Go Backwards to Go Forward: An Interview with Graphic Designer Lynne Yun

Developing your voice as a designer is a long and unclear path. TypeThursday sat down with former Apple designer Lynne. We discussed her journey from graphic design, to type design, and then to calligraphy. It was a pleasure speaking with her.


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TypeThursday: Lynne, thanks for coming here for TypeThursday.

Lynne Yun: Hi!

TT: It’s really cool to talk to you, because you’re a fellow alum at Type at Cooper! Before we get ahead of ourselves, I’d love to hear more about yourself.

I really wanted to go somewhere exciting, and decided to go to New York City based on a book I read in 7th grade.

World Traveler

LY: I’ve moved around all over the place and so have my interests. I’m originally from Nashville, TN, and growing up I went back and forth from Nashville to Daejeon, which is a very small town in South Korea. They’re kind of similar because you can’t get anywhere for miles around, so you’re stuck at home trying to keep yourself occupied. From there I really wanted to go somewhere exciting, and randomly decided to go to New York City based on a book I read. It’s kind of the typical New York story. After finishing my undergraduate degree in graphic design at the School of Visual Arts, I went to San Francisco to take a job at Apple. It was a huge transition because I was moving from a big city on the east coast to another big city on the west coast. People often underestimate how large the States can be — the distance from New York to San Francisco is like the distance from one end of Europe to the other.

TT: Totally different culture.

Lynne’s Work in Tech Culture

LY: Yeah, it’s totally different. I was in for a little bit of a culture shock. People are different, lifestyles are different, and the office vibes are very different. New York tends to be fast-paced and frank, and San Francisco more more laid back and nice. And you know, obviously there’s that tech culture.

TT: Can you clarify that difference?

LY: Yeah, tech culture is very much a big part of the city. The majority of creative people work for either a big tech giant, or a small tech startup. It’s a very specific industry, as opposed to New York where you get a mixed bag of creatives who are working in all kinds of industries, from banks to hipster fashion labels. Your friend groups also just naturally get a lot more diverse. Well, also, I have to admit that I worked in Silicon Valley, so I actually worked forty miles south of San Francisco. Having to go from Point A to Point B to meet people can’t ever be as organic as the way you might bump into folks while stopping by events in New York.

If you’re going to make something that everybody’s going to see, you better make sure that it’s not lame, is I think the polite way to put it.

TT: So you were at Apple?

LY: Funny enough, my reason for starting calligraphy was because of a project at Apple. I had to write some copy lines in nice handwriting and I figured I should try to be better at it. There’s a great guild, Friends of Calligraphy, in San Francisco. It was also probably a backlash against all the clean vector artwork I was making all day at my day job. Discovering great work done by hand, like the Zapf work in the San Francisco Public Library really triggered the calligraphy bug, so to speak. At the same time, I was doing a lot of word marks and some type design for Apple in general, which was nerve-wracking as a young designer. For a company of that size, projects just tend to blow up everywhere. You see it on every billboard, on every blog, and I think it was from that insecurity that I started to be like, “Oh, I should really know what I’m doing if it’s going to be in everyone’s faces.” That’s the responsible thing to do as a graphic designer, right? I think the polite way to put it is that If you’re going to make something that everybody’s going to see, you better make sure that it’s not lame.

Lynne Goes to CooperType

TT: So, okay so you had this curiosity and a little bit of insecurity? Like, “Oh my god, I’m making this stuff that’s seen by millions of people…” So I take it that what spurred to come back to New York to take Type at Cooper? Would that be a fair assessment?

LY: Yes. That is exactly right. So, I was at Apple for a little over a year.

TT: And what year was that?

LY: Late 2013 to around to late 2014. Although it was a bit of back-and-forth, I never regretted that decision since it was a great experience for someone so young. It was my first real job out of college and it was inspiring to learn how top quality work got made. The people were great, and I got to observe how some of the most intelligent brains in the industry work. But eventually I realized it was a very corporate environment and I wasn’t quite ready for it at the time. Feeling a little burnt out, I came back to New York to take John Downer’s week-long sign painting workshop at Cooper Union. Then came the “aha” moment of, “Wait, this is what I want to be doing! This is really exciting!” It was a difficult decision to make, but I really wanted to take the momentum and dig in my nails in type and lettering, so I decided to move back and attend Type@Cooper.

TT: And that was in 2014, correct?

LY: That was in 2014. As a little treat to myself, I went on a two week road trip driving from San Francisco to New York. Then I started Type@Cooper the day after I got back to NY.

TT: Okay, so when you got to Cooper, you had this pang of needing to learn more about type when you walked in the door. What was the biggest thing that you learned from being in the program?

Type design is something that you have to really dig into, spend a lot of time with it.

The Biggest Lesson from CooperType

LY: If I were to sum it up into one word, it would be “discipline.”

TT: What do you mean by that?

