Interview with Designer Kayoko Suzuki-Lange
April 6, 2018
Print is dead, right? WRONG! Sure, the industry has changed, but just as analog is making its own comeback of sorts, print is seeing a rejuvenation of its own. Overcoming the pitfalls of keeping print alive in a digital world takes a different line of thinking though. The kind of thinking that I think is best served by those with one part experience mixed with two parts thinking outside the box. Last month, we learned how Godfrey Dadich Partners is embracing a think-outside-the-box mentality, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this month’s guest is also forging a new path. Kayoko Suzuki-Lange is a Los Angeles based Creative Director and entrepreneur who found a way to pave a new road in print media.
Ian Spanier: Can you tell me about your background?
Kayoko Suzuki-Lange: I’m a publisher/creative director of a boutique publishing house called District 8 Media, which distributes an annual hardcover coffee table guide/yearbook of Downtown Los Angeles through major hotels and retail outlets. I was born and raised in Japan and came to the U.S. at the age of 25. I got my first graphic design job at GQ 1998 and by a fluke accident and I met you there. After a stint as design director at Golf For Women, I hopped around different major magazines including Rolling Stone, Esquire and Essence. My last gig at The Hollywood Reporter brought me to L.A. where I live now with my husband Poul Lange (who is also a great award-winning artist himself, poullange.com) and our black cat, Lulu.
IS: How do you view the importance of good photography, not only in the DTLA project but also in your past projects?
KS-L: I used to spend so many hours retouching images. People may think Photoshop can do all the tricks, but it’s actually really hard to fix a bad photo in post-production, as you may all know. I can’t stress enough the importance of having good lighting, composition and energy, yes, energy, captured all at the same time when the shutter is pressed. That requires a certain skill set, equipment, experience and people skills. Pure luck also plays a role—it’s important to recognize that unusual moment or situation. I’ve come to realize that good photography most of the time starts before the photoshoot. It starts at the conceptual planning stage and at the choice of the photographer. Good communication before and after the shoot leads to better results. The budget plays a role too, but not every time. As a designer, I’ll get inspired by a great photo and that will often determine my layout and choice of typography. Good photography always comes first.
IS: Do you have a mentor or that has driven your career?
KS-L: Arem Duplessis as a design director. I worked under him at GQ. The position requires not only great design but also managing and leadership skills. He demonstrated that very well. What I loved about his qualities the most, was his fairness and fearlessness. He moved on to receive numerous awards at New York Time magazine, then to Apple. He was recently awarded with the 2018 AIGA Medal, one of the highest honors in the graphic design world.
IS: Tell us a little about your experience launching the DTLA project. How did the idea come to fruition and what did it take to implement it?
KS-L: The creative energy of Downtown LA inspired me to be my own boss. I realized I have all the skills to produce a publication and connections to high-caliber editors and photographers. I chose a coffee table book form, instead of magazine or paper. Seeing the amazing revitalization and development of our new neighborhood in a guidebook about DTLA seemed like a perfect project. I thought, “if I don’t do this, then someone else will.” I thought DTLA had been misrepresented as a dangerous, dirty abandoned city, but the truth is, it’s full of history, extravagant architectures from the golden ages and, moreover, people behind this revival movement are super motivated and dedicated.
I approached one of the sales colleagues I worked with and created a publishing company, while I was working at a beauty startup. I worked after hours and weekends. We hired a Project Manager so we would be on track.
IS: How has your approach changed from book one to book two?
KS-L: The first year was like solving a puzzle and figuring out every step. I had never dealt with printers abroad, customs clearance and distribution. All through my career, I had been working in the art department of magazines, and if I went out, it was for a location shoot. That’s it. Now I need to run a business—deciding everything from the right printer to book sizes. It was a brand new canvas. We could do whatever we wanted. It was liberating but scary. Now we have done it once, and we know what to expect. This year we just need to raise a bar: quality content, better event planning, marketing, etc.
Also, my neighbor who has an AR developing company approached me last year and I just jumped on it. It’s one of the great things about DTLA—creative people are everywhere and we just start collaborating. This happens often around our block in the Fashion District, particularly at our beloved coffee shop, No Ghost Bears.
Our decision was encouraged by Apple’s announcement on AR focus in late 2017. I honestly think that AR might save the publishing industry. I can’t be more excited about this new technology, and I think we have only scratched the tiny surface—or not even!
Only a few pages are AR activated for this issue, but I think we are demonstrating what’s possible. We are currently working with galleries and event spaces for AR participation. Our cover artist, Peter Greco, is now installing a 30-foot mural at One Santa Fe, and we are working with AR animation. To see the magic, you need to be there and use the app to experience.
Also, there will be secret talking walls here and there in DTLA. One of them has a stencil of Bill Murray and a gopher by veteran street artist, Teacher. When you use our AR app on the wall, Murray says, “Don’t drive angry!”
IS: What is/was your take on the “influencer” movement.
KS-L: I hired a few Instagram photographers and stylists. With no budget, it was natural to approach them to work for me. They were all excited when I told them their work would be published on paper, in a book form. Most of them never had their work printed. I think the photos came out well overall, but it was a totally different photoshoot experience from what I’ve dealt with before. On magazines, any editorial or commercial photographers I worked with would ask directions—mood, feeling, must-shot, etc, and pay much more attention to lighting, details and post-production image presentation. I love working with new talent, so I’ll keep doing it, but I would suggest them to assist for a few commercial or editorial photographers. I think they can learn about lighting, retouching, and also how to work collaboratively.
IS: What advice would you give to other creatives looking to launch their own projects?
KS-L: Just do it! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to fail. Get ready to face it, learn from failure and keep rebounding.
IS: Finally, what do you see as the future of the publishing industry? Are we facing another period like 2008? Is print dead?
KL: Absolutely not! I’m more than optimistic about the publishing industry. We incorporated AR into our 2018 edition and honestly, I can’t be more excited about this new technology. I think we have only scratched the surface. In the near future, there will be a more innovative way to communicate with and entertain readers with tangible things and physical spaces.
Look at the current trends: the revival of vinyl records and even cassettes (anybody got Kanye’s new tape?), the thriving live music and concert industry and coffee table books flying off the shelves. Tangibility and physical connection are valued like never before. I think people need to take a break from digital information—from all that noisy buzz and click hunting. It’s really hard to see the true value in there, isn’t it? This is where old-fashioned, slow-to-produce, tangible books come in to play. Everyone can publish their selfies on social media, but not everyone can publish a good quality printed book. I said “quality” here, because people can self-publish books these days, but the truth is, you need professionals to create a quality book—all sorts of traditional work ethics and professional knowledge need to be poured in there—you need to be working with an experienced editor, copy editor, fact checker, proofreader, production artists, designers, as well as experienced photographers. They are all critical for quality publications.
It takes time and effort to make a good book. So, talking about the future: I believe publishers need to preserve all the old-school work ethic and talent, instead of downsizing just to survive. If publishers can preserve the true value and make an effort to make better publications every day by incorporating and investing in people and new technology, their future should be brighter than ever. If their solution is only downsizing, then you will end up as a dinosaur.
The DTLA books are available for purchase at LA’s Store at the Broad, Los Angeles Library store and Amazon. Poul Lange wrote and took photos for a story about El Puebro, L.A.’s Birth Place. He also contributed to a Polaroid film portfolio story—one of his polaroid films is AR activation image and it’s blank/black on the page, but when you use our DTLA book AR app and hover over the image, it slowly develops like an old Polaroid film.