Now graphic and motion designer at Meat Studio, Zitong Zhao has worked her way up through a variety of agencies, including DTE Studio, Gretel, and Dazzle thanks to her expressive work that challenges the received wisdom of the industry.

However, despite her impressive graphic design CV, Tong started out by studying International Business and Trade at college. Perhaps this is the secret to her fresh perspective on the industry, with her approach going against the convention that graphic design is all about solving problems.

“I see graphic design as an unsolved problem because you can never solve a problem,” she tells Creative Boom. “The only thing you can do is to find as many solutions as you can and push the limits of what design can achieve. It’s full of possibilities with no necessarily right answer.”

It’s an outlook that’s paid off. Since graduating from the Pratt Institute with an MFA in communications design, Tong has combined her love for typography and photography to produce work that satisfies her – both as a designer and a person. We caught up with her to learn more about her journey and hear how she puts her unique approach to design into practice.

What made you want to change to design, and how did you start securing internships?

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the people who know what their passion was. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them. But knowing what I didn’t like pushed me further.

Studying International Business and Trade was never my first choice for college. Every day I felt soulless, so I was exploring all the different paths I could pursue and trying to figure out what I was truly passionate about.

I love taking photos, and I used to make a lot of collages. Combining images and text really helped me express my feelings freely and also allowed me to produce some experimental works. One time my friend Pan saw my collages and photographs during that “finding my passion” phase and said I had a real talent for visual communication. So she offered me this internship at VOGUE Magazine China, and my journey there helped me realise that I have a strong passion for graphic design. Then I followed my gut feelings and decided to move to New York to pursue my studies.

What’s been your proudest piece of work to date, and why?

Dobservations, a.k.a daily observations, is an ongoing personal design project I have been working on in my free time. In this project, I try to bring my daily observations and my own aesthetic together to design something that speaks to me and for me.

In this project, I use a lot of snapshots that I take in my daily life to create something that’s more designed and refined. This is like a recycling process because I try to rediscover the potential of those photos from a design perspective, and the process is fascinating and fun.

The methodology I developed from this project even comes in handy when designing for commercial works. For instance, in a recent collaboration with Dickies, our studio was invited to reinterpret their classic workwear pants 874. When I was looking for inspiration, I went through my photo album and found pictures I took of textures and traces of posters that have been on walls for days, months, or even years.

The visuals are unique and present a sense of resilience, especially in the way that each poster remains original at its core while the surface has changed and been adjusted by time and the environment. These photos ultimately lead me to the story of resilience and evolution of Dickies as a brand, which has worked across workwear and streetwear over the decades while the brand’s design remains unchanged and authentic to itself. So in this project, I deconstructed and exposed the textures of the numerals of “874” to create forms of mutation and metamorphosis.

How would you describe your work and your creative approach?

I try to inject a bit of myself into my works without losing objectivity. It’s not an easy process, and I’m still learning day by day because sometimes I can get lost in my own thoughts, so I constantly try to find the balance between intuition and intention in my works.

I also definitely try to shorten the distance between my work and the audience. I want them to feel connected and inspired when they see it. So I try to find my inspiration from different angles of life, which pushes me to delve deeper when developing both the visuals and concept.

Designers never stop learning and growing. How do you keep pushing yourself as a designer, and what advice would you offer creatives looking to pick up new skills?

By pushing myself further, I taught myself to embrace the challenges and uncertainties because I know that’s where I will learn and grow. Also, I always ask myself these questions before actually creating anything: What are the reasons why you are designing? What is the impact of your work? Is it making the world better or worse or leaving it as it is? And what are the legacies that you want to leave behind in this visual culture?

Learning new things is fantastic, and I also love learning different skills to advance my design ability. But try to learn at your own pace and don’t rush to do anything if you don’t want to. This means: don’t let design trends and the industry fool you. You do you!

What are the principles that motivate you as a designer?

I know graphic design has so many cultural influences that shape the world around us, and I want to be part of that.

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