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Ping Zhu’s parents were afraid her interest in illustration might just be a phase … and then she landed her first assignment ever at The New York Times. Here, she discusses her career trajectory.

Design Matters: Ping Zhu

Design Matters: Ping Zhu

ILLUSTRATOR / ARTIST

21.6.21

Ping Zhu / illustration / art / artist / The Snail With the Right Heart

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

If I have to describe Ping Zhu’s distinctive style of illustration, I could pile on the adjectives. Painterly comes to mind, bold and colorful, funny, cute, especially her animals—striking and memorable always. And if you don’t know her by name, you’re likely to have seen her work in The New Yorker, on wallpapers for Google Meet, on ads for companies like Reebok, on book covers and on illustrations inside the books themselves. Her new children’s book is The Snail With the Right Heart, which was written by Maria Popova. Ping Zhu, welcome to Design Matters.


Ping Zhu:

Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be here.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Ping, is it true that when you sing songs to your dogs, they run away from you?


Ping Zhu:

I think that’s true. I think I torment them maybe a little too often. And now there’s only one of them, but yes, they used to flee together, and now it’s just one.


Debbie Millman:

Do you have a particularly bad singing voice, or did they just not like the tunes you were picking?


Ping Zhu:

I think I’m a little overbearing sometimes, just an overly loving mother, maybe.


Debbie Millman:

I actually loved when I read that, because I also do the same thing. I make up all sorts of songs. I have two cats and a dog, and I make up songs for all of them and constantly sing them. My wife this morning was like, “OK, let’s try another tune.”


Ping Zhu:

Yeah, it’s weird. We have such strange parts of ourselves come out when we talk to animals. I feel there’s just this honesty, and you won’t be judged for it somehow. Maybe by looks or their body language, but not by language and other human things.


Debbie Millman:

True, true. So, Ping, I know you grew up in California in a town East of Pasadena called Arcadia. And when you were little you liked to play alone and make imaginary worlds. What kind of worlds were you creating?


Ping Zhu:

Well, I think there was anything from just pretending my surroundings were something else—like a closet could be just this secret layer, or when you go outside and climb a tree, it’s somehow more incredible, like a tree house or there’s something else to it. I think it was because we grew up with not too much, so the imagination was where all the richness came from. And it wasn’t so much of escapism, I think it was very much out of curiosity, just natural wild imagination wanting to make more out of a situation that didn’t seem like very much. So it kept me entertained.


Debbie Millman:

Your dad came to the United States to go to college at the University of Washington in Seattle, where you were born, and you then moved to Rhode Island where your dad earned his Ph.D. And you then finally moved across the country to California when your dad got his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL. Now, I understand that both your parents studied meteorology. Did your mom work at JPL as well?


Ping Zhu:

No, she actually wasn’t able to continue working in meteorology when she got to the U.S. because of language barriers, and she ended up having to also take care of us, so her career trajectory changed. But for my dad, he stayed at JPL for a few years and then ended up switching jobs to more of data management, computer engineering ends of things.


Debbie Millman:

Well, you’ve said that pursuing the arts wasn’t an option for either of your parents. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about why, and if they could have, if they would have.


Ping Zhu:

Yeah. They grew up in China during the cultural revolution, so there was a huge limitation on personal choice I think during that time. And they met in college. And at the time, a lot of people were just pushed into careers or into directions that they tested well in. And because my parents did well in the sciences, that’s the direction they went in. But my dad was the one who really introduced me a lot to art in a way as far as taking me—


Debbie Millman:

He took you to museums, am I right?


Ping Zhu:

Yeah, exactly. And I think my mom was the one who helped send me to art class when I was a kid. I mean, driving me and picking me up for weekend after weekend for years is no small feat, either. So it was definitely something that helped with developing my interest in art. But I think actually now my mom actually has started picking up drawing classes; she’s been taking these little virtual drawing classes online. And it’s been really sweet to see her also learn how to draw after all this time. I think maybe between the two, my dad would have chosen to pursue some kind of art, although it’s hard to say because I also know that there’s a lot of unknowns and instability with being an artist for a career. And maybe even if he could have done it maybe out of practicality, I don’t know, during the time when he was growing up, maybe it wouldn’t have been very practical. So it’s hard to say, but I’m glad that they both appreciate it.


