VTProDesign Creative Director Akiko Yamashita Reflects on Beauty Through Tech & Art
Shifting career trajectories is challenging enough, but it can feel overwhelming when you couple that with a move across the ocean. However, VTProDesign Creative Director Akiko Yamashita shows that such a formidable feat is doable and rewarding. Yamashita got her start in arts by becoming a professional dancer. However, after realizing that making it as a dancer wasn’t her ultimate dream, she pivoted into a full-time artist, moved from Japan to the States, and eventually landed her current role as a creative director for design studio VTProDesign.
Best known for projection mapping and light installations, Yamashita’s approach to exquisite tech-infused artworks is influenced by her love of the natural world and a penchant for playing with a full spectrum of colors – as seen in her award-winning light hallway installation, Portal, and large-scale interactive projection Hana Fubuki. Recently, Yamashita was coined as one of the new generation’s key makers in an Apple keynote short film.
EDITION caught up with Yamashita to chat about her perspective on the synergy of art and technology, the world of Doodles, and what it’s like working for one of the world’s top design houses.
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I’m so intrigued by your background. I read you started as a professional dancer and then transitioned into the art world. So, tell me about the challenges you've had to overcome with the switch and how this journey all came about.
I started dancing when I was 10. My whole teenage life, I was all about dance. I like Janet Jackson and Lady Gaga. The transition came after I graduated college. Everybody needs to make a living, and making a living in dancing was quite hard, as you can imagine. But it was also around that time I started an interest in projection mapping. You use a projector to project anything. It can be a building, a dance space, or could be a backdrop. As I started to transition to creating visuals for shows, that became my whole career afterward. Then I met to be VTPro, which my gateway was projection mapping, but it kind of branched out to all sorts of different immersive technology and media.
When did you move to California to get this job as a creative director?
I moved to California in 2011, and then I had a couple of years I was going to school to learn English. I met VTPro in 2014, and that's when I started working. Initially, I was an animator. The company was much smaller at the time, and I was one of the first in-house designer animators to work for the company.
Tell me a bit about VTProDesign. What kind of company is it? What do you love about it?
VTProDesign is based in Los Angeles. They create immersive experiences for different brands – for example, Netflix and Google when they would like to create an event or experience in which you can interact with the space. We also use those activations to help tell stories of whatever the subjects we are dealing with. We span across a variety of things. It could be more artistic or more corporate activations and events.
Nice. So, how did you end up at SXSW for the Doodles NFT event?
Doodles was unique because it was directly working with the Doodles team. Doodles are very new. I think as a team, they are only six months since they launched NFTs. So, they reached out to us. They were launching their new space, Doodles. This is kind of their 2.0 Doodles. They wanted to create an experience since their NFTs are in the 2D screen space, and they wanted to create a 3D experience in that people can go into the world of Doodles.
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That's exciting! Outside of Doodles, you won a design award for Portal, and then you also had a critically-acclaimed installation called Hana Fubuki. So, can you tell me about your vision for those projects?
For the Portal, that's also something I worked with VTProDesign back in 2015. Portal is located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. It's a shopping mall, and there was this dark hallway that was sad and depressing. The building owner was interested in creating something bright so that people would be interested in coming into the hallway. Initially, I was asked to do something with projection. VTPro helped me use LED strips instead because of the nature of the space and the permanency of the project. We created this LED space that's animated, colorful, and bright. It eventually became a popular spot for people to take pictures or dance and get creative inside.
Hana Fubuki was for Artechouse in Washington, D.C. Artechouse is great. They commissioned artists to create something that combines art and technology and create an experience in that people can enjoy the picture and learn about emerging immersive media. I created those based on my personal story about my grandfather. I wanted to create something that speaks to seeing the invisible beauty of nature.
From your background, what’s the synergy between visual art and technology?
I think we, as humans, the visual aspect is strong. Visual simulations drive our life. Even with VTPro, I think we started off doing a lot of concert visuals for musicians, which branched out to multi-sensory experiences. I think it's hard to explain exactly, but I think visual is the gateway because it's obvious and strong. So, how with Doodles, we had a big face which initially the Doodle teams was interested in graffiti – which could be great too. Our suggestion was, ‘What if we can enter the mouth and forget your sense of scale and really get immersed into the world?’ I think the visual is a driving key for experiences.
I did get a chance to experience Doodles, and I took so many photos. One of the NFT holders of Doodles had a passport that enabled some of the characters to come to life. It was the neatest thing!
One of the cool things we did with it was creating this Doodles passport – going into the world of Doodles. One of the clients asked us, “How can we create a special experience for those who own the Doodles?” So, we created the passport, and with a tap, we had RFID scanners that could pull up your character into the rocket. So, it's technology, but not technology in your face. We are utilizing technology to enhance your experience.
Coming from Tokyo, then moving to the States, I can only imagine that it was a challenge – learning the language and so forth. What advice would you give those from other countries wanting to make a big move and pursue their dreams?
I think America is a cool place. Coming from Japan, especially, I think people here are experienced. People are very open. Then, I think the advice I can give to people who pursue their dream would be that if you love what you do, people here appreciate that. So, part of me that was difficult was that Japanese people are a little bit shyer—we kind of hold onto ideas. But, here, it's more about sharing and speaking up and showing what you like and what you do. If I can add, one of the fun parts of why I joined VTPro is everybody has a different background and a diverse background. I have a dance background and am unified with the right people coming from theater, building, welding, creating LED projects, and so on.