Interview: JooHee Yoon
JooHee Yoon is a household name in the illustration world.
From her sunny home studio in Massachusetts, JooHee dreams up loads of textured fun to pair with complex financial and scientific articles in the New York Times, Plansponsor, and many more renowned publications. With exaggerated color and shape, her easily recognizable style demands your attention and pushes you around the delightful confines of her illustrations.
We sat down with her to talk about people-watching, deadlines, and how she connects with people through her work.
Walk us through a day in your life..
My day starts quite early, since I’ve learned my brain thinks better in the morning. I catch up on emails and news, then eat breakfast. Sometime when I work with clients in other time zones their day is already half over when I am starting mine so I have to be efficient. Then I start work on whatever project I have on hand. At any given time this might be an editorial piece for a newspaper or a spread for a book, sometimes a side project I am experimenting with. I break mid-day for lunch and afterwards usually run errands. I get a little stir crazy after sitting for long periods of time so it’s necessary for me to go grocery shopping or to the post office to break up my day. I think that’s one of the things I love most about being a freelancer.
Having control over my time to fit what I need to get done in my own way, rather than having a rigid 9-5 office job. Then once the errands are done I am back at my desk working until dinner time. Depending on how much work I have I try and stop after dinner and just relax, go out, or catch up on reading. But it all depends on the deadlines.
Where do you work?
I work from home, with a simple desk set up in the corner next to a window. It gets a lot of sunlight, which is the best thing.
Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to pursue illustration as a career?
I don’t think there was a specific moment when I decided to become an illustrator, it was more of a gradual progression. Drawing was one of the activities I found I enjoyed doing early on, and other people seemed to respond to what I made. This really appealed to me. For me, illustration is a way of connecting with other people. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very supportive environment, with parents, teachers and friends, who valued what I did, even back when it was just crayon squiggles. Without them I definitely would not be where I am today.
For me, illustration is a way of connecting with other people.
Are your characters ever based on real people? If so, do you spend a lot of time people watching?
I find people watching endlessly fascinating and I do get a lot of inspiration from just observing people on the streets, especially in cities and in public transportation where all sorts of people gather. Whenever I travel I take a sketchbook with me and try to draw on site if I get the chance. All of these little observations seem to eventually find there way into my work.
I find people watching endlessly fascinating and I do get a lot of inspiration from just observing people on the streets.
You make so much work! I would imagine free time is limited- but how do you spend it?
I’d like to think I am getting better at balancing, but I may just be fooling myself. When I have time, I like to read, go on long bike rides, and cook up a feast. I also really enjoy traveling.
Would you share one of your favorite pieces you’ve worked on so far? And why?
It’s hard to pick one so I am going to share two. The first is the Society of Illustrators call for entries poster I did last year to promote the 57th exhibition. This was fun to work on since I had free reign to draw whatever I wanted. But at the same time it was also rather daunting since I knew the poster would be sent out to fellow illustrators and art directors. It was great to work on a bigger scale than I normally do for books and magazines. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it was thanks to Chris Buzelli this piece came into being (he was the SOI chair that year and asked me to do the poster) and Lotta Nieminen did the amazing type layout for the back.
The other piece is this drawing I did for SooJin Buzelli that was published in Plansponsor Magazine. I actually did my first real editorial project for SooJin while still in college and ever since she has been one of the most supportive art directors I’ve ever worked with. Her magazines are not the most exciting, as the articles are all about finance, but because of the abstract nature of the articles, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and artistic freedom. Case in point, this piece is about seeing both the good and bad in a single situation (the article itself has nothing whatsoever to do with mining).
The turn around for editorial work seems so fast- how does your process change with time constraints?
My process does change a lot depending on the time frame. I really enjoy working on a fast turnaround since it makes me think differently and this can lead to surprising results. The New York Times is the ultimate example since not only do they have extremely tight deadlines, but a very wide range of topics. For me, due to the time constraints, I can’t over think the process and in the end it boils down to coming up with the best solution for interpreting the article, rather than a polished look. I’ve done everything from working digitally, to traditional printmaking, to drawing with crayons for my NYTimes pieces. It’s a roller coaster ride every time.
I really enjoy working on a fast turnaround since it makes me think differently and this can lead to surprising results.
Tell me about how you cultivated your style.
I try to make pictures that seem true to me, letting the way I naturally draw merge with my observations of the outside world. For a while I did a lot of traditional printmaking, less so now with the fast turnaround projects, but there is a fundamental way I approach image making that is present in all my pieces, no matter the medium. Sometimes I draw or make screen prints, or work on the computer, but in the end all the work I produce ends up looking like they belong together.
Do you collect anything?
I am sure by now this won’t come as a surprise, but I collect books.
Your newest book, Beastly Verse is stunning! Can we expect more children’s books from you?
Thank you! And yes, most definitely. Books are what got me interested in illustration in the first place so it’s amazing to have created one of my own. I have another book coming out in September called, The Tiger Who Would be King written by James Thurber.