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The many blurred lines of Jimmy Chen's genius

By Joe Shepter

Around the LA design community, there is something called the Jimmy Chen Sentence. It goes like this: "If you think your friend is ______, you have to meet this guy Jimmy Chen." Many words fill in the blank. "Talented" is one of them, but so are "out there," "forgetful," and "a great guy to party with."

It's five o'clock when Chen swings open the door to his apartment. He's a tall, long-haired, T-shirt-and-jeans guy - an unabashed 30-year-old geek. His living-room workspace is both lit and heated by five computers, seven monitors, and an always-on television. From a mantelpiece, an outsized Mr. Potatohead stares down at us. "It's Velcro," he says, walking over and pulling off an ear. "I love that thing."

Stories about Chen abound. One that he tells himself is about how he once got five traffic tickets in a single month. They cost a total of $100 when he got them and - thanks to the fact that he forgot to pay them - $540 by the time he was done. The reason he got the tickets? Well, he'd also forgotten to pay his car registration.

Make no mistake: Chen should not be taken lightly. Not only has he designed Web sites for the Getty Museum (U.S) and MTV, he's even leant a skilled hand to such bastions of high design as Imaginary Forces (U.S) and Digital Domain (U.S). He has a Gold Pencil from advertising's One Show Awards (U.S), and flies around the country to lecture on Web design.

Chen was born in Taiwan but grew up in a small town in South Carolina. Although he was a promising artist, his parents wanted him to go to medical school. He tried, got bored, and never went to class. "I thought they would just drop you if you didn't go to class, but instead they flunked me," he says. Dismayed, Chen took a road trip to California, where he thoroughly enjoyed himself until his parents finally tracked him down. The two sides came to an agreement, and Chen enrolled in community college, free to study what he wanted.

Art was pretty much an obvious choice, but Chen's education, like everything in his life, turned out to be unorthodox. Enrolled in a conservative design program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Chen soon outraged his teachers by imitating David Carson, then a nascent force at Beach Culture. "I didn't learn anything from school," he admits. "I got most of my training from watching graphics on TV." His schooling also came from design books, which he frequently buys.

Once out of school, Chen worked in several places, but finally built his reputation on the site he maintains at Typographic.com (U.S). He initially launched it as a reaction to a creative director who once told him that "design is not type," but it has since evolved considerably.

"I use Typographic to talk about my emotions," he says, "It's really a personal work, a graphical diary. I've never put my name on it anywhere."

Needless to say, Chen eschews any serious attempt to articulate his design philosophy. "The process is simple," an earlier version of his own site reads, "You do this. You do that. Put this into that. It's done."

And so, we've said this, we've said that. We've put this into that. Looks like we're done.

Editor's note: the cover artwork for this story was produced by Typographic.

Adobe.com senior editor Joe Shepter looks forward to telling his grandchildren that he once survived a night on the town with Jimmy Chen.