ART DIRECTOR / ILLUSTRATOR
Elen is an Indonesian award-winning, multi-disciplinary art director and illustrator whose work spans interactive, design, illustration, packaging and advertising. She constantly seeks greater purpose in her creative endeavours and has received many recognitions from international design communities such as Communication Arts, YoungGuns Australia, The One Show and D&AD. She has worked for brands such as MINI, National Geographic, Monopoly and many more.
What lead you to design and illustration career?
I grew up in a small city in Indonesia called Medan. Growing up, I was a very quiet kid. I was the kind of kid who had only 5 friends in class. But, I really loved drawing. For me, drawing is an outlet for expressing myself. So, as I grew older it became a habit for me. I was always scolded by my teacher for drawing and drawing all the time. I would doodle on my exam papers and my teacher was like, "What are you doing?" (laughs)
Before I started college, I didn’t know what design was but I only knew that I liked to draw. And it was something that I did all the time because I didn't have any other thing that I wanted to do. For me, I could see myself doing it in the future. I actually went to college studying graphic design without knowing what it was just because of this was the only major that let me draw. It was really that kind of naive thinking. I know a lot of kids had a clear vision of what they would be doing in the future when they studied design. But for me, I had no idea.
As I went to college, I learnt that actually you can tell so many stories through design. And that was how I got into it. Afterwards, when I started working I started to see different branches of design such as advertising, multimedia design, etc. Actually I started doing design illustration after I started my full time job. I didn't really draw when I was in school. So, the process of getting into the industry was like a step by step. I would see my path to design is like a series of serendipity. When I look back, every step that I took was led by many signs that lead me to where I am today.
What made you decided to study in New York?
I went to New York because it is like the centre of design for me. If I compare it to any other cities, I can't think of any other cities that comes close to New York in terms of how global it is, the people and network I could reach by going to New York. They have a lot of communities and events such as ADC and AIGA, just to name a few. I didn't know they were actually. Going to New York was actually one of the happy accidents because I did not plan it at all and I just let things to fall into place somehow. So just the fact that things could fall into place so nicely, it was a sign that I should pursue this.
After studying there, I went to Singapore because I couldn't get the visa to work there as it was hard to get because I only studied for 2 years and they required a 4 years of study bachelor degree which I couldn't afford at that point of time. I chose Singapore because it is close to Indonesia and I wasn't planning to stay in Singapore for a long time and wanted to go back to the states to get a bachelor. But as I started working, I realized that working experience and doing the real thing are more important than studying. I learnt much more by doing the work than studying. Therefore, I decided that I didn't need to earn that certificate. It was just a piece of paper.
How was the experience with your first job in Singapore?
It was interesting because I started in an interactive group in Kinetic Singapore when I majored in Graphic design. It was a very interesting experience. It was a lot of hurdles but I enjoyed it very much because everyone was very nice and welcoming! Everyone in Kinetic was so talented but they were really a bunch of humble people. Just by seeing them doing their work, you would know that these people know what they are doing!
I am really grateful to have started my career there because it built a strong foundation for me in terms of skills and my attitude towards work. Everyone in Kinetic has integrity towards their work. It was a really mind opening experience to work there. Although I had to work a lot of late nights, I actually really enjoyed it! If there were some days when we didn't have to work late, I felt a little disappointed and sad. (laughs) So that was my first two years in kinetic. After a while, I got too comfortable.
I think if I am too comfortable in something that means I am not pushing myself. So, I thought maybe I should try something else. And I was not good at advertising because I did mostly design at Kinetic. So, I thought of challenging myself by going to DDB. It was a very different place as compared to Kinetic. Because there were about 20 people at Kinetic and DDB has over 200-300 people. It was also something that I was not familiar with. Despite the initial culture shock, there were also things that I learnt there. I did enjoy my time there in DDB as well. I met a few people that I really respect. I did more of conceptualisation and idea generations in DDB compared to Kinetic which was more into the execution. It was more like thinking of ideas first, how things work and in the end, 40 percent of the time was used to crunch the execution time. It was not craft focused, but idea focused. So, it was something that I needed to get over it. But I couldn't get over it, I stayed so late many nights, bringing home and polishing my work. I think the culture was so different in a good way.
