Semester 1 : Graduate Student Life

I'm doing it friends: I'm a university student again.
cafeteria trays, awkward ice breakers, and all. 


In May 2012, I completed my undergraduate years basking in the glory of never having to sit through another university lecture again.

With a Bachelor of Art diploma in hand and a full-time offer letter in my Inbox, I breathed the deep sense of satisfaction that the 'school part' of my life was done. 


Jump forward 6 years and 4 full-time gigs later: to my own surprise, I'm a student again. Up until 3 months before flying out to Tokyo, the idea of graduate school hadn't even crossed my mind. 


So...why head back to school?

I often half-joke that I'm in grad school because I needed something to do in Tokyo. Pretty confident that I wouldn't cut it as an English teacher. I'm also not cut out for the salaryman lifestyle: unable to put in the long hours or hang in a nomi-kai. I've never adorned a suit or pencil skirt for work. Ever. 

Sometimes I just say I enrolled in university here to indulge in the renowned cheap, tasty 学食 (dining halls eats) of Japan. 


The truth is: I'm exploring.


I'm exploring new techniques to approach design.
I'm exploring different types of design and visual-storytelling.
I'm exploring how emerging tech can impact experiences.
I'm exploring the Japanese approach to design-thinking.
I'm exploring a Japanese way of life, as experienced in Tokyo.
I'm exploring how to evolve, grow, destruct, expand the best me.


In this first semester of exploration,
I've uncovered many new findings along the way.


I've already changed along this unique journey of living and studying in a foreign country. The individuals I've met—the people I'm learning from and with—have undoubtedly affected the way I approach design problems and unveiled new opportunities in the field that I hadn't considered.

FRIENDLY REMINDER: the corporate ladder needs to be climbed... eventually. 🙃

FRIENDLY REMINDER: the corporate ladder needs to be climbed... eventually. 🙃


Finding no. 1: ENGLISH ≠ ENGLISH.

My grad program is based in English, which means: classes are taught in English, communication from the school is in English, assignments are explained and completed in English.

However, English as a language is often a second (or third) language for 90% of the students and faculty in the room. So while we're all technically speaking English—we each speak a very different style of the language.

Every conversation is a testament to the dynamics of the English language. 

In the classroom, we hear Singaporean English, Turkish English, Indonesian English, Chinese English, Japanese English, Brazilian English—with slight nuances in syntax and diction. 

As a result, I've grown very cognizant of my lazy use of American colloquialisms / slang / idioms and now try to avoid using them in explanations of myself and my work. The situation also brought to light how truly cringe-worthy it us to use "literally" in all the wrong ways. (Let's aspire to be better, people.) 

Sometimes we use the same words to imply different things. 

Okay, I am almost too embarrassed to recount this story, but it's much too indicative of my personal journey to omit. 

I started my grad school career in truly cringeworthy fashion: I wore a casual outfit to an unexpectedly semi-formal event.

This doesn't seem like a big deal until you imagine me in me standing in a grey silk dress and brown leather booties in a sea of dark suits.


I was told "smart casual" and dressed as what I believe to be such...only to be engulfed in a swell of navy, black, and grey suits. SMART CASUAL MEANS SUITS. Moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, students, siblings: all decked out in blazers and button downs. 

The situation sort of reaffirmed that this learning experience is going to be unlike anything I've done before. 

More proof I'm merely the human embodiment of a continuous stumble.

More proof I'm merely the human embodiment of a continuous stumble.

RIP: our deconstructed toaster oven. We hardly even knew ye.

RIP: our deconstructed toaster oven. We hardly even knew ye.


Finding no. 2: PUT THAT thing down, flip it, and reverse it.

Thankfully, the first day of actual class was great. We already moved through all the uncomfortable icebreakers and forced small-talk during an orientation session called Crash Course, so on the first day of class on campus we're able to jump right into it.  

We got to the classroom, squaded up—and completely destroyed things.

My group and I disassembled a (unused) household toaster oven to its basic components: screws, bolts, heating coils, metal encasing, etc. It was crazy awesome, especially since nearly every thing I've touched in the past 5 years has been digitally-produced. My use of wrenches and screwdrivers was limited to assembling IKEA furniture. So...while I initially found it thrilling, I quickly realized I'd be significantly more useful in the organization of the tiny things. I relinquished my hammer and screwdriver. 

After the brave little toaster oven was in its tiniest bits, we discussed the little marvel that it was. While it was merely a 2,000 yen (approx. 20 USD) model from Amazon, it had a few unexpectedly complex components. 


While we often think of MacPros, Nikon cameras, Google Home as spectacles of tech, this exercise was a refreshing look at the bits of craft and technology we overlook in the perimeters of our daily lives. I used to tune out all these over-explanations from my aerospace engineer dad, but now I'm realizing that perhaps am my father's daughter after all. I've become much more curious about how things are made—especially how products are designed, assembled, interacted with.


finding no. 3: "design" ≠ design

Most designers (or design-adjacent humans) realize that there exists several domains of design: industrial design, graphic design, spatial design, transport design, production design.... And while I've technically been a professional designer for the past 5+ years, I found myself treading unfamiliar territory in the coursework of a program with "design" in its name. 