Lynne’s Final Project at Type@Cooper

LY: I think being a graphic designer, there’s a certain portion of graphic design where if you really need to bust something out, you can do it in a far shorter amount of time. Type design is something that you have to really dig into, spend a lot of time with it. It requires a very specific eye. Also in the fact that it’s black and white. And it’s a lot about form and rhythm and movement. I’m borrowing that from John Stephens, by the way. There’s something about the core of type, about the Latin alphabet that we use. There’s something about the form of it that is in there. And I think it takes a lot of time to bring that out. I know I sound super vague.

TT: It’s hard to communicate this sometimes. So when you say the core, when drawing it out, you have to come to an understanding about it. You have to be with the letters and spend time with them to understand the logic behind it and the beauty behind it.

LY: Yeah, that’s right. You have to know the history and why all of these things look the way they do, and how they work together as a system. Knowing the conventions is very important to type design. Everyone knows that an A is an A, but can’t really explain it. You just recognize it intuitively. You need to educate yourself, understand it and break down what makes it so.

TT: The way you’re describing letterforms, I’m not really surprised that you chose to go more in depth in lettering and calligraphy after the program. Would it be a fair assessment?

The more you dig, the more uncertain you get.

Diving Deeper into Calligraphy

LY: Yeah. I would think so. After doing Type@Cooper, I went more into lettering and then on to calligraphy. It was a rabbit hole going backwards in time. 5000 years ago ancient people were writing with clay tablets. There’s something fascinating about the humanity of writing, and of the writing system that has developed over the years. It’s very addictive. I think that’s the only way to describe it. The more you dig, the more uncertain you get. Since it all started so long ago, there are all of these arguments about where things came from and how and why things came about, and it’s all very mysterious and interesting.

TT: So in the time that you’ve been working with calligraphy and lettering, what was a project that really stood out to you as really exciting or you felt like you learned a lot from?

Broad pen calligraphers looked down on pointed pen calligraphers for the longest time for being shallow.

LY: I don’t know if I would point to any specific project. I think I learned the most from just sitting down and listening to calligraphers talk about their work, which might not be an obviously exciting activity to be doing.

TT: Can you clarify that?

LY: So, for calligraphy, there’s this whole big world out there that not many people know about. For instance, pointed pen calligraphy (such as Copperplate and Spencerian) has different roots from broad-edge pen calligraphy (like Blackletter, Italic and Uncial). These two schools of styles worked separately until fairly recently. Some cities even had different guilds for pointed pen styles and broad-edge pen styles. The two just didn’t mix. Decades ago, broad-edge pen calligraphers looked down on pointed pen calligraphy for being too decorative and commercial.

If you’re doing calligraphy, you’re doing calligraphy and we should all be friends.

TT: So there’s a little bit of drama within the calligraphy world.

LY: Yeah. Lots of drama. Even now, the focus of individual communities are different. For example IAMPETH, which is pointed-pen focused, reveres the Zanerian Manual from 1918, which is very decorative. Traditional broad-edge people might say it’s too frivolous, and prefer to study more straightforward hands like in the Ramsey Psalter from the 10th century. Talking to older people who were working in a different era from ours is also very interesting. Nowadays, since calligraphy has become such a niche art I don’t think you can afford to discriminate anymore. If you’re doing calligraphy and I’m doing calligraphy and we should be friends. That’s the way I see it.

But back to the point, I think I learned a lot from calligraphy from digging into all of the historical episodes of calligraphy and hearing from older generations of calligraphers what they experienced when they were young.

TT: What was interesting to you was the stories you gained from talking to older designers, older calligraphers, right?

LY: Yes. I’ve recently been taking a year-long class with Julian Waters, a well-known calligrapher who is the son of Sheila and Peter Waters (who are very important figures in their own right). He also taught a week-long Blackletter workshop at Cooper Union last year.

TT: What did you learn from him?

LY: The year covers a wide range of historical hands including Uncial, Blackletter, Italic, and Romans. They’re roughly in historical order.

TT: No, no. I think you’re doing fine. So basically you found within the discipline another discipline that you’ve learned more about in a very particular way, right?

LY: Yeah.

Start from calligraphy, go into lettering, and then go into type design.

Lynne’s Advice to Beginning Designers

TT: Imagine you’re a beginning designer who wants to start this journey and whatever route they want to choose to go in. You have a great insight to share about what advice would you give to someone who was starting now. What would you say to those individuals?

LY: I would say do it backwards of what I did.

TT: Do it backwards?

LY: Backwards. Start from calligraphy, go into lettering, and then go into type design.

TT: Why do you say that?

LY: It’s easier to understand and learn a subject when you’re building knowledge in a chronological order. In a nutshell, people wanted to record documents so they started to write. Then they wanted to mass produce books so type was invented. When advertising came along, all the fancy crazy lettering was invented for that use. Everything was made for what people needed at the time. So I would say start from the beginning — calligraphy. Know why letters are written the way they are, and then get into lettering, because once you have the forms in your head, you can draw them out. After you have the forms in your head, then you can go and experiment, and then when you get to type design you make them work as a system.

TT: This has been so great. Lynne, thank you so much for your time.

LY: Oh, thank you!


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