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Chris’ own work has been featured in magazines and trade journals like Adweek and RES. His recent artistic output comprises mostly animated shorts (two of which can be seen at www.blind.com). He has high hopes that his pet-project-in-progress, adapted from a friend’s short story, will find its way to the film-festival circuit. But what he most enjoys is teaching — at Art Center and Otis. “If I had the choice and could figure out the financial end of things,” he tells me, “I would probably just teach and create work for myself.”
I mention randomly meeting an old friend of his at a party in the Hollywood Hills a few days earlier. The guy, who has known Chris since he was a computer-lab assistant at Art Center, referred to him as the “embodiment of the American dream,” someone who helped everyone else and was constantly working to improve himself.
Chris just laughs off the compliment and starts talking instead about how this particular buddy, an Eastern European transportation-designer-turned-entrepreneur who made his fortune on a car-performance meter, was the true success story. “I’m the biggest nerd there is. I just do what I do, and try to do it a little bit better each day. I don’t have time to sit back and make subjective evaluations of how far I’ve come.”
Modesty aside, he’s come a long way from San Jose. While still at Art Center, he took a semester off and moved to Seattle to become an art director for the well-known Cole & Weber agency (now Cole & Weber: United), getting a taste for multimillion-dollar expense accounts. Although it was a cushy gig, Chris knew that he was a designer at heart.
In 1995 he went to work doing CD covers for Art Center alumnus Fred Hidalgo at Epitaph Records. The previous year the label had made it big with hit albums by the Offspring and L7, and during Do’s tenure there Rancid made an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Though he respected Hidalgo, Chris rapidly started to see the punk aesthetic as contrived. “People were so militant about how punk was supposed to be,” he says. “They criticized everybody and everything. It was like: ‘If you make money or are successful, then you’re not punk.’?”
His design soul was clearly craving its own shop. Enter another Vietnamese uncle — Hoang Do, one of his father’s younger brothers, who offered to bankroll a design studio with Chris in charge. Using his uncle’s $5,000 check, Chris cobbled together a network and started Blind. It was, he remembers, “super ghetto” — they couldn’t even afford a printer. Chris and Jessie did all the design and animation work on his computer for the first two months while waiting for Hoang and his partner to come up with the 100 grand Chris needed to buy more gear. But the cash never materialized. Chris phoned his older brother, Arthur.
Now 38, Arthur is a successful software engineer and partner in a tech company in Danville, east of Oakland. Arthur agreed to invest, and for a year and a half wrote a check whenever the fledgling company needed it. When Chris began to sense success was near, he asked if he could buy out his big brother. Arthur gracefully requested a simple loan repayment, without interest. “We’re not going to get into evaluating the company assets,” Chris remembers Arthur saying. “We’re family.”
Twenty-three-year-old Mike was still living at his parents’ San Jose home in 1996 when Chris offered him a way out. Mike moved into Chris’ Boyle Heights loft and started doing part-time IT work for Blind. The rest of the time he spent watching movies, sleeping and talking about maybe opening a hockey rink someday. After six months of watching Mike loaf around, the elder told the youngest to get his shit together. Through a series of formal exercises, Chris started teaching Mike a lot of what he’d learned at Art Center: typography, rules of proportion, space, contrast. Mike was a quick learner, and by the time they got to animation and he learned to use Adobe After Effects, he was ready to show off his talents.
“He did a couple of projects for me,” says Chris, “but he felt there was some kind of ceiling there for him because I was his brother, so I told him to go and see what it was like working for someone else.”
A few months later Mike was working 80 hours a week as a game consultant. With his brother making introductions, he started to get freelance work in what was then an emerging field called broadcast design, or motion graphics. Graphic designers were crossing over and learning to make their motionless letters and images come alive. In the same way that desktop publishing had reinvented print, new software applications created a sort of revolution in graphics.
“Before that you had to go to a very big production house to do this type of work, and pay a hell of a lot of money,” Mike explains. “Suddenly it became available to a lot of people. They weren’t even teaching this stuff at school at the time. The software took our work and displayed what was possible. Adobe actually put our stuff onto their CDs as demos.”