Debbie Millman:

You actually fell into your first art class quite serendipitously. I understand when you were 12 years old you only took the weekly Saturday class initially because your friends were taking it, and you wanted to hang out with them. So it wasn’t something that you had a bugger about because you wanted to pursue this specific discipline.


Ping Zhu:

Yeah. I just wanted to play all the time, like all kids do, for the most part. Maybe it was because I had to go to Chinese school after school during the week, so I felt like I never really had any time to do things that were fun. The drawing class was definitely like a hangout excuse. And gradually over time, my friends either lost interest or their parents decided to introduce them to other activities, and I just kind of stayed. I don’t remember saying anything about wanting to leave or wanting to stay, I think it just remained there and I continued, and it never got boring for me.


Debbie Millman:

Were these the classes that you attended that were taught by Chinese draftsmen who only spoke to you in Chinese, or was that the school that you were going to that your parents were sending you to?


Ping Zhu:

It was the Chinese school drawing class. It was different from Chinese school academics, which was during the week. All my art teachers were from Asia, and they would speak to me in Mandarin. It was interesting to also learn art through that because the language translates differently sometimes. And there’s some things that I felt like they could explain better through Mandarin than in English, of course, because that wasn’t their language. But I appreciate now in retrospect having that different perspective on how they taught me painting versus how I’ve learned it through college. And it was nice to have that experience.


Debbie Millman:

I understand that the way you learned through your Chinese teachers was more technical than conceptual. Do you feel like that gave you a different perspective than the other kids that were in the more American art classes?


Ping Zhu:

I didn’t really understand drawing as something that could be anything more than just these Saturday activities, especially when I was younger, because my parents didn’t seem to express like, “oh, if you keep doing this, you could do work in this, and this could be your job or career.” I think it was purely recreational for a long time. So learning how to draw technically felt kind of practicing, doing anything well over a period of time, just practicing and exercising these muscles. So I guess I didn’t mind the lack of conceptual thinking because it felt very much focused on just trying to be better at something that you weren’t good at yet, like anything in school.


Ping Zhu:

I think it didn’t really dawn on me until maybe partway through high school when I realized that this was a career—there were schools made for these kinds of things, people do this for a living. And then all of a sudden, it just became … probably the interest accelerated a little bit then just because it all clicked in together. And maybe it was simultaneously because I was not the greatest student in school, either. So I was like, “Oh, maybe I have this escape or an alternate path that I can take instead of having to force myself to be interested in things that I really truly just was not interested in.”


Debbie Millman:

One thing that I discovered in my research was you saying that it felt good to pretend you had some secret power since you were so average at most things, and drawing could be yours. I also read that you didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. So I’m wondering if that was really true, and if drawing became your way of communicating with the world?


Ping Zhu:

I think that my attitude in high school was one that’s probably familiar to other angsty teens, where you feel like it’s you against the world; you don’t really want to be a part of what everyone else is interested in. I really was interested in … similar to the imaginary worlds that I felt like I lived in when I was a kid, just like I could make something better for myself even if it’s not entirely real or that other people understand necessarily. I think I was very OK with that … it’s not so much isolation as it is independence because I felt very monitored at home. My parents, they just had a very watchful eye over what I was doing. So in a way, yeah, it was like a freedom, it was liberating to be able to do something that maybe they didn’t fully understand or that other people didn’t understand. And it was exciting.


Ping Zhu:

It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with people in high school; I think what I turned to when I felt like I wanted to express myself was more of artistic expression, or drawing and getting my ideas out there. And now I do regret isolating myself that much. I think it would be nice to obviously still have connections to that part of my life through people who you can share memories with and stuff. Now you’re like, “Oh, it would have been nice for someone to remember something that maybe I forgot during that time because I don’t have that perspective so much.” If there’s any high school students listening to this, don’t ignore everybody.


Debbie Millman:

And then there’s always Facebook, where the high school people seem to always be able to be discovered. How did your parents feel about your growing interest in art? Were they supportive of you moving in that direction professionally?


