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Benson Chou | ” I feel like passion is the key element when I want to feel motivated.”

Author // TheOtherAsians
Posted in // One-on-one's

A seven hour car ride up north plus one long Bart station route brought the OA team to the Bay Area. We met up with the owner and designer of The Imaginary Zebra, Benson Chou.  Benson has been pursing creative designs for over four years now, starting off with a little graffiti session (legally!) back in the day.  He’s now one of those jack-of-all trades but under one umbrella type of artist.  He’s a designer who uses his clothing to share his illustrations and taps into various creative mediums for inspiration. We had the pleasure of having Benson share stories of how he developed his brand and what keeps him going.

Fun Facts:
  • What takes up most of your time right now:  Blogging, working on Imaginary Zebra and side projects
  • Guilty Pleasure: Buying books impulsively.  I’ll judge a book by its cover –and usually a book with a good cover comes with good content
  • Favorite Color: Grey, at the moment, it changes
  • Relationship Status: Taken
  • Pet Peeves: I don’t like talking to people who are too full of themselves
  • What kind of car do you drive: Honda Civic Silver 2006 with TIZ in the back
  • What is your artistic weapon of choice?  Pencil, paper, and erasers
  • Can you speak/read/write Chinese:  I can do all of them.  I moved to the US when I was 13, so I got a good basic foundation in Taiwan
  • Since you went to UC Davis, we have to ask have you tipped a cow before? No, it’s actually pretty impossible to tip a cow.  Cows have pretty good balance. Poor cows in Davis.
  • Then what do people at Davis do for fun?  For Davis, the majority just hung out with friends for fun.  Davis also gave me a lot opportunities to do my own projects.
  • Fun Fact:  In middle school there was a talent show and one of my classmates played the piano. I thought it was really awesome, but I wanted to beat him at it so I took up piano too.  I can play 3 songs.
  • Funner Fact:  I was the most dependent kid in my family.  My mom had to hold me a lot as a kid literally because I would cry so much.  She actually hurt her back because she had to carry me so much.  But when I was 13 I was the first one to move to the US by myself to my Uncles.  I was the first of the family to come to the US.

OA: Where did the initial idea of having your own clothing line, The Imaginary Zebra, come from?  Your imagination?

BC: In high school I started a graffiti crew called “TIZ,” at the time it didn’t stand for anything I just thought the letters looked nice.  Then I started Urban Art Club that could do graffiti (legally).  When I started college at UC Davis my freshmen housemate encouraged me to start my own project because I had four years to do something.  I thought it would be cool to bring TIZ back, so I came up with different words to give meaning to the letters.  Before the letters didn’t have any meaning.  I wanted to give it a name that people could visualize.

OA: Why a zebra?  Why not another black and white animal like a panda or penguin?

BC: Because I had to stick with the letters TIZ, and with Z there weren’t many choices. I later found out more characteristics about zebras.  For instance, zebras are the only horses that humans can’t ride because they’re very aggressive, but they work well amongst each other.  They’re originally black and white because their competitors are colorblind so they appear camouflaged.  Each zebra has different stripes, kind of like a fingerprint.


OA: What inspires and motivates you to create such quirky illustrations?

BC: It’s usually whatever I encounter at the time.  There’s no particular theme to my designs.  Recently I got more into photography so for the last series I made photography themed shirts.  I feel it’s more organic rather than planned out.  I include the inspirations and decision making with the clients so they can understand my creative process.  I usually include a small zebra on the shirts, but not all the shirts are of zebras.

OA: TIZ seems to keep you busy with exploring other mediums for creativity such as photography, video, and computer graphics.  Did you have to learn these skills for TIZ?

BC: Yes all the skills are self-taught.  I never enrolled in any design classes, but I always had an interest for these different design mediums.  I’d get into one of these mediums then apply it to TIZ.


OA: On your website you said that your designs come out in series, rather than seasons and there are no re-prints.  Can you elaborate on your process for this? (When does a series start and end?)

BC: A series begins whenever I have at least 4-5 good designs ready for production.  It’s not necessary for a new series of shirts to begin when the previous series has sold out.  It’s more of whenever I feel ready for the next series.  When I come up with a design I try to be spontaneous.  I carry my jenky notebook around with me and write down whatever ideas I get.

OA: You started off school pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, which wasn’t your cup of tea.  What was the turning point?

BC: It didn’t have a clear turning point.  It was more of a merging between my TIZ life and my engineering life.  I would spend hours in front of the computer typing out codes and still yield no results.  My freshman housemate and I took a screen-printing class together and I learned how to make my own shirts.  Through screen-printing I was able to realize my designs and make them into a tangible objects.  Major wise I chose manageable economics during the 3rd year of my college life to accommodate TIZ.

OA: During your time as a college undergrad how did you manage to maintain and grow the TIZ brand while balancing school?

BC: There are just some things you have to sacrifice.  So I sacrificed my social life!  I mean we only get 24hrs in a day.  There’s school, midterms, TIZ, marketing, etc. I wasn’t able to go out and party as much nor was I able to go share as many stories as “oh man, that party last night was…!”  But I was still able to maintain a good balance.


