This time on Imposter Syndrome we're talking to Eric Hu, global design director at Nike in Portland, Oregon. Previously he worked as the director of design at Ssense in Montreal.
Even before you went to Nike, your graphic design set the tone for a lot of designers coming up today. Were you always so self-assured and assertive with your work and your personality?
I grew up with a father who was very loud and opinionated. I took after that in some ways, but there was still only one sheriff in town under his household, so I actually ended up being very meek. My parents were also very disapproving and weren't all that affectionate. They were really upset that I want to go to art school. They were like, we've never seen you draw before. How do you know you have talent? So I went in with a lot of doubt. That's not necessarily a unique story for someone with an Asian-American background.
How did you decide on art school then? You went to Art Center, too, which has a pretty rigorous admissions process.
It was pretty random, to be honest. In 11th grade I got arrested for graffiti. I was just a kid from the suburbs, you know? And when I showed up in school, the other students seemed way more passionate and had a much deeper understanding of art than I did. I didn't know how to draw and I was really shy about my work. I did really horribly that first semester.
And yet you went on to Yale’s graphic design MFA program. What changed?
Right before you graduate from Art Center, you have a portfolio critique with a professor named Paul Hauge, who’s pretty harsh. I actually never took a class with him because I was too scared. So I go into his office all nervous, and he could see that my hands were shaking and my voice was cracking. He closed the door to his office and he turned to me and said, “Can you do me a favor? I need you to go home, lock the door to your bedroom, turn off all the lights, and I need you to whisper something to yourself that I don't think anyone has ever told you, and I think you need to tell it to yourself. I want you to say, “My name is Eric, and I'm a really good designer.”
“I want you to say, “My name is Eric, and I'm a really good designer.””
That was something I really needed to hear. I think that was the start of an important transformation. I'm really grateful for that moment.
Did that interaction change the way you went into Yale?
No, it was the same thing all over again. I did really horribly in my first year. I tried really hard to fit in and it was painfully apparent that I was pretending to be a Yale student instead of actually being a Yale student.
What does that mean?
I was really in love with all the Dutch design stuff that everyone else there loves, but it's not my background at all. I grew up in East L.A. I had my own experiences, but at Yale I was trying to be a Dutch designer. One professor even told me that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have let me in. He said I was wasting everyone's time.
That’s harsh. Also, unprofessional.
It’s really hard to come up from that when you’re a student. Then that first summer, I didn't get any of the internships I wanted, so I went off to New York without a job. I had a lot of time to think about how much I felt like an imposter at Yale. I spent so much time alone by myself, and eventually I had an epiphany. I was like, fuck that noise. I can just be myself. A year later I got the Bradbury Thompson Memorial Prize, which pretty much means you graduated at the top of your class.
“The only thing I really did differently was I started a Twitter account”
“Being yourself” is one of those deceptively easy statements. What did you do differently when you got back to school?
The only thing I really did differently was I started a Twitter account. After bombing my first year and being really upset that summer, I was looking at the New York design scene and I didn’t like any of the work at all, but these were the people getting all the recognition and validation. I think the one of the darkest parts about me is that I really desired validation. There’s a truth to the idea that people only want to be famous because they were made to feel worthless at one point in their lives. That was very much true for me.
Back at Yale, it was really hard, but I eventually arrived at my own interpretation of Dutch design concepts. You have to find your own thing, but at first I was just copying. I felt like I had to use big words and I tried to quote Foucault. Looking back it’s very silly. I was also learning all this theory and academic stuff, but it wasn’t related to the outside world. It was kind of like a walled garden, and I needed to have conversations with people outside of that. So I made my Twitter public and started doing what I became known for, which was being incendiary and talking a lot of shit.
What kinds of shit were you talking?
A lot of it came from a place as a person of color who was worshipping European design; I had to eventually move away from that. I was also very frustrated because that kind of design is made in a weird vacuum, in a country with liberal arts funding. It's a very privileged thing. But I didn't understand the dialogue on privilege until that summer I spent alone in New York. Part of learning to be confident in myself came from understanding the things I disagreed with and realizing I needed to be more vocal about that. It’s all part of call-out culture. When certain marginalized people are made to feel voiceless and you call that out, it feels good.
“A lot of it came from a place as a person of color who was worshipping European design; I had to eventually move away from that”
At that point, did you feel like you had the confidence to make those strong opinions? Or was it a bit of a front?
I think doing it built up a confidence and it helped me process a lot of my thoughts. I also met wonderful people online. I became inspired there, but it also furthered my impostor syndrome because for years I felt like I was only well-known for starting fights with people on the internet. At first that's validating. Here I am being vocal about how I don’t fit in, and I’m getting positive reinforcement about that, but ultimately it forces you into a box and you become the loud opinionated design guy. Which is funny, because I’m a verynshy, soft-spoken person. I'm a teddy bear to my friends.
But you didn’t feel like you could be a teddy bear online.
I definitely exaggerated certain parts of myself on the internet. I felt like I had to in order to survive in New York City and to make a name for myself. They didn't care about how good your design was. Everyone who had a personal brand was successful and everyone who didn't wasn't. I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't take that very cynical view. That’s a tough thing to realize.
Eventually all of it — call-out culture, and Twitter, and the New York scene — it all culminated and it robbed me of the compassion that I had for people. I stopped listening to people. I stopped taking criticism. I stopped pushing myself to be better. I became very narcissistic. I went through a long period where I was more interested in promoting myself and advancing my own career than in trying to be a better designer. I kept making excuses for myself, and I was alienating clients left and right. I was ignoring projects and not responding to emails. It was really bad. My personal life was in shambles, too. I gained 80 pounds in one year. But it was also the first time I didn't feel like an imposter. And by not feeling like one, I became one. I'm still dealing with that. I've been trying to unlearn that for the last two years.
How do you unlearn something like that?
I’ve been focusing on being genuine, for one. You know the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s when you're so good at something that you might not know how good you actually are, and you might think so many people are better, so you end up thinking less of yourself. The opposite of that is when you're not that skilled at something and you lack the self-awareness to know that you don’t know everything, and so you're overly confident.
Do you think people are either one way or the other? Either blindly overconfident or blindly self-deprecating?
What I always say is imposter syndrome is real, but so are imposters. Everyone is equal parts survivor and abuser. Everyone is equally an imposter and a genuine person. We're all both things at the same time. I deal with that all the time. I think my time has passed. I'm not going to make anything cooler than what I made a few years ago. I'm going to settle into my corporate job now and just get older.
“What I always say is imposter syndrome is real, but so are imposters”
Do you really believe that?
Yeah, I genuinely do. But it's okay. Actually, it's helpful. It pushes me to try to be better because ironically, I think the best I ever felt about my work was in those two years when I was talking all that shit on Twitter. It was the first time I genuinely felt confident. And now I’m in a position where I'm more of a gatekeeper. I'm not that younger designer throwing rocks at people. I'm not the underdog anymore.
How do you see your role as a gatekeeper?
It comes with a lot of responsibility. I have to use that to signal boost other young designers. It can't be about me anymore. I really want to be a good person.