Kevin Yuen Kit Lo
So tell me a little about yourself?
I studied at Concordia University (where I now teach part-time), and I was lucky to enter the industry in the early 2000s when no one really knew anything about the web! For many years, I cut my teeth working as an interactive designer and art director in the agency/advertising world, while maintaining a side practice doing personal and politically-engaged work. Eventually though, the ideological contradictions and double workload became too much, and I started LOKI out of a desire to do meaningful work aligned to my values. It was a gradual transition from working independently on freelance contracts to building relationships with direct clients and collaborators, and establishing a solid studio structure with the addition of Marie-Noëlle Hébert, our graphic designer, a little under 3 years ago.
I’m really proud of the work we’re doing at LOKI. I think we’re one of the few professional design studios in North America that is willing to take a directly confrontational approach with our work, for example against neoliberalism, systemic racism or police violence, and I feel that this has set us apart. It’s taken us a long time to get here, and every day is still a challenge, but I do feel like we’re making a small, but significant impact on the world around us through design.
When Kevin reached out we were immediately excited about his work and his attitude towards design and its ability to speak on social issues. Kevin’s discipline is an intersection of graphic designer, educator, and community organizer. Through his Montréal-based studio, LOKI, Kevin works with various organizations and individuals with the focus on enacting social change. While born and raised in Toronto, he has called Montreal home for the last 20 years.
Where did your passion for socially conscious work come from? How has this passion grown?
I was fortunate to have several teachers that taught me to think critically about the role design, media and communication play within society. At the time, the central debate in graphic design discourse was around social responsibility, exemplified by the (re)issuing of the First Things First Manifesto in 2000, which called on designers to challenge their embedded relationship to advertising, branding, and commercial communication. Meanwhile, the anti-globalization movement was dramatically shutting down international trade meetings around the world, reflecting the decentralized and utopian visions promised by the still young internet. I was reading the powerful communiqués from the Zapatistas in Mexico and critical network theory on the nettime mailing list. In 2001, I participated in the protest against the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) in Québec City, and to quote the late Tibor Kalman, “what I witnessed that day was ugly and nasty and it radicalized me.” I saw and felt the full repressive force of the state, but I also saw all the inspiring and creative ways in which people organized and resisted. This seemed like a far more relevant and exciting space to put my skills to work than standard commercial design practice.
Of course, this naive idealism was tempered over time with all the complexities of making a living in the "real world”, and I did end up working in the commercial sphere, but the belief that graphic design could do so much more has never abated.
Since starting LOKI, I’ve been lucky to work with many amazing individuals and organizations, and I’ve learned so much from collaborating with them. It’s been rewarding to witness how much impact thoughtful design can have in spaces that are often underserved by it, and this keeps me motivated to keep working harder and better every day.
“It’s taken us a long time to get here, and every day is still a challenge, but I do feel like we’re making a small, but significant impact on the world around us through design.”
How has your creative process changed over time with this growth?
My creative process has always been rooted in thinking about graphic design as a language, which is perhaps why much of my work is so typographically focussed. Over the years, I think my vocabulary has expanded, and I’m able to address different issues with more nuance. I have a far broader experience to draw from now, and this allows me to approach projects with more confidence in both my creative intuition and strategic thinking. I have a far better sense of where to start from.
At the same time, I think I approach my work with more humility, knowing that the design is only one part of the bigger picture, and that my voice is not the one that matters. Questions of representation, who we're speaking for, to, and with, are central to the practice of graphic design, and I’m constantly working on how to become a better collaborator with the various communities I work with.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever heard?
Not quite advice, but I’ve always taken Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s words to heart, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I believe design holds a lot of power in our contemporary society, and as designers we should recognize this, and make clear choices about how and with whom we work.
Also, Asata Shakur’s statement “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who oppressing them.” This feels very important to keep in the forefront of our minds given the current political climate.
Who are some artists that you feel have impacted your own practice?
I’ve always been inspired by the political design work of the Grapus collective and Ne pas plier in France. Jan van Toorn’s critically reflexive approach to design has had a strong impact on the way I think and work. All the artist-activists that are part of the Justseeds collective. I hope our work fits into this tradition of socially-engaged graphic design.
I’m most deeply inspired by the people around me, my friends and allies, that are hustling and fighting so hard every day. Stefan Christoff’s tireless organizing work, Zola’s beautiful and militant street art in Montréal, Sandy Kaltenborn’s rigorous graphic design practice, Eunice Bélidor’ curatorial work for articule, and so many others. Having a sense of being grounded amongst such an amazing community of people is a deep source of inspiration.
What have been some of your biggest strengths and struggles during your career so far?
I think one of my biggest strengths is that I’m a pretty adaptable person. During my years working in advertising, I was surprised that I was never called out for my radical activist work, and similarly, I was surprised that my activist friends didn’t think I was a sellout. I never hid any of these things, and I think the acceptance I received was due to how I was able to adapt to those different contexts while still staying true to myself and my values. This quality plays out in many aspects of my life and work, from being able to tighten my belt when business is slow, to feeling comfortable in all sorts of different situations. Moreover, I think I also work hard at making others feel comfortable around me, and this is a key ingredient to successful collaboration.
In terms of struggles, I think the design world still has a serious problem in terms of representation and diversity. As a POC working in industry and in education, I feel that it’s not always as easy to get our work and ideas recognized. This is why I’m very excited by what Margins is doing! Building and running a sustainable business is also a real challenge, especially given the niche we are working in. I have a visceral aversion to bureaucracy, but it’s something I’m working on!
What's in your margins?
This seems like the perfect place for one of my favourite quotes by bell hooks; “I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds. “
More pragmatically, I’d love to say I sketch and draw all the time, but I don’t unfortunately. I still buy fancy sketchbooks and pens, but they’re mostly filled with awful diagrammatic scribbles and random notes.
Edited by Joshua Duttweiler
What project are you especially excited about right now?
A lot of our work centres on facilitating the cultural production of politically marginalized voices. We recently finished the design and layout of a book of poetry by Ojibwe writer Lesley Belleau for ARP books. I have a deep love for typography and printing, and I’m very excited to see the final results out in the world!