INTERVIEW SERIES | Making It Work
Erin Jang, Illustrator + Graphic Designer
Liz and Lizzy sat down with their friend and incredible designer, Erin Jang, to hear about the ever-inspiring craft projects she does with her kids, how play is critical to her work, and how she cultivates a love of nature living in a city.
Erin, you and I met over ten years ago when our oldest boys were tiny, and you invited me to join a creative mom group called Work + Play. That like-minded group was a lifeline for me–helping me navigate this new world melding creative pursuits and parenting–two forces that co-exist more beautifully than we might think. This idea of work and play being more intertwined than in opposition of each other is a big part of your design philosophy. You were invited to speak at Google about this, and play is so evident in your own design and illustration work. How did becoming a parent impact this idea that work and play go hand in hand?
I've always been inspired by the intersection of design and play. But becoming a mother really crystallized for me how essential making, working, playing, and experimenting are in sustaining me creatively as a person. Making things with my hands, designing things for fun (often with my kids and for my kids), and approaching design with a more playful and curious approach has brought me more joy in work, life and parenthood.
The reality when you become a parent is having less time and less bandwidth to pursue all the creative work one wants to do (unless one has access to plenty of childcare), and also less space to work (this is true for me in our NYC apartment). But a practical and positive result of those limitations is that work and play naturally become more intertwined with my kids around, curious about what I am working on, wanting to play and make things together. My children inspire me and influence the way I work. Seeing their freedom in exploring, creating and making art has taught me so much about my need for play (and letting go of perfectionism).
You have such a keen eye for design. Did that come naturally to you as a kid?
I loved to draw as a child. I spent a lot of time at the public library and drew pictures from the books I was reading. Most of all, I loved to make things for others, whether it was tiny cards to hide in my father’s pocket when he had to travel for work, or little drawings and presents to give to my friends and teachers. That excitement and joy of making something special for someone has stayed with me and continues to be a part of how I like to think about my work.
You and your son made an activity book set called You, Me, We for parents and kids to do together that Louise and I adored!! It was a COVID-times savior for us and connected us in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. (Just talking about it now makes me want to do it again!) How did this project come about?
That makes me so happy thinking about you and Louise filling it out together! The project came about when Abrams Books asked me to create a new kind of creative activity book for parents and kids, after seeing one of the exhibits I had designed for Color Factory. Early in the brainstorming phase, my son Miles became interested in what I was working on and gave a lot of feedback on the activities in the book. He ended up contributing so many fun ideas that it became a true collaboration. Working together made the process more fun and rewarding.
Both you and your husband love the outdoors. You have climbed Mt. Rainier together and have gone on memorable family hiking trips. How do you balance living in New York City with your love of the outdoors? Like work and play, are they more intertwined than we think?
Like work and play, it takes more effort to integrate the city and the outdoors. As a family, we try to incorporate our love of nature into our life here in NYC – but it definitely requires intention.
My husband and I grew up in Seattle where we had easier access to camping, hiking, and being outdoors. In NYC, we don’t own a car, so it requires a lot more planning and prioritizing to carve out the schedule and budget for family hiking trips.
But still, we have found so many ways to cultivate a love of nature in our kids in the city. My kids point out birds, animals, trees, and plants wherever we go. My older son has a real love of birds; because of him we have discovered many hidden pockets in Central Park. Getting lost in the Ramble and along other beautiful trails in the park makes you feel as though you’re no longer in the city. We joke that raising kids here means they are constantly training for a big hike – our boys walk so much, all around the city and up and down subway stairs, so a 10-mile hike up a mountain doesn’t feel all that insurmountable.
You solve problems creatively all the time. It’s literally your job and also just how you navigate the world. What are some of the ways you have creatively solved problems in your home or as a parent? Like is there a meltdown distraction you’ve used or a re-framing of a tough situation that has helped?
When the boys were little, there was a lot more creative problem solving (and failing)! I remember improvising goofy tooth-brushing songs to avoid tears, rebranding broccoli as cute little trees and making food faces to get my toddler to eat breakfast. Now that my boys are older, it’s less about a bag of tricks and more about meaningful time together. The tough situations can be made better with a lot of humor and hugs, their favorite foods, being cozy and watching their favorite shows together, and a listening ear.
You do a lot of creative projects with your kids (ages 11 and 7) – any stand out in your mind as particularly memorable? – for either you or for them? Do you have any tips for parents with young kids on incorporating more playful projects?
Most of my boys’ favorite projects – creating cardboard dinosaurs, drawing cards for Heart of Dinner, playing with dominos and rock faces and making a birthday wish come true – were during the pandemic. I think all the limitations and restrictions during that time forced our creativity to flourish in a special way. More recently, my oldest has been into origami and my youngest loves making zines.
When it comes to encouraging children, it helps to give them an area where they’re allowed to make stuff / make a mess (for us, it’s our small dining table) and have supplies out for them to be inspired by (cardboard boxes cut down to smaller pieces, lots of paper, old newspapers and recycled materials). I also think about this Mr. Rogers quote, about attitudes being caught, not taught. I find it’s true for so many things in parenthood. When it comes to nurturing creativity, playful projects can’t be forced. Instead, if kids see you making things for your own enjoyment, they’ll become interested, and over time you’ll find them creating things on their own.
You’re always working on great projects. How do you stay creatively engaged and motivated? Anything coming up you can share?
Coming out of the pandemic, I had many moments of feeling unsure of myself creatively. But one thing that has always helped me through is making work for others. It might be collaborating with a charity group I love, creating work that can raise money for a cause I care about, or making something just for fun to delight a friend or family member. For me, this is that overlap of work and play – or as one of my favorite artists Corita Kent calls it, plork!
Looking ahead, I’m excited about a capsule collection of tees and sweatshirts I collaborated on with Les Gamins (a portion of the proceeds will go to CHiPS, a soup kitchen and women’s shelter in Brooklyn) And speaking of Corita Kent, I contributed to a book that comes out at the end of June called New Rules Next Week (available for pre-order here). Ten artists and ten writers were asked to reflect on Corita Kent’s iconic Ten Rules and her approach to creativity, culture and activism. Her ideas have had a profound influence on the way I think about work and creativity, so I was thrilled to be a part of this book.
FOLLOW ERIN JANG on instagram | all photos PROVIDED BY ERIN