Explore the playful language of zines with Social Species

The Brooklyn-based studio aims to create objects that people can have meaningful relationships with. Here, the Brooklyn-based studio tells us why play is integral to its practice.

20 August 2021


Miles Barretto and Vivian Yang know a thing or two about zines. It’s a medium that we’re familiar with too, here at It’s Nice That, and needless to say we’re very fond of those self-published, small-circulation printed goods. But Miles and Vivian are experts on the matter, exploring the ins and outs of the self-published titles through their small studio and print collective: Social Species. “There is an intimacy of zines that allows us to curate every aspect of the reader’s experience down to the feel of the selected paper,” Miles tells us. Through the playful language of zines, Social Species creates accessible and affordable publications which are beautifully designed and full of riveting content.

The pair met while studying graphic design at New York’s Parsons School of Design. During their second year, a chance meeting at the Printed Matter Art Book Fair allowed Vivian and Miles to realise many childhood similarities. While Miles grew up in the Philippines, moving to the US for university and primarily working in startups since, Vivian on the other hand, is a first generation Korean-American who grew up in LA before moving to New York where she mainly works in branding. When the two first met, they quickly established a mutual desire to preserve their individual cultures and traditions which, Vivian explains, “led us to learning and sharing about other cultures through Social Species as well.”

Play is essential to the studio’s ethos and importantly, it encourages people to interact with each other in unexpected ways. At first, Miles and Vivian experimented with this through zines, drawing on their versatility to create a range of excited printed goods. Sound Scrub, for instance, was created as a vehicle for a web-based auditory experience and Mom & Son alternatively, was an unbound paper doll collection complete with outfits and backgrounds. With play at the heart of the practice, Social Species uses several light hearted means to develop. “We realised play was relatable,” says Miles, commenting on how it can close generation gaps and spark interesting conversations between family and friends. “On an individual level,” adds Vivian, “it brings us in touch with our ‘inner child’ and reminds us of the importance of levity.”

When working on a project, the two don’t necessarily have a final product in mind. By getting to know a particular or person or a story, the project is pushed in exciting new directions which, in turn, propels Miles and Vivian to try and do new things. Seeking out collaborators beyond the mainstream channels of design, Social Species has worked with a myriad of creatives from illustrator Derek Abella to Studio Bang-Gu, artist Bica Laetitia and food artist Lexie Park. Social Species worked on an “archive of play” consisting of a collection of work where creatives shared distinct perspectives on play from their own cultures.


Social Species: Mom & Son (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)

Lexie, who’s known for her speciality jelly cakes, based her rendition on a Korean card game, Hwatu. She wanted to pay tribute to how her grandparents often played this game and, in due course, the collaborators also took the opportunity to learn the ropes. Consequently, the team applied that knowledge to the zine’s design. Lexie’s famous layer cakes reflect Hwatu designs, which were then photographed and highlighted throughout the zine. On top of this, the art direction was influenced by Korean table settings (babsang), a decorative element deeply ingrained in Korean culture. As these ideas percolated, the creatives felt the zine was best expressed through a book of cards. The cards can also be interchanged to create an adaptable poem focused on the dining table.

Elsewhere, Social Species have designed objects and wearables such as a tote bag which “invites someone to take a seat and share in a moment that creates Jeong.” Jeong, Vivian explains, is a non-translatable Korean word which is defined as “similar to the warm, familiar feeling you have towards a person due to shared experiences.” A collaboration with artist Faith Kim – who hand constructed the totes alongside her grandmother on Korea’s Byeongpung Island – the totes are designed to bear a resemblance to a bang-suk; a traditional cushion seat. Created using thrifted and found materials from Faith’s grandmother’s fabrics collection, the textiles are impregnanted with waterproof materials too.

In another impressive project, Social Species collaborated with UnitetheBay, working with other Asian creatives in San Francisco to protect Asian lives in response to the recent Covid-related hate crimes targeting AAPI communities. “The collective tending, patience and growth – all with the intention of sharing with the community – spoke to us during this time,” says Miles. The project resulted in the sale of shirts whose proceeds went towards the Asian community, as well as window clings which were freely distributed to small businesses to show solidarity against violence.

With the aforementioned projects showing just a handful of the eclectic range of creative skills used by Miles and Vivian, the future is bright for this two-person studio. Continuing to refine and build in the future, play will continue to be a crucial aspect of the practice. “Our hope is to create objects that people can have more meaningful relationships with due to their adaptability and joyful nature,” says Miles. And to top it all off, the studio has recently welcomes a new partner, Julia Liao, who will bring her product design knowledge to the fore.


Social Species: Jeu de Billes (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: AAPI (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Movements as play (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Nunchi cover (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Play Archive (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Teks (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Nunchi zine (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Jeong (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)


Social Species: Nunchi cards (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)

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Social Species: Mom & Son (Copyright © Social Species, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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