Our childhood can give us clues into what really inspires us. For illustrator and designer Joy Li, this looked like scrapbooking, collecting well-designed ephemera and doodling on the sides of pages.
The Chinese-Australian designer has now worked with the likes of Nike, Kin Fertility, Australian Ethical and Adobe, creating colourful, fun work that also speaks to Australia's multiculturalism.
Refiner29 Australia spoke with Li about how she landed her dream job, her advice for budding illustrators and why her heritage is her biggest inspiration.
Refinery29 Australia: Can you tell us about when you first got into design and how your work has evolved over time?
Li: At school, I was more interested in putting together the presentation than the content itself. Little did I know that what I was doing was essentially setting me up for a career in graphic design.
Completing a visual communication degree and working on personal projects in the background helped me learn fundamental design skills, build industry networks and transition into a full-time job.
I’ve been working in branding professionally for a little over five years. I’m sometimes crazy enough to balance full-time work with my own projects as a freelance illustrator and occasional creative influencer.
Being on the fringe of two generations, I tend to move between the hustle and grind of a millennial but also the ‘nothing-really-matters-just-slay’ attitude of Gen Z.
While the themes around my personal and cultural experiences have always remained a constant in my work, it has definitely evolved in the different formats it takes. From small publications to large-format outdoor billboards and AR face filters, I enjoy the challenge of working across different briefs from clients as well as adapting to new tools and tech.
You’ve created beautiful personal projects and worked with some big brands for campaigns over the years. Is there a certain project that you’re most proud of?
I was particularly proud of my most recent project, where I had the incredible opportunity to illustrate the hero image for this year’s Lunar New Year campaign for SBS.
This was such a special project as SBS holds such a dear place in my heart, being a media platform that actively supports migrant communities and First Nations Australians through culturally driven broadcasting.
In a sense, being able to visually communicate my culture and interests in a visually engaging, meaningful and expressive way for a large audience definitely takes the cake in making it all worthwhile!
Having been born in China but raised in Australia since the age of one, I was very much detached from Chinese culture itself. Apart from my experiences and learnings from my parents, the Western modes of thinking and behaviours were cemented in my everyday life.
From a very young age, my parents enrolled me into weekly Saturday Chinese school lessons to learn their mother tongue and to retain the roots of a Chinese heritage. At the time, I was very resentful of the fact that I had to learn this other language and its nuances. Something that seemingly played a small role at home in contrast to my inflated sense of Australianism within my school and societal environment.
I guess this is one aspect I value about Chinese culture; how family plays a big role in informing my identity. Whilst there are many aspects that I cannot fully understand about Chinese culture in the context of a Chinese person, I am able to contribute a uniquely Chinese-Australian perspective.
Despite being brought up in a multilingual household, I find it difficult to verbally articulate all my thoughts in either language. Creating has always been a way for me to bridge this gap. It’s been a space where I’m able to explain the things I feel or think where words sometimes fail to convey. My work has become a new language wherein I can express all the concepts that I’d previously struggled to define.
Are there any ‘pinch me’ moments you’ve encountered throughout your career?
As an illustrator and designer, we usually have ultimate dream clients we’d love to work with, those that champion creativity and are on the pulse when it comes to defining culture. One of those clients for me was Nike. When I had an almost unbelievable opportunity to illustrate for Nike’s Play New campaign, it was truly a pinch-me moment.
The work I created for them was used to promote the Matildas match with the US women’s football team. It was applied across banners in an actual football stadium, on street billboards and on an in-store mural.
Another notable (and probably the earliest) pinch-me moment for me was the first project I did with Adobe. As a creative partner, I have been asked to feature in its campaigns as well as attend the Adobe MAX conference in LA. There, I was able to meet and learn from some of my earliest inspirations and creative idols.
I’ve been so fortunate to work with many clients who share similar visions and values to myself.
What does living the dream look like to you?
They always say dream big, but my dreams in hindsight weren’t ever that grand nor tangible. I think in my grade six yearbook I just wrote that I wanted to be happy under the ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’ question.
If I’m speaking to my younger self's dream, then I would say I’m living that dream already!
If someone was wanting to get into illustration and the art world, what advice would you give them?
Find your unique point of view:
In my design and illustration practice, there’s always an element of myself in my creative projects. When you’re able to communicate a universal idea in a unique way, others become drawn to your work. By speaking a personal truth, we usually reveal shared truths.
Develop your own style:
Sometimes that starts by looking at the creators you admire. Examine how the professionals create, perhaps even try to replicate, but do it in your way. Use other people’s success as a model to pave your own.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss:
Sometimes the more rules and conventions we follow, the more we can become creatively blocked and uninspired. Embrace your inexperience and push the boundaries of what is expected of a creative. This is where exciting and interesting work emerges.
What is the next big dream or goal you want to achieve?
I tend to have a ‘do it for the plot’ chaos mentality. I think this helps me to feel content and appreciative of all of the opportunities, big or small, that I receive. But if I had to ride the dream train, I would love to be able to one day create something for a movie or TV show.