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An interview with Yuko Shimizu

Today we have a special feature in place of the weekly member profile. CWC member Tina Ackerman conducted a series of interviews with creative women as part of her final project for her degree in Communication Design. The result was a self-published book about females in Graphic Design, Illustration and related fields.

Here is an exerpt from Tina's book - an interview with Yuko Shimizu, Illustrator and Illustration Instructor.


Drawing had been Yuko’s hobby ever since she was a child. However, growing up in a traditional Japanese family, pursuing a path in art was just not an option.

After receiving BA in advertising and marketing – the most creative of the practical field – from Waseda University she landed on a position in PR for a big corporation in Tokyo. It never made her quite happy, and she was in a mid-life crisis at age of 22. It still took Yuko more than 10 years before she figured out what she really wanted to do and to save just enough so she could go back to school full time for 4 more years.

So Yuko came back to New York in 1999, where she briefly spent her childhood, and enrolled in School of Visual Arts (SVA). Yuko graduated with MFA from Illustration as Visual Essay Program in 2003 and has been illustrating since. She also teaches a BFA Illustration course and occasionally advises MFA students at SVA. She works in a studio in Manhattan.

Cover design by Tina Ackermann

You are an illustrator and a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York? What are you teaching exactly?

I’m teaching a second year illustration course. The U.S. art college system is four years. The first year is foundation. They learn everything, painting, drawing, sculpture and computer. What I’m teaching is their first illustration course for illustration majors. In my school, illustration is a separate major from graphic design. There is a Cartooning and Illustration Department; Cartooning is a separate major in the same department. Graphic design is a completely different department that has graphic design and advertising.

How many hours do you work per day?
I did a Master in illustration and I started getting illustration jobs in the last year of the Master’s program. After I graduated and started getting jobs, I was able to start paying my bills just by illustrating. It all depends. It’s definitely not eight hours per day. It’s more like ten to twelve. When I’m busy, I work 15 hours a day. I don’t know if it’s a good thing to say but I work mostly seven days a week. Sometimes I go in for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. Phone doesn’t ring and I don’t have to check Emails. I can concentrate on my work. Sometimes I do paperwork like invoicing, keeping track of money or sometimes someone asks me for an interview so I have to write back to their emails.

Of course some days it can be shorter. When I decide I’m taking an afternoon off and go to a museum. We do work long hours, but if we don’t want to, we can turn down a job. You can say, this month is off, which I sometimes do. It’s all fine. 

Yuko Shimizu ©2003

You first studied Marketing, but you never were happy with it? So when did you decide to save money and study again?

I think when I was around thirty. Thirty is when you’re not in the twenties anymore and a lot of people look back on what they did. What we did and what we can do from now on. When I hit thirty, I wasn’t happy. My job was interesting: PR, marketing - It’s nice. But it’s not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I decided I have to do what I love to do, which is drawing and painting. At that point I didn’t know if it was illustration but I wanted to go back to art school. But if you’re in the worst situation and you can decide between keep on working for this stable position or to do what you really want to do, which is not actually really practical from the ordinary persons point of view: becoming an illustrator and graphic designer. I had nothing to lose.

So I chose to go back to school to study what I wanted to study. I wouldn’t have made the decision unless I had the worst time in my life. I never talked to this guy again. I never want to, but I really thank him for the chance he gave me. We make decisions every day, whether I take that job or not, or how I make this job work. But the most important decision why I’m here right now goes back to when I had that worst experience. That made my mind clear. To choose what I really wanted to do. It was terrible when I was going through it, but looking back, It helped me becoming stronger.

You worked in Japan at that time?
Yes. So I researched what I can do. I had enough money to go back to school for two years but I didn’t have enough money to go back to school for four years. So I started saving more. But then at the same time I wasn’t drawing for a long time so I had to build my portfolio to apply to schools while I was working fulltime. So it took me a few years. It was difficult, but I have my mind set. So I kept on working to complete my portfolio.