Ping Zhu:

I think they started to get a little nervous when I became interested because, like I said, it was something that they didn’t fully understand. And they ended up, I think, trying to corral me in directions that were very similar to what their friends’ kids were doing or interests or doing well on tests, things that they could really compare and see progress and understand that. It was hard for them to just accept that somehow this 16-year-old person was going to know what they were going to do for the rest of their life with that sort of attitude. And I do feel like a lot of what they tried to do was not necessarily to discourage me from that, but it was more so they wanted to make sure that it was something that I could really commit to or that I knew what I was getting myself into rather than just it was a phase.


Ping Zhu:

I felt annoyed a little bit at the time that I felt like I had to fight for this. But in retrospect, it does feel like they did it from a place of concern and care rather than true discouragement that they weren’t going to speak to me anymore if I decided to become an artist.


Debbie Millman:

Well, commercial illustration isn’t the easiest career to pick, and certainly not the most secure. And it’s actually incredibly courageous for anybody to choose a life as an artist. Did you feel at the time … you only applied to art schools ultimately, you only applied to art schools. You got into all the schools you applied to; you ended up at the ArtCenter in Pasadena. But did you have a sense that this was really possible, that this could be a direction in your life that could be successful, or were you just going along with the flow of enjoying what you were doing?


Ping Zhu:

I started out trying to trust my instincts the best I could. I really did not know what I was getting myself into. It was like grabbing onto small bits of things that were familiar. It’s like, “Oh, this is drawing. Oh, this is painting,” and trying to understand that in the context of how to make it a career. Definitely through high school, I had no idea what I was doing. I just stumbled across the concept of being an artist for a living, so applying to art schools felt very logical because it felt like that’s what people do after high school: You go to college. And my parents were not in support of having me take a year off or to experiment to see what it was that I was really interested in. It felt like you were running out of time, like if you didn’t seize every opportunity that you could while you were young, that somehow the age was going to work against you.


Ping Zhu:

And so I actually ended up applying only to art colleges because it felt like a compromise between, OK, I’ll do this, but I want to do what I want to do. Yeah, nothing made sense to me. And I think it was because I was very young. I was 17 years old, I had no idea. And also a lot of my classmates when I was in college, they were older than I was because a lot of them came from different backgrounds or they changed careers and they were very dedicated to this new trajectory. So for me, I felt like I went from hanging out with a bunch of people my age, 16-, 17-year-olds. And all of a sudden, I was around 25–30-year-olds when I was 18. But that really did help me I guess understand illustration a little bit faster because I had all these people who had different and more mature life experiences. And I think they tolerated me as their younger classmate who really just didn’t know anything about anything. I was curious, but it didn’t help me very much until later down the road, I think.


Debbie Millman:

Early on at school when hanging up your work for your first critique, you felt that nearly everyone else’s work was better. Really, given how much talent you have, really?


Ping Zhu:

Yes, there’s no way that isn’t true. It’s because they were older, they had better experiences, they had time to practice. They might’ve even gone to a different art school. I was very intimidated. There was definitely times when I probably didn’t try very hard because I knew it wasn’t going to be very good. And I think I had to learn how to build my own confidence and try and make the most out of the situation I was in because I was around such talented people, and it would be foolish to waste that on self-pity. Yeah, it was pretty scary actually, in retrospect.


Debbie Millman:

You stated that while you were in school, you were constantly apologizing for your work, but it’s also where you learned to stop apologizing for your work. How did you learn that?


Ping Zhu:

Well, that’s something I think I’m still figuring out.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, me too, me too.


Ping Zhu:

In part I felt like I was wasting people’s time putting up work that wasn’t good or wasn’t strong. This was mainly maybe the first two years, two or three years when I was in school. And I just didn’t have any confidence; I had no idea what I was doing. Everyone else seemed very much like they did their research, they had references, they had an understanding of art history, just a general perspective that was much more rich than mine. I think the apologies just came from, “I’m sorry, this isn’t my best work. I’m sorry, this is rushed. I’m sorry, I did this wrong, I didn’t have time to do this.” It was all things that I could have done or I wanted to do, and it was nothing about what was actually in front of us, and there was no conversation.


Ping Zhu:

I wasn’t opening a conversation about what I was trying to do. And I think that I probably wasted a lot of moments in critiques, where we could have actually just talked about where things could be better rather than like, “OK, imagine this situation around my work.” I think people were all there to learn, and it took me a while to realize that. And growing from that really did help to move past and therefore figure out how to become this illustrator, which was what everyone was there for, really.


