Meet Qing (pronounced “Ching”), a California-based illustrator from Malaysia who has studied Architecture, Graphic Design, and Illustration. This year, she was a recipient of a Silver Award from The Society of Illustrators West 55.
Qing’s work has a masterful use of space, architecture, and detail. Her work is breathtakingly intricate, with spaces so carefully considered you feel like you could step right into them. We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with her in our current exhibition tobeyou, and in our upcoming fall exhibition, The Lost Isle of Kismet. Read further to learn more about her background, schooling, process and more. For more of her work, check out her website, or her other links below the interview!
Can you tell me more about yourself?
I grew up in Malaysia and lived there for 23 years, in a little town call Kuching, at the south western tip of Borneo Island. Growing up, I have always wanted to be a doctor. I have always love to draw as a child, but never considered myself being in the creative field. Upon graduating high school, I went to architecture school for two years. I did not finish it, and instead enrolled in an Advertising and Graphic Design program at The One Academy of Communication Design in Malaysia. Wanting to polish some illustration skills, I pursued Illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I am currently an imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering, freelancing graphic design and illustration, while teaching part time at my alma mater Art Center College of Design.
What does your studio/workspace look like? Is the space a beacon of dedicated focus or disjointed stress? What’s your dream workspace?
My current studio is a shared space with my bed in a room roughly the size of 10 feet by 8 feet. I have a small library of books in the same space. Ideally, I would love to have separated work and living space, but unfortunately that is not an option for now, at least not financially. I still have a decent space for both digital and traditional art, just without a lot of sunlight, which I crave a lot. I like my space now, it is a beacon of dedicated focus, and I’m actually still working on improving it so it has better storage space.
Ideally, my dream studio would be one that has large north-facing windows, with an abundance of natural sunlight and good ventilation. I would love a divided traditional media and digital media workspace, with a little sheltered outdoor patio also for my traditional media workspace. I love collaborative work more than solo work, which leads to me wanting more workspace for people when they come over. There will be spots of greeneries around my studio. A library collection of books is a must, with an organized tools and materials place as well. I snack a lot when I work (I am snacking while writing this), so a pantry would be nice. I have always wanted a Golden Retriever too, so ideally he/she can have some comfortable spots in my workspace. Oh lastly, there should be a small seating area with a white wall for movie projections when I have guests over. Oh my, this sounds greedy, but I do hope to have this realize some day.
What is your creative process like? Is it made of simple linear steps or do you just wing it? What kind of research goes into your process?
My creative process almost always starts with a story/a problem/a brief/a need. There is always some challenges to be solved. I always start with research. It could be about understanding the audience I am designing for, sometimes it is a stylistic guide that suits the story. I like it best when I get to observe the people that I am designing for.
Although, you’re right, I sometimes just wing it. This happens more with my individual illustration work. I have to admit, they rarely came out anywhere near nice. I either have to redo it, or re-wing (if that is a word) it until I feel at ease with it. I think it comes down to giving myself a solid idea and confidence when I work on a piece of art. I think whenever I decided to just wing things, most of the time I wasn’t convinced of a certain story, hence the play-by-ear approach. Sometimes it works, but rarely.
Ultimately it still comes down to what emotional and practical needs do my audience need. This applies to both designing experiences and creating illustrations. I don’t think I’m anywhere near it yet, but I would love for my designs in the future to be emotionally engaging, that will be top priority, and then, if applicable, practical for its purposes.
What are some things in your art that you feel are so uniquely you?
Coming from a relatively quiet and conservative Chinese culture (don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s one of the richest and most beautiful culture) that lives among a huge melting pot of races in an islamic country, I think I grew up pretty adaptable to changes and differences. When it comes to art and design, adaptability comes to play when working with different projects and different teams, not just stylistically, but also being versatile with team dynamics.
Malaysians taught me a lot about empathy. Differences in skin color, religion, mother tongue, do not divide, but it should instead be a strength. To be able to build upon each other’s strengths and learn to grow alongside each other requires a lot of empathy from one another. Fear and stereotyping comes along when we don’t understand each other enough. This is a culture that taught me the importance of listening.
The American culture, in return, taught me a lot about speaking up. No offense, but I think the American culture is a loud culture, in good ways. I have never seen a culture so outspoken and diligent about rights, every kind of right. Not just speaking up for groups that each individual person identifies with, but most Americans have huge hearts in standing up for other people in this country as well. Recent events, in standing up for people of color, people of a different sexual orientation than their own, people of other religions that are misunderstood, immigrants from foreign lands, land rights that are forcefully taken away, environmental causes, etc. The values of speaking up isn’t just to be loud, but is incredibly useful in standing strong in face of certain circumstances.
