Allen Chiu has been working in design since he started making fonts as a teenager. Currently a senior designer at Vice’s Venice office, Chiu has created a pretty impressive portfolio since his high school days. The designer has done album covers and promotional material for Young Thug and Fetty Wap, and most recently collaborated with his friend Nathan Rickard to create a cover for Taiwanese producer Tzusing.
Chiu has also designed and sold typefaces to clients like Bloomberg Businessweek and Penguin Press. Like his designs, Chiu’s photography work is often dark and shadowy, as seen in his sleek portraits of subjects like Vince Staples and Vic Mensa. Chiu’s aesthetic always has a similar supernatural, contrast-heavy feel, whether he’s making playful neon tour posters for Young Thug, or stark red and black album covers for Fetty Wap.
Format Magazine caught up with Chiu to talk about how his design career got off the ground and what it’s like making album covers for some of rap’s biggest names.
Album cover design for Tzusing.
On Chiu’s first foray into design:
I guess I started in second grade. My dad was real into computers at the time. He was learning to code himself, and he would just dabble. Photoshop was kinda poppin’ off at the time. It was already on Photoshop 6. So he got Photoshop 6 for himself to play around with, mainly. I remember he would buy these books that I had to complete—a math book, a history book, whatever. Each time I did a section in the book, that would count for one point. I needed four points per day. And after, I got Photoshop and Flash, and he would count those as half points each, because he was into it himself, and just wanted to encourage me to learn the software. So the half points substituted that for a more boring, academic thing. I ended up always doing those.
Even after he stopped counting it, I’d still do it on my own and play around in Photoshop. I remember I would draw lasers a lot. I was really into Star Wars, and I’d just draw lightsabers and stuff. So I got really good at making the most HD glow possible. Which is why a lot of my design work and photography work is really light-based. Light and glows are a big part of it.
On starting his design career:
It was a thing I’d always done on my own time; it was what I loved to do. But I never thought I could make a living doing that. That’s kind of what my parents told me. But I started doing fonts—I made fonts, really bad ones, and put them on DaFont.com. That was freshman year of high school. That got me a lot of exposure, because I didn’t realize DaFont had that much traffic. DaFont allows authors to put their own ads on their related pages. So the page that’s for your font, you can put in your own ads there. I would lead it to my website, and then I ended up booking some design jobs from people finding me through the fonts.
It wasn’t anything big at the time—I did like, book covers. I think if you search hard enough you can find some real bad book covers that I made in high school. I did those for like, $100 each. To me, at the time, that was a lot of money. I’d do a couple of them. I ended up being on retainer with a couple indie book publishing places. It was really exciting at the time.
Artwork featuring Migos’s Culture and Bad and Boujee.
On fonts and copyright:
They had rankings on DaFont, and I always knew the guys who were killin’ it. It was Billy Argel and this guy Andrew Hart, who also goes by Dirt2, who I ended up connecting with way later, like last year. He had really sick fonts. By sick I mean grungy, distressed, pretty cheesy, bad fonts. But at the time I thought they were sick.
At the time, what’s what I’d do—take a classic typeface, distress it in Photoshop, and put it back up. I didn’t really understand why this was okay at the time, but it did seem like everyone had their Avant Garde rips. They would take Avant Garde and distress it. There’s maybe 20 of them on DaFont. I’d always wonder why the creator, Herb Lubalin, didn’t come after these guys, or the type foundry or whatever.
Later I realized typefaces aren’t copyrighted. They’re one of like, five items that don’t fall under copyright law. What’s actually copyrighted is the font software.
On his shadowy photography aesthetic:
I would say that probably started around the beginning of college. I went to school at Syracuse, and I was pretty depressed freshman year. Well, it wasn’t depression. I was pretty unhappy, and it was also really rainy all the time. I guess that came across in the photos I took during that time.
I kinda figured out the system for editing these photos while I was there. I have this group of adjustment layers, and before, I would do things like this, and didn’t know the correct way to do things in Photoshop, and I’d do things destructively. I developed a set of adjustment layers I could use for every photo. It was a group of adjustment layers I called ‘combo meal.’ I created the recipe for the combo meal when I was in freshman year at college. It looked all dark, atmospheric, that kinda stuff. That’s what I was into and still am.
On doing album cover design for Fetty Wap:
For Fetty, we didn’t really have a lot of time. I did all the covers at the same time, so basically just needed a style I could use for all three, so it looked like a package. I’ve seen it in his previous covers. He had this scratchy, trap type of script, is what I associate it with. I just wanted to do a custom version of it. I actually learned that calligraphy style specifically for that. That was my first instance of trying that. I actually made the pens for it, too. You make them out of a soda can. If you Google soda can calligraphy pen, it should come up.
That was all within a day or so. I learned how to use the pens and then did it. But that was easy because I’d been really into fonts in high school and just studied them a lot, so it was more about learning how to control the pen. Once I got that down, I already know what it should look like in my head. I know the composition. I just need control of the pen enough to produce the result I had in my head.