Debbie Millman:

Was there a time in college where you felt equal to your peers or where you began to understand your perspective and your talent, or did that come later?


Ping Zhu:

I think hard to say only because with being young, it always just felt like I was playing catch-up. And it’s hard to know if you’re seeing equally because somehow I always feel like everyone’s little sister or trying to fit in with everybody else. I don’t know. And that could still be something that I’m working on now to try and make sure that I respect my own work and make sure that I could stand up for it and what it’s valued at. But I would hope that people saw me as an equal just because it’s so isolating on its own. Anyway. Hard to say.


Debbie Millman:

Do you think that that sense of yourself fueled your ambition?


Ping Zhu:

I think so, because I kind of felt like that underdog in a way, maybe. No one knew who I was, and I could just come out of anywhere, I could go in any direction. I didn’t have a style already or anything like that. So in that way, it made me pretty excited to think like, Well, I could try other things, or, I can figure things out along the way while I’m here. But I think there’s a natural competition that you experience when you see a lot of very talented people. And you can’t help but just either want to follow the drift that’s behind them just to keep up with them because it was inspiring; it was great to be around people like that. I think a lot of my really close friends are from that time in my life, and the age range spans between people who were the same age as me versus people who were married with children already. And it was cool to be able to have that during that time.


Debbie Millman:

Talk about the op-ed class you attended with Brian Rea, the former art director at The New York Times and the current Modern Love column illustrator, and your professor at the time, Paul Rogers?


Ping Zhu:

They are great, they have helped me so much when I was in school. And those are memorable turning points for me because I was meandering a lot during my college years where I just wasn’t sure. You see someone do something great and you want to try and go in that direction, and then you lose sense of what you’re actually interested in. I think by the time I took that class, I think it was a combination of Brian and Paul being my instructors, but it was also my other classmate Owen Freeman, who was their TA. That class really did help explain illustration in a way that no other class had really explained to me before, which was, oh, here’s something that I’m familiar with, which is media, newspapers and things that you can see on a daily basis, here’s art within it. And here’s a very broken-down way of making art in order to do this. One plus one equals two; this could possibly be your career or at least an entryway into one.


Ping Zhu:

I felt like that was where a lot of things started making sense. It was like, oh, here’s an article, and there’s so many articles in this world that need art accompanied with it, just like books need covers and just like posters need information.There’s all these applications. So it was very much like a real-world experience type of class. And it was thrilling to be like, “Oh, I don’t know if I have one day to do this or if I have one week to do this. And maybe I have to limit my ideas.” It was this speedy fun bootcamp that I had multiple opportunities to try different things within that context. And it was very fun; it was very nice to be able to believe that it was real, as well.


Debbie Millman:

The class was based around the op-ed page in The New York Times. And from what I understand, when you’re working for the op-ed page, it’s an assignment that you have to come up with an idea in two hours, draw it, explain it, and I think, to quote you, “not lose your head in the process.” Whenever I talk to anybody that’s done work for the op-ed pages, whether it’s Paul Sahre or Brian, I’m just astounded that it’s actually possible to do something like that—to get an assignment, be told what it is you have to create an illustration for, come up with a range of ideas, come up with a kickass idea, sketch it, draw it, file it. Two hours—really, two hours?


Ping Zhu:

It can be quite quick. And I do think that the exciting part was when I was able to make a piece that was based on just something that everyone got it at the same time. We were all illustrating the same articles for class. And it actually was a nice confidence-builder because it felt like we were all starting in the same place. It was almost this pop quiz, like where are you and how do you see things? It was nice because I felt like I could keep up, I felt like I had ideas that were able to make sense in this context. And I didn’t necessarily have to be this expert or lived very many years. We’re reading this information, and what we’re gleaning from it is just how we’re understanding the words and the context and building a scenario from that.


Ping Zhu:

It was a mix of, of course, your own understanding and knowledge of things, what kind of metaphors you could bring in. And I think it was nice because it was validating for the very few experiences that I did have, and also things about having grown up with Chinese parents, Chinese immigrant parents. Other life experiences like that all of a sudden started coming in where it was like language or the way that I saw things or things that I learned from my painting teachers who spoke to me in Chinese and metaphors in Chinese that made sense language-wise. Sometimes there are very strange juxtapositions, and it’s not talking about the thing that it’s explaining, but it’s used in a way to explain a bigger situation. And I feel like a lot of this cut-and-paste and collaging of what I had already on hand was what I had as a toolkit for any of this. This type of work is just that.