As a visual designer: design needed to be on-point, on-brand, as well as visually and conceptually interesting. 

Design did not need to come out of a 3-D printer for rapid prototyping.

Design did not involve Command Prompt nor 'sudo'. 

Design did not involve HTML/CSS or key gens to secure access to a local host.

Design did not involve stakeholders, mental models, or ethnographical research.


In my first semester, the coursework involved design in the realms of product design, design-thinking, research design, service design. I've transported out of the world of ad industry jargon like "CTA" and "engagement metrics" to decipher "strings", "arrays", and "if statements" in Ruby programming language. I ventured designing in the physical things that can be printed with a 3D printer or cut with a laser cutter. I even explored designing with haptic feedback to create the sensation of rain. (I think my hippie-dippy SoCal roots are showing.) 


"Design" is a funny term in that sense.

While it has widely-known aesthetic connotations, design also involves other elements like strategy, problem-solving, technology, materials. Encountering these design-adjacent tasks and assignments in this first term already expanded my perspective of design and the expectations I have of myself as a designer. 

Lately, I'm super interested in integrating my undergrad interests in architecture and the UX mindset I gained from creating in social to create some rad experiential work around user experience (online and IRL). Maybe. 



finding no. 4: Just make it.

Armed with a new determination to make things, I fiddled with Fusion360 (a 3D CAD design software from Autodesk) and used the MakerBot in our Hacking Studio to create this little sake chalice.


Full disclosure: I originally had a much more complex design in mind.

Going from 2D to 3D design programs was much more confusing and frustrating than anticipated. Before giving up entirely, I decided to simplify and execute. Prove to myself I could do it first.

I'll improve my design in the next go. Isn't that what rapid prototyping's all about?  


With the aforementioned laser cutter, I made this little wooden teapot coaster. While not totally NOT 2-D, it was still exciting to realize a tangible object.

For the design of this coaster, I drew inspiration from the pattern on manhole covers around Tokyo. (They're dope. Seriously. Check out #manholecover: promise I'm not trolling you with covers for male unmentionables.)  I created the geometric pattern as a vector graphic using my good ol' pal Adobe Illustrator. 

To "print" via the laser cutter in the Hacking Studio, the vector file was converted to varying opacities of red—darker hue to determine a deeper burn / cut. Had a lot of fun with this one. 


finding NO. 5: Inspiration is out there.


For my Introductory Project—which is basically a trial run as a member of one of the school's core research groups, I decided to push further into the unknown and join a research project group called Embodied Media.

The project aims to create future media technologies that record, share, enhance, and even create the kind of experiences that we have through our bodies. Haptics, VR, Telexistence & Enchanted Things — By studying embodied informatics in human interaction, we design embodied experiences that entertain, enchant, and empower us.


Pretty dope amirite? Through EM group meetings, project presentations, and related events at the collaborative working space at the FabCafe in Shibuya, I gained so much respect and insight for this whole other realm of design. Many of my peers were engineer students, programmers, or just really skilled human beings.

I felt out of my league—but so compelled by this world merging design and technology in new experiences. I couldn't believe how much cool shit people were making around me. It was simutelouasly overwhelming and pretty fucking amazing.


finding no. 6: You're in charge of your own happiness. ANd success. 

Like many immigrants, my parents firmly believe higher education is the key to untapped opportunities. Earning a Masters in a foreign country (the US) did not come easily for my dad, but certainly changed the game for his career. He made it very clear that he wanted the same for my siblings and me. I used to roll my eyes at the cliche of an American Dream, but I'm starting to see why he values the experience. Learning new things--whether it's inside a classroom or out--is inspiring. It challenges you to make newer, better things. Or old, wrong things—but that's okay too. It's all about gaining a breadth of experiences. 


The loose structure and rigor of graduate school has shown that it's in my own hands to make the most of these resources. I've come to consider this time off working a 'sabbatical'  from advertising agency life, and ultimately a time to create some of my best work. (Maybe.) This time, I'm not just trying to get that school part of my life over with.  



Alongside university coursework, I've been interning for one of my professors, Matthew Waldman, who coincidentally also moved here from NY and started at the school last fall as well. He comes from fashion, music, product design world and has a linguistic approach to design. In some ways, I envision him the Sagmeister to my Walsh. Through our work time and hang outs around Tokyo, I've met so many interesting individuals in the tech and design communities. 


The overall grad school experience so far is expanding my understanding of Japan and its relationship with media culture. The terms and pace of innovation here are vastly different from what I experienced in New York. But I'm up for the challenge. See you next term. 

Lessa Chung