Lia Tjandra Maps Her Career from Indonesia to Infinite City

Lia Tjandra signs books at the Infinite City release party, 2010View slideshow 

For Lia Tjandra (Graphic Design 1997), now art director at the University of California Press, professional success has been a group effort. While pursuing her CCA degree, she was inspired by professors such as Martin Venezky and Bob Aufuldish. "Bob's a great person to know. I'll be forever grateful to him." She is grateful as well to Jennifer Sonderby, her former boss at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for lessons on strategic thinking and different ways to make a designer's voice heard. She credits Steve Renick, who was art director at UC Press for 20 years and taught a book design course at CCA, for sparking her interest in that field. In fact, as she looks back on her 15-year career, there's only one person Tjandra forgets to praise: herself.

Even when she talks about her acclaimed design for Rebecca Solnit's book Infinite City, a spectacular cartographic ode to San Francisco published last year as a joint project between UC Press and SFMOMA, she chooses characteristically to highlight her collaborators.

The creation of Infinite City involved more than 25 people, and the final product included not just the book but also a series of limited-edition broadsides and numerous lectures and events that ran for six months in conjunction with SFMOMA's 75th anniversary. Tjandra was responsible for the overall design, liaising with 12 artists and two cartographers to create the dazzling maps. To many designers, this would be an achievement to shout about. But for her, her clearest memory is her admiration for Rebecca Solnit. "She's really a genius. The way she thinks -- she just sees the world differently." She was particularly impressed by Solnit's collaborative skills. "Usually you think of writers as loners, a team of one, but she is the opposite."

Tjandra's peers know, of course, that her success is entirely due to her exceptional design talent, vast professional experience, and incredible work ethic. Infinite City is only the most recent marker on her life map. She grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and came to the United States at the age of 18 specifically to go to art school. The choice came down to Rhode Island School of Design or CCA, she says, and the Bay Area's weather swung it. At CCA, she worked hard on projects for Sputnik (the college's award-winning undergraduate design studio) and interned with the renowned design team Aufuldish and Warinner.

After graduating, she spent a year at the local graphic design partnership Zimmerman Crowe, then landed a plum job as an in-house designer at SFMOMA, where she stayed for nine years, an unusually long time for someone in her field. "I do like consistency," she laughs. "But seriously, I really enjoyed my time there. Being comfortable isn't always a bad thing." When the position of art director opened up at UC Press, she leapt at the opportunity and landed the job. Tjandra prefers working for nonprofits over commercial firms. "You feel like you're doing good things for the world, and that gives tremendous satisfaction. You work with great people. You can't put a monetary value on it."

In 2011, her slate is fuller than ever. UC Press publishes 180 books every year, which is a challenge for its small design team. "We have to be like a well-oiled machine, everyone doing their part." Of the 180 books, 20 to 25 receive special design attention, and as art director, Tjandra gets to choose the books that she will work on personally. This year, her priorities will be a book on urban farming and a cookbook drawn from 25 years of recipes from The Art of Eating magazine.

Fourteen years after graduating, Tjandra maintains strong links with CCA, notably through the UC Press internship program, now in its third year. "We've had five CCA interns thus far," she reports. "It's been wonderful to tap into the student talent." And this hard-working graphic design veteran has some solid advice for the next generation of designers: Keep an open mind about where you want to work, be flexible, and develop a range of skills rather than specializing.

As graphic design evolves toward creating templates and standards, she says, "You will, ironically, be working to create methods and systems that will eventually replace you. It's the reality of things. But there will always be interesting design projects out there. Keep reinventing yourself." Education remains one of the keynotes of her wish list. "It would be wonderful to get an MFA." When asked if she might also try teaching, she pauses. "I'd consider it," then, with typical modesty, "though I'd have to start off co-teaching."

Infinite City was included in the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Best of the Bay 2011 edition!