Ping Zhu:

So it was validating, and it was confidence-building. It was fun and exciting. And I think the time limit thing was actually a positive as well because I think I would struggle with long-term projects. If I had a week to do it, I’d wait until the last day to do it. And all of a sudden, you’re here under this time crunch where two hours was all you had. So there was no time to really let your mind wander, you just have to pour out the things that you could think about at that moment and try and make the best of it. The practice of that was also using different muscles, and it was very cool to be able to do that.


Debbie Millman:

It feels very mysterious because it’s not even about … I mean, of course it’s about being able to draw and technique and style and so forth. But I think the best illustrations in the op-ed pages are the ones that surprise you in connecting ideas. And it always amazes me when I see things from people like Christoph Niemann, who can create an entire language, an entire story, within a stroke. It feels so completely foreign to me. It really is a very different language that somehow, when spoken by great illustrators, becomes universal.


Ping Zhu:

Yeah. I think something that I’ve also learned over time and found to make the most sense to me is what is something that we can all relate to we’re trying to communicate. I know it’s the commercial arts, but it’s really communication arts. So the baseline is that you want people to understand what you’re making, you want people to be able to solve your visual, to solve the image for themselves so that they can see and make sure that it makes sense to them. I love Christoph Niemann’s work for that reason, because he uses things that are so ordinary and everyday that people are familiar with, and he’s able to distort them and push them into these new realms and create secondary worlds. And all of a sudden, you just wonder, how come I couldn’t have thought of that?


Ping Zhu:

Ultimately, I think it’s this way of trying to connect with other people and not have them feel like you’re explaining it to death for them by giving them an opportunity to also use what they know in order to understand what you’re saying. And I think that middle ground is a good place to be.


Debbie Millman:

In 2009, during your final months of college, you visited New York City to gather some firsthand illustrator experience by bringing your portfolio around and knocking on doors. And Brian Rea had given you the contact information for Leanne Shapton, the great, great Leanne Shapton, who at the time was the art director of the op-ed section. She’s also an extraordinary illustrator. And she agreed to meet with you. Talk about that meeting and then what happened subsequently?


Ping Zhu:

I was so lucky that she was willing to meet me. I was so grateful to Brian for giving me the contacts that he had. This was the time before having an iPhone or iPad and all that. So bringing the physical portfolio felt like it still made a lot of sense. And I work in painting, so all this stuff was in a classic portfolio. It was like I look like clip art going to tote my portfolio around.


Debbie Millman:

Nice. Old school, old school.


Ping Zhu:

But I did what Brian suggested—I wrote emails, I trusted him. And she wrote back to me, and she was very generous with her time and said that I could come by The New York Times office and show her some work. And actually going to the Times building felt so, it was like a pilgrimage in itself, you feel.


Debbie Millman:

Oh yeah, I feel that way too. Every time I visit, I feel the exact same way no matter how many times I’ve been there. It’s like Mecca.


Ping Zhu:

Exactly. She was earnestly interested in my work. We talked about it, I explained what the projects were, showed her some of the stuff I did in Brian and Paul’s class. And it was very overwhelming. Anyway, so I did end up just going home; I think I was leaving New York in a couple of days. And Leanne emails me, I think two days before I left, and offered me a job, which was just … I mean, everyone remembers their first job. I don’t even know if I really read everything that she was asking me to do, I just saw would you like to and then by this day and just skimmed that email. I was like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, please, yes.” And it was for the now non-existent op-ed letters page. It was just this tiny little stamp-sized image that was a response to people’s letters that they had written in.


Ping Zhu:

And I think my article was about the difference between reading out loud versus reading in your head or something like that. So at the time, I was very invested in drawing animals and using animals as this connective tissue between articles and art. I also learned that that’s not necessarily the most functional way to make illustrations because they don’t always translate as far as visuals go. You can’t just put a bird in just because the article has nothing to do with birds, and you just want to use a bird character. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make any sense. In this case, I remember sending her a bunch of little sketches, and one of them was this elephant reading out loud to, I don’t know, another little group of elephants or something, which, like an image, it’s going to be like two by one inch. Where could you even draw a crowd?