I met a lot of new people everyday at DDB. There would be new people joining every month. So, I learnt how to open up myself and being more comfortable around new people. There were so many different people and they would just come to you to say hi even though they don't know you. When going for lunch, there would be about 10-15 people going to lunch together. It was actually interesting how these 2 companies are so different and I enjoyed to be in both of these companies.
It was a really difficult process in the beginning when starting at DDB. I didn't enjoy it as much because it was so different. Ok, this is embarrassing to say; I actually cried for the first few weeks in DDB (laughs). I was like "Oh, what is this?". I think it was a culture shock from a small company to a big one. At Kinetic, everyone was like a family where we took care of each other. Although people were friendly in DDB, I had to do things on my own. I could talk to people but they might not care about you as a person. Those first few weeks, I was wondering if I made a mistake of jumping ship. I then talked to my previous boss at Kinetic, telling him and complaining "what am I doing?" you know things like that. (Laughs) And they told me to just try it first for a few weeks and I could always come back if I didn’t like it! They told me that and I thought, “Oh My God they are so nice! I should make them proud!”. So, I stayed there for 2 years eventually.
Again, I got too comfortable after that. Because I didn’t feel good when I could kinda see my path being laid out if I stayed on. I could already imagine what my career would be like. It was another promotion year after year. In the end, I was back to my original question, "is it really what I want to do?". After a while, I just felt like I was just doing something that other people wanted me to do. I didn't have hundred percent control in my work. Because when you work in a big agency, one person does 10 percent, the other maybe 10 percent, the rest 20 percent. So, even if I want to take credit I felt like I didn't contribute so much. How can I say that this was my work when I didn't contribute as much?
So, that was one of the main reasons I decided to leave. I thought maybe I should just stop first. I didn't wanna go through this thing I call ‘career elevator’. When you work in agency for a long time, it is just a natural progression and I wasn't sure if I even wanted to take that path. So, I thought of just leaving and take some time to think about what I really want to do.
Actually, a lot of people asked what I wanted to do in my life. To be honest, this might be a disappointing answer but I do not know yet for sure. I really have the freedom to really explore different things of what I want to do at the moment. I am also teaching advertising part time now. It is also one of the things that I do to push myself, since I am not good in public speaking. This opportunity came along and I thought why not. It is an interesting experience and I think I learnt a lot from teaching.
Have you had mentors along the way?
Yeah! Pann from Kinetic is definitely one. He is someone whom I really really really admire! I respect his work and attitude. He is someone who is very humble and nurturing. When I worked under him, he always made sure that I would make the best out of the project and he gave credits when it is due. He wanted everyone to be able to push their boundaries. He is really a great leader. He would even stay with us when we were brainstorming until 3am in the morning although he has a family.
Eventhough he is so experienced and talented, he never puts himself above us. He is always guiding us along. It is truly like how humble he is and I really really really respect him for that. I seriously have no bad words to say about Pann. He is just an amazing person!
Another person is probably Lidya who was my boss in DDB. I found that she was kind of similar to Pann in a way. She was also a very humble person. She was already a creative director in her early 30s and won a lot of awards but she never ever shows or brags about it. She was someone who has this quiet confidence in her. She didn’t brag at all but when she talks about her work, you know what she is doing. You know you can always count on her on things.
I was originally so quiet and I mostly stayed in the corner. But, Lidya was the one who approached me and guided me on the work. She would give work that interest me the most. She is kinda like a big sister to me I think. Yeah, I am actually very surprised that I can meet someone like this in DDB. Because this kinda person is so rare to find.
So these two are the most influential people in my career. They really shaped who I am as a creative in terms of design style and attitude towards work.
Have you ever thought of giving this up to pursue something else?
I wouldn't think of giving this up completely. I think it is more of questioning the purpose of what I am doing. I can't see myself not doing design in the future. It is more of finding a purpose of what I do. A lot of things that I do for advertising are more into packaging that suits the mass audience, making things look great and things like that. So, for me it is just to see how my skills can be used for greater purpose. Because I have been seeing a lot of political cartoons on Instagram and things like that. So I thought if someone with just a pen and paper can do so much. I wanna strive to be someone like them. I want to do something more meaningful which I am still searching. I can do a lot of projects, but if the soul is not there, there is no purpose in doing it.
