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Design Spotlight: Valerie Thai

Adbusters' associate art director talks about the message behind the magazine, Adbusters' Blackspot sneaker project and why she didn't pack up and move to New York after art school

- March 3, 2005

So far, the designers and creative directors featured in the "Design Spotlight" series have either looked back on a long and fruitful career, looked down from the pinnacle of their most recent triumph, or reflected on their complicated relationship with their work to date. Valerie Thai, on the other hand, is 25 years old. She is the associate art director of the Vancouver, Canada-based Adbusters, the almost legendary anti-advertising, anti-consumer culture magazine. Adbusters is one of very relatively few high-profile, glossy publications willing and able to use images and design as statement unto itself, rather than as a means for prettying up the text of a story. But sooner or later, Thai—who also went to school in Vancouver, at the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design—will face the question every young designers poses to him-or-herself: do I stay here, stay true to my art and ideals; or do I move to New York, take the money and run?

Mediabistro: You're art directing one of the last magazines left that really believes it can change the world, and that design can change the world. I think a lot of designers (not just magazine ones) think that's beside the point. Do you share that belief with the magazine? Are you a politically conscious person? Or are you just there to do the layouts?

Valerie Thai: I was still in design school when they relaunched the First Things First manifesto. That was in 1999, and that was relaunched in conjunction with [design critic] Rick Poyner. The original one was from the 60s, and then [Poyner] re-edited and rewrote it to be a little more current, calling designers to actually question their role in society, the social responsibilities of being a designer, and questioning the values and ethics of the field—especially in connection with advertising. It sparked a huge discussion in the design community, both positive and negative reactions. So, I became quite interested in that still being in school, and the current art director of Adbusters at that time did a talk at Emily Carr.

Mediabistro: Was that Chris Dixon?

Thai: Yeah, that was Chris Dixon, actually. I didn't take his class because it was in a different year, but he taught there for a while. At the school, Adbusters is quite well known, so that's sort of how I became introduced to it. I found out about it there first, rather than being an activist first.

Mediabistro: Well, what was your personal reaction to First Things First? Did it awaken you to Adbusters' message? The manifesto pretty much condemns advertising on its own: "Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse."

Thai: It did, yeah. Being a student, especially, it was super exciting and it obviously delved into a lot of issues that are important and relevant. It introduced the dialogue and opened up my eyes.

Mediabistro: Well, how long have you been at Adbusters already, and how long have you been art director?

Thai: Well, I've art-directed two issues, and actually, different people have been art-directing various issues. So, I'm usually the active associate art director. Kalle [Lasn, Adbusters' voluble editor-in-chief] actually art-directed quite a few issues as well. I've been working here for about two-and-a-half years now.

Mediabistro: How much of your decision to join Adbusters and stay there had to do with the magazine and its politics, and how much had to do with the fact that it was local? Why not pull up stakes after graduation and head to New York or points beyond?

Thai: It was definitely about the magazine. It becomes a dilemma when you're a student. You're faced with: "OK, I could either work for a huge advertising company that would probably pay twice, three times as much," but then a lot of times you have to question yourself: "Well, do I believe in what I'm doing? Am I comfortable working and making and designing products that I don't really stand by?" Adbusters talks about a lot of issues I do believe in. It's an ethical issue up to each and every designer—you can either go one way or another.

Mediabistro: How different would you feel at a traditional magazine? The absence of advertisers must lead to a strange feeling of freedom: You don't depend on them, so you have no one to offend.

Thai: I think we have way more freedom. More traditional magazine do have lots of ads in them, and they do affect, many times, the editorial content. There are certain things you can't say in certain magazines because it'll upset your funding, essentially the advertisers. And here, since we have no advertising, it opens the door visually and editorially.

Mediabistro: Opens the door to do what, exactly? One of the things I like about Adbusters is that it's out-and-out propaganda. And since Chris Dixon's time there, you've help ratchet up the shock value.

Thai: Well, since Chris Dixon's era, it's sort of evolved into more theme-based issues. Each issue deals with a theme that carries throughout, whereas before it was more divided up into how a traditional magazine would be. As for the propaganda issue you brought up: it is. We are promoting issues and trying to evoke emotion and get people's attention. It's either excitement or a call for activism. I mean, that's our stand.

Mediabistro: What fields did your design school classmates enter, and do you look down on the ones who sold out and went into advertising?

