Tony Yao is the founder of Concept Cube, having started the unique mentorship/studio after a long professional career in design with companies such as Mattel, Marvel, Disney, and LEGO. With over twenty years of experience in teaching design, he has mentored and trained hundreds of students and has successfully sent them to schools such as the Art Center College of Design, Carnegie Melon University, College for Creative Studies, and many others. His professional teaching accolades include former positions at the Art Center College of Design, LA County School for the Arts, as well as being a guest lecturer at Tsinghua University.
Tony Yao: The Story of How I Got Into Art Center
The long road “up the hill” to 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
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.
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.
I called Art Center to request a catalog, and when I received it, I remember ogling at all the cool things I saw. I knew this was for me. I sat my parents down one evening to have the talk about changing majors to my newfound love of ID (industrial design). My parents weren’t thrilled that I was about to throw away 3+ years as business major, just to start over again in design. But I had always been responsible and was trusted to make the right decisions. They said if I was sure this is what I wanted, then they would support it. I quickly threw together some car drawings, and sent it off to Art Center. A few weeks later I got a reply. For those wondering, when you receive the standard white envelope from Art Center, you know you didn’t get accepted. This was devastating; I had my first rejection letter from Art Center. I thought this was art school, how hard could it be to get in? Being young and naïve, I didn’t realize the status Art Center held in the world of art schools. This was the Stanford of art schools. It was “Top Gun”! Only the best of the best get to go there. I was totally unprepared, and should have researched their portfolio admissions policies more thoroughly.
A few weeks had passed and summer arrived. I went to LA to visit relatives. While I was there, my cousin invited me to her work. She worked at Warner Bros. Studios, and I was a bit star struck. Back then I thought LA was all 90210 and Baywatch. I loved the movies and thought to myself what an awesome job and lifestyle she must have had living in LA. While I was visiting her office, we were invited to go watch the filming of a new sci-fi pilot on set at the studio. I barely remember anything about who starred in the show or what the show was about. What I do remember was all of the futuristic cars rolling around in the background. I even got to meet some cool designers and special effects (FX) people. During one of the breaks, my cousin’s boss asked me to show my “pimped out” ride to some of the FX guys. Reluctant and a bit embarrassed, I showed them what my car could so. I was a college kid form San Francisco, what did I have that could impress the professionals that worked in Hollywood?
Well, I had this car. Actually a little bit more than a car. I had a 1989 Honda Accord Coupe 2-door. This was the beginning of import tuning. I had what people would call a “tricked out” ride. It was kind of sleeper from the outside (not so obvious), but on the inside it could do wonders. Remember how I mentioned I liked to modify my car? That was an understatement. I had a 12 button remote control keypad that looked like a calculator and could operate 30+ options on my car. My car had no door handles and no keyholes. I did this modification when I was 18 because someone tried to break into my car, and since I had to fix it, I just removed them all together. Every option I installed was remote activated, and from this remote control my car could: start the engine by remote, roll the windows up and down, turn on/off the headlights, pop the trunk, unlock the backseat, turn the stereo on/off, etc. (you get the picture and all this in the mid-late 80’s). I installed all these crazy things myself in my teen years. Think Knight Rider, the Batmobile, and Bond cars. You name it and my car could do it, short of driving itself. I was already a designer and didn’t know it yet.
The FX people saw these crazy things happening before their eyes and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They asked all kinds of questions about how things were done to the car, which I naturally assumed they would have already known. I commented, “Don’t you do this kind of stuff all the time?”
They replied, “Are you kidding, our stuff is make believe… it doesn’t work for real!”
Then it dawned on me that maybe I do have a gift. The FX people asked, “Are you trying to get into the business? Do you study this in school?”
I responded, “No, I just do this for fun. I study business administration.” They asked, “Why? You can do this stuff for real… you should be working in special FX!” One person asked if I was interested in working in Hollywood to look him up, he worked doing props and FX for Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was overwhelmed. I had my ego stroked and was feeling pretty good! Maybe I should reconsider this moving to LA thing again…
DesignworksUSA was an amazing eye opening experience. I was staying in Hollywood at the time and had no idea what was where in LA. I knew this place was up the 101 freeway in Newbury Park, but didn’t quite realize how far this really was. It was more than an hour. I left for my 8 am interview at 6:30 am. The drive in LA traffic seemed never ending. When I arrived, I was in this large industrial park, and DesignworksUSA was this large building wrapped in black glass in the middle of nowhere. It was intimidating to say the least. I was pretty scared. I wasn’t even sure why I was here, and why would someone here want to talk to me. I checked into the lobby, and clutched my ugly portfolio waiting to be called in. When I was given to the OK to enter the office, I had no idea I was meeting with the CEO of DesignworksUSA. I showed him my mediocre drawings. I don’t think he was impressed, and asked if I had anything else to show him. I said, “Well, I have this car…” He said, “Show me!”
