Eric Hu is Designing With Intention

The Brooklyn-based designer is full of ideas, and he’s here to help.

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Nike Air Force 1 NBA Edition Holiday Campaign, 2018, with Andre Simmons. Illustration by Michael Thompson based on photography by David Brandon Geeting


November 15, 2021

Eric Hu is in his element when he welcomes me into his Brooklyn studio. Dressed all in black, the creative director and typographer walks me through his white-walled space with quiet determination until we find ourselves inside a room so full of niche books and vintage posters I’m not sure where to sit.

Thanks to a prime location on the 26th floor, expansive windows empty afternoon sunlight into Eric’s 600-square-foot studio. It also happens to be his apartment, in typical New York City fashion, so his girlfriend Milly acts as an overseeing eye to the goings-on. Within the last two years most of Eric’s creative projects have taken root here, at an unassuming desk in the far right corner of his living room.

On an average day he floats between laptop, iPad, and desktop computer, alternating between a range of software. (Cinema 4D and Procreate are two favorites.) Freelancing gives Eric the freedom to make his own hours, and he’s often up late focusing on his creative consultancy and design practice, Eric Hu Studio. A desire for more autonomy led Eric to leave his global design director position at Nike, where he worked from 2018 to 2019. Moving to Portland for the job provided a much-needed respite.

Regardless of Portland’s small-town appeal, Eric soon grew bored and maybe a bit stir-crazy. “There comes a time where once you learned your lesson, staying in the classroom feels like punishment,” he says. Before that he worked as director of design at SSENSE and felt similarly about Montreal. In 2019 he decided to return to New York to start his freelance design career.

Living and working in the same space presents challenges, though. “A lot of people in my generation have this obsession with hustle culture, and I’ve internalized some of those beliefs,” he says. Old habits die hard, even as he tries to maintain a proper work-life balance. “The boundary between work and play is still very blurry.”

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Nike Air Force 1 NBA Edition Holiday Campaign, 2018, with Andre Simmons. Illustration by Michael Thompson based on photography by David Brandon Geeting

On the other hand, professional flexibility helps Eric challenge his imagination. Midway through our conversation his face lights up as he whips out the custom black keyboard he rigged after finding others inadequate. According to Eric, each key is exactly the distance it should be, and he’s removed what he calls superfluous ones—like Caps Lock. None are labeled, which is why I hesitate to touch the seemingly delicate gizmo, but he insists. I’m impressed, but then we move on to some of his other creations.

Picture a Pointillist praying mantis basking beneath an orange sun, a faint outline of geometric shapes. Blink, and you may miss the details: the tactile texture of each dot, how they all coalesce to form one colorful, cohesive whole. This is the subject of Eric’s recent “CHRYSALIDE III,” one of many digital works he shows me on his phone. It implicitly confronts the topic of physical and metaphorical space, playing with a viewer’s perception of recognizable silhouettes. “My work gets described as ‘subversive’ or ‘rule-breaking,’ but I don’t always see it that way,” he says. “Rule-breaking implies a binary between old or new.” Instead, Eric contends history has always played a big role in his life.

He was inspired by his childhood in the San Gabriel Valley—bilingual street signs, hand-painted store awnings, and the graffiti tags he saw in LA, where his own Chinese heritage mingled with the area’s Chicano culture. Beginning early in his life Eric learned to associate style with a sort of coded correspondence—a visual signifier for deeper, sometimes unspoken matters. “Some designers want to divorce themselves from context and focus completely on aesthetics,” he says, recalling the nuances of LA gang culture and the hardships Asian immigrants face in the country’s second largest city. “But that’s never been the case for me.”

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Season creative direction for Nike Air Max 2019. Installation by Hotel Creative, Nike Brand Design, Greater China. Photo by Eric Hu

Opening one of the many massive books filling his studio, Eric points out what he thinks is a golden ratio between the chunky black letters, likening the distance to grains of sand. He has a convincing way of making technical concepts sound simple.

As the afternoon ends, we discuss his aspirations with measured optimism. One day he hopes to make his own products, like typefaces or software. “This has allowed me to incubate ideas while helping other people bring theirs to life. That’s what I’m working toward every day,” he says.