Some call him the grandfather of graphic design in Hawai`i, but Clarence Lee is also one of the best-known graphic designers in the world. You’ve probably seen his work all around town (think the safety sticker on your car, or the Zippy’s logo), and not even realized it. Though he’s now sold Clarence Lee Designs and retired, as his current reading tastes indicate, he is remaining current while grounded in local sensibilities. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Lee’s creativity yet.

What I’m Reading | Clarence Lee
Graphic Designer

Q&A with Christine Thomas

–What are you reading?

There are two books that I recently read. One was called “The Money Dragon,” a story about a Chinese merchant in Hawai`i, written by Pam Chun. The other one my granddaughter who’s at ‘Iolani, recommended to me: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I read these to learn and understand what’s going on.

–What do you like about them?

In “The Money Dragon,” I was trying to understand my family and the Chinese structure of a family. That was a good read for me because I now understand the path that my grandfather and father took was the same path that these people took.

It’s based on Confucian structures. For the Chinese first of all you have to marry a Chinese, and the number one son is very important, and the girls in the family don’t have the same status as the girls do. Of course the other part was they had multiple marriages. They married three to four wives, and this was based on wealth—it was a status thing. They all strive to become wealthy and be successful in their structure, and I can picture this with most of the Chinese merchants in Hawai`i who have all been very successful and hold this code or structure.

The other book, it was just kind of for me to understand, and my granddaughter was trying to understand, the pain and suffering of 9/11. It was a pretty painful journey of a young boy of nine years of age who lost his father in the 9/11 event and how he’s coping with it. That was a very sad story, and for me it was insightful and interesting, and well written.

–Both books offer insight into complex situations; are you drawn to them because as a graphic designer, you also reduce complex ideas to more easily understood imagery?

I never thought of that, but I guess in graphic design we’re always trying to understand and digest what the visual problem is, and then we try to come up with a visual solution to that problem. In a way it’s a similar thinking process of understanding the situation—whether it’s the Chinese heritage or the 9/11 disaster—and then trying to understand it and trying to find some of the answers to it. I guess you could say it parallels what we as graphic designers do, but I’m much more a visual person than a literary person.