Earl Gee, Partner, Gee + Chung Design; Spark Juror, 2012 & 2019

Who are you, professionally speaking?
I am Partner and Creative Director, with Fani Chung, of Gee + Chung Design, an award-winning multidisciplinary brand communications firm based in San Francisco. We create intelligent, innovative and compelling solutions which provide strategic value for clients. Our firm develops successful branding, print, packaging, environmental and interactive programs for leading clients including Apple, Adobe, National Semiconductor, Oracle, Lucasfilm Ltd., Chronicle Books and Stanford University.

How did you choose your design discipline?
Thanks to having my older brother being the doctor in the family, my parents were very supportive of my early interest in art, drawing and creating things. My elementary art teacher Mr. Parker provided tremendous encouragement and inspiration; every child should have someone like this in their life. In high school I was introduced to Saturday classes at Art Center College of Design, which had just relocated to nearby Pasadena, CA. I was captivated by Art Center’s student gallery and the school’s clean, modern environment. I began Art Center as an Advertising major but found that I enjoyed branding, collateral, packaging and exhibit design so much that I eventually changed to Graphic Design.

What are some elements that make your designs distinctive?
We strive to use a unique point-of-view: our clients’. Consequently, the elements that make our designs distinctive depend upon our client, audience and project, and enable our solutions to be different for each client. We believe design = value. Effective design is about communicating strategic differentiation; distinguishing what is different about a company, product or service to your audience. In this context, successful design is about creating strategic and lasting value for clients. Consequently, our design philosophy is to focus on creating client value, not visuals. Our goal is to create designs that engage, inspire and delight. Having the opportunity to work with many technology clients, we enjoy the challenge of making complex new technologies understandable, meaningful and memorable.

Is your work international, or regionally focused?
Our work is both regional and international. Being based in the Bay Area, we concentrate on Silicon Valley technology companies and startups. Working for multinational companies such as Apple, Adobe, Applied Materials, IBM, Symantec and Sun has allowed us to complete projects throughout Asia, Europe and South America. Truly compelling design has a simplicity, clarity and universality that transcends language and cultural barriers. These are the qualities we strive to achieve in our design solutions, be they regional or international.

What is your ideal project or commission?
My ideal project is always the one I am working on. I am constantly looking for a way to make the project at hand the best of its kind; a solution that can redefine the category. With respect to future projects, my ideal client would embody the type of innovation that enables us to accomplish things more effectively, efficiently, sustainably and improve our quality of life. My ideal solution would enable the audience to participate in the design, be able to scale to influence as many people as possible, and demonstrate how design can impact the world in a positive manner.

Who are your top 3 favorite designers?
Leonardo da Vinci for his curious mind and inventiveness. Pablo Picasso for his ability to innovate through abstraction. Antoni Gaudi for his inspirational use of nature and geometric form.

What are you currently reading?
Books I’ve enjoyed reading include Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers, three fascinating sources of innovative thinking and creative inspiration. George Lois’ Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!) offers words of wisdom from one of the original “Mad Men”. Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be is a primer on the power of aspiration. His follow-up volume, Whatever You Do, Think the Opposite is equally compelling. And don’t miss Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist for a compelling argument that all creative work is iterative. Time Magazine is valuable for news and current events. Vanity Fair is a guilty pleasure for entertainment and culture.

What advice can you offer to a new graduate?
New graduates would be wise to commit to a lifetime of learning. It is the only way to continue to grow. Be curious, flexible and open to new ways of thinking. Embrace as many ways to approach a problem as possible. At my first job at Landor Associates I was fortunate to work alongside designers from many different backgrounds including Yale, Cranbrook, RISDE, U of Cincinnati, Pratt, School of Visual Arts and Cooper Union. I became an infinitely more well-rounded designer for this experience. In selecting your first job, put yourself in an environment in which you respect the people you work with and can learn and grow alongside them. Make each project the best of its kind. Go beyond what is expected. And most importantly, find your own way.

How did you get your first paying design job?
Not counting the $50 I earned drawing caricatures in the sixth grade, my first paying design job would have to be at Landor Associates in San Francisco, at the time the world’s largest design firm. At my graduation from Art Center College of Design, I received Landor’s first annual Dale Brubaker Memorial Award as the most promising graphic design graduate. I was very honored by the award and very interested in interviewing with the firm. I was impressed by Landor’s world-class portfolio, clients, facilities and people. Fortunately Landor had a position and made me an offer. The opportunity to work alongside the best and brightest in the profession was priceless. Many of my Landor colleagues became long-time friends, collaborators and clients.

What do you do for inspiration?
I try to seek as much inspiration from the client and project itself. I begin by carefully researching the client and competition to see how to create something new. It’s impossible to break new ground if you don’t know what has already been done. All design builds upon what has come before. I try to understand how our client is unique and define their clear point of differentiation. I often start with a list of words that represent what the client is trying to convey before any visuals. Sources of inspiration include: visiting art museums to see art in its purest form, looking at products and store environments to see what’s new, getting outdoors to connect with the natural world; and most of all, traveling the world to see how others live and gain an understanding of their culture.

What’s the best thing about being a designer?
Design is a great profession; it is creative, analytical and intuitive. It celebrates the unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary. It’s one of the rare professions in which you don’t have to do what has always been done; you can do what has never been done before. Perhaps the best thing about being a designer is that you tend to have a different view of of life. You are rarely content with the way things are. You are always looking forward to creating something that is different, better than before, more useful, more efficient, more sustainable or a more engaging experience that improves people’s lives. These are the creative possibilities that Spark represents and the human-centered qualities that make the Spark competition so significant; it celebrates the unlimited potential for design to create a better world.