Concept and synthesis — these are two overarching themes junior Victor Li strives to balance in his design pursuits. Though Li formally studied fine arts from the time he was a toddler until his freshman year in high school, he recently started to work primarily in design, citing the different art style as the main reason for the switch.
“I was just the kind of person that was very exact about how they drew things,” Li said. “A lot of other people that I took art lessons with were very liberal in their strokes and how they interpreted reality, but I was never really like that. That did create conflict with my teacher, but now I’ve shifted to a lot more design-oriented work as opposed to working with physics mediums.”
To satisfy his affinity for artistic expression, as a child, Li would constantly draw out scenes from life and copy illustrations from children’s books. After winning an international contest for a colored-pencil piece he made about plastic pollution for the International Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Contest in his freshman year, he began experimenting with poster design on Google Drawings. Li was immediately drawn in, enthralled by the powerful critiques he could convey through his designs.
“Even now, my art is a lot more about synthesis,” Li said. “It’s about creativity in a synthesizing sense as opposed to a purely creative sense, and a lot of the work that I’m into right now is more design-oriented rather than fine arts or conceptually-oriented. Design is a lot more synthesis-oriented than fine arts because you’re making something with a specific goal and a targeted audience, and this requires you to bring things together instead of making whatever you want to make.”
Since he switched his focus to digital design, Li has gone on to create world-class works inspired by relevant, global themes like denuclearization, environmentalism and urban sustainability. He has displayed his works alongside those of professionals and university students in various contests. A recent set of posters by Li about themes of denuclearization was selected for exhibition at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, China with professional designers from more than 30 countries participating.
“There was a contest I entered before that one, and in that contest there was a category for social issues, and at the time the Iran Nuclear Deal was being talked about a lot,” Li said. “I made a poster about denuclearization for Iran, but the poster I made didn’t win, so I completely redesigned it — I felt like I had to make it into something better.”
Li also designed a set of posters on the prompt of “sustainable cities” that was selected for exhibition by the Madrid Designer’s Association (DIMAD). His posters were based on the idea that humans must live in tandem with nature in order to sustain themselves in the long term, and the striking combination of bright red map location markers with the intricate patterns of plant cells in his final design helped convey this vision.
“There’s this MIT professor [who] operates a laboratory that focuses exactly on how human living systems can interact with natural living systems in order to create more sustainable cities and living spaces, so when I saw ‘sustainable cities,’ I immediately thought of that,” Li said. “The idea was about how sustainable cities ultimately will have to integrate with nature in some way and how living with nature instead of imposing human activities on it is key to having sustainable cities.”
Aside from posters, Li also likes designing covers for various books, including “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon and “Othello” by William Shakespeare. The latter design placed as its centerpiece the famous metaphor of jealousy as a green-eyed monster amid whimsical, minimalist block letters. According to Li, cultural contexts and existing critique and conversation around works of literature allow even simple book covers to hold meaning.
Li’s friend and fellow artist junior Fiona Luo believes that his central strength is his ability to express ideas in very lucid forms, and his strong technique enables him to consistently achieve this.
“The first time I saw his art was [at the] art studio, and the first thing I saw him draw was this sketch of the Sydney Opera House,” Luo said. “I remember Fang Laoshi was critiquing it and I thought it was really cool, because his sketch was, in my opinion, a lot technically better than the ones around him.”
He now uses Adobe Illustrator instead of Google Drawings to create his designs, but, to Li, software doesn’t define the art as much as he believes one’s vision does.
“I thought there was something very universal about design, and the kind of art that is usually done in a high school setting was not what I was looking for,” Li said. “I wanted to get to a more professional level in art that was maybe beyond high school level and it just seemed to me that doing that came a lot more easily in terms of design — I guess I’m just a more design-oriented artist in general.”
Li sees the key separating factor between design and fine arts as the mindset the artist must take on; designers, according to Li, often don’t have the same freedom that fine artists have in expressing aesthetic value or beauty.
“I think design is the art form where you are making something with a goal or an intended audience in mind,” Li said. “In fine arts, you have a lot more creative space in terms of what you want to make, whereas in design you can still express yourself, but there’s always the fact that you are making [a piece] to communicate something for a certain group of people.”
Designers, for example, must be hyper-focused tailoring pieces to their audience to create effective pieces that actually speak to them.
“If you’re designing for a more specific audience then you have to know what kind of symbols [and] imagery would captivate [your audience],” Li said. “If you’re designing something more universal like, for example, a social issues poster, then you would also have to take into account what are the historical symbols [and] what are cultural symbols relevant to a global audience.”
As an artist, Li’s primary inspiration originates from the myriad of ideas that circulate around him, mostly from the news, books and movies he consumes. But many of the ideas that he dissects through his work come across him by chance; Li doesn’t actively seek out social issues to magnify.
Li’s extracurriculars also influence his design style, especially his participation in Quiz Bowl, where Li is perpetually introduced to new works of art and literature and other bits of information that help him grasp a fuller image of the world.
“In Quiz Bowl, because you’re tested on a lot of different things, like art, history, science [or] literature, you just learn a lot of different things,” Li said. “I think that’s important in design when you have to consider different cultural contexts and other factors when designing things for different audiences, or a global audience — the more you know about the world, the better your designs become.”
But Li’s close artistic peer, junior Akash Dasgupta, says that Li takes heavy inspiration from famous artists and designers — often so much that his own originality can be blurred. According to Dasgupta, one of Li’s artistic strengths comes from his vast knowledge of art history and history in general; these different perspectives often weave themselves into Li’s designs as distinct subtleties.
“He knows how to add under the surface details—when you look at [his] art from a different perspective, from different angles, you can find new things you haven’t seen before,” Dasgupta said. “I think that’s a really good sign of someone who’s emerging as a good artist and designer: if they can inlay hidden details that people take a longer time to appreciate, rather than just [create] a simple visual design that people can look at once and forget about.”
When asked about how he sees design as an agent of change in the world, Li recalls that some of the most influential social movements have placed effective design at their forefront.
“For example, the Black Lives Matter movement’s symbol of a fist is very iconic now and is a symbol for the [movement],” Li said. “I think that design, when you make something very iconic and recognizable, can spur social change in a way by acting like a meme, as a cultural idea that is spread around.”
For Li, design is many things — not only an art form that he practices, but also a creative and intellectual outlet. Despite working with design for only a brief period so far, Li says the hobby has transformed him, shaping his perspective on the world and allowing him to communicate critical ideas in simple, accessible mediums. He hopes to continue into his career with the same vision of design that has driven him so far.
“Design not only is something that I simply enjoy doing, but it’s more importantly allowed me to combine my different interests into something more cohesive,” Li said. “I don’t have a planned future in mind but I do know that I want to do something interdisciplinary that involves design in some way.”