When you studied illustration, you studied back in NY? Did you know what your future job will be as an illustrator? Did you have a clear idea of what you will be doing as an illustrator?
No, in the beginning you don’t and that’s ok. Because when you are back to school, the first two years are about learning as much as you can. The next two years is for focus. So I did two years of undergraduate and then switched to the Masters program and ended up getting the Master’s Degree. It worked all out. I never used oil paint before. I didn’t know all the art supplies and how they were used. I never took figure drawings.

I learned everything: I took fine art classes, painting and concept in fine art, sculpture and computer. By the time I switched to graduate school my mind was set: Ok, illustration, this is what I want to do. And then slowly, I started researching the market. Which magazine do I want to work for? Where do I want to see my work in? It’s a slow process and slowly, slowly I got to know what I wanted to do.
What were the best decisions you made in your life as a graphic designer?
When I was working, I did what I studied: marketing and advertising. But I really didn’t like the people who worked for the company. It was a very big respected cooperation and people tended to be really arrogant. And I had a boss at some point who had a really bad temper and mentally abusive to the coworkers. He was the most difficult person to work with. When you go through the worst situation, psychologically, you take decisions you normally don’t take. If you have a stable job and a really good income, it is difficult to quit.
But if you’re in the worst situation and you can decide between keep on working for this stable position or to do what you really want to do, which is not actually really practical from the ordinary persons point of view: becoming an illustrator and graphic designer. I had nothing to loose. So I chose to go back to school to study what I wanted to study. I wouldn’t have made the decision unless I had the worst time in my life. I never talked to this guy again. I never want to, but I really thank him for the chance he gave me. We make decisions every day, whether I take that job or not, or how I make this job work. But the most important decision why I’m here right now goes back to when I had that worst experience. That made my mind clear. To choose what I really wanted to do. It was terrible when I was going through it, but looking back, It helped me becoming stronger.

Yuko Shimizu ©2010

Is your family living in Japan? 
My sister lives in New York and my parents live in Japan. 

What’s the profession of your mom and dad?
My mom is a stay home mom. She was a really good mom to both of us. My father was in general trading, which is import and export. He was dealing with big computer companies. It was in the sixties, seventies and he was importing what they call ‘supercomputers’, which fill out a whole room. (laughs)

Do you have sisters or brothers?
I have only one sister. She’s an accountant and works for a bank.

You wrote in your bio, that it wasn’t an option for you, coming from a traditional Japanese family to study art. But was it important in your family to study? Important to study in general?
Yes. I think so. My mom went to a four years college, which in her age in Japan was not common. She didn’t work for a long time, she got married and she had my sister. I think my parents thought that education was really important. At some point I asked: ‘Do I need to go to college?’ and they said: used. I never took figure drawings. I learned everything: I took fine art classes, painting and concept in fine art, sculpture and computer. By the time I switched to graduate school my mind was set: Ok, illustration, this is what I want to do. And then slowly, I started researching the market. Which magazine do I want to work for? Where do I want to see my work in? It’s a slow process and slowly, slowly I got to know what I wanted to do.

What were the best decisions you made in your life as a graphic designer?
When I was working, I did what I studied: marketing and advertising. But I really didn’t like the people who worked for the company. It was a very big respected cooperation and people tended to be really arrogant. And I had a boss at some point who had a really bad temper and mentally abusive to the coworkers. He was the most difficult person to work with. When you go through the worst situation, psychologically, you take decisions you normally don’t take. If you have a stable job and a really good income, it is difficult to quit. ‘You HAVE to go to college.’ So my sister did and I did. Education was important, but more practical education was important.

Your mom was a housewife. Did she want to go back and work?
My mom? No. Back then, no wives worked. People got married, the husband worked and the wife stayed at home. To support a couple and a kid or two, one person’s income was enough. It was a very different time period. It was uncommon for women to work in my mother’s age. It had to be a very special situation for women to work.

