Northwestern junior goes viral with graphic design project

Jason Yuan said he has long understood the power of visual communication. Growing up bilingual, Yuan would often sketch pictures for his Canadian classmates when they couldn’t understand what he was translating from Chinese.

“I’m a really visual person,” the Communication junior said. “When I see something, one symbol carries so many notations for me. That’s the thing that drew me into graphic design.”

During Spring Break, Yuan, now an aspiring graphic designer, brought his sketchbook — a constant companion without which he said he “would feel naked” — on a trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though he called it a vacation, Yuan was on a mission: After a rejection from an internship at Apple Music left him feeling “stuck,” he said he decided to redesign the app as a case study.

After three months of visiting museums, interviewing users and creating prototypes, Yuan published the culmination of his project as a blog post in Medium last week. To his surprise, the post went viral, sparking a flurry of online responses as well as internship and freelance offers, he said.

Rather than take one of those offers, though, Yuan said he will transfer to Rhode Island School of Design in June to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design. Northwestern does not offer an undergraduate design major, he said.

Though the Apple Music project has been a “career-defining” moment for him, Yuan said he wants to keep studying to achieve his full potential as a designer.

“It’s not a fairytale,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going to be whisked off to Silicon Valley forever.”

Yuan said becoming a graphic designer wasn’t always his goal. Over the years, he also experimented with music, costume design and theater. At NU, Yuan majors in theater.

He found himself uninterested in the actual theater curriculum, he said, but learned a lot about empathy — a necessary skill for user experience design, a field that requires one to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Yuan said.

Brandon Williams, maker in residence at NU’s Segal Design Institute, said this human connection was important in setting Yuan’s Apple Music project apart from others. Many redesigns try to make things look beautiful, Williams said, but Yuan’s project tried to design solutions to real user problems.

“There was a level of depth that I think people appreciated,” Williams said. “He had talked to people, gotten tons of feedback and had really considered the person in it.”

Though Yuan said he always incorporated elements of design into his activities, such as designing posters for shows, he didn’t fully consider graphic design as a career path until halfway through his freshman year.

Once he started digging into graphic design, though, Yuan said he was inspired and finally felt “hungry to learn.” He took classes at Segal, but because the offerings are limited, Yuan said much of his design knowledge is self-taught through long hours poring over books and figuring out online prototyping tools.

Communication junior Evelyn Ma, who is friends with Yuan, said he sees design as more than just a career path.

“He thinks design largely defines what kind of person he is,” Ma said. “That’s why he always talks about work, because for him he’s not really talking about work. He’s talking about his life and what matters to him.”

After graduating, Yuan said he hopes to continue pursuing design, likely in Silicon Valley. One day, Yuan said he hopes to be “one of the greatest visual UX designers of (his) generation.”

Though he recognizes this may sound “egotistical,” he said he always sets high expectations like his personal inspiration Steve Jobs, even when they may seem impossible to achieve.

“If you don’t dream big, what else are you going to dream?” Yuan said. “Like, ‘One day I’m going to be a designer at a medium-sized law firm?’ I’m not interested in that.”

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Twitter: @madsburk