If there was one word to describe Taiwanese designer/educator Ken Tsai-Lee, “fearless” would be it.
By the time Lee was thirty-four, he had settled into the kind of secure teaching job that his mother could only have dreamt of for a person like him–indifferent academics and without family connections. And yet, Lee wanted more. He knew that his lack of English (“I could barely stammer out the twenty-six alphabets”) put a spoke in further career aspirations, shutting him out of the global design conversation. And so, he decided the thing to do was to quit his job, move to New York City, learn English and make a career there.
Taking maximum advantage of being in a city full of strangers, Lee opened himself up to every kind of experience with hardly a thought given to “face.” (“Ideas come from culture shock,” he advises his young acolytes.) The outcome of this fearlessness was a project entitled “My Name is Ken Tsai-Lee.” Inspired by the Warholian dictum on fame, Lee humorously decided to seize his fifteen minutes. He had friends photograph him at various iconic locations in New York City. In these photos, he displays large posters on which he has set his name in Bengali, Korean, and Chinese type, among other languages, all largely unintelligible to passersby. As Lee tells it, when one passerby asked him what he was doing, he trotted out a phrase he’d recently picked up in New York City: “None of your business!”
Fortune favors the bold, and for Lee, there was no looking back after his New York sojourn. English granted him access to an inner circle, with his work recognized by leading design organizations and publications, including D&AD, New York Type Directors Club, New York One Show, Tokyo Type Directors Club, Hong Kong Designers Association, Red Dot Design, Communication Arts and Graphis.
Lee is also a generous man, using his own high profile to shine the spotlight on the work of young Asian creatives. He has spoken publicly, often in English, both to raise awareness of the Asian design scene globally and also to exhort other Asian designers to do the same. Marvel not only at his genius for languages visual and otherwise (Public speaking! In English! At TED!) but also that he doesn’t let a fear of what others might think stop him from doing what he needs to do.
And that is precisely why he’s so inspiring.