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Regulars / The Graduates 2019

Stefanie Tam’s graphic design grounds conceptual thinking in compelling visuals

Words:

Rebecca Irvin

Images:

Stefanie Tam

At the beginning of this year, we were blown away by (then-student) graphic designer Stefanie Tam’s use of print to showcase her love of downtown Los Angeles. Now she joins our cohort of Graduates for 2019. As we noted before, Stefanie has developed her own distinctive style, merging critical scrutiny of cultural and socio-political systems with a succinct visual language.

The LA-based graphic designer has worked previously with Wax Studios, Stink Studios, TPM Magazine, and The Underground Museum. She is a graduate of UCLA’s Design Media Arts BA course and is soon to embark on an MFA in Graphic Design at Yale School of Art. Key to Stefanie’s work, in particular her extensive self-initiated projects, is her emphasis on multimodality. Her projects take the form of research, archives, books, websites, photographs and installations, all of which hold equal weight in her exploration of a central concept, and which are woven together in a system of cross-references, each medium adding to the layers of meaning.

Throughout her degree, Stefanie has, she says, become “more and more interested in how the structuring of information influences interpretation”. Her forte as a designer is her ability to ground highly conceptual thinking within visual systems that are engaging, compact and lucid – laden with meaning, dense with information and external references, but executed without ostentation. These systems, while visually concise, are structurally and conceptually complex, each element communicating with – or functioning in opposition to – another, and working to shape the reader, viewer or user experience.

Her multifaceted personal project that-i.do/not_think?I=know_what&I_do_not=know, for example, is an extended exercise in archiving digital information while simultaneously interrogating the ways in which that information is produced, consumed and digested. Few designers have both the ability to think in such a highly conceptual way and also the skill to build design systems to match. Clearly, Stefanie has both in abundance.

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Stefanie Tam: A Love Letter to LA

It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study graphic design?

Stefanie Tam: It was a terrifying but rewarding decision, to say the least. Both my schools and my surrounding communities framed arts as a secondary interest, never a primary focus. Taking ceramics in high school really helped me to unlearn this type of thinking. I started to understand that working in a flexible, creative environment was very empowering for me. I still wanted to pursue applied arts, but I also wanted to pursue a general education at college. This led me to studying Design Media Arts at UCLA. There, I could study various artistic disciplines in conjunction with the programme’s core encouragement of conceptual, culturally relevant thinking, all while taking other general education classes.

Due to the hybrid nature of the programme, DMA produces media artists, creative coders, graphic designers, motion graphics artists and game designers, so I wasn’t exactly planning to come out of it as a graphic designer upon entry. My focus on design is something that has developed over the past four years – it emerged out of diligently and prolifically producing, and consistently reflecting on my favourite projects and interests within my educational, occupational and personal practice.

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Stefanie Tam: A Love Letter to LA

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Stefanie Tam: A Love Letter to LA

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Stefanie Tam: A Love Letter to LA

INT: How has your work developed since the beginning of your studies?

ST: While my design sensibilities have improved throughout my studies, I feel most excited by my growth in conceptual and critical thinking. I’ve experimented with design, publication, coding, 3D modelling, VR, video and various other media. As I started to focus on design after my second year, I understood how my exposure to other mediums helped inform my views on design. Considering that online spaces and technologies evolve at such a fast pace, I try to understand where design stands in relation to these changes. This is reflected in the majority of my self-directed projects, in which I consider factors of distribution, accessibility, obsolescence and trend. At the beginning of my studies, I didn’t think too much about these topics, and I found it more difficult to produce culturally and politically relevant works.

