‘Never be afraid to make mistakes’: Minkwan Kim on designing visuals for YouTube Music

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We chat with an independent designer and art director at YouTube Music about his inspirations, career trajectory, and the importance of learning from setbacks.

If you listen to just a few episodes of Creative Boom podcast, you’ll start to see a pattern emerging. When asked, ‘What first got you interested in design?’ so many leading practitioners will give the same answer: music.

That sounds like a bit of a paradox because music is, well, aural, and design is mainly visual. But that’s when you realise that the visual design of album covers played a pivotal role in the history of 20th-century music.

Why were they considered so important? Well, in the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of music videos and MTV, they were often the only way to see what your favourite band even looked like. And while that ceased to be a problem in the 1980s and 1990s, in this pre-internet age, consuming music was still all about buying physical vinyl.

Yes, hipsters still do this today, but it’s become very much a minor pursuit. In those times, though, gathering around the record player was key to most youngsters’ social lives, and marvelling over a beautifully designed gatefold cover was a large part of the magic and mystery of rock ‘n’ roll.

Google YouTube Music Apahm Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music / Illustrator – Dani Choi

Google YouTube Music Apahm Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music / Illustrator – Dani Choi

Google YouTube Music Apahm Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music / Illustrator – Dani Choi

With the rise of the web and iPod in the 2000s, though, that all changed. Suddenly, record covers were mainly pixellated and shrunk to the size of tiny thumbnails. And while the new tech made music cheaper and more convenient, many of us Gen X-ers assumed that our love affair with album art would not be replicated by the Millennials, let alone Gen X.

But it turns out we were wrong. At least in the case of Min, a graphic designer and art director based in New York who graduated in 2020 and is currently working at Google YouTube Music.

Art of the album

Talking about how his interest in typography began, his story sounds reassuringly familiar. “Growing up, I was particularly drawn to collecting album covers on my iPod Classic, especially fascinated by the Cover Flow feature,” he explains. “I surrounded myself with various music albums, and I developed an appreciation for typographic treatments through them.”

During high school, he began to toy with the idea of crafting album covers myself, which gradually sparked his interest in typography. “As I continued to collect these covers, I found myself naturally gravitating towards a bold and elegant typographic style. This aesthetic, influenced by my music-centric upbringing, has become a defining feature of my design work, allowing me to infuse a bit of the dynamic vibe from my album-collecting days into my designs.”

Google: Nuevas Vibras

Google YouTube Music Pride Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music

Woodkid Reactor Credit: Studio — Saad Moosajee

After graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2020 with a BFA in Graphic Arts 2020, Min’s internship with Nike quickly turned into a full-time job. After around a year, he moved to global design consultancy 2 x 4, as well as freelancing with Something Special Studios and Porto Rocha. He then switched to Google in April 2022.

“I am currently working as a graphic designer and art director, specifically for YouTube Music,” he explains. “It has been almost two years since I joined, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience so far. In my role, I handle various design projects, including graphic design, type design, interaction design, and animation.”

Typographic focus

Typography plays a significant role in his work, especially when crafting the brand visual language for various cultural moments, such as Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “Music is deeply intertwined with culture,” he explains, “and as a result, we often incorporate typography to convey cultural nuances and resonate with our diverse audience.

“I find great fulfilment in working at the intersection of music and design,” he adds. “This blend allows me to explore different styles and expressions while leveraging typography as a powerful tool to communicate cultural themes. It’s this dynamic and culturally resonant aspect of music that continues to inspire and drive my design work.”

Google YouTube Music Pride Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music

Google YouTube Music Recap 2022 Credit: Studio — Google YouTube Music / Illustrator – Benedikt Luft

Matcha Credit – Studio — OTM / Creative Director: Tal Midyan

One of the standout moments in his career so far was seeing his designs for Lil Nas X showcased at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. “It was such a surreal experience!” he recalls. “I remember feeling a rush of excitement and disbelief as I looked up at the massive venue, especially since it was the same place where I had my graduation ceremony.

“Seeing my work on display in such an iconic location was incredibly rewarding and touching,” he adds. “It truly felt like a milestone and reminded me of how far I’ve come in my journey as a designer.”

Learning from mistakes

More broadly, since joining Google, Min has relished the opportunity to apply a wide range of skills in graphic design, type design, interaction design, and animation. “While I had learned these skills in school and through various experiences, it wasn’t until I started working here that I truly had the chance to put them into practice,” he explains.

“One key lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career is to not be scared of making mistakes,” he adds. “I’ve discovered that every time I try something new, there’s always a takeaway, and it contributes to my growth and learning.”

Indeed, he admits, “I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. But each one has been a valuable learning experience. One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned is the importance of designing with the user’s perspective in mind rather than just focusing on creating visually appealing work. This shift in mindset has been particularly evident in my approach to communication and interaction design, where understanding the user’s needs and preferences is paramount.

Matcha Credit – Studio — OTM / Creative Director: Tal Midyan

Matcha Credit – Studio — OTM / Creative Director: Tal Midyan

Matcha Credit – Studio — OTM / Creative Director: Tal Midyan

“Overall, the hands-on experience and the opportunity to learn from both successes and failures have been invaluable in shaping my growth as a designer during my time here.”

Influence of AI

Now, he’s excited to see how YouTube Music evolves as technology continues to speed up. “I’ve been particularly amazed by the capabilities of AI, especially in generating visually stunning images,” he says. “What’s remarkable is that AI not only creates these images but also understands aesthetics when provided with the right prompts.

“This development holds great significance for the design industry, as it enables individuals without extensive design backgrounds to produce professional-quality work using AI tools. While AI’s potential is still evolving, I believe it will continue to grow in power and influence, shaping the future of technology and design.

“I’m also excited to see what comes next as people increasingly utilise these tools to create designs, opening up new possibilities and avenues for creativity.”

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