The Long Road: Getting into Art Center

When I was in high school, I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue in college.  My parents were traditional business people, so they suggested that I pursue the safest route and pursue business as well.  Being the good obedient son, I listened to my parents and did as they suggested.  So this lasted for about 3+ years at San Francisco State University.  I found myself unhappy and unsatisfied with what I was learning in college.  After taking accounting for the third time, I said “someone else could count my beans!”  I was in business administration and could have completed my degree in 2 more semesters, had I continued with that major, but had to get out.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Pay close attention to this car

Who knew this car would play such an important role in my life

During that time in my late teens / early twenties, I was trying to discover what my career path was to be.  I enjoyed the things many young people enjoyed in their teen years: music, movies, cars, comic books, games, etc.  I wanted to have fun doing something that I loved.  Studying business in college wasn’t doing this for me.

I asked my mom, “Who designed Star Wars? And how do I get that job?”  Let’s remember this was a time before the internet, so such things were not as easy to find.  After some research (the hard way) I discovered that the designer for Star Wars, Ralph MacQuarrie went to the Art Center College of Design; as did the designer for Tron, Syd Mead.  This life of a designer seemed like a dream job to me.

Now that I knew what the job of these designers was. How do I get there?  During that time of contemplating the idea of being a designer, I still pursued the things I enjoyed.  I used to mobile DJ, so I enjoyed hunting down and collecting records… yes vinyl. I played video games in the arcade like Street Fighter II, so my friends and I invested in several video arcade machines and put them on route into pizza parlors and liquor stores, so they could make money for us.  But my passion back then was really modifying cars.You know, all that stuff you see on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride!”I tell my students now, that I was “old school” before there was a name for it.  I used to frequently go with friends to San Francisco’s Japan Town to the Kinokuniya bookstore to drool over the Japanese cars magazines.  We would see all these JDM (Japanese Direct Market) cars and wished we could get our hands on the custom wheels, steering wheels, seats, exhausts, turbo chargers, etc. that were only available in Japan.  We were living in a fantasy dreaming about trying to acquire all those awesome JDM parts for our cars in the US.  Remember, it’s not like today, where you can just go online and search things out.  Even if we found pictures, articles, or advertisements, they were all in Japanese.  So it REALLY wasn’t easy to obtain all those parts you wanted.

Modding cars back in the day... before the Internet!

Modding cars back in the day… before the Internet!

On one of my trips to the Japantown bookstore, my life changed… It must have been a combination of being unhappy in college studying business, seeking parts for my car, and wanting to be a designer.  I picked up a Japanese magazine called Car Styling, and on the back cover there was an advertisement with the coolest car renderings I had ever seen.  Right away I thought this must be a car design school in Japan.  Turns out that this was a design school, but it was in Pasadena, California.  I thought to myself, Pasadena’s not that far; at least it’s in California.  I wanted to buy the magazine, so I brought it up to the sales counter, so the sales lady could do the currency conversion.  The magazine cost was almost $30 USD.  I thought WOW, that’s a lot of money, especially for a teenager (remember this was the late 80’s early 90’s).  I asked the sales lady if I could borrow her pen and write down Art Center’s contact information.  It was embarrassing, but it really did change my life.  When I discovered that advertisement, I knew that this school was my calling.  It could have been any art or design school on that back cover, but it was Art Center, and this was the only place I would consider.  Remember … Star Wars designer Ralph McQuarrie, and Tron designer Syd Mead graduated from there.  I knew Art Center was my destiny, but didn’t quite understand how hard it was going to be trying to get there.

Tony Yao

Continued in Part 2.