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Stefanie Tam: Poster Designs

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Stefanie Tam: Poster Designs

“I feel most excited by my growth in conceptual and critical thinking”

I’ve also become interested in information architecture, archives, and the inseparability of the physical and digital spaces. When the topics of fake news, post-truth politics and polarised opinion began to surface during the 2016 election, I became more and more interested in how the structuring of information influences interpretation. Similarly, with regard to archival practices – practices perceived as fact-based documentation – I found it exceedingly interesting to consider how the curator’s biases shape truth or create new narratives. I can probably blame that on the amount of time I spend on the internet and the philosophy and psychology classes I’ve taken…

These interests have manifested themselves as publications and websites. I compare the similarities and differences in information consumption between physical and digital deliveries. I love considering the opportunities for interactivity on a website vs. the opportunities for interactivity within a book that shares the same visual systems.

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Stefanie Tam: ://OFPLACE

INT: Can you describe the project you’re most proud of and why?

ST: I’m really excited about two of my independent projects: A Love Letter to LA, and that-i.do/not_think?I=know_what&I_do_not=know. A Love Letter to LA is a research-based photobook featuring the immigrant-run fashion, flower and toy districts of downtown Los Angeles, paying homage to the people who make the city so culturally rich.
 
that-i.do/not_think?I=know_what&I_do_not=know is an installation, book and website addressing the production, consumption and digestion of digital information in 2019. The project archives 300 quotations of proponents and opponents of media production, 150 datasets on consumer and producer habits, and 150 images found in articles about information distribution.

The massive body of digital artefacts includes spammy, click-baity images from Youtube thumbnails, stock images of eerily smiley people staring at their phones, and quotations like: “Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has claimed that the streaming giant’s biggest rivals aren’t Amazon, YouTube or even traditional broadcasters. According to Mr Hastings, our need for sleep is actually its main barrier – ‘We’re competing with sleep, on the margin.’” These images and language permeate online media to the extent that it becomes easy to ignore, but when isolated, it seems more sinister. By placing these images within my strange visual system that embraces contradiction and cynicism, I hoped to strip each digital information – typefaces, colours, platforms – that normalises this kind of content.

“How does structuring the content simultaneously serve the content and create new meaning?”

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Stefanie Tam: ://OFPLACE

INT: What was your biggest challenge while studying and how did you overcome it?

ST: Because most of my programme’s assigned projects stemmed from personal interests rather than emulating real-world client-driven work, it was easy to get carried away with the rabbit hole of experimentation, application of visual aesthetic and creative execution. Projects could become just smoke and mirrors and compromise the content, research and concept when learning how to use new too-cool-for-school tools.

The way I combatted this was by asking questions, lots of questions. How does structuring the content simultaneously serve the content and create new meaning? Is my application of visual aesthetic reinforcing my thesis or convoluting it? What is my desired point of legibility – do I want to purposely leave things ambiguous, straightforward, direct or confusing? How are my experiences adding a layer of subjectivity to the works at hand – am I being genuine?

I find that I produce some of my most honest pieces when I have the discipline to research until I know the content forward and backwards, in addition to having the fluidity to adapt in both the research and production phases. I find that having a clear image of what I want my project to be like at the early ideation stages makes me more susceptible to forcing the content to fit my vision, rather than letting the finished project reflect my findings.

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Stefanie Tam: Poster Designs

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Stefanie Tam: FROM WASTE TO CHANGE

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Stefanie Tam: that-i.do/not_think?I=know_what&I_do_not=know

INT: What would be your ultimate dream project?

ST: I’m not too sure if I have an ultimate dream project. I do think it would be cool to produce a cross-medium annual publication that centres archival practice as a form of critical engagement. I can imagine a yearly archive that changes according to the current political climate and cultural shifts. I can see archivists, information architects and designers collaborating. I think that these different disciplines have a really interesting intersection of approaches, especially when it comes to distribution of information, and together can create critically engaged, experimental works. As a designer, I’d be excited to think about how the structure of information creates meaning and how I can develop a visual language that reinforces it and contributes a new perspective. As a collaborator, I’d be really excited to be challenged by people from different educational backgrounds and to have a collective sense of responsibility and urgency around the works we produce.

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Stefanie Tam: A Love Letter to LA

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