We went to the parking lot and I whipped out the remote control and did my little song and dance. He seemed pleasantly surprised. We went back to his office. He asked me to have a seat and he then proceeded to call his staff together to meet in the parking lot. Now we return to the parking lot to find more than 25 designers gathered waiting for a show. I did my thing and I think everyone were impressed. I had designers crawling all over the car wondering how I had designed and executed some of the installations. I was feeing pretty good that many were impressed by my work. After the show we returned to the office again. DesignworksUSA CEO asked me if I had ever considered going to Art Center. I told him I had applied once, but was rejected. He said that was too bad and that it was their loss. He also mentioned that if I wanted to try the Art Center thing again, that I should come talk to him, since he was on Art Center’s board of directors. I was feeling pretty good at this point.
My next stop was to visit Ashcraft Design, a design consultancy in West LA. I met with Daniel Ashcraft, the president of the company. He was very polite and gave me the tour of their design office. I showed him my car and explained my background in auto sound and security. I think it intrigued him to ask me if I was interested in building the JBL show car. JBL was one of their big clients. I didn’t know how to reply. I felt overwhelmed. He also suggested that I attend Art Center. Okay, I was 2 for 2 in positive responses and now feeling upbeat and a bit more confident.
My third stop was Honda R and D of North America in Torrance. This was special to me. Growing up, I always loved Honda cars, and had owned 2 Hondas up to that point in my life. When I arrived at the gate to the facility, I could see the long road up to the intimidating building on top of the hill. I was really nervous. I wondered what they would think of the crazy things I did to their car. I met with their studio chief. When I showed him my car sketches, he was definitely not impressed, however he did like the car. He had never seen some of the options I had installed on my car, and was mildly impressed by the modifications. But he didn’t give me the encouraging “you should got Art Center speech.” He gave me a harsh reality check about designing cars, and that the car industry wasn’t doing well at that time. It was disappointing but hardly discouraging. I kept on going.
Last stop for that trip was a visit to a car design consultancy in Orange county. They weren’t particularly receptive to my request for a visit and meeting. The reply to my request for a meeting was, “Okay, it’s your dime! You can have 10 minutes.”
You know a professional business doesn’t take you seriously if they don’t even ask you if you would like a beverage while you wait. When I arrive, I see a big glass building with a receptionist desk. After waiting 15 minutes, a designer finally came out and said, “Okay, show me what you got!”
I showed him my awful care drawings.
He said, “You got anything else?”
I replied, “ I have this car!” Off we go to the parking lot. I start off showing him that the windows and roll down by themselves, then I open both doors by remote, and top that off by remote starting the car. Now I have his attention, and he was impressed! At that moment, the receptionist got up from her desk and came outside.
She said, “Excuse me, did I just see that car open its doors and start by itself?”
She seemed impressed. I felt kind of vindicated to show them that I wasn’t wasting their time. After the show, they were surprisingly nice to me, and even offered me a beverage. I got the office/studio tour and they even asked my suggestions about one of their projects; which I thought I was unusual since it seemed I was wasting their time when I first arrived. Now after all these meeting experiences, I knew my destiny was to go to Art Center, but how was I going to build a portfolio and get in?
I returned to San Francisco and reworked some of my portfolio sketches. I contacted DesignworksUSA and Ashcraft Design, since I received the warmest receptions at those places, to asked nicely if they would be kind enough to write me recommendation letters; and they did. The DesignworksUSA CEO even critiqued my portfolio & helped me organize its format. I even requested one of my teachers at SF State University to write me a recommendation letter to attend Art Center, which they did. So now, I had a new revised portfolio and letters of recommendation. I felt I was ready to apply again.
And again, I received that little white envelope from Art Center denying my dream. Frustration was really setting in now. I was 0 for 2 now. I contacted the DesignworksUSA CEO to notify him of the bad news. He seemed quite surprised and perturbed.
He said, “I’ll call you back, I need to call them myself!”
