Jinjin Sun graduated from Yale with a Cognitive Science degree. You too, right? Jinjin also got busy with a bootleg Photoshop in order to customize her livejournal layout. She’ll tell you how empowering (and emo) it was. From that Jinjin the creative was born. Meet the designer she is today, and discover what drives her.
Q: How did you initially come up with the Ladies Kicking Butt concept and the idea to turn it into a collection of products?
Jinjin: I was taking a Risograph for Activism printmaking class and we’d just been looking through this collection of protest posters by of See Red Women’s Workshop, a feminist London silkscreen collective from the 70’s. So feminism and protest was on my mind. I was waiting for my turn at the risograph printer…a little bored and started doodling some ideas for a zine. In that environment the image of a lady kicking a literal butt just came to me. I got such a good response on the zine that I made a poster, and then a friend suggested I put it on a shirt as a pattern, and here we are!
Less directly though, it had also been two months since the 2017 inauguration. Hillary Clinton should have been our first female president. The results delivered a message loud and clear that no matter how good you are as a woman, you’ll never get your due. Everything I’ve made since then has been an effort to counteract that message, including this.
Q: Now that your shirts are out there, have you found them in any places you didn’t expect?
Jinjin: Yes! A friend of a friend gifted it to their friend Elizabeth Wyld, who happens to be an amazing singer/songwriter who happened to wear my shirt in her music video!
I had no idea until it was online and she gave me a heads up – I was so psyched. It’s one thing for family and friends to support you, another for a stranger to like your work so much on its own merits that they buy it, and another level again for a stranger to feature it in their own personal work. It made my month.
Q: What are some specific places you have found inspiration? Deep within? Deep out in the world? Dish the deets.
Jinjin: Gritty, in-your-face protest art from the 70s. All the handmade protest signs that people are bringing to marches. Memes. Vine (RIP). All those raw, pure and unpolished modes of expression. I also love the Met and old classic books (Moby Dick is sooooo good. Seriously.) Also, that old stuff is often unexpectedly weird, which I love discovering and then pointing out to others.
Q: I’ve been fully enjoying the 100 days of Jinjin project where you illu-face-swap-yourself onto old world art. And I did notice you take fonts typically reserved for motivational quotes on Instagram (read: Live Love Laugh) (read: makes my eyes bleed) and give them new life by hand-lettering messages like “Abolish ICE” with brushes, which I must say makes them quite pleasing to the eye. Tell us, how do you observe seemingly tired topics like gender inequality, art history, and Instagram cliches and inject newness and fun into it while keeping it meaningful?
Jinjin: Wow, what an awesome question–I think you’ve summed up a general theme through my work that I haven’t even been able to articulate myself!
I think that art is how I process what I see around me and figure out how I feel about it, so I naturally gravitate toward making stuff that comments on existing work. I also like to learn new skills by taking cues from classics. But like you said, existing and classic work gets cliche, so to keep myself from getting bored I always have to put my own silly twist on it.
Q: Whether it’s wearing my ladies kicking butt shirt, or drinking out of my ladies kicking butt mug, gazing at your RESISTANCE tote, or swiping through your illustration parodies of old-world-art-with-Jinjin-faces, your work brings me so much joy. It’s cute and serious. It’s seriously cute. Is that how you would describe your brand tone, or just how I would describe it?
Jinjin: Again, I think that you have just perfectly summed up my brand tone in a way I haven’t been able to articulate yet myself, so thank you for making me feel so seen! I love to laugh, so I definitely see my brand tone as irreverent and playful and cute, but in my mind, if you’re not saying something that’s worth putting out into the world, then what’s the point.
Q: How have you recently matured as a designer?
Jinjin: I’m better at pushing past my imposter syndrome. It used to make me try and lower everyone’s expectations before showing any work, or half-ass stuff, so that I’d be judged on a curve. Now I stop myself from downplaying my own work. I realized that it doesn’t get people to judge it on a curve, instead it taints it before they’ve even formed their own opinion on it.
Q: What would you say your biggest wins have been and why did they feel so good?
Jinjin: Last October, I funded a run of my shirts through Kickstarter. My goal was $1,500 and I raised $8,000, met a bunch of new friends, learned a bunch of new skills and gained a bunch of creative and entrepreneurial courage. I was just bowled over by the support I got from all corners of my communities. There were high school friends backing it who I hadn’t spoken to in years, my childhood piano teacher, friends of friends willing to pay international shipping to Australia…before, I thought of myself as a (happily) introverted hermit with just few friends and a tiny community. That showed me that my world was a lot bigger than I’d realized.
Q: What have you learned from your biggest obstacles?
Jinjin: You can’t control everything and that’s just something you’re going to have to get used to. I had a snafu with my shirt manufacturing (weeks of radio silence and shipping issues), later I realized that there was only so much I could do to change the outcome, and beyond that it was better to just be mellow and at least save myself the stress.
Q: Do you have any mantras or phrases you say to yourself? When do you use them?
Jinjin: Not a mantra or phrase so much as a mental image I think about a lot…it’s Wile E. Coyote in the roadrunner cartoons, running over the edge of a cliff but staying aloft just as long as he doesn’t look down. It reminds me that I can do a lot of crazy stuff as long as I don’t overthink it and “realize” that it shouldn’t be possible.
Q: I love that…and I’m probably going to steal it. I want to magically running-man-levitate. You’re getting it done on the daily–if your brand could have a legacy, what would it be?
Jinjin: More modern protest art!
Q: What brands should we follow on Instagram right now and why?
Jinjin: I love indie makers with unique visions! @kayeblegvad, @helenlevi, @tessa_perlow are some of my favs.
Q: When did you know you wanted to become a designer? What was the very first thing you ever made?
Jinjin: My own custom livejournal layout. It was all blue everything and had a sparkling flower on it, which I’m pretty sure I made in a bootleg version of photoshop. Very emo. Very empowering.
But actually I didn’t think I was going to be a designer professionally! I majored in cognitive science in college and was always pretty STEM-centric in school. My parents are both scientists and I was raised to follow in their footsteps. I still love science, but I also always had this creative/artistic itch. The summer before my senior year in college, I helped out with my film major friend’s senior thesis film. It was so exciting to be on set, and it really opened my eyes to other paths in life and showed me that I can do whatever I want. So after I graduated I decided I wanted to do something “artistic” (without quite knowing what), and bounced around for a few years in nonprofit and publishing before entering a User Experience Design training program at Huge. User experience design has been a good field for me ever since, since it merges an analytical thought process with creative output. And then of course I’ve still been drawing on and off throughout that whole process in my spare time. Actually, I recently went freelance so that I’d have more time to do more of those personal projects, so that’s been the latest step in my journey, and who knows where I’ll go next.
Q: How do you think we can use fashion and/or design to help empower the next generation?
Jinjin: I think fashion is awesome to help people express themselves and to help you find others who share your same interests and values. It can build communities by helping people signal to each other that they’re of like minds.
Q: What do you think of a website that features only brands created by people of color, women and/or the LGBTQ community?
Jinjin: Love it, especially coming from someone who really cares about the community! I think right now it’s easy for brands to capitalize on these movements and use them cynically to make a buck. But a place that’s really about empowering the minority communities and highlighting our voices unapologetically, it’s a no brainer. It’s about time.
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