I also feel that there are so many wasted talents in Indonesia. I feel like a lot of them didn't even know how much their talents worth! Because I had this conversation with a friend, telling me that if you want to get cheap talents just outsource to Indonesia. But to me, if you know that their talents worth much more than that you shouldn't do that kinda thing right. Sometimes I feel a little bit sad about this. I think people in Indonesia are not ready to pay for design and they are not much educated yet. But I think in Jakarta it is getting better because they have a lot of nice cafes with good branding. So I think there is hope in improving.
What do you do to stay inspired and motivated?
I dedicate at least 1 hour everyday just to lookout work of people that I admire and browse for new, trending work online. When I see talented people and work that inspire me, I feel like I also want to do something about it.
Another one is, travelling. I like to travel. When I travel, I see different things and being able to see things from different perspectives. It kinda gives me a mental break from working and working. When you just draw and draw everyday, it will just burn the creativity in you as well. For me, traveling is also one of the ways to keep me inspired. I am actually planning to go Naoshima in Japan. It is an island of contemporary art. it has a lot of museums and this is where I want to go next.
Do you travel a lot?
Yes! After I quit my job! (laughs). I traveled 4 times this year alone. Now I can do it, but I couldn't do it when I was in a full time job. I like to travel alone because when I travel alone, I feel like.. Ok this is gonna sound weird, but I can have conversations with myself in a way. I can kinda contemplate in things that I'm doing and all. And I think when you travel by yourself you can also meet local people because it is less intimidating for people to approach you. And also sometimes you have no choice to talk to them. That is one of the reasons I like about traveling myself. I actually went to Japan by myself earlier in March this year and it was my first solo trip and my Japanese is really very very very bad. And when I went there it was not that bad actually. It was actually quite fun.
Traveling also changes my mindset. It really inspires! When you go different cities; first of all, it is the architecture for example. The design style is also different. For Japan, it is usually just image and clean typeface. It is also the culture. For example, the sushi train in Japan, is there something that you can apply to design. Mostly like that, looking at the architecture, culture, and also just interacting with the people. because design at the very core should reach human right. So that is one interesting thing.
Do you read books? What books would you recommend?
I used to read a lot but not anymore because I don't have a lot of time now. But I do enjoy reading a lot. Mostly non-fiction books. The last memorable book that I read was Flowers for Algernon. It's a story about this autistic man who got the opportunity to go through a surgery to become a genius. After he became a genius he kinda regenerate back into mentally challenged person. It showed his struggles.
Another book I read recently was "The Art of Thinking Clearly". That is also another book that I enjoy.
I also like reading "The Art of War" by Sun Tze. It was really a quick read but there is a lot of things you can learn from it. It is such an old book but it is so applicable to so many areas in life. The Power of Habit is the book I have been trying to read and I'm trying to finish this book. Very ironic right? The Power of Habit and I can't even make the habit of reading it. (laughs) The summary of the book is interesting. If you do something very often it will become a habit and it has a compounding effect.
I was also reading Flatland. It is a story happens in a 2 dimensional world. The man is a square and everyone is a square. It is quite an interesting story and a different way of looking the world. it is an analysis of society in the Victorian era.
I am currently following this designer called Julie Zhuo. She is the lead product design at Facebook. She writes quite a lot of interesting articles on Medium. Another was Tobias Van Schneider, the lead product designer and art director at Spotify.
What is your typical day like?
