Stanley Chen Shares His Secrets to Being One of the Best Designers in Advertising

Stanley Chen Shares His Secrets to Being One of the Best Designers in Advertising

Interview by Anja Paspalj
Published: September 22, 2022

Let's be honest -- who doesn’t imagine working with the biggest names in the industry? Google, Apple, Nike and the Getty Museum (just to name a few). Graphic designer and recipient of the Cannes Gold Lion Stanley Chen has done it all and more, and he’s here to teach us the tricks of the trade.

From his most significant learning experience to his top three tips for growing your graphic design career, the LA-based art director shares everything you need to know to reach your goals.

“More than ever, designers need to bring deeper meaning to everything we do and stand out with purpose.”

Spotlight: You have already had such an incredible design career. What inspired you to pursue graphic design and art direction?

Stanley Chen: My dad was an oil painter turned exhibition designer, my mom was a photographer turned documentary film director. Growing up in an artistic family helped to define my path. It wasn’t hard at all for me to realize that I want to be a creative of some sort.

So it was in your DNA from the beginning.

Sort of. Even though I didn’t become a painter (like I wanted to when I was growing up), I am still flexing similar muscles, in the sense that I create meaning through visuals that communicate ideas. It’s the one thing that I love doing, and manage to do pretty well. I just can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

You're fortunate to be so passionate about your work. Do you have any go-to tools that help you bring your ideas to life?

My favorite tools are probably pen and paper. No matter how advanced technology gets, it will never replace them. The process of thinking with your hands solidifies ideas. Designers don't draw and then think — they draw and think at the same time. I think that’s one of the best ways to formulate new ideas, think with your hands and make something as you reflect.

You can't beat old-school creativity! So tell us — what are some of your favorite personal projects?

I am very proud of the TBWA Worldwide rebrand I worked on. It changed the way I think about branding. As designers, we often want full control over all the output. We pick a specific typeface and kern it a certain way, or pick our favorite color combination, or we design a strict identity guideline for others to follow. And these are all great, but they might not be applicable in all cases.

Stanley Chen: art designer
Source: TBWA Worldwide

For instance, TBWA Worldwide is a global creative network with over 10,000 people in 41 countries. For a brand of that scale and diversity, a one size fits all solution doesn’t seem to be right. Therefore, we designed a simple, flexible and dynamic identity framework that allowed people from all around the world within the collective to participate and reflect the culture that truly represents who they are.

We'd love to know more about you! Are there any blogs, websites or apps you check every day?

I check Facebook, Instagram and Apple News on a regular basis. They act more like information hubs showcasing content, ranging from news to design to music to culture and beyond. A few more design specific websites that I check often are Fast Company, It’s Nice That, Nowness, Wallpaper, and Wired.

You have the day off. What can we find you doing?

You can find me riding my bike on the beach, having a conversation with friends at a coffee shop, enjoying music at a local venue, or probably all of the above.

Let's talk inspiration. Are there any brands or designers that influence you?

There are too many designers and projects that I admired and have inspired me. I would like to talk about one particular project for the Refugee Olympic team. This was the first time that the refugee team was going to compete in the Olympics. Ten athletes with no national team, no flag, and no anthem to call their own had a new identity that represented them. The flag was designed by Yara Said, an artist and Syrian refugee now living in Amsterdam. It was simple yet powerful. She used black and orange to represent the color of life jackets worn by refugees when making dangerous sea crossings.

That is incredibly moving.

It was! The design was picked up by major news and media — it even became part of permanent collections in art museums. Under the unsettling social and political climate around the world, especially last year, ‘The Refugee Nation’ was a prime example of how the creative industry can both reflect and influence our culture.

We live in such a visual world now that people will start recognizing the flag with a discussion. It’s important for designers to be mindful of what’s happening in the world, and use our skill of visual communication to serve the ultimate client, society.

Tell us about your first big project. What did you wish you knew before you started, and what did you learn coming out the other side of it?

My first big project was the brand refresh for Acura while I was at Mullen Lowe. We did everything from redefining the strategy and vision to designing a new typeface and iconography. Through campaigns that consisted of digital, print and TV, we elevated the brand look and feel, and amplified its impact.

What advice do you have for creatives that are new in their career but looking to grow?

Based on my personal experience, these are the few things that have helped me grow as a creative: firstly, work with the right creative leaders whom you can learn things and garner inspiration from.

Secondly, work should be the most important thing, especially for someone who just started out. Keep challenging yourself with better and more meaningful ideas. Keep pushing on crafting the best work possible. Everything else comes secondary.

Last but not least, work on things you care or are passionate about. You can’t create anything great if you are not "into it." The work will show.

Do you have any tips for scoring an interview (or job offer!) at a well-known agency or company?

Of course! As I mentioned, work is critical. That's why we end up in that interview in the first place. But it's good to show personality too. It might sound kind of cliche, but "be yourself" will never steer you wrong. You should let the employer know why you are a good fit for the role, how your personal stories align and how you can relate to the company's values, beliefs, product or services.

What quote motivates you in your work?

I have to quote one of my favorite mentors, Clive Piercy:

“There are plenty of designers in the world; we are doing perfectly well without you. But what there is a true lack of are great graphic designers. So that is your obligation to be great. And the greatest thing you can do as a designer is to have work that is representative of your character, that reflects who you are, that is a manifestation of your taste."

Any final words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?

The design and advertising industry are in danger of pointless banality and an ocean of blandness from designers pulling the same references to the lack of provocation. With the increasing use of crowdsourcing and automation design tools, many designers’ jobs would be replaceable — just like many other industries.

More than ever, designers need to bring deeper meaning to everything we do and stand out with purpose. It’s important to ask the question "why" before we get to “how" and “what."

Find out more about Stanley Chen's work on his website and get to know more industry game changers here

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