. Plus life is boring if we only stayed within the same social circles.
I watched friends drop out of college because of drugs. I never had a desire to even smoke a cigarette. That Adam Ant song, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke…”, I thought was about me!
I learned that earning is way more valuable than being handed something on a silver plate. I watched one friend’s parents pay for everything and watched that friend squander it all by barely passing classes. I watched another friend work super long hours to pay for college succeed. No one owes you anything and you are lucky if anyone offers you so appreciate any help you get.
CS: Do you feel you would or could go back and get a higher degree?
CL: I thought about an MBA at one point, couldn’t help it because of my parents goals for me but I’ve just been too busy working to take that financial hit and probably attention span.
CS: What did interests did you pursue during your time at UF?
CL: UF had a very diverse campus, there were a lot of Asian clubs. In my freshman year, I joined the Chinese American Student Association which performed dances each spring—fan dance, buddha dance, and, no, I’m not putting it on You Tube.
Eventually became the Secretary of the Asian Student Union in my sophomore year. We did skits to welcome incoming freshman, and put together a conference. Then in my junior year I got a part time job at the sound and lighting crew, Spinal Tech, and an internship my junior/senior year at JAZZIZ magazine.
College was a bit of a blur for the last two years, I was running on about four hours of sleep most nights between the internship, part time job and projects for the degree. In my Senior year I was president of VoxGraphis—UF’s graphic design organization.
CS: What was your first exposure to the internet or Web?
CL: I think the first time I heard about HTML was via my second cousin, Raymond. He told me about it I think when I was in high school.
The first time I played on the “internet” via IRC in the labs at UF. My first email account name was figment—I love Disney a bit too much and I felt like a figment of someone’s twisted sense of imagination.
My first web page was a mock project I did in my junior year for a project for the design program. I may even have it on an Iomega Zip disk somewhere with, wait for it, iframes.
CS: Well, I hope you get it off your Zip disk soon, might be near impossible these days. Can’t recall the last time I needed to use a parallel connector to hook up my old Zip drive. Otherwise past works might get lost. Do you feel that our industry is too fluid?
CL: Even though we can reach a lot of people all over the world with our designs and words, it depends on making sure a server is plugged in somewhere and people have a browser that can render the pages. Yet with a book, it’s just there waiting for enough light and someone to turn the pages.
Our industry is very fluid like a hummingbird. You see it for a split second and then its gone into another direction. You have to pay close attention to see what direction it is going in. Books are great, but things are changing quicker than it is in the educational sector.
CS: Books can’t all be bad. You’ve recently had a chapter published with other Web designers in Professional CSS. What was the goal of the chapter? What did you want the readers to take away after reading it?
CL: That they can take what is existing out there and repurpose it for themselves. There are plenty of hacks out there for whatever and its okay not to be the person to create the latest “sliding door” by Douglas Bowman.
CS: How was the experience of writing for a book?
CL: Painful. I was worried about something living in print forever—or, at least on my parents’ bookshelf—that wouldn’t be up to the level of the other writers in the book. Everyone else spends a lot more time on code and my strength is in design.
CS: I think painful is an apt description. So, when did you join AOL? What was the feeling of working there?
CL: I joined AOL after NetChannel—internet television—startup in Norcross, GA—just outside of Atlanta—got bought out in 1998.
I loved working at AOL, most of the people I’ve worked with are great amazing, talented people. I grew up in the AOL family, sure we had our disagreements but at the end of the day my coworkers just wanted to do their best. I know there’s a lot of rumors and layoffs going on, that part was never easy to digest. You have good days and really bad days, but like anywhere you do the best you can and plan for the worst. Always having a savings plan just in case, that’s for anywhere you work.
CS: What kinds of projects did you work while you were with AOL?
CL: My first project was AOLTV it launched in 2000. It was shut down in the fall of 2001.I worked on the AOL Channels: Health and Fitness, Personal Finance, Shopping, AIM Pages, AIM Lite, AOL.com, Mac Development, and Ficlets.
CS: Do you have any screenshots of these works?
CL: I have some on my designrabbit.com site, but some of those are like high school yearbooks great when it first comes out but looking back at them you cringe.
CS: In 2005, AOL covered the Live 8 concerts. It was the first time that a multi-city, around-the-planet event had been broadcast live through the internet without any breaks. For that achievement, AOL received an Emmy for the “nontraditional broadband delivery platform” category. While it is definitely a group achievement, how did you feel about receiving the award?
CL: Ari Kushimoto and I were the designers on the AOL.com team at that time so we were taking shifts covering the entire event. The award was a complete surprise, we were just doing our jobs.
CS: Just doing your job is probably the easiest, honest way of getting an Emmy I’ve ever heard.
In 2005 you stated you got into Web standards by visiting the SXSW conference in Austin. What about the conference do you feel turned you on to Web standards?
CL: AOL’s past was to have the walled garden for their content. They were moving away from that and I was getting out of my depression from a breakup. I was looking for a new path because I felt that I wasn’t always going to be at AOL and I had to start figuring out a plan for the next chapter of my career.
It was because of my friend, Elsa Kawai, that I met Jeremy Keith and the rest of the Brits that year. Jeremy was telling me I needed to blog and I showed him my dot-mac account—where I posted pics of my trips/events and comments under each of them—he was also the one that told me about flickr. I blame him for that addiction. There was one night in particular at 4am where Patrick Griffiths—Brit Pack member—yelled out, “Liquid vs Fixed” to Jeremy Keith and D. Keith Robinson. There was a lot of noise and arguing. I met Molly Holzschlag that next day at breakfast. All of the people I met that year were really motivated and it was hard not to be curious about what made them passionate.
CS: Aha! Jeremy’s the one to blame!
CS: So, you realize that you need to get serious about Web standards after the conference. What was your educational path? What resources did you use?
Having people around who are willing to play the roll of teacher/code checker when you are starting out was great.
CS: If a woman designer would to come up to you and ask you for your advice on how to succeed in this industry, what wisdom would you impart to her and why?
CL: I would say network when you don’t need to. People can tell when you just want something from them, its nice to talk to someone just to get to know them, not what you can get out of them.
Be a team player, designers are part of an ecosystem just like developers if one part gets stuck—or is stubborn—then a project won’t work.
It’s great to be assertive and to explain your view but you are part of a team.
Check out other designers, design is like fashion. There is always some new trend and you should take a look at what’s going on even if you have your own style.
CS: In 2007, you took part in Web Directions North. What was your role for that conference?
CL: I was the stage manager. Everything from unpacking things, stuffing bags, running microphones, getting the speakers to be there on time, making sure the volunteers were where they were supposed to be and that the speakers were finishing like clock work. It’s more glamourous than I make it sound.
CS: How did you find snowboarding?
CL: You mean how did I find eating snow?
CS: Ha! I think that’s a good stopping point. Thank you for your time.