Now I am trying this new routine which exercising the first hour after I wake up just to wake myself up because I am not a morning person. I thought if I exercise in the morning I will be more productive during the day and it's actually working! I will just do jumping jacks to wake myself up or stretch. Because I realised how unfit I was when I was in Japan when I had to run chasing after the train! (laughs) Things like that I could only run like 20m and I had to catch my breath. So, I felt like I need to change my lifestyle. I used to be really sedentary, which is typical for any creative when you just sit in front of your computer and just working. Yeah. And maybe eat healthier. I used to eat fast food and I became really sleepy throughout the day. But now when I eat more salad and less oily food. I find that it energizes myself by eating healthy.And afterwards, I will grab a quick lunch and then draw or find inspirations for the entire afternoon. And I will meet my friends for tea or dinner. I will continue doing my work at night because I am most productive at night. Even when I try to push myself to draw in the afternoon, I would not be as productive. I actually have a lot of drawings done in the afternoon and I end up not using them. Because when your heart is not in it, things just won’t go well together. So, that is how I spend my days nowadays.
Usually I do on site freelance in agencies. It can be a week or 2 months engagement work. I am actually taking months off starting from October to just do my own things until the end of the year. This is like my routine now. But after I start my next freelance, it will be mostly going to agencies and working. But I tried to plan my time in such a way to have 2 - 3 months off doing my own stuff, then another 2 months at agency. Something like that. That is how I am planning my time now. Actually my days are quite boring.. Sorry.. (laughs)
What is your advice to the young people who are starting out?
Know your own value and never undersell yourself. At the same time, keep your feet planted on the ground. It is really easy to lose your way in the industry after a while. Once you start climbing the corporate ladder, working for bigger clients it is really easy to be too proud (complacent) of yourself. And I think once you feel like you've reached that one milestone that makes you great, that's when you stop being great. Because you will stop looking out and making yourself better and you really become close ethic person. I see a lot of young professionals, not just creatives. Even from other professions when they actually brag and say it out when they have all these fancy job titles, working for some big brands. I think once you become that sort of person, you will stop growing and stop looking out but only focus on yourself. That is very very dangerous. When you are too proud, you don't take criticism well.
Ok, this is an advice that someone gave me previously: it is to be a sponge. Basically, just go everywhere and absorb as much as you can. At the same time it is also to share what you know. Because it can't be like a one way thing.
I think what is much more important than any talent is a right attitude. You can be really talented but not hardworking. And you can be really really really hardworking but not talented. I think the hardworking one will go much much further.
I read this article before saying that how do you know that someone is truly good at what they are doing? it is when they constantly can produce good work and not just once. Like a one off thing. Good work should be the standard. There should be a certain standard when you do good work.
When someone does something for a long time, they don't really learn more new skills. When I am teaching I am looking at what the students are learning. Actually they have skills that a lot of people in the industry do not have. Most of the students can code really well. When I think about it, how many art directors can code? maybe one or two. I think when people get too comfortable, after a while they are not relevant anymore and they will be replaced. I think another advice. I think also to keep learning, keep yourself open. Sometimes you feel like what I know is enough. I have a job anyway, I don't need to learn anymore and that is not the right mindset because learning should be a lifelong thing right? It's so interesting. Even the kids now they know a lot of things like after effects etc. Now they have to do a lot of case studies about a lot of things. I think if I had to compare my portfolio now with them, I don't think I would get hired. A lot of them are really really good. Some of them are already running tutorials and they are so well spoken. Especially when you go on sites, they have a lot of really really good work.
Are you satisfied with where you are today?
Yeah, I am happy with where I am today. The next step is I want to do more work for greater purpose/good cause. And if everything goes well, I am looking forward to setting up my own design and illustration studio. I want to be taking projects from international clients. Actually a lot of creatives overseas, they can actually move around and work from wherever they are because they only need laptop to work. I don't wanna be just like: I'm in Singapore so clients have to be based in Singapore. So I want to have international clients. I would be really grateful if I could achieve that in the future.
I am also exploring my options now, which feels very liberating. Because I was just following what was expected of me following a certain path previously. Like, do this and come to work. Be this job title, another year of promotion a new job title. So when I get out of that cycle, I can be anything I want and I find it very exciting. It is a very liberating feeling when I stop answering other people's expectations and looking inside to see what I really want. Actually there are a lot of people asking me where I am going in life and what I am doing. But, I can proudly say to them that I do not know what I am doing but I am really happy now.
- Photography by Elen Winata
- Interview by Dionisius K
- Transcribed by Dionisius K
- Edited by Dionisius K