How is it now in Japan?
A lot of people work. It’s the same as in Germany or in the US. One thing is that women are more independent. The other thing is that you can’t support two people with one income anymore. Japan is a very traditional country - old fashioned still. A lot of my friends are housewives. People I went to college with in Japan, they stay at home, raising kids.

But it was not an option for you to be a housewife?
I never wanted to be one, not even when I was like two. I remember when I was in the kindergarden, it was in the sixties and our teacher asked us: ‘What do you want to do when you are grown up?’ And they all said, and it’s crazy to think about it now, but most of them said: ‘I want to be a pretty bride!’ or a nurse or a stewardess, that was the time. I remember this as one of the oldest memories I have. I was thinking aloud in my head: ‘Bride is not an occupation!’ I don’t know where these thoughts came from but I was pretty independent from very young age. I couldn’t think of myself not working. I answered ‘painter’ back then. So, I am pretty close. 

On what projects are you working at present?
I worked on a lot of different interesting projects in the last year. Unfortunately the economy in the US is really, really bad right now. So I have to be honest: there’s nothing big going on right now. I will work on my personal things as I have more time than before. Right now I have a few monthly magazine illustration jobs. Maybe three or four magazines and the assignments come every month. I’m starting a new series of that monthly comic book covers. This is interesting, because I’ve never gotten into this field. This is a very different field. I don’t know if it’s suitable for me, but I think it’s always exciting to try out something new. So that’s what I’m working on right now. Then also, two years ago, Stefan Sagmeister and I started a mural project. And it went on and on and on and it just finished last week. It was not for money. We didn’t get much money at all. But it was to do a mural for the public school library. It’s a poor area and the students and the schools don’t get enough funding. A charity organisation donated a whole library and we did the mural. I thought it would never get finished, and now it’s finished and it’s really nice to see it in person.
That was obviously a very interesting and exciting project in your work life. Was it a kind of peak of your career?
Of course sometimes projects are more exciting. And people keep asking me what my favorite project was. But I can’t say it. I can’t say what is my favorite. Every project is good in it’s own way. Sometimes it’s the tiny little things you did they make you happy. It’s not that if it was big, it was good. There were a lot of good ones and of course a lot of bad ones, too. 
Yuko Shimizu ©2011

When you started working as a female illustrator did you had any problems?
Gender is not an issue in terms of illustration. If you don’t want people to know that you’re female you can change your name, because nobody needs to see you to work with you. Ok, sometimes you talk on the phone. But honestly, gender is not an issue. I actually have benefited a lot from being female, because there are not enough female in the business. Unfortunately I think in any business it is the same.

I know this doctor. She’s a very attractive and smart woman,and she said there are not enough women doctors. In areas like fashion, acting, nurses there are more than enough women. These areas are considered as feminine. But in any other field, including graphic design, there are not enough. They need more women.

For example in teaching: I started teaching right after I left school which doesn’t happen to people often. There were not enough female instructors and obviously there were not enough non-white female instructors. So I have benefited from being a female and from being a minority. And of course it’s not always like that. But I personally haven’t experienced anything negative because of my race or because of my gender, at least not in terms of work. I think it’s a good thing and I think the world needs more female designers.

In Germany 60% of the students in art schools are female.
Yes, it’s the same in the US. But where are they in the working population?

What about the higher positions in the working population?
Yes there aren’t enough.

When you look at the very huge companies, producing machines and stuff, not graphic design, there are only 7.5% females in higher positions with decision-making power. This is very little.

You know, this world has been dominated and run by men for thousands of years. And it’s only since the seventies that women started to gain power as a working force. But still the fact is that men cannot give birth to the babies. And the male run the firms. There are equally talented male and female. And they are afraid that she might get pregnant and quit work. Those kind of stupid thoughts are still there. But in graphic design and illustration it should be more open because a lot of things are run by small studios or illustrators and freelancers. Can we not work since we have a baby? No! I think art school ratio of women and men is completely different from working ratio of women and men.