Ping Zhu:

I wasn’t thinking at all about what the dimensions were, how much detail would be rendered, I was just too excited at the time. She said that they were all really cute and nice, but that having an elephant reading could be misinterpreted as something that was about Republican politics or just things that I had never thought about and would not have been thinking about. So it was really great to have someone who was able to explain to me for the first time that not everything can be used to say everything. I immediately changed all of that to humans instead because on another level, animals don’t read, they had nothing to do with reading.


Ping Zhu:

I ended up making it a scene in the subway because I felt like maybe just as an homage to my New York visit that it would be nice to use the subway as a location where people were constantly reading to themselves, but in this case were reading out loud to each other or something like that. So that was the end of my first job. And I felt very much like, is this possible? It actually felt possible for the first time because that whole thing wasn’t an actual disaster.


Debbie Millman:

What did your parents think when they saw your first published piece in all things, The New York Times?


Ping Zhu:

They were pretty much like, “Oh, it is real, this job is real.” And it helped confirm a few things for them, and my mom bought the paper. When I finally did get paid for that job, she made a fake jumbo check and laminated it for me, which was very sweet. So it was nice.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve stated that there are a lot of similar habits and procedures that you’ve learned from your work with The New York Times that you follow in your other editorial assignments. And I’m wondering if you can share what some of those are.


Ping Zhu:

It’s a lot of the same problem-solving. There’s always some context for the illustration, there’s always going to be dimensional restrictions, there’s always going to be things that the art director wants. And I think the process in making an editorial piece varies of course based on whatever the article may be. But I try to use each of those opportunities to explore things that I’m interested in or techniques or colors, these tiny opportunities, so that my work doesn’t all end up looking the same again and again. But the way that I figure out what I want to make oftentimes involves a lot of writing and note-taking in the beginning, just almost word dumping, and really rough thumbnail sketching just in order to not continue to think about those things as I’m trying to think of ideas on top of that.


Ping Zhu:

So I make a lot of lists; I do preliminary sketches. I try and figure out what the color language could be for each of these assignments because I feel like half the information is just the emotional connection with the colors themselves and those combinations and how that translates. I also try and gauge how art directors and clients are as far as what they’re looking for, what they reference when they are hiring me to do something. Is it something that I’ve done before? Is it something entirely new? Do I have an opportunity to push my ideas a little bit more into an abstract realm or should we stay more literal? Can we use animals again? Can we go back to people? It’s a little bit of just feeling it out as much as you can through an email.


Debbie Millman:

You graduated shortly after your first published piece in The New York Times, and you’ve been a freelance illustrator ever since. In that time, you’ve worked with some of the biggest and most prestigious clients and brands in the world: The New Yorker, Google, Delta, Coca-Cola, Patagonia, Pentagram, Warby Parker, Reebok and so many more. That’s just a real short list, as well as illustrating books, and we’ll talk about that in a bit. How do you get your clients? Do you pursue them? Do they come to you? Is it a combination of both?


Ping Zhu:

I started my career with an agent, and I did that because I thought maybe that was the answer to how to get these clients that don’t know who I am yet. And I don’t know if she was my silver bullet in any way. I learned a lot about that experience just as maybe how I wanted to run my business more so than who the clients necessarily should be. It’s always hard to answer this question only because most of the time you never really know how someone saw your work. It could be something in the Times, it could be someone else mentioned your work, it could be so many things. I was fortunate enough to start my career in the early waves of social media. And it was the time when things were still quite pure and people were very interested in other people and seeing how these things work.


Ping Zhu:

So I was using Instagram for taking photos of my food and nonsense things. And eventually, I was just taking photos of snapshots of drawings that I was making. I was lucky because people started just following me or they would leave comments, I would see their work. We started building these small, little friendship groups on social media. And I imagined that that had something to do with exposing my work to different groups of people early on. But I do think the editorial realm, when I did do a few New York Times pieces, maybe two or three New York Times pieces later, people were reaching out more consistently than they were in the past. And I think there was definitely a combination of luck and taking jobs that at least had a wide and big readership.


