Arts & Culture Visual Arts

Design as Communication: A Conversation with Panny Chayapumh 

Especially for creatives, it can be all too easy to think of design as this sprawling, all-encompassing concept, and it’s true that design principles can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines. 

But such an expansive viewpoint can sometimes also distract from design’s immediate, real-world utility. 

A professional designer could spend their workday pondering design theory, but would that translate into an effective design? 

What I’d like to do today, with the help of our special guest, is to lead a more grounded exploration of design. What is the purpose of design, and how does it function in the real world? Also, how do leading designers manage to distill their expertise and experience into effective design work? 

Joining me for this conversation is renowned creative and designer Panny Chayapumh. Originally from Thailand, Chayapumh has been living and working in Brooklyn for years. 

She was previously the lead designer at the well-known New York arts non-profit Creative Time. From there, she began working with the creative studio Special Special where, among other projects, she’s currently hard at work on a retrospective of the studio, set to be published later this year. 

“Design for me is a visual medium used to communicate. I think on a very simple level it’s just meant to look good and help a viewer understand and feel guided.” 

This offered the perfect beginning to our discussion, and I have to say that it was a delight speaking with Chayapumh on various aspects of design and the trajectory of her own journey with design through the years.  

At the center of it all is this idea of communication. Communication through design may have a myriad of intentions and goals, but the act of communication is central to each iteration, to each interaction between the work and the viewer. 

I’d like to invite you to come along as we reflect on design and the professionals who make all these moments of communication possible.  

Creative freedom + storytelling 

There are so many professions defined by structured processes. Highly technical work, for example, relies on structure. This structure may evolve over time, but from day to day, adhering to that structure is essential. 

In contrast, creative professions tend to be more open-ended. Individual artists may have their own way of approaching a project, or an entire organization might emphasize a general sense of creative freedom. 

Professional designers need to be comfortable with this sliding scale of creative freedom, structure, and client expectations. After all, most clients want to achieve a very specific goal through a design, and that requires designers to integrate the client’s ideas into their own. 

But in terms of preference, Chayapumh told me that creative freedom and a generous timeline make for exciting projects.  

“I think as a working designer, there’s always a push and pull with projects that come your way. So creative freedom is a huge plus, as well as being given an appropriate amount of time to form some kind of narrative. I really enjoy visual storytelling, and so projects that allow me to build these details are the ones I gravitate to the most.” 

Once again, communication. Narrative has been a powerful tool for literally thousands of years, and when designs utilize this tool effectively, both communication and engagement are immediately enhanced. 

But as Chayapumh pointed out, it takes time to create work that tells a story, and that’s especially true when we look at more complex media. 

Moving imagery

Continuing on from Chayapumh’s affinity for storytelling in her design work, she feels that moving imagery is best suited to telling a story. 

“I think because I enjoy storytelling and world-building, over the course of my career I’ve developed skills for moving imagery, regardless of whether it’s in the form of animation, illustration, or typography.”  

In addition to all these elements, Chayapumh has also invested her time and skills in video work and CG imagery. 

“Video is probably the most straightforward medium for storytelling, so it made sense for me to hone my skills in this area. I’ve always had a fascination with 3D renderings. I’ve always found the uncanny realness of 3D-rendered objects striking, so over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly learning how to create 3D objects in Blender.” 

Blender is of course the most well-known open-source software for 3D modeling and animation, and it’s been an ideal way for Chayapumh to experiment with the storytelling potential of computer-generated imagery.  

Returning to the storytelling potential of moving imagery, both video and animation have their greatest advantage in their temporal component. It’s definitely possible to tell a story with a static image, but having images that play out in sequence immediately expands the possibilities. 

Chayapumh’s years of experience with other formats have made it possible for her to uncover the unique potential of 3D work.  

The equalizer 

In fact, when I asked Chayapumh about areas of growth in contemporary design, we circled right back to video and 3D work. More specifically, Chayapumh has noticed the positive effects of the variety and accessibility of programs that can be used to create this work. 

“Over the past two years, I’ve noticed that there are more free programs to edit videos and create 3D objects. Also, the user interfaces of these programs are becoming more intuitive.”

The landscape seems to have reached a point where almost every major paid program in these categories has at least one free and/or open-source alternative. These more accessible programs may not be fated to become the new industry standards, but that’s not terribly important to users who are just looking to try some things out. 

Chayapumh is happy to see this development gaining traction.

“I think this is great. It invites more people with creative curiosities to get started on projects. It almost serves as an equalizer, having this much access to programs. The traditional route of going through art school will not be the only way to get internships and jobs.” 

In a way, this level of accessibility puts skill and execution at the forefront. In an ideal scenario, employers would start to pay much more attention to portfolios and less attention to degrees and education history. 

Influences + interest 

For this next segment, it’s important to acknowledge that creative work is never 100% original. Don’t misunderstand me: ‘original’ is still a valid term when assessing creative work, but creative work will always be, in a certain sense, an assemblage of existing elements. 

Originality is the result of a professional creating a unique combination of those existing elements. This leads right into the topic of influences, a very common topic among artists and creative professionals. 

Rather than asking Chayapumh about her most prominent influences, I instead wanted to ask about her approach to influences overall. 

Basically, Chayapumh feels that there’s a downside to the ease and regularity of being exposed to other design work, both past and present. 

“I think it’s necessary to have interests and seek influences outside of design. We’re overexposed to things that are being created every day, and there’s always a clear cycle of trends. So as a creator, it helps to remove myself from that environment to connect with my personal interests and hobbies. I think what sets each designer apart is their personal interests because those interests can really inform their approach to a creative brief.” 

In a hypothetical scenario where a designer was only ever exposed to other design work, their own creations would most likely seem relatively derivative. 

But if a designer explores many different hobbies and areas of interest, those other fields will find their way into the work, with the work becoming an expression of the designer’s unique identity. 

All of us naturally have our own specific interests, so why not let that individuality color our work?  

Special Special 

I’d like to wrap things up by mentioning some of Chayapumh’s work with Special Special and the upcoming retrospective. 

She’s been working with the studio since early 2022, and Chayapumh told me that working with the studio has offered new and unique experiences. 

“At Special Special I’ve been able to be a part of the conceptual process of an art experience. At my former positions, I wasn’t really involved in that process so it’s been quite lovely. I feel like the objects or digital assets created are more intentional. I’ve also been able to return to longer format projects such as book and layout design.”

Her ongoing book project has been the Special Special retrospective, which she’s been working on for about a year. 

“The book will be a beautiful documentation of all the past projects since the studio’s conception in 2016, featuring conversations with founder Wen-you Cai and collaborative artists who have been instrumental in the evolution of the studio. I’ve been working closely with Wen-You, designing and creating layouts that would best document all these projects. We’re hoping to have this book ready for printing in the spring!” 

In other words, it’s not available quite yet, but it’s looking like it will serve as a great resource not only for those interested in the studio’s work but also for anyone who enjoys discussions on the utility, beauty, and impact of design work. 

On that note, I’d like to thank Ms. Chayapumh for joining me for this conversation, and of course, thank you for following along.