‘Lil’ girl, big vision

An AIGA Honolulu Creative Close-up

By Di Salas

AIGA Honolulu’s Creative Close-up is a profiling series featuring Hawaii’s resident creatives that make waves through design in all shapes and forms. This week we’d like to feature fellow board member, Lilian Cheng.

24-year-old Lilian Cheng never thought she’d start her career at a business publication. “The idea of working for a business-focused magazine may sound boring to young creatives, but it was one of the coolest ways to start my design career,” says Cheng, who serves as the Associate Art Director of Hawaii Business Magazine. “It is through this opportunity that I get to bring life to stories behind local businesses and partnerships that change the face of our community.”

Hong Kong to Honolulu

Being a designer in the print industry isn’t too far from Cheng’s favorite pastimes. The Hong Kong born designer grew up in Salt Lake on Oahu and frequented her neighborhood library to perfect her English. “My first language is Cantonese and I was in ESL classes in elementary school. I worked hard to get out of those classes and I relied on the library for free reading materials,” says Cheng. “My parents were very frugal and encouraged me to study often. They dropped me there every day to use the computer and complete my homework.”

“I discovered the magic of Photoshop in my middle school’s computer lab,” says Cheng. “I did tutorials on how Photoshop worked and how to create fancy graphics.” In a couple of years, Cheng mastered the program.

“Design Doesn’t Want Me”

Cheng’s interest in Photoshop grew as she got older and led her to pursue a degree in graphic design at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which didn’t quite meet her expectations. “Studying graphic design at the university wasn’t what I thought it would be. I remember my first assignment was to cut up little letters and arrange them to form a paragraph that fit in a seven inch square,” she recalls. “I just didn’t get it and I started to question the path I chose. I kept thinking that I want design, but design doesn’t want me. I started to understand the meaning behind the teaching.”

Cheng continued to push through the curriculum and completed the program a year early. Some of her classmates were able to secure jobs after their portfolio shows, but she still had to finish another year of required classes. She continued designing for UH Manoa’s student publication, Ka Leo O Hawaii. She admits, “I’ll be honest, I was driven by not being offered a job or internship after my portfolio show and the need to transform something I saw every day, which was the student newspaper.” Cheng hired the best designers she knew at UH Manoa. “I hired the creatives I knew to help me undertake the redesign of an entire newspaper. We worked late hours after classes to meet weekly print deadlines and it felt rewarding to refresh the newspaper in my final year of college.”

Lillian Cheng

Proving She’s Got What It Takes

In her last year of completing her required classes at UH Manoa and diligently working at Ka Leo O Hawaii, Cheng was offered a job at Hawaii Business Magazine under the direction of then Creative Director, Warren Daubert. “Warren was my mentor. I had so much to learn and he was so patient in teaching me how to design for the magazine and bring stories to life,” she says. “He let me make mistakes and learn from them.”

Once Cheng became comfortable with the workflow of a monthly publication with high level design expectations, she started to vocalize her desire to take on annual features like 20 for the Next 20. “The feature meant a lot to me because it highlights executives with visions for positive change,” she says. “I had to prove that I could provide the creative vision and skills required to execute that section. Today it’s a feature I am most proud of.”

Being a young designer, Cheng feels she is fortunate to have such diverse design experience under her belt. Her favorite perk: working with other creatives. “I’m so lucky to be in the position to hire local and mainland creatives that are in demand: photographers, illustrators, and artists. I developed a good sense of what looks great on paper and how to bring out the best of a story. I constantly look at samples from regional and national publications and how to elevate Hawaii Business Magazine to that level of design.” Cheng admits she has become meticulous about details, staging, and communicating her vision to other creatives she hires to execute the photo shoots or visuals. “My vision is constantly evolving and I want to get better with every issue.”

Staying On Top to Make The Dream Happen

Cheng shares one of her dreams is to work for a regional or national publication one day. “Believe it or not, Entertainment Weekly has such great design,” she laughs. Cheng feels she’s still young enough to explore various design jobs that will lead her to make that dream happen. “I’m still young and I’ve got enough distance on the runway to reach my definition of success.”

Until then, Cheng continues to stay on top of her game, one of them is reading books featuring dystopian plots or underdogs. “I’m constantly fueling my creativity through reading. It is something that I’ve always done since elementary school,” she says. “The stories about underdogs featuring intelligent characters using their wit to overcome adversity inspire me.”

By aigahonolulu
Published March 31, 2018
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