Illustrate Me for August

Illustrate Me for August 2006It takes a little time to get back into the swing of things after summer. At least that’s the reason I’m giving for why this announcement for the August Illustrate Me is so late. But it may be some consolation that this latest entry in my ongoing series featuring custom illustrations for my blog archives is a contender for the title ‘best yet.’

The creator is Louise Ma, an extremely talented young designer who’s in her last undergraduate year at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art here in New York. I can’t take any credit for being so well tuned into emerging talent that I zeroed in on Louise before she’s even made a splash in the professional world. Rather, she was recommended to me by Mike Essl, who runs Cooper’s design program, at the beginning of the summer for an internship with us at the design group.

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She did a terrific job, tackling with great alacrity the often unglamorous design tasks that interns are asked to do. But more than just her diligence, it quickly became obvious that she has a strong emerging voice, as is evidenced by the sharp writing she’s producing at her blog and the illustrative and design work that she’s starting to post there, too.

Right: Faces of def. Louise Ma’s Illustrate Me. See the full-size illustration on the archive page.
Illutrate Me by Louise Ma

In particular, she’s been producing a series of animal drawings that are quite amazing. After I saw them, it was a no-brainer to ask her to develop a piece for Illustrate Me. The result, a sort of atomized portrait of yours truly, is expertly rendered and oddly ingenious; excusing the fact that I’m no matinee idol, I think it’s actually a beautiful portrait. Once you see it, you’ll agree: there’s no arguing with talent or youth, especially when they come in a single package.

Questions for Louise Ma


What’s the idea behind the drawing you created for August’s Illustrate Me?


It’s a literal take on an idea I’ve been toying with lately, which is indirect portraiture. I’ve been thinking of ways to represent people with objects, ideas, or pieces of distinct visual language. How can a specific identity best be represented without actually showing their face? I think this is an interesting idea because indirect portraiture happens all the time without some kind of awareness.

Now that I’m keeping a blog, I’m starting to understand the weight of the things that I write, and the gravity of language itself. Words are atoms that make up a cell, and blog posts are cells that are part of a body. Over time, an image of a body becomes more clear. It’s definitely a kind of indirect self-portrait, or personification. I think that of all types of expression, blogs are among the most self-conscious kind of indirect portraiture. It’s very open-ended, but it can’t indulge in privacy.


Why drawing though? What’s effective about hand rendering as an oblique means to understanding an identity? Why not photography, or sculpture, or some sort of data visualization — maybe even a statistical abstraction of a blog, since you draw a parallel between portraiture and blogging?


Writing and drawing are the two modes of communication that interest me the most. What appeals to me about drawing is the immediacy of the process. Drawing by hand is the most efficient and comfortable way of materializing a visual idea, especially in its preliminary stages. I’m sure that for many thinkers it’s the same way. I also think that drawing is actually an instinctive part of communication. In this way it operates the same as written language.

The reason why I often choose drawing as a final step in a productive process is because it entails an intimate involvement. It’s an intimacy that leaves very physical, very distinct evidences. Our hands are important to us, so the traces that they leave speak volumes. How we sign our names, and how we dot our i’s can tell a lot about how we think and the way we move our bodies.

Of course this intimacy exists in other kinds of visualization and materialization, but with drawing the traces are more obvious — in some ways even more honest. I think more removed or mechanical processes offer more space for suggestion, and therefore more opportunities for deception. That’s also why blogs are so revealing. A writer can be dishonest when it comes to what he or she writes about, but the choice of printed words is inherently genuine.


How is this intimate relationship with drawing figuring into what you’re learning at Cooper Union in your design program? Now in your fourth year, are you finding it easier or harder to find a common ground between hand renderings and the digital process that informs the vast majority of design?


It’s gradually becoming easier, because the overarching questions of intention and application are starting to come into focus. As comfortable or intuitive as drawing may be for me, it’s ultimately just one of many potential processes. Sometimes it’s just a minor step in turning an idea into a product or an event.

But the most important thing about designing that I learned through drawing is the relationship between the observer and the observed. This relationship is basically a translation that happens during drawing, and looking at drawing. Practicing drawing has more or less made me aware of how design and visual language is internalized and expressed, and I think this is a critical issue in design practice. I think the intimacy and immediacy of the act of drawing were catalysts in articulating this learning process.

For the past three years, my classmates and I have constantly been playing tug-of-war between digital and hand-done design. It was easy to place a higher value upon a meticulously hand-crafted piece of design, simply because of the evidence of physical labor and “love” that went into the final product. It really was a kind of seduction. But I feel that designers in particular need to answer first and foremost to the questions of intention, purpose, and application. And be keenly aware of observers, or the audience, who will for sure measure the degree of success and sincerity of the work. I would like to strive for that as a common ground between my own drawing and design.


So what’s the practical future for that common ground between drawing and design for you? What kind of career do you see for yourself given those goals, and did working for a summer in online publishing at seem to indicate to you that there’s a future for that kind of work in digital media?


Regardless of whether I’m working in digital or print a few years from now, I would like to apply that common ground towards my interests. I’ve always been drawn towards publication, and the way printed text retains and delivers information. In terms of content, I’m gravitating towards issues of social equality. How can textual information help the collective public reach racial, sexual, or economical equilibrium? I’m all for doing this through incremental and subtle gestures, and reaching a specific demographic at a time. I don’t expect any dramatic reactions to my work, but I do want my work to leave impressions that matter — especially over the course of time. I see design as an advantage in this situation because it will allow my own voice to blend into the process seamlessly, in sync with those of other people who share my intentions.

Given those goals, I think the summer I spent at has further proven to me that I will most likely be inseparable from digital media. Watching the design group construct and maintain the systems with which communicates with its readers has redefined the way I’d like to approach web publishing. As a medium and a platform for dialogue, it is full of potential — more potential than restrictions. The best part about this medium is that the information can flow both ways. Publishing on the Web offers both immediacy and intimacy, through function and through content. Whether it’s my own projects, or whichever organization I’d be involved in later on, this kind of discourse is something I feel I will be compelled to pursue.

  1. I’m definitely planning on spending more time on Louise’s blog, which is extremely insightful. This work is smart and beautiful. Plus, if you print out the image and cut around it very carefully, you have a Khoi mask to wear this Halloween!

  2. I have always been a big, yet somewhat silent, fan of Subtraction. In addition to the interesting, well-written content and the fun use of the F word, I especially love this monthly “Illustrate Me” series. I am delightfully inspired by others’ creativity and unique expressions, and that is exactly what I get from these illustrations each month, especially this one by Louise. I find her idea of indirect portraiture and personification fascinating and her illustration of Khoi is superb. Nice work! And thank you for inspiring me.

  3. I’m glad you’re bringing in real illustrator talent for this project. Amazing work Louise, I love the how you were able to create new personalities through bits of Khoi.

  4. Louise, conceptually and exection-wise, your illustration is pretty damn great! I’ve always had a soft spot for caricature (which your piece sort of is) since there’s always something within it that brings out the essence of the subject in ways that words usually cannot convey. Great stuff!

  5. It’s fantastic to hear the articulate and passionate thoughts of an artist – so few artists can put it all together so eloquently. And it’s backed up by such a fabulous, intriguing body of work – wonderful stuff, really. (And I want my name done in ribbon-writing for MY blog… what’s the asking price?)

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.