I am far from good at being versatile, but I hope one day I will have the ability to apply better storytelling and creative abilities across all different fields with better design sensitivities across different cultures to help solve big and small problems. Especially when technology advances so quickly, the mediums for storytelling in all different fields changes drastically. Technology may go obsolete, but storytelling and creative problem solving will always be in demand.
Can you tell us more about your piece for ToBeYou? What’s the long version of the story?
The title of my piece for ToBeYou is “Disruptions”.
I grew up a very obedient child. I thought, for the first 17 years of my life, that’s the perfect child, perfect person in fact, to be in life. My parents love me, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I was used to following the norm, blending in and fitting in stereotypes of a poster child. I scored all As for my national higher education exam in high school, but not good enough to gain a medical scholarship from the government. I was lucky to be able to get into one of the top architecture program in one of our Public University (University of Technology Malaysia). It was definitely eye opening and inspiring. It is still, to this date, one of the more demanding programs I have been through, but it trained me physically and mentally to stay creative and solve problems even under the most stressful environments. Two years into the program, I realized I did not want to continue architecture for the rest of my life, at least not counting structures and beams and columns. I was much more interested in designing for cultural and communication purposes.
The disruptions started here. I told my parents I wanted to quit architecture. It was disastrous to my family and friends. I have almost never said no to big life planning decisions like that to my parents. It also wasn't what the community was typically used to. Everyone thought I lost my mind. Everyone thought I had ‘gone bad’. Who would give up the chance of being in a nationally prestigious architecture program? I did.
Luckily enough, with more communications with my parents, they agreed to trust me with my decision, despite the endless worries they had. From here on, I embarked on a less travelled journey, at least in the eyes of those in my hometown, with a very supportive immediate family.
This path led me to an Advertising and Graphics program, where I started learning a lot about graphics design and conceptual marketing pitch. Thinking that I need to polish my visual communications, I pursued Illustration at Art Center College of Design. All these while under more doubts from people, that I was merely learning to draw pretty pictures in school with an extremely high tuition. I tried my best in school, along many inspiring mentors and instructors, of course amazingly talented peers that keep raising the bars and encouraging each other up the career ladder.
I guess luck was on my side, that I got an internship with Walt Disney Imagineering one fateful Summer. Funny when you think about it, that I dropped out of Architecture and came full circle to that dream place where Imagineers build experiences in physical spaces to make people happy. Now that I graduated I am grateful to be able to continue contracting in Walt Disney Imagineering as a creative designer. I know this is just the start of a creative endeavor. I have no idea what is down the road, but I am excited for it.
It was then that I realize all these “disruptions” along the way for the past 10 years were blooming with possibilities. A leap of faith, both from my family and trusting my own guts, led me to a dream job where my design heroes were and are working. I am standing on the shoulders of giants. These giants, at some point of their lives, must have been following a path that were disruptions in their lives too.
Were there any significant moments you had while working on the piece?
It was a good time to actually look back and allow myself to be nostalgic and reflect on what I have been through so far. It wasn’t a lot, and I have been extremely lucky multiple times, but life definitely took turns that I would never have expected. Some things were tough, but I would not have it any other way either. Spending the time finishing this piece felt like I had waves after waves of appreciation washing over me while remembering people that have supported me along my endeavor so far.
What are some hobbies you enjoy doing? You mentioned urban sketching in your email, and how you like sketching places you travel to. How does urban sketching impact your larger body of work? What do you like about traveling?
I love urban sketching. It was a pastime I picked up while studying architecture. It started as a required assignment as part of the research process when we do site visits. I soon realized it was really meditative as I sat/stood at a spot trying to study the subject matter. I soon grew to love that I can people watch the crowds navigating the same space I’m in, and study the needs of people interacting within the space.
Urban sketching plays a huge role in traveling, more so if I am traveling solo or with other sketchers. The sketches have become the only (or one of very few) souvenirs I bring back with me, and that makes every single sketching spot so much more memorable. Sometimes it is a conversation I had while sketching a certain spot, sometimes of the interactions between people I saw, sometimes a song I heard, sometimes just the smell of that place. I believe a lot of us never stop long enough to appreciate the places we have been to, but instead just check off places we have physically been in. The convenience of the ability to take millions of pictures on our phones definitely does not help. How many of us actually went through all the pictures again?
I have never thought about a career in themed entertainment design until I went to Art Center. Urban sketching definitely fed into fueling design sensibilities and ideas while working on my theme park design job. The observations of people and architectural details made while urban sketching is almost directly translatable. The improvement in sketching and painting skills over a longer period of time is inevitable too.
What is some insight you have about art students who are seeking work after school?
There are a few things I wish I knew fresh out of school.