Within a half hour the DesignworksUSA CEO returned my phone call. He informed me that the term I was applying for was full, but he insisted that the school meet with me. He told them, “This kid is different! You need to meet him!” So a meeting was arranged for me to meet with the head of admissions at Art Center.
I drove my beloved gadget filled Honda back to LA once again for my meeting with Art Center. Until this point Art Center was only the myth of a mystical place for me. I was about to visit and set foot on the campus for the first time. I parked right in front of the gallery next to the bridge and proceeded to the admissions office. I was extremely nervous at this point. I was about to come face to face with my destiny. When I checked in at the counter, instead of meeting with the head of admissions, as I was led to believe, I was directed to a counselor. As we sat down, the counselor pulls a piece of paper from her shirt pocket. She proceeds to tell me, “You know you didn’t make it!”
I was well aware of this fact, many times over! She reviews my file and looking through the recommendation letters asks why so many influential people want me to attend this school. My response, “I have this car.” And off we go to see the car (seeing this car seems to be a reoccurring theme by now).
After the song and dance, we return to the admissions office again. I am asked to sit and wait. A few minutes later a gentleman comes in to meet me. “Hi, I am so-and-so (not their real name) head of admissions. I hear good things about you. Can you show me this car?”
Let’s do the show again. He asks why my name sounds familiar to him. I reply, “ The CEO of DesignworksUSA…”
He said, “That’s right, he insisted that we meet.”
I was then told, that Art Center needed to review my portfolio again. They proceeded to locate my portfolio that was still in their office. After reviewing it again, they mentioned that they wished they had met with me sooner. If they knew I had these special talents (the car modifications), things may have been different. I was a bit offended by this comment. They suggested that I take night classes at Art Center to improve my portfolio and re-apply again. I contacted the CEO at DesignworksUSA to update him on the situation. He says to me, “Looks like they see something they like. The ball’s in your court now…”
I made the big move to LA and started attending night classes. There I met my 2 soon-to-be mentors: one taught “Intro to Product and Transportation”, the other taught “Visual Communication 1” (or “viscom”); both long time Art Center instructors. Who knew that a few years later that I would be teaching alongside my mentors at Art Center?
After taking a year’s worth of design classes, I thought I had enough of an Art Center portfolio to apply for the third time. After showing my portfolio to the counselor who first interviewed me, I was told I should now apply.
I received the Art Center rejection for the third time.
I was beyond devastated at this point. I was 0 for 3 now. I consulted the counselor and asked what went wrong. She replied that she didn’t know either and that I should talk to the department chairman myself. I proceeded to the department chairman’s office, but was stopped by the receptionist guarding the door. She asked if I was a day program student. I said that I wasn’t, but hoped to be one. She denied my request to meet the chairman and told me if everyone that that got rejected wanted to meet with the chairman, there would be a line around the block. I told her that the admissions office referred me and that she should call to verify. After a half hour of arguing with the receptionist, I was finally able to meet with the chairman. The chairman reviewed my portfolio again and wanted to make a deal with me. He said if I could show him A, B, C, etc., that he would let me in. Being young and brash at the time, I asked if I would have to pay the application fee again. I had already paid it 3 times prior, and he was nice enough to waive it.
I now had a new mission. Show A, B, C, etc. and I could finally have my wish granted to attend Art Center. I went directly to my new mentors and asked for help. Since I had already taken their classes, I asked if I could get critiques after hours, which they kindly agreed to.
Now, I had heard a rumor around the Art Center campus that if you wanted to apply, that you should always apply on a Wednesday.
Why? Because during that time period they did portfolios reviews on Thursday, and that letters went out on Friday, and you could know one way or the other by Saturday if you lived locally.
I was informed by my mom that this would be my last chance to pursue this dream. If I could not gain acceptance this time that my dream was over and it was time to go home to pursue other options. Fortunately for me, the scenario played out as I had heard. I applied on a Wednesday, Art Center reviewed application portfolios on Thursday, letters were sent out Friday, and I finally received my big shiny electrostatic silver congratulatory envelope on that Saturday! I had finally achieved my goal of attending my dream school. It took over 2 years of trying, but persistence finally paid off!
When I tell this story to my own students, I say I was the “poster-child for rejection”. It took more than 3 attempts to finally gain admittance to Art Center, but through it all I never gave up. If you passionately believe in something, never let anyone tell you can’t achieve it.