Ping Zhu:

I also think it’s great to have help from your peers. We’ve pooled art director names before just so that we can all get a chance at sending things out to be able to hopefully get a chance at having them see your work. And maybe if not now, then maybe months from now they’ll think of you for something. And that’s just the hope. So the consistency in staying on the radar has definitely been something that’s helped me.


Debbie Millman:

Jessica Hische, the great illustrator and lettering artist, recently did a workshop on pricing, which it seems like every designer in the world wanted and needed and tried to take. How have you learned about pricing your work? Can you talk a little bit about … for the young designers and illustrators out there that are seeing you as a role model, how do you know how much to charge someone?


Ping Zhu:

I actually used Jessica’s pricing back when she wrote the article for Fast Company. And I thought it was really helpful because there was really no other information out there like that. And since then, I think she’s made an updated version, which is great. But a lot of the pricing comes from just the budgets that are already existing. I find that editorial pricing stays very much within the same realm, between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the size of the piece. And I also think most of the time clients already have a number that they’re coming to you with. But if they don’t, a lot of the times I refer back to a job that’s similar to that or I consider what they’re going to be using it for. I consider if I’m ever going to see it again, if I can never have ownership over it again.


Ping Zhu:

And all those things are measurements of not just your work, but the future work that you could do and also the past work that you’ve done. It’s a reflection of your personal value as an artist, which I think a lot of the times we devalue or it’s hard to stand behind how much you think you’re worth. So there’s a lot of benefit in talking to other illustrators, and hopefully friends or peers who are open about those conversations. There’s a great website called lightbox.info that is a crowdsourced website where illustrators have contributed their information on what they’ve made for certain jobs, who the client was, did they pay on time? What were the asks? So on and so forth. And it’s a great way for people to at least see what other people have at least made. So if you don’t have an immediate community of illustrators, it’s nice to be able to go on there and have a reference point for any of that.


Debbie Millman:

Talk about your process for creating your illustrations. Do you still work primarily with gouache?


Ping Zhu:

These days, I’ve actually been working a lot digitally for different projects, which is nice. But the feeling of painting with paint is never going to be replaceable for me. I work on paper, and I keep it as simple as possible, really. I have a drawer of paints, and I use a pencil to put in my linework after I’ve sketched out an idea on the computer, printing out the Xerox blind drawing and then using a lightpad to trace it onto the paper that I use. I’ve also over time have realized it’s been easier for me to do a color sketch on the computer with digital colors because I don’t want to be making those decisions while I’m painting. And it’s saved me a lot of re-dos actually, as well.


Ping Zhu:

I also have scanned in all the swatches of the paints that I have in order to make sure the digital colors that I’m using in my sketches are the same as the ones that I can actually reproduce in person. So a lot of fluorescent colors are really great in the computer, but they just don’t really exist in real life. I want to try and create as realistic of a roadmap for myself as possible. And then when I move on to painting the actual thing, it’s almost like that’s when the actual act of just making the piece comes together. It feels nice. It’s almost like cooking a recipe that you’re just really familiar with, and you’re just able to enjoy that process.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, there’s a real ease to it. I love that you said that working with gouache means that you’re taking tiny risks every time the paint touches the paper.


Ping Zhu:

Yeah. It’s a finicky material. And over the last few years, I’ve switched from using water-based gouache to acrylic gouache because the water-based gouache is very sensitive and you can’t really layer it very easily. If I sneezed on it, it would just disappear; it would just become a different thing. And it’s also the act of painting I think with something that you can’t really erase … it’s different from oil painting, where you can scrape it off and redo it. But with gouache, you see all the evidence there. And I think part of the painting process for me, and maybe the reason why there’s a lot of fluidity and movement, is because oftentimes those gestures are natural gestures. They’re the textures of the brush, they’re the movement of my actual hand going across the paper. And sometimes things don’t end up being the way you want, so you either have to calculate those risks or you have to find a way to make them look intentional. And that is part of the fun as well.


Debbie Millman:

Your most recent book was illustrating Maria Popova’s latest effort, the children’s picture book The Snail With the Right Heart. Congratulations on such a spectacular result.


Ping Zhu:

Thank you. Yeah, that was a wonderful project to work on with Maria and within Enchanted Lion.


Debbie Millman:

The Snail With the Right Heart is based on a real scientific event, and it’s a story about science, the poetry of existence. It’s about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity—just a couple of light topics. Concepts made real in the concrete finite life of one tiny, unusual little snail named Jeremy who is discovered living in a pile of compost in an English garden. Can you share what happens in the story next?