Thai: If some of them decide to go into advertising, it's fine as long as they're aware of what they're doing, because there are a lot design students who are just happy to take whatever job comes their way. "Oh cool, I'm designing, you know, this thing for Coca-Cola!" or whatever. But I think it's important for young designers to be responsible and know the background of who they're working for and not just become mindless workers just following orders. Understand what you're redesigning and the ramifications of it—is this product harmful to society? A lot of students don't really even think about that. They just think "OK, well... my role as a designer is just that, to redesign stuff." But in actuality, you play a small role in this bigger picture, so you do have control and influence. I mean, there is a social responsibility that you have to take into consideration.

Mediabistro: How do you go about assembling each issue? Because there appears to be a ton of donated art, or appropriated art, and straightforwadly illustrated stories sit in the well next to giant, photocollage essays. Who's setting the agenda for each issue and where do you come in?

Thai: There's not really a set structure for how we approach things. (Laughs) I mean, we're quite a small office. People are surprised at how big our art department is—it's not very big at all. Maybe four people actually produce the magazine in-house. But usually the editor, Kalle Lasn, sets the theme as well as most of the structure of the magazine with the creative/art director [Michael Simons]. Then my role is to meet with them and just try to solve the visual aspects of how it could work all together. Because there are theme-based issues now, it's more important for us to create a flow from beginning to end.

Mediabistro: How does that communication work in the context of a magazine like this? Does Kalle ask you things like "You know what? I really need you to shock the hell out of the reader with this story. Can we find an image for that?" How do you approach telling stories like this? Because they're so alien compared to other magazines.

Thai: (Laughs) Yeah, it's really hard for me to explain the process because it changes all the time. Some issues will have a few really long feature stories where it will be quite... I shouldn't say "easy," but finding imagery to go with them is a little easier than, say, trying to convey more abstract feelings or concepts.

But yeah, I, and the creative director and the rest of the art department are constantly in contact with local artists, as well as galleries, just trying to find new artists that we can feature who fit into the themes for upcoming issues. I know different magazines work different ways, but it's not set up like a traditional magazine where once the structure's done, it's just handed off to a production department. We are also the production department as well as the conceptualizers. It's like seeing it and taking it through from beginning to end.

Mediabistro: Are you working at all on Adbusters' other initiatives, like the Blackspot Sneaker, or the "Antipreneur" initatives or the television commercials? Do you have the latitude and the time to dive into the ancillary projects? Thai: Yeah, it's a pretty exciting time right now, because there's talk of launching all these different factions of "Antipreneur." I guess it's hard to say where it'll all go, because while it has been planned, it feels like we did just dive into it. But it's an interesting experiment, especially with the shoe—reclaiming it and producing our own, versus just, you know, sitting on the sidelines and slamming Nike without any action at all. It'll be interesting to see in the long run. I mean, it's only been marketed for the past couple months, so it's kind of early to tell, but it seems to be doing well.

Mediabistro: And what comes next after that? I've already seen prototypes of a second sneaker, and is there anything else coming down the pipeline?

Thai: Yeah, there's talk of a "culture shop" where locally-produced food and Fair Trade coffee would be served, as well as an area where people in the community could come together and discuss activist ideas. That'll be coming up in the next issue. There will be a little booklet that'll say more about that. And then there's Version 2.0 of the shoe as well.

Mediabistro: You're the youngest designer to be featured in this series by almost a decade. Who are your design heroes and who are you inspired by? What does it feel like to be a young designer working today, as opposed to a decade ago (or two decades ago?)

Thai: Obviously, it's really exciting. I had the fortune of being here when Jonathan Barnbrook (www.barnbrook.net) art-directed an issue [#37, the "Design Anarchy" issue]. For me, that was really exciting to meet a designer who actually does a lot of activism in his work, and speaks about the First Things First manifesto first-hand. Being able to see how he worked was really inspiring. Other artists in school who were influential were… I guess ones like [Stefan] Sagmeister (www.sagmeister.com). It's kind of funny because a lot of these designers do a lot of advertising, and at the same time, a lot of their work isn't.

Mediabistro: Do you think you'll move onto a more normal magazine or other design work after this, or are you part of a movement now? And are you going to stay part of that movement, or opt out at some point?

Thai: For now it's exciting to be part of the movement. I can't... I don't really know where I'll be five years from now. It's a really hard thing to say. At this point, I don't have any interest in working in advertising, obviously, but I can't really say for sure if 10 years down the road, I would turn to a traditional magazine, or maybe I won't even be in design. I actually started in fine arts and then did design after, so it's really difficult for me to predict where I'll be. I think most people would say that.

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily.



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