Catching Up with ADAA Finalist Deshi Deng

By Charles Purdy

In 2015, Canadian illustrator Deshi Deng earned a spot as an Adobe Design Achievement Awards finalist (with her illustration series A Hole in the Bucket) and graduated from Toronto’s OCAD University. Since then, she’s been developing her personal style and working on both editorial commissions and self-initiated projects—making time for both while holding down a full-time job! And she recently found time to catch up with us, by phone from her home in Toronto.

Deng’s illustration series A Hole in the Bucket earned her a spot as an ADAA finalist. She says the series “explores common bucket list items and their possible disappointing outcomes, in order to question the value of these so-called ‘life affirming’ experiences.” Check out the rest of the series on her Behance page.

Create: The first thing I’d like to ask is what you’re working on these days.

Deshi Deng: Freelance-wise right now, I'm doing a couple of small jobs.  I'm working with Canadaland, doing some illustrations for a book they're publishing soon, I think—I'm not sure if I can say any more than that about it at the moment!

Create: Cool, we’ll watch for that. Are there are any finished projects that you’re especially proud of? Any new portfolio highlights?

Deng: I did a series of illustrations for Vice about recent murders of bloggers and journalists in Bangladesh. I wanted to create imagery that was relatable to the piece’s North American audience but also try to convey the horror of what was happening there. It’s a good example of what I’m trying to do with my style—I like to explore different imagery and use it to create reactions and emotions. For me, illustration is about creating relatable situations for people, to make them think about things in new ways.

Create: Is your focus on editorial illustration right now?

Deng: I really like editorial illustrations—how clever they can be—and that’s always been what I wanted to do and what I went to school for. I feel like [the Vice pieces] were some of my most successful work—not too direct, with form and metaphor and some cleverness…. Right now, I'm trying a lot of different things, like animation, like movie posters. But eventually I think I want to focus on editorial illustration.

This series of illustrations accompanied a Vice report about bloggers and publishers being attacked in Bangladesh.

Create: Do you feel like your style has changed in the past couple of years? How is your work evolving?

Deng: I'm not sure if it’s just the projects I’ve been getting or if it’s myself, but I feel like my work has become more serious. If you look at my portfolio, you’ll see that some of my past work has been kind of goofy. But recently I’ve gotten more into world issues and political topics that require a more serious tone.

Create: Are you finding time to do self-initiated work these days?                  

Deng: I recently did a couple of notebooks that I wanted to put up in a store for myself—those were really fun to do.

Create: Tell me about those.

Deng: The notebooks were a group project with some friends. We all wanted to make notebooks and create our own designs. So we joined up to be able to order large batches from the manufacturers. 

My notebooks were based on ideas I’ve had for a while now. One was a compilation of a bunch of cute images based on witches. And the other one is an idea that I’ve had about human exploration in deep space and in the deep ocean.

These illustrated notebooks were part of a self-initiated project. Deng and some friends created designs for notebooks and then joined forces so they could order them from manufacturers.

Create: When you get an editorial commission, how do you approach it?

Deng: With a commission, I usually do as much research as I can on the subject matter. Then I draw a lot of thumbnail sketches, just to get some ideas for the composition and to understand what I want to say. Then I sketch either in Photoshop or in pencil. I usually do the basic lines of a piece with ink, and then the rest is in Photoshop: textures, colors, and other adjustments.

Create: Have you set yourself challenges like learning new tools, or working in new styles?

Deng: For me, right now, it’s more that I want to develop my current style, really. When I’m working on a job, I don’t have the leisure to actually make everything perfect, exactly the way I want it. But when I'm doing my own stuff, I can take as much time as I want. 

Create: And you have been exploring animation recently. What prompted that, and how have you been experimenting?

Deng: It started with a class in my last year of college where we did animated illustration.  And I really enjoyed it—it was sort of magical to me. After school, I wanted to do more.

I was really lucky coming out of school because my professor for my animated illustration class commissioned me to do some short animations for the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoir series. They were sort of a combination of my editorial illustrations and storytelling—I really loved doing those. Other than that, I’ve just been doing animations on my own to practice and keep the skill fresh.

Deng created animations for these short videos, which are part of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoir series: Nate Leipciger: The Weight of Freedom (left) and Felicia Carmelly: Across the Rivers of Memory. (Click to watch.)

Create: So how do you make your animations? 

Deng: The initial process is very similar to my illustrations, where I do the sketches and the lines, and then I add color in Photoshop. But I separate the different moving parts into different sketches. Then I put them all together in After Effects, and animate them from there, using different tools in After Effects—just rotating, scaling, and moving them around. 

Create: As you’re developing your style and growing as a creative, how do you get feedback on your self-initiated work? 

Deng: Sometimes I’ll show my peers what I'm doing. I have a group of friends, a lot of whom I met through school…. Or I’ll just ask whoever is around me what they think. It’s good to have other artists looking at what you’re working on, but at the same time we’re also in sort of an artist bubble—we kind of forget what “regular people” might think about something, and they are most of our audience.

Deng created this spot illustration for American Scientific magazine; it accompanied an article about 3D scanning saving historical sites by digitizing them. One technique that Deng employs is creating visual interest by layering many textures on top of one another. “It creates an interesting effect—something between digital and traditional,” she says. “To get the textures, I scan different papers, like wrinkled paper. That’s one of my go-tos. And sometimes I just create the textures in Photoshop with different settings and filters. For this piece, I used different paper and watercolor textures overall, and grid paper for the background. I played with the transparency of each layer for a digital look.”

Create: Have you always wanted to be an artist? 

Deng: I always liked drawing—but I wasn’t always good at drawing. When I was in grade school, there was another kid who was really gifted—just a natural genius when it came to art—and that really inspired me to start my own work. He’d always show his work off in show and tell, and I’d be like, “Oh, man, he’s getting so much attention, and his work is so great.” So I wanted to do the same thing. 

But it wasn’t really until high school—I went to an arts-focused high school—that I seriously focused on art. And at that time, the focus was on fine art, but when it came to making a choice about going to a university or college, I felt that illustration was probably more my style. I wanted to make art that communicated with other people. 

Create: Competition! It has inspired a lot of great artists. So what happened to that kid?

Deng: I actually recently had a chat with him on Facebook. And he’s still working in a creative field, but he’s more of a consultant now. I don’t think art was his passion; he was just insanely talented. He went a different direction with it—he’s really a free-spirited person.

Create: Did you enjoy the competition aspect of participating in the ADAA?

Deng: Being in the contest itself was really amazing. It was great to see my work in the competition with all these other great designers and illustrators and artists.

Create: What’s inspiring you these days?

Deng: Right now I’m working through a lot of different ideas I’ve had. I’ve always been inspired by the people around me. I love going into the city and observing people and the weird stuff they do, and channeling that into my art and creating stories.


Movie posters for Amélie and Stoker, created for the Northern Contemporary Gallery’s Hollywood: The Art of the Movie Poster show.  


Visit Deshi Deng’s online portfolio to see more of her work—and check out 2016’s crop of honorees.

October 18, 2016

illustrations courtesy of Deshi Deng