In my school, there are half and half women and men, a bit more women. But how many working female illustrators are there? Not many. There are a lot of women, or gay men who are doing fashion illustration. But the regular illustration, like concept illustration for newspapers, advertising, is not targeted towards women and doesn’t call for feminine look. There are so many illustrators working and making their living in the US, but how many female illustrators can you count in the US market who work equally as men. There are not many. In art we have to prove ourselves by working really hard. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing.

Do you better work in team or as a single person?
I think I’m more of a single-player. That is why I quit work. But of course I like to work as a team. With art directors, designers or writers but as an equal partner. Illustration is MY job and there’s a job of designing, or a job of writing, and we’re all equal. If you work in teams, you have to make compromises when someone says ‘I don’t like this illustration, can you change it somehow?’ Yes, that happens and that’s fine as long as there is a decent, reasonable argument. And if it’s not decent and reasonable, I try to argue back but not in a condescending way. I try to convince them why what I did is better than what they say I should do.

What do you like more: working with men or women?
It really doesn’t matter. Working with people who are good communicators, that’s what matters. Sometimes there are stereotypical women-personalities and what men think is: they are disorganised, or emotional. Sometimes I have to work with those women and think: ‘Oh god, women’. (laughs) There are terrible bossy men who act like they are your boss which is a typical male stereotype. I have that, too. So, it doesn’t really matter as long as they are good communicators. If they don’t like something they should tell me and then we can figure out the best way for both of us. 
Yuko Shimizu ©2009

When you work for big companies, like Pepsi: Do you have more contact with male or female art-directors?
I worked with a female art buyer at the ad agency which did a lot of jobs for Pepsi. In Pepsi, there was a woman and in Microsoft, there was a man. In MTV, there was a woman. I mean I’m sure there are more men than women, but there are women. Especially when illustrators work with ad agencies, we often work with art buyers who are keeping contact between the artists and the art directors. There are a lot of women in the art-buying field.

May I ask you if you have kids?
I don’t have kids.

Are you content with your profession?
Yes I’m content with my profession.

What do you think, what are the things that make you content?
Because I can make a living, doing what I like to do the most.

Why are you so successful in your job?
I guess, because I take every job seriously and I am a good communicator. I think half of the job of the artists, which often students don’t realize, is not just about doing good work, but being a good communicator. Like: I’m happy, you’re happy, it was nice, let’s work again. I think that’s the key.

Which of your characteristics helped you being an illustrator and doing this exhibition in Berlin and being successful?
That’s a tough one! I guess some illustrators or graphic-designers try to find formula: ‘I did this, it worked. Let’s just repeat it and I’ll be fine for the rest of my career.’ I think that’s the wrong thinking. If that works for them, that’s fine, but for me art is always experimenting new things, whether it’s like completely new or slightly new. I’m always creating something new and that makes it exciting. Like doing comic book covers or doing political posters which is not what I normally do. When they approach me and say let’s do this and then I see, what I can do. So, that for me works. I think when artists find a formula and start repeating, it becomes more like craftsmen. Like, if you’re selling baskets, you have to make the same basket every day. But if you’re an artist, I don’t think you should make the same baskets every day. If you’re the basketmaker, you’re not going to try new things, probably not. But if you’re not the basket-maker type, the possibilities are unlimited: The show in Berlin or political posters are not my thing, but let’s do it. And then I can come and meet you and meet so many different people and we can exchange our thoughts and it enriches my point of view. It probably goes into what you make next or what I make next and everyone’s happy. I think that’s for me the way to go.

