Dazzle I February 2, 2018
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This week we spoke with Zipeng Zhu, an Chinese-born creative with an audacious style whose self-professed life goal is making every day a “razzle dazzle musical.”
“My name is Zipeng, and I’m a creative director, art director, illustrator, designer, animator, and whatever else, born in China.”
Origins: Manga, Gossip Girl, and A-Levels
Once an attendee at a British Boarding School in Shenzhen, Zhu had originally been poised for a career in biochemistry when he, much to the chagrin of his family, felt called to quite a different lifestyle.
“I was really obsessed with manga—I loved it. I still do. I really wanted to be a manga artist so I was always drawing, drawing, drawing. I felt like I wasn’t very good, but it gave me some skills in Photoshop that got me interested in design. My art teacher suggested I major in it.”
Before completing his second round of A-levels necessary for admittance to universities in the UK, Zhu decided to send out applications to a number of art schools in the US. After receiving his acceptance letters from a number of them, he narrowed his choices down to the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I decided to go with SVA because first: their catalogs are gorgeous. Secondly, New York was kind of familiar to me—it was similar to where I grew up because there are lots of people from so many places. I was also watching lots of Gossip Girl and I kinda wanted to ‘meet Blair,’ even though I knew it wasn’t real.”
Nice to Meet You, New York
Zhu made his move in 2009, and since then has gone on to work for some of the most prestigious studios in the design world, but this isn’t to say that his time was without struggle. Before even setting foot on US soil, Zhu had to talk his decision over with his parents.
“Most Chinese parents want their children to go abroad to study something that can make money or something that’s a little more stable. They weren’t happy and we got into a huge fight. But they were supportive parents that loved me, so they supported me when I came here.”
Once at SVA, Zhu had to face the inherently awkward challenge that is befriending the other students in your dorm. A daunting situation to begin with, Zhu’s struggle was made all the more difficult by his lack of understanding of certain cultural mores.
“No one ever taught me that you say ‘It’s nice to meet you’ once, and then you say ‘It’s nice to see you’ after that. Every day I was just saying to people ‘Nice to meet you!’ very excitedly. At the end of the first semester my dorm mates sat me down and said ‘Uh, you do remember us, right? Or are you like Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates?’”
But what he may have lacked in cultural context, Zhu made up for in exuberance. Rather than retreat within himself to avoid more potentially embarrassing gaffes, he embraced his differences and saw it instead as a fascinating opportunity to learn about those around him. “New York is everyone from everywhere doing everything all the time. It’s a lot, but it’s exciting. Whether it be someone of a different nationality, sexuality, or gender, I learn something new every day. New York is like the internet, but in real life.”
Fuck: the Key to Everything
As he was nearing the end of his time at SVA, Zhu seized on series of opportunities at big name studios Pentagram and Sagmeister & Walsh. When asked how he landed positions at two of the most sought after studios in the US, Zhu’s answer was quite simple.
“It was luck. But hard work makes luck come to me more easily.”
It’s Zhu’s theory of making his own luck that got him his spot at Pentagram. After doing his research on the partners by reading articles and listening to podcasts, he discovered partner Paula Scher set aside a certain time each day to answer emails. He set an alarm clock and shot off his request when the moment was right.
“It’s my little secret. Within 5 minutes she wrote back with literally three words: yes come over.”
For Zhu this was a novel experience; most designers started off as Scher’s students and made their way to her employees. Zhu was a rare case of the inverse, starting off as an employee but growing to see her as a mentor over the course of his internship. To this day, he still considers himself a student of Scher.
After his internship, Zhu had begun to make waves in the creative world and had caught the eye of a few top designers. A connection at Sagmeister & Walsh had mentioned that they were looking for someone to do some branding work, and it wasn’t long before Zhu found himself being contacted by Jessica Walsh herself.
“Jessica tweeted about a series of posters I did called ‘The Fuck?’ I interviewed and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Isn’t fuck the best word of all time?’ I agreed, because it’s so versatile. It can be a noun, a verb, whatever, and it accomplishes something so primal and direct. It’s the key to everything.”
Bonding over a mutual love of the word fuck, Zhu quickly sealed the deal for the position, taking the phrase “Getting a job right out of college,” to a new level.
“I graduated on a Thursday, interviewed on Friday, and started working on Monday.”
Paula Scher and Zipeng Zhu
Every Day a Razzle Dazzle Musical
After putting in his two and a half years at Sagmeister & Walsh, Zhu left with an entrepreneurial spirit, going on to found his own studio, Dazzle. Behind all his work lies the same relentlessly upbeat perspective has informed so many of his social interactions. Every project he churns out is more eye-catching than the last, and his Behance feed is a pulsating, vibrant hymn to his own vivid persona. At the core of his work, Zhu describes a guiding principle.
“There’s so much sadness in life, we tend to forget the joyful moments. A little pain can be easier to remember than even the happiest times. So if I can get generate a little bit of happiness for myself and the people around me, I think I’m good.”
A Proverb for Immigrants
When asked if he had any advice for any prospective immigrants looking to come to America, Zhu couldn’t resist the opportunity for a little theatrical humor.
“RUN AWAY! IT’S A TRAP!—no, I’m only joking.”
Taking a more serious and eloquent tone, Zhu addressed the current climate, enumerating about how immigrants are facing a stigma and are often perceived as threats to the American-born workforce. In his opinion, this was just another challenge that immigrants had to face if they truly want to make their new lives here work.
“Being an immigrant in America is a double-edged sword. There are so many obstacles ahead of you but it forces you to push yourself harder. I don’t think I would be where I’m at if I didn’t get defeated so many times first. It’s tough, but it’s tough love.”
Harkening back to his home culture, Zhu shared with us a proverb that he often thinks of when reflecting upon his own experience as an immigrant: 移民. Fortunately for those of us who need to brush up on our Mandarin, Zhu was kind enough to offer a loose translation.
“When difficult things happen to you, that means the gods want you to take on something bigger than yourself.”