Jay Li

Oct 15, 2020

8 min read

Chinwe&Jay4SeniorStudio: A Condensed Oral History

A PizzaKucha. The word ‘data’, a whole lotta times. Authorship, impact, process, and delivery (not pizza). An honest peek into 7 weeks of designing, together ✺

Written collaboratively with Chinwe Oparaji.

The Scene

The year is, well, this one. AirPods buzzing in ear, Jay Li sidesteps one-way traffic into what he always knew as 808.

Tucked away on floor four, the design studios were grounded with the same swank, with a few more pointers and annotations. As always, the view felt otherworldly to him. Seated at his new desk after Zoom class #2, Jay looked out on blue. Dawdled with birds, faced Cambridge, before pulling back to Comm Ave’s Big Underwhelming Shuttles. It seemed studio, like all else, had new expectations. Regimented. Fun. Serious. Distanced. Barren. Forgiving. And that made sense.

Soon, Jay was assigned to a group before swiftly being switched to work with Chinwe Oparaji. Chinwe and Jay had been classmates for the past three years, always vibing at similar wavelenghts. Arguably both a bit chaotic, but it seemed stylistically right from the start. The parallels were there: both double majors, big-picture people, and scallion pancake fanatics. But Chinwe was unabashedly analog meets ‘hello world’; Jay was obsessively picking at language and constraints.

From September 3rd to October 15th, they collaborated on a partner research project for Fall Senior Graphic Design Studio. The constraints didn’t specifically call for it, but the duo felt strongly about walking towards a final product together. They sensed each other’s ambition right from the git, and they knew they wanted to pursue the design of a slim thick book.

Slowly tracing the tidbits, nitty-gritty, and the chineke mere m ebere [Igbo: “God have mercy on me”], Chinwe, Jay, friends, and members of Senior Studio recount the moments that turned the pages for this 7-week venture (not for the faint-hearted).

Part 1: A Final Stretch

Jay: So we’re hitting the 2AM mark, just before everything feels doomy. I told Chinwe, “it’s not tomorrow until we sleep, right?” Anyways, Chinwe’s videoing Curtis, and she says something along the lines of how when she thinks she’s right, she doesn’t look back until she changes her mind. I think honestly that’s the mentality that pushed our partnership toward the finish.

So I’m thinking I should write that down. As I’m trying to do the Medium thing to document our process, it hits me that we’ve been really working at this thing for a whole ass 7 weeks. I guess it wasn’t hard to pull at the idea of an oral history, and how casually we can draw on our process. It represents a lot of how we were working: reactionary, organic, spontaneous.

Curtis Mason, Chinwe’s friend: I didn’t know how much they’ve actually done. I will say there were multiple days where Chinwe was saying she hadn’t done her 80 pages. Kudos to them for actually crushing those expectations.

Chinwe: I don’t know how, but we’re like, actually gonna make this book. Nothing worked. We didn’t follow our planned system, timing was thrown out the window. And this was something that I (Curtis, too) foresaw from Day 2. But I kept thinking that we were going to make this thick book. Jay never backed down from the goal either — although, he does tend to not text when things are getting stressful. Whatever forces behind it, we saw this seemingly unrealistic goal and we were not afraid to take it head on. Our sleep should have been afraid: this experience has been so painful.

Part 2: Google-Doc Land

Chinwe: First meet, we sat out on a bench. Jimmy G had primed us that in this group project, you and partner could go separate ways and make your own individual artifact. I was completely prepared to do this. At the time, I was just getting increasingly triggered about the lack of questioning from different perspectives about the pandemic and how any other view other than the mainstream one was seen as ‘dangerous’.

So I went in and spoke my mind about that… and he responded. He brought in some ideas and inspiration that I hadn’t thought of before. It was my first interaction with another designer since probably May. Things were looking promising.

Jay: I think even though there was the studio space, it was really about taking advantage of the weather while it was still nice. We met off campus, we sat at a small park, etc. But no matter where we went, I had a feeling we needed to scribe out everything that we talked about, and a working Google Doc just made sense.