You have to be open minded?
Open minded, and try out new things. Of course, there are things I would never do. But otherwise I would try anything that looks like it’s suitable for me. I won’t try something, that’s completely not suitable for me. 
Yuko Shimizu ©2009

I saw that you won some awards. What do awards mean to you?
It’s tricky. I came as an immigrant, as a student, and I had a visa and then I had to get a work-visa after student-visa. As an artist to get a visa, you really need awards, otherwise you won’t get visa. So for me getting awards, big or small, was really important to survive and to be able to live and work in the US. They look at your resume and which awards you have and to attach the copy of your works, so the more awards you have the higher is the possibility that you get a work permit. That was how I started: kind of obsessed over getting awards. And of course that makes me happy, because you know someone recognized my work. And now of course I apply to all the awards because it’s important. Because awards are what people see and I get jobs from that. In all the different ways it’s important, but then it’s tricky, because your mind starts to think: ‘I have to make work that can get awards.’ And that will never work. Awards are something that someone is deciding and it’s according to their judgement and that’s not the universal truth. And it’s really great to have awards but it doesn’t mean it’s bad when you don’t have some. So try not to fixate on it. I’m becoming good at it. And then I feel like: ‘Ok, I won an award!’ – that makes me happy. ‘I didn’t win an award.’ – that doesn’t make me sad.

Do you use networks?
I think everyone does. Networking only work when you have something. I see some illustrators, graphic-designers, who come to networking-parties, but they’re not working hard on their work, they’re working hard on their networking. That never works. But if you have good things to show and you have good connections and know the right people: that works.

You are teaching at the school of visual arts. Are there many female teachers?
Enough, but not enough. It’s unfortunately still very white-male dominated.

When you look at your students: when they’re developing their work, when they start making their work, their graphics, are there differences between male and female? How do they start their projects? How do they present themselves?

Actually, I probably have more, better female students than good, male students. But at that age 18, 19, 20, I think female students tend to be more mature and it’s just the age thing. I think female students are more focused at that age. But then they start working and there are more male. I don’t know what that means. That really needs to be worked on.

Did you ever have the feeling in your life that you had to work much harder and much more than a man in order to receive the same acceptance? I had experienced many occasions when I felt I had to work harder than the Americans because of the language barrier and all these things. I grew up partially in the US between 12 and 15. I didn’t speak English and I went to an American school and I had to work harder because it’s not just a science test, it’s a science in English test. I would not have had to study that much, if the science test was in Japanese. So it’s circumstances, but it was never male and female.

Do you demand a lot of yourself?
I think it’s a personal thing and has nothing to do with gender. I was taught by my parents to work three times harder than the rest and you can accomplish anything. I think, that’s a really good advice. My mom didn’t remember telling me that. She told me when I was 12 and struggling in the American school: ‘Yuko you just have to work three times harder. If you work three times harder, harder than everyone around you, everything is achievable.’

For you as a female, is it easier for you to work in Japan or in America?
In America. Being a female is very, very difficult in Japan. But illustration is not about gender. I think it’s a really good field. Graphic-design in general, it’s a good field.

In Germany, I think they pay the women much lower than the men. So it seems that we are equal, but it’s actually not true. I think in the US it’s the same. I have a really good friend. She worked for an ad agency in Germany and it was worse. She was crying everyday because the sexual harassment was so bad. She said German guys in advertising are horrible.

Do you think men compete in another way than women?
Yes. There is definitely a gender difference. Men are usually more competitive and aggressive. I think they have to be: ‘Me, me, me!’ It’s in their genes. Even among illustrators, there are some really male hormone driven men. (laughs) It’s in their body, naturally.

What motivates you in your work?
I don’t think I do anything better than drawing. I mean I have a lot of things I can do, but drawing it’s the best thing I can do. So that makes me happy. Someone asked Bjork what makes her sing and she said if she doesn’t sing she would die. That’s kind of extreme, but that girl is born to sing and comparing with that, we draw, because that’s just what we do.

Thank you Tina and Yuko for sharing this interview with us!
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