OA: You’ve recently graduated from UCD. How is post grad life as a full-time designer?  Is it everything you imagined?  What are some challenges you’ve had to overcome?

BC: Now that I focus fully on TIZ, I stay at home a lot and I realize that trapping yourself at home would not as productive as you imagined.  I feel like being around people who inspire you really helps productively.  Like Google creates a workspace that feels like home but have creates around to help fosters good ideas and productivity.  At home I feel so alone and uninspired.  Therefore every so often I’ll go back to UCD to work with my interns.  The creative community helps me put out better products and expand my horizons. Though, I gotta say post grad life is really great and I love it!  I love the life of having everything under your own control, your own time, and your own management.  You definitely have time to do your own things, but there are also many extra external pressures.

OA: In addition to your 365 tumblr project, what other steps are you taking to push yourself creatively?

BC: I force myself to be creative by putting something out everyday whether it’s a photo, design, graphic etc.  It’s difficult to produce something truly creative everyday, but definitely help stimulating the my right brain.  Interactions among people can also help me be innovative.  I meet up with friends that are also working on their own projects and ask them about their own things or ask them what they have been doing recently to stay motivated.  “Even talking to TheOtherAsians and hearing everything you guys are doing this weekend makes me want to do something!”

OA: What steps are you taking to push the brand?

BC:  Now I push myself to work with different people who are passionate about whatever they’re doing.  I feel like passion is the key element when I want to feel motivated. Aside from design stuff I’m also interested in business. I look at Peter Drucker,  Seth Godin, and Gary Veinchuck articles.  That guy is so enthusiastic about everything!

OA: What does your family think of your creative career?

BC: They are supportive, but they still would like me to further my academic career.  Through different generations the way they perceive things is different from us.  To see me at home all day without physically pitching my shirts to others is hard for them to see that I’m selling shirts.  With the Internet you can spread something across the world easily. As for school, unless I feel that pursuing a higher education is fulfilling for me, I don’t think its necessary. My mind is set on TIZ and I want to give it a try and see how it turns out rather than go through more years of schooling.  I’m doing this because it’s for me.  The drive is completely different.  Even if I pursued school in the future I want to do it for myself and not because my parents want me to do it.


OA: Being proud of who you are, what does it mean to be Taiwanese American to you?

BC:  Back in middle school when I first moved here, I barely saw any Chinese people and thought that this was completely normal.  Just like the movies.  There are many different races and it was truly a melting pot.  As I started to move from middle school to high school to college the sense of “Asian” got stronger.  When I got to college I was really excited to connect with other Taiwanese people.  I finally got to converse and speak in Chinese.  I don’t really see an advantage or disadvantage of being Taiwanese in America, it’s really about what you do.  It is the ideology that people can relate to the reasons of why I do what I do.  People don’t need to see my face to buy my shirts.  People don’t need to think “oh you’re Taiwanese I’m going to support you.” I want my products to speak for itself.

OA: You’ve collaborated with various groups, clubs, college affiliations, and most recently AfterSchoolSpecial. Do you have any plans to collaborate with other creatives?

BC:  I’m working with Dan AKA Dan doing shirts for the band –series 2.  I’m doing craft projects with Kevin Tam and Christine Wong.  I’m working with Cody Huang on mobile gaming and with Stephen Trinh microwebsites –or single serving websites.  Marvin King UglieTV on shirts and video projects.  I’m doing collaboration t-shirts with Korean Culture Night and Vietnamese Student Association Annual Bike-A-Thon at UC Davis.  I have 2 designs coming up for Uni Brown’s cupcake brand in Arizona.  Not all of these are TIZ, but they’re all things that I enjoy doing.

OA: Any chance we’ll see TIZ in stores?

BC: Right now at the moment no.  I feel like one of the reasons why people purchase the shirts is that people see the authenticity of the shirts.  All of the shipping, labels, personal cards, are done by myself and the rest of the company.  I feel like if I started selling them in stores that authenticity will be stripped away.  I want people to wear the shirts and understand the story behind its production.  TIZ is more personal and in our own hands.

OA: Any words of wisdom for aspiring designers?

BCIt’s not going to be easy to start up. People are implemented the ideas of taking the safe route rather than the fun route.  If you have a dream don’t let it stay as a dream but dream it like you mean it.

How do we stalk you?
Website: http://www.theimaginaryzebra.com/
Blog: http://theimaginaryzebra.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @imaginaryzebra
Tumblr: theimaginaryzebra.tumblr.com

Interview by Melly Lee
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Julie Zhan

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  • Anonymous

    Great Interview.

    • http://mellylee.com Melly Lee

      Thanks Blurain :)

  • http://vic616.wordpress.com/ Victoria

    I likey the short answer length :D
    This post actually reminds me of the post which Philip Wang made about chasing your passion (no matter what your major is) and that you’ll eventually become good at it. This is an inspirational interview!

  • asiangirl888

    Thank you Melly, Benson and Julie for posting this interview on your blog.

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