Ping Zhu:

So Jeremy gets discovered on a little pile of dirt, and I think he ends up resembling and representing this idea that nature and life is something that can flower into many different things, and maybe not when you expect it to, and sometimes not in your lifetime. I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but it was really wonderful working on a story that had so much life and so much time and so many little moments that felt very relatable and other things that were so abstract that you can only really imagine what those situations were like at the beginning of time.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Well, what’s interesting about Jeremy is that his heart is on the right side of his little body, as opposed to the left. And I think that emerging from this wonderfully singular snail’s life, because it’s about like one in a zillion chances that this could happen to a snail or a person, is a real invitation not to mistake difference for defect. I think that’s one of the underlying themes of the book that I love so much, and to really welcome diversity in every life no matter how big or small. Did the subject of the book influence the style of your paintings or the way in which you approached doing the artwork?


Ping Zhu:

Yeah, it definitely influenced it in the sense that I wanted to be able to capture the moments of the dinosaurs on Earth versus being able to see the process of snails mating, all the way to the future and beyond. I think I treated a lot of the paintings with the more watercolor treatments rather than very opaque laydowns of paint. It was a combination of really letting the paint bleed in moments, just letting the natural elements of that expose itself rather than trying to contain everything and make it very perfect. There’s a little bit of both. And it was nice because I hope that that at least lends itself to the kind of randomness that is also our life and these mutations and things.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I think one of the things that I like so much about the book and the illustrations and just the story in general is how it can be related to on so many levels. It’s a wonderful children’s picture book, but it’s also a very universal story about life and what it means to be different and what it means to love. That’s a rare thing to be able to do, especially in a slim little book. So congratulations, it’s quite an amazing accomplishment.


Ping Zhu:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

Ping, I have two last questions for you. My first one is this: Not too long ago you went back into your LiveJournal account and found an entry that you wrote when you were about 15 or 16 that stated, “I’m going to be an illustrator.” So you stated it way back that day. How did you feel reading that entry so many years later and seeing how you manifested your reality?


Ping Zhu:

I think I wrote that when I got accepted to college, and maybe it was just a declaration of my major. But it’s actually a very pleasant thing to hear because I don’t oftentimes get to tap into past me. And I guess in a way I’m thankful for past me’s determination and almost blind ambition in wanting to try this as a life because I don’t know what else I would have done. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to … it’s certainly not a career that I was able to do by myself. I had a lot of support and help along the way. I hope to also continue to help others who are interested in doing this as a life and as a career.


Debbie Millman:

My last question is this: When you won the Art Directors Club Young Guns Award, you were asked to finish the sentence, “Despite what you might think, illustration is not ____.” You finished the sentence by stating that “illustration is not about illustration.” So my last question is what do you think it’s really about?


Ping Zhu:

Illustration at the end of the day is a job. And I feel that these past few years I’ve really tried to distinguish the difference between what a job is and what my life is. So much of my early years were focused on dedicating my life to illustration rather than trying to set certain boundaries in order to maintain a level of balance in my life. And I wanted to be able to continue to be at my career and something that I can use as a tool to keep myself alive and also make work that’s interesting and communicates and hopefully inspires people. I guess it’s a little complicated these days, but I hope to shift the scales a little bit on the things that are in my life in order for this to continue being part of it and also for other parts of my life to also have opportunities to grow.


Debbie Millman:

Can you talk a little bit about why it’s become complicated?


Ping Zhu:

Yeah. The fact that I’ve used a lot of my own experiences, a lot of my own thoughts and ideas to make work better or make work good, comes at the expense of my own energy. And maybe instead of being able to work on a project or something that would be fulfilling for myself, it’s then spent on something that’s for someone else. It’s kind of like finding your personal boundaries between your professional life and your personal life.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Well, I really, really look forward to seeing where you go next. And I can only imagine that it will be wonderful.


Ping Zhu:

Thank you. That means a lot. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and giving me this chance to hopefully share a little bit about myself.


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. Ping, thank you so much, thank you for making such beautiful work and being so open about the way that you work. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters. I really truly look forward to seeing the great work you make next.


Ping Zhu:

Thanks.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman