Profile: Johann Chan

Johann Chan is a multi-skilled designer and freestyle BMX enthusiast whose ultimate ambition ‘is always within the next piece of work’. He came to the attention of Yella via his photography work for London’s Design Museum. His images were used to promote the Bike V Design night that took place in September 2012. The event was a general celebration of bicycles, with talks from enthusiasts, exhibitions, and freestyle BMX action.

It’s the latter that Chan enjoys on top of all his creative work, which he’s been doing for over 10 years. Having studied art and design, Chan moved onto marketing design before turning his attention to editorial work. His magazine portfolio is dominated by layouts for creative technology magazines – a genre that often allows scope for innovative design work, and to which he picked up his creative cutlery and dug right in.

A move from Future Publishing’s Computer Arts Projects magazine in December 2007 took him to IDG’s Digital Arts and CIO magazines. A redesign pumped the brands with slick fonts and imagery. Chan stayed with the company for five-and-a-half years and he’s only recently taken the decisive step to freelancing.

In each professional capacity, be it print, digital or broadcast, Chan has wisely drawn upon different wells of inspiration – both contemporary and past. ‘My main influences come from when I was younger,’ he says. ‘Underground magazines, people like Spike Jonze, old sorts of BMX magazines from the early ‘90s. At that point the DIY ethic was going on its own path. It seems as though there was emphasis on breaking away from the norm – an emphasis on being original.

‘In the beginning it would be a lot of counter-culture stuff from the BMX and skate scene, stuff like Bob Haro, RAD magazine, Nick Phillips, Go. These days I’d like to think inspiration comes from as wide a set of sources as possible: as well as the many art and design sites, I try and look offline too.’

It’s this focus on creating something fresh that keeps Chan’s designs dancing across the hot coals of creativity. He laments today’s softer approach at originality, citing social media for one as sanding down the corners of our zeal to be different. ‘People are more worried about looking too different from the norm,’ he says. ‘They are more careful. We didn’t have online reprisals before. You didn’t hear too much about what people thought when things weren’t perfect. These days, there are high standards.’

These ‘high standards’ means that today’s creative graduates have a lot to live up to. Crucially, they also have more peers against which they have to collaborate and compete with. ‘There certainly appears to be more competition than ever,’ says Chan about the future for creative careers. ‘There just appears to be more of everything, more talent but at the same time more poor imitation.

‘Money, trends, and popularity will come and go, but it’s all about the work. Good ideas and work is timeless. Designers these days need to stay savvy with with a broad selection of skills as the new wave of competition is more diverse. A lot of new designers have coding skills, digital SLRs, abilities in filmmaking, and so on.’

Out of all the work he has done, Chan’s favourite is ‘the work I did for the band Broadcast. I was still studying at the time, and a big fan of Warp records so it was a big deal to do some work for them.

‘I took quite a few photos of the band, and in the end they used just one piece. The best one! They always had such a great idea of who they were and the direction they were heading. Their qualities are reflected in their music – pioneers, artisans devoid of any ego. Rest in peace, Trish [Keenan, Broadcast singer, who died of pneumonia in 2011] – you are a true legend!’

Commissioning is also an area of Chan’s expertise that he finds rewarding. ‘As well as design, a large part of my work is commissioning artwork for print, covers, editorial illustrations, and so on,’ he says.

‘I’m really proud to say I’ve put a lot of designers and illustrators in print for the first time, as well as commissioned people for their first cover. My favourites must be the covers by Si Scott and Mazaki who were relatively unknown at the time. They produced stunning pieces of work, which were designed with special finishes, such as belly wraps, luxurious stocks and foil blocks.

‘I’ve been lucky to commission and work with some of the greatest artists and companies. Among the favourites must be Will Barras, Si Scott, Vault 49, Seb Lester, Elisa Sassi, MWM, Shan Jiang – formerly of I Love Dust – and Jon Burgerman.

‘I think one of the secrets to good art direction is being able to set a compatible brief for that specific artist and get to a stunning finished piece as efficiently as possible. Keeping internal publishing teams in the loop, commercial sensibilities, and getting the best possible artwork requires diplomacy. I wouldn’t say it was initially an easy thing to juggle – especially with large teams involved.’

It’s at Emer where Chan’s passion for both design and bikes collide. The site showcases products, photography, interviews and a general love for bikes, BMXs in particular. But whether it’s creative or his two-wheeled antics, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Chan – and who wants to do that?

Main pic credit: Chan on BMX at V&A, photography by Salvador Brown
Emer Unilever T-shirt design, and Broadcast pic: Johann Chan
Below: Chan riding at St Martin’s

1 minute 46 seconds of an almost perfect life from emer bmx on Vimeo.

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