Change is normal, adaptability is important. I happen to work in themed entertainment, which is notorious for constant changes at a moment’s notice. For example, there was a case where a project that had been redone over and over again over a few years...got shelved, for seven years (!) before it was decided that it should be put back on motion again. Change is the only constant, which may not be a bad thing always. When it happens, we can either be sulky about it or work with it. I believe the latter option is more progressive.
Rejection is probably another theme I have learned to be at peace with. It is never a pleasant experience having to deal with rejections, be it at work or in life in general, but there is always a takeaway in these experiences, on why it happened, so we make fewer mistakes in future similar circumstances.
People appreciate efficient communication. Not only is it a polite gesture, efficient communication makes work so much more pleasant.
Paying it forward. I believe strongly that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants, regardless of the field that we are in. I owe where I am today to a lot of great mentors, supervisors and peers that have lifted me up along this creative endeavor. As much as I would love to repay them these huge favors, repaying all these is in reality is almost impossible, but I definitely have the ability to pay it forward to those around me when I have better abilities to do so.
Do you have any projects you’d like to talk about? You recently won an award from the Society of Illustrators West 55. Can you tell me about that?
The latest project showed on my website is a series of designs done based on Harry Potter, a series of stories beautifully crafted by J.K. Rowling. It was a take on designing the four common rooms of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I imagined the days if I were the designer/architect for these rooms that are like second homes for Hogwarts students, and how each founder would cater to the needs and strengths of the four houses. I added some of my own interpretation of the houses too based on their traits as explained in the books.
The piece that got selected in Society of Illustrators’ West 55 is titled “Welcome”. It is an architecturally heavy piece that at first glance shows grandeur of a palace, and at second read shows the tense dynamics that will unfold between a duchess in stepmother role, with a long lost princess happily welcomed back to the palace by the duke himself. It was intended as a standalone piece. I am extremely flattered to be chosen for a Silver award, and getting the chance to be exhibited with many more acclaimed illustrators and designers.
What can you share with us about your experiences with Walt Disney Imagineering?
Somehow the stars aligned for me and I got an internship with Walt Disney Imagineering as a creative designer during the Summer of 2015. Walt Disney Imagineering is in charge of designing experiences for all Disney parks and resorts around the world. It was a short but extremely fulfilling three months. I got to work and learn from veterans in themed experiences design. It isn’t one of those get-coffee-and-xerox kind of internships, and I am definitely glad that they put interns to work. Now I am back in Imagineering as a Creative Design Contractor for one of the team I worked with during my internship. The scope of the project and amount of things to learn is overwhelming, but it is truly a job I enjoy. Not all parts of the job I get to do are fancy, but they’re still all fun jobs. I am sorry I can’t talk about the details of this, but being part of the team that creates “The Happiest Place on Earth” is very flattering and humbling at the same time. There is never a day I am not inspired and amazed with the things this team of people are building. Working with my design heroes is very intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge learning experience.
A heart warming moment I had was that I got to bring my mum for her first Disneyland experience a few months back. It was just the two of us, a much needed mother-daughter date. I brought her own a few rides I thought she would like, and of course walked both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure with her. I have never seen her happy in that way in my whole life. It was a very genuine, childlike happiness. Many imagineers that I work with grew up with the parks as a kid, and always talked about how their first park experience was with their parents. I got to do it the other way around, and that made me believe in my work.
Sure, Disney can be a name that is very much associated to commercialization. I can’t speak for other companies within the corporation, but Imagineering itself has created so much memories among people across the world. Many of us who grew up watching classic Disney films get to have an extension of the stories by going to the parks. I never grew up with the park myself, but I know that a lot of my friends did. Mind you, I visited Disneyland only once before I got my internship, and it wasn’t even a pleasant day. (I have since visited many times, sometimes for studies, sometimes for fun) I can’t deny the influence Disney had on people, and in believing that I may be able to be contribute to a tiny part of this influence is flattering. The level of attention behind the scenes to bringing human-centered-design in these parks to the public is admirable. Of course, the work isn’t always magical, and it’s not all pixie-dust-like, and which company exist without politics? Despite all these, knowing that all these effort is going towards building more memorable experiences across the world, it makes all the hard work worth it.
In what ways would you like your work to give back?
I believe in human-centered design, be it creating meaningful and memorable experiences, or emotionally engaging and relatable illustrations. I will be thrilled if some day I get to work on a project that elevates the spirit of a community. No scale of human-centered design is too small, likewise, nothing is too big when it comes to working for a greater cause. Even creating an illustration that makes someone’s day brighter counts. We never know what ripple effect this may have.
Where can people find/follow your work?
You may find me on my website and Instagram. I am much more active on Instagram. Come say hi!
Thanks so much for your time, Qing!