Kenneth Lian: Instinctively Opposite

ADC Member loves taking spoken and written language into a visual dimension

 ADC and Monotype‘s Typography & Lettering Month continues — right on into a second month. Yes, there too many type geeks and lettering nerds within the ADC community to squeeze into April, and so we have expanded this celebration of letterforms into May. Whether you’re designing brand new digital fonts for the world to use, or whether you’re creating free-flowing calligraphy to adorn a wall, you guys know that there is more to written words than just their meaning.

Our next ADC Member to be featured is a Brooklyn-based designer who has been rebelling against the norm since he was a kid — and it shows in his professional work.

ADC_KennethLian_HeadshotKENNETH LIAN

Designer / Typographer
Brooklyn, NY



Where did this crazy adventure in lettering all begin?

I didn’t have a particularly creative upbringing. My parents were working class people who eventually worked their way up the social ladder, so they put a lot of emphasis on doing well in school and being “proper”. But I do think my attraction to design and typography comes from the way I grew up and how I reacted to my often-changing environment around me.

I moved around a lot growing up, from different towns and cities in China to the U.S. and back and forth. So when I hit puberty, with this lack of connection to any stable cultural or linguistic identification, I had an urgency to create an identity for myself. I was drawn to counter cultures like punk music, painting, skateboarding and playing electric instruments, especially because these things were about being out of the norm and rebelling against the standard. Going to Pratt Institute to learn design was a way to bridge the gap between meeting my parent’s expectations and fulfilling my own artistic needs.

What made you realize that you wanted to make a career out of this, and what convinced you it was even possible?

The appeal of typography and letterforms to me is that they don’t represent anything literal in of themselves, but when arranged and “designed”, they can communicate ideas because they represent language. Because it’s linguistic, it has a strong ability to evoke very visceral images in your head, even if there is no image component in the typography.

I went to Pratt Institute, which built a strong fine art and design foundation for me. With the new skills I learnt, I was able to understand typography to a new level and was able to interact with it conscientiously. The best part is you can manipulate, play and create typography and push the communicative boundaries and make people imagine new ideas and feel new feelings.


How would you best describe your style in a sentence? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

I think it’s my instinct to be almost entirely the opposite of what is expected of me – which probably built the foundation for my design approach. I like to explore and play and see how weird I can get. The hard part is usually bringing it back and making it accessible.

“I think it’s my instinct to be almost entirely the opposite of what is expected of me – which probably built the foundation for my design approach.”

Walk us through your usual creative process. How do you know when you’re “finished”?

When I “try” to aim for a solution in my process, the result usually looks like it’s “trying” to be something and that makes it unsuccessful. Effective designs get created when I’m in the mindset of play. I stop worrying about making something successful and I end up having more fun, which drives my creative energy.

When business is on the line, the most efficient way is to do everything digitally. It has its limits but if you know the programs well enough you can do some pretty fun things. That’s how I start – go extremely absurd, push the boundaries, and ask myself, “What’s something that I haven’t seen?” It’s still important to eventually consolidate and decide what’s working and what’s not. I don’t think designs can just be doodles. The process usually takes a while but I eventually can narrow down to something that I feel is truly strong and novel. But I also realized that being open to bad ideas can broaden your options for a solution. I try very hard to be naive and almost foolish, and I can end up making extremely ugly things, but I consider it time well spent because it can look funny and there’s always something to learn from it.

What is your favorite ‘practical’ typeface, one for everyday use? What about more decorative typefaces?

Helvetica is tried and true for a the most part. I actually try not to get too fussy with choosing one if I want to be practical.

As for more decorative, I think Stanley Display gets nice and weird. It’s nicely says “fuck you” to typographic expectations.

What’s your favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design? Why is that your favorite? (Ampersands don’t count!)

I have to say K is a a pretty badass letter. I’m glad my name starts with it. It has direction, it’s asymmetrical, it’s strong in it’s structure, it’s not too complex like a lowercase g, but not too simple either like an uppercase I or C.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

It looks like serifs have more artillery. But sans serifs are more effective as a team. But I guess if it was a one on one in the Octagon I would bet on serifs.


“Wait, what is that you do again?” How do you explain what you do for a living to people who aren’t in creative fields? What’s the thing they can’t quite grasp about it?

It really depends how interested I think they are. In most cases, they aren’t, so I just say I make logos and words. I know it’s a cop out but I have a feeling one day they’ll get it, since you know, design will save the world or something…

Tell us about your favorite project to date. What set it apart from everything else?

The A. Alfred Taubman project. It definitely helps that it was so big and made me feel important doing it. It was also a very simple idea, but because it was so extensive and physically large, the impact was strong and it was a lot of fun. What was also cool about it was that when I went to see the actual physical vinyls on the Sotheby’s building, people that walked by stopped and tried to read the names, like it was a word search. I didn’t expect that level of engagement.

What would be your dream project/assignment/client? What’s something you’ve never had the opportunity to do thus far, but would kill for that chance?

I’d love to do an opening theme/credits for a movie or a TV show. Something sci-fi or fantasy.

What is the most difficult thing about making a career out of what you do? How do you get around that, and what advice would give to others facing similar challenges?

I still struggle with this – meeting other people halfway in terms of taste. It’s easy for a creative person to get wrapped up with their own aesthetic and taste, because it’s just artistic pride, which is fine. It’s crucial in being innovative with design. But the problem is when it goes too far and your client or your team doesn’t see it from the same angle. In the end, the work has to communicate an idea effectively, and if your personal tastes get in the way, it will cost you business. The only way to deal with it is to be mindful of the fact that there is a very, very wide spectrum of design styles and aesthetics, and not to ignore other people’s preferences.

“In the end, the work has to communicate an idea effectively, and if your personal tastes get in the way, it will cost you business.”

What other creative outlets do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

I love sketching in my sketchbook. Having a pencil or a pen in your hand is the quickest way to translate your imaginative thinking into the physical world. By building a habit around sketching, you start to expand your toolkit of creative approaches. I also love visiting museums and galleries. The best place to find design inspiration is in fine art.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world and why? Have you had any creative mentors?

I think Jessica Svendsen is an excellent typographer. She’s not all about style and flashiness, but her typography is beautiful because she designs in a sincere way. Her design is always loyal to the content, but because her concepts are strong and still digestible, the typography elevates the content. What’s also evident is that she still respects tried and true typographic rules.

When all is said and done, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

I love being able to take spoken and written language to a visual dimension.

Typography & Lettering Month takes place throughout April and May, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!