Jay: I mean that doc really became the center of everything we did, from the PechaKucha presentation to collecting content for spreads. But it’s actually a big metaphor for how we kept firing off and playing off each other’s concepts, almost to the point of self-ruin. Google-Doc land is real, and it’s fun, but it’s also a trap. Like if it was a sweater, and you’re just threading stuff over and over…like sure, the knits are fun, but then the material gets too thick and you get hot and stuffy, and caught in the turtleneck. Does that make sense?

Chinwe: It was one the first of the many times we would be in the studio much later than I would have liked. Sometimes we could get caught up in the smallest things — like what color to make our presentation. We ended up in turn randomly calling out a number from 0 to 6 to a letter a — f. That’s how we came up with that neon green that has been the thread throughout the project.

Making the PechaKucha was good for us; we had a lot of text and not a lot of visuals so really translating these conceptual ideas into some form of images really was a satisfying challenge — and an appetite-forming one. I ordered some Dominos and we proceeded to make a lean, mean PizzaKucha in 6 and a half minutes.

This experience has just been so excruciating, but in a fun way, you know?

Part 3: Head Spaces

Jay: So when Chinwe gets super excited, she hits me, like SLAPS me across the chest, to let me know what’s up. So then I know we hit the same stride on some ideas, but definitely sometimes I’d be zoning out and need her to help me visualize her thoughts.

We just had so many floating ideas, but a huge consideration was how to rein that in, and how to ground it visually. Still actively keeping form and content separate, we each made 50-ish visual iterations and began to build off one another.

Chinwe: My visual iterations were from the mindset of, “OK, you did all this research; how does this make you feel?” I really was interested in taking various photos on my iPhone and treating them in a way that could evoke these feelings I had. So I really went for it and mangled.

Part 4: Tomes with 2-Inch Spines

Chinwe: Why did we want to do a big book? We both thought that thick book equaled sexy, but it also had a purpose. Since our idea had so many aspects, it was cool to see it talked about it a bunch.

I also saw a book called Ficciones Typografika1642 and had been dreaming to make something like that for a while now!

Angela Lian, design peer: I thought they’re doing way too much. I was concerned for both of them, but I knew they’d get some or most done. I remember telling Jay I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea since he has a lot on his plate. But then again they’re the only group doing something like this, so it was cool to see.

I told them, “you want the product to help the concept, not confuse it.” If they were going to do 480 pages, they needed a lot of quiet breathing pages.

Jay: 480? Honestly it’s the max amount of pages Blurb allows for their tradebooks. Which is to say there were probably other printing services that could handle more [Lulu can handle up to 800 pages], but 480 ended up being a hefty number without being too too crazy. I think at the same time a lot of people didn’t understand the concept because we lacked visuals to ground the ideas, and I think it was an opportunity to branch out.

Yeah it was a challenge but at the same time I haven’t done spreads in a while! I think I had a lot of fun, sequencing and stuff.

Part 5: Bus

Chinwe: Yes, we could have done a Google Drive or some other cloud-based application to handle Jay and I making a 480-page book together in one InDesign document. But we needed to follow 80 pages a day and we are both known to be not the best when it comes to work ethic. So we decided to have the physical USB stick, that each person would hold and then deliver to the other the next day.

There was a sense of responsibility behind it: no USB, no book.

Jay: Yeah I think there was this tangible hand-off that was fascinating. I couldn’t see Chinwe’s spreads til the next day, so there was an anticipation for how to sorta work in real-time to unite the visual system once the basic tools were set [colors, typography]. There was a real pressure to meet the deadlines in order to keep the bus moving.

In hindsight, 80 pages a day was a lot during the weekdays, and it wasn’t until we hit the weekends that we could really hone in. So where as we set aside 6 days to tackle 480 pages, and 4 days to refine, it was actually more like 3–4 days to do it all.