We had the good fortune of connecting with Alvin Oei and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Alvin, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
Failure is often seen as an embarrassment, but in reality, it’s part of our story for better or worse. Most of my younger years could be described as one never ending chapter in failure because of the poor choices I made. One mistake that impacted me most was when I stole a necklace from the mall in high school and got caught. Before that moment, it seemed like everything was spiraling out of control. I am originally from Monterey Park, CA, but my family and I moved every year. From Seattle to Hong Kong and Nevada to our present home in Upland, CA, we were always on the go. It was difficult to make friends for this reason and I think it resulted in a lack of interest in school. Most of my bad choices, as well as the good ones, were made during my 7 years in Las Vegas so I’ll start there. My dad lived in California, so it was just my mom, my 2 younger brothers, and me. We lived off of food stamps and casino vouchers, but I was never home enough to care. If I wasn’t in the Dean’s office, I was probably ditching school with friends. From sixth grade through my junior year of high school, rebelling against teachers gave me the attention that I craved. I enjoyed making my peers laugh, and that resulted in expulsions from 3 schools and a clear path to flunking high school. The only reason I didn’t was because I always did well in my art classes, which asked more of me than the textbooks did. Those classes had the most impact on me. When my friend and I were at the mall during my sophomore year, he suggested that I take a necklace from the Sears department store. I had no interest in it, but somehow gave into the peer pressure. As soon as I stepped through the front door, a tall security guard grabbed me before I could react. My friend was nowhere to be found and the next thing I knew, my dad was picking me up from the police station. It destroyed my family and made me realize that I needed purpose, because I was lost. When I went back to school the following Monday, a rumour went around that I was begging when I got caught. It gave me the clarity to realize that the people I was trying to impress never really cared about me. I spent a few months soul searching and rediscovered an early interest I had in architecture. That rekindled interest began to grow on me and I wanted to pursue a career in that field. What appealed to me was that I could translate sketching into creating places where people could feel good about themselves. The path to get there, however, required big life changes. To make a long story short, my family was able to take some loans and move us to California so I could have this chance. I am now the father of a 4-month old girl and understand what it means to give everything for your children. I’m grateful for it. By my senior year at Upland High School in 2004, I had brought myself up to a 3.8 GPA. I was driven, because I was working towards a goal. While at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. Sac), I set my sights on ArtCenter College of Design and got into the Environmental Design program in 2007. After 1 week, I immediately dropped out, because I couldn’t afford it. I was determined to return, so I worked for 7 years at an architectural firm to save up. When I finally made it back to ArtCenter in 2013, I was introduced to the world of social innovation, and my studies brought me around the world. Interestingly, my biggest takeaway from the experience had less to do with creating art, and more about understanding the importance of empathy. When I was younger, I hated listening and understanding others’ stories. If I had done so, would I have made better choices? These lessons inspired me to create a program at ArtCenter where my classmates could mentor youth at various non-profits around the community. It was short lived because of the lack of support, but for a few years, a small team of us were fortunate to work closely with underprivileged youth and expose them to art and design. I’ve worked hard to grow from my younger self, but I still purposely remind myself of him all the time. My past will keep me humble and grateful for the rest of my life to everyone I come across. It will continue to push me to want to help others even if I fail. Because I had such a lack of respect for others, I now make sure everyone knows I am fully present and listening. Let’s embrace our failures, learn from them, and strive to be better.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am currently an environmental designer at BRC Imagination Arts in Burbank, CA. I work closely with a team of talented storytellers and creative directors who have been bringing brand stories to life through museums, exhibitions, and experiences for the last 39 years. My role, specifically, focuses on creating the environments where guests experience these stories come to life. The process is fun and collaborative, and involves ideation, sketching, and developing concept art through the principles of placemaking. My career began in 2007 at Randall-Baylon Architects in Downtown LA. We were a small firm, so I was able to work on most of the projects, but with a focus on restaurant design and development. Blu LA Café and Simplethings on 3rd Street in Los Angeles were the first projects I got to see all the way through. I left in 2013 to attend the Environmental Design program at ArtCenter in Pasadena. What was interesting about the school was that a majority of our studio projects were for real clients. From a pediatric burn clinic in South America to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, I was always able to explore different skill sets from writing storybooks with an amazing team to illustrating large murals. I took a few terms off in order to take on freelance projects ranging from a small pre-school rebranding, a third Simplethings location in Burbank, various projects for Blik in Santa Monica and an internship at Rhetroactive. I would say that being a generalist, working between illustration, graphic design, branding, and environments has allowed me to expand my network and reach. Near the end of school, I had the privilege of doing some experiential work for Disney/Marvel overseas, which made me second guess returning to school. With 1 term left, I graduated in 2018 and was presented with an opportunity to continue full time, but took an offer with BRC instead, which was a better choice for my family. 2 years later, I am still here. Outside of BRC, I am in the process of starting a non-profit organization called CMD+Y with a small team, focused on creating educational content for different environmental and social causes across different mediums. What got me to where I am today can be attributed to the people who have helped and believed in me along the way. With that said, I learned that I also need to make it easy for others to want to help me, and that required putting in the work. Talent can be found just about anywhere these days. Thanks to online schools like Udemy, Patreon, or YouTube, we can learn just about the same things that you learn in a $200k design school if you leverage it right. The difficulty with that route is that you don’t get to build the same professional networks or have the experience of collaborating with others. The ability to collaborate with others is key because unless you work alone, your successes will be part of a larger team. The key takeaway really is to show up everyday, do the work, and let your professional network know what you’re up to. Utilize the power of LinkedIn and get involved in conversations. It’s not enough to just show your portfolio, because it helps when you also show curiosity and express your views about the world. All of those things shape us and the way we approach our work, so be transparent about it unless you don’t think it concerns you. Lastly, bridges can be burned by something as simple as not responding to an email or a simple message. Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Keep it real, respect others, and send positivity into the world. It comes back around.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If a friend came to visit, I don’t know if I would be the best tour guide of the city. I’m a bit of a talker, so even with an itinerary, we would probably end up traveling to different coffee shops to talk about art and design. A favorite of mine would be Coffee Gallery in Pasadena. It was practically a second home for me during my ArtCenter days. It’s a great place to talk for hours and just hang out so we would make a few trips here. Mantra Coffee in Azusa would also be on the list to visit, followed by a walk through IKEA to critique everything. Montrose is also a very charming little town right outside Pasadena that I think would make for a nice evening trip. After visiting some antique and thrift shops, Casa Córdoba would be on the itinerary for dinner. On one of the days, I might take them for breakfast at a restaurant called Molly’s Souper in Upland, which feels like being in a Norman Rockwell painting with its cozy Christmas decorated interior. For lunch, we would head over to downtown Claremont, and then dig through some music at Rhino Records. I would probably take them to a lot of local bookstores too because there’s just something magical about them. Vromans in Pasadena is a must whether you’re a local or a first time visitor.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
While I have many people to thank in helping my career, I would say Rob Ball is instrumental. While at ArtCenter, he trained me in how to think about storytelling, which is a key component to the work I do. Storytelling seems like a simple process, especially if you understand narrative structure. It becomes multifaceted when you think about it through the lens of a space. How do guests, whether in a museum or visitor attraction, understand the story they’re in? This training was integral to how I currently think about it, so Rob gets the shoutout.