Friendly Feature: John Thai
Where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in a small town about an hour outside Toronto. My parents were the first family of Vietnamese refugees to arrive in the region which made it to the front page of the local paper — “BOAT PEOPLE ARRIVE.” My parents kept the clipping stashed in a green, faux leather-bound photo album under a piece of yellowed cellophane. I used to look at it once in awhile and ask myself why this was newsworthy. In retrospect, being brought up in a town where everyone knew you were the “kids of those Viet refugees” probably meant we got more compassionate treatment from authority figures like teachers. That might explain why I loved my teachers but hated my classmates. Growing up fat, queer and Asian had its challenges.What were some of your early artistic/aesthetic influences/inspirations in life?
My parents were always working hard so I was quite literally raised on TV. I paid attention to fashion and style at a pretty young age but as a poor family, we didn't really have the luxury of owning it. I was absolutely ridiculed for my lack of flashy sportswear. In grade eight my uncle started hocking knockoffs on Spadina, so I finally had some access to a range of poorly embroidered Nike tees and poorly fabricated Air Flight Stoudemires with the patent leather toe box. The 90s definitely had me wanting sportswear. At 13 years old, I started working at a Dairy Queen and with my first paycheque, walked into a Joggers and bought my very first Nike tee. It was oversized, off-white, featured the logo on the front in maroon and a definition on the back in typewriter font – "Swoosh; The last sound you hear before you come in second place." I kept the labels in mint condition and studied the embossing of the swoosh on the hangtag. I converted it to a bookmark and used it in my Goosebumps – I can basically still remember how it smelled. It was around this age that I became obsessed with logotypes and letterforms. I wanted to be able to draw the swoosh by hand in one smooth movement. I created a perfectly technical six foot swoosh on my wall using black pen and three-ring paper. I didn't really doodle what other kids were doodling to be honest – I was drawing letters, numbers, and forms. What was your first artistic practice?
Out of college I couldn’t find a job easily so I just started making as much stuff as I could. I eventually landed a job as a brand manager at an architecture firm that specialized in high-end recording studios. Years later I would find myself at TAXI as an art director, eventually hopping around to a number of creative agencies as a Design Director and now at Google as a UX designer on the Google Home team.
What’s the importance of UX designers as we move through the information age into a digitized world? What impact do you hope to have with your work?
Well, we reap the benefits of good UX design in everything we touch already, don’t we? The world has already been digitized. UX design is about taking that one step further and making a person’s interaction with various technologies as seamless, intuitive and beautiful as possible. This is what I strive for in my work at Google. The most exciting part of my work is actually the prospect of using technology to bring people back together. As a byproduct of having amazing technology in our pockets, we have become very isolated from each other and addicted to personal technology. On the Google Home team, I think we have an opportunity to create ambient technology in our homes that will help us reconnect to our spaces and more importantly, our loved ones.
What are some personal creative projects that you’ve enjoyed working on as a designer?
I recently started a project with my good sis Armand called “New Ho Queen” which is of course a play the prolific 24hr Chinese restaurant on Spadina called New Ho King. It’s a creative collective of queer Asian people that is centered currently on a nightlife event series, but we hope to branch out into other areas. It brings out the most creative facets of each of our personalities and has been an illuminating exercise in reconnecting with my asian roots. I work on the whole visual design system as well as the spacial design of the events. The design system is very utilitarian, but that’s why I love it. The typefaces and design direction were influenced by ephemeral Asian objects and printed matter; the kind of stuff you’d see hanging in an Asian household like a calendar with a bold number in the center. It’s been quite a labor of love designing the branding and the design system which lives mostly on instagram, but I’ve also been able to extend the system to motion design, installation and a shitload of printed matter which I do just for fun.
Also shoutout to Lost + Found of course for inviting me in on the rebranding project last year. The flag on the side of the exterior wall is still my favourite part about walking Southbound on Ossington.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I don’t read books per se, but I’m super into magazines. Currently reading Printed Pages and Real Review Issue 7.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
The song of the summer was definitely Robyn’s glittery tear-jerker Missing U, but other than lately I’m just listening to soundscapes and, as the Japanese like to call it, “healing music”.
What are some of your hobbies/interests outside of design/tech?
Like a true otaku, I just planted a Japanese rock garden in my backyard. So I guess I’ve really taken a liking to pruning dwarf Hinoki shrubs. Am I actually my dad?
Do you have any advice for young designers who just started designing with photoshop/illustrator and see it as a possible career?
It’s not enough to just know how to use illustrator or photoshop anymore — these are just two of the very basic building blocks. Try layering on some other practical skills like prototyping, research, motion design or even basic coding. Use your hands. Oh and also, if you're using photoshop for design, you're doing it wrong.
Norse Projects Hans Collarless Chambray Light Indigo
Velva Sheen Pigment Dyed Pocket T-Shirt Ginger
Carhartt W.I.P. Master Pant Leather Twill
Adidas Originals Montreal '76 Clear Brown/Core Black
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