Ji Lee is a creative lead at Facebook Creative Shop in NYC. Before that, he was a CD at Google and Droga5. Most well-known for his personal projects, like Word as Image and Mysterabbits, Ji’s an advocate and speaker about the transformative power of personal projects. His work’s appeared in The Guardian, Wired, and Time Magazine, he’s taught at SVA and Parsons School of Design and has written 3 books.
I’m a designer in New York.
My father is 75 and retired. He’s Korean and lives in Brazil.
A few years ago my father and mother came to New York to visit my son (their grandson) Astro Lee for the first time. While they were with us, I taught my dad how to use Instagram to share his drawings and communicate in a whole new way.
I could end my story here, but there’s more to be told. A lot more.
Here’s a little bit about my dad. He’s a bit of a grumpy old man. He’s also one of the most creative and talented people I know. He never had formal art training, but he is naturally talented for drawings, paintings, and pretty much anything creative. I still remember admiring his sketches and his creative projects as a child. They had a profound influence on developing my own interest in arts and pursuing this as a career later on.
Despite his talent, he never pursued his creativity for economic reasons. When my whole family immigrated from Korea to Brazil in the ’80s, he completely gave up his interest in the arts because he was busy running a small clothing store with my mother to make a living for our family.
A few years ago, my father retired and became a full-time grandfather for my two young nephews in Brazil, Arthur and Allan by taking care of them while my sister was working. But when my sister and her husband decided to move back to Korea, all of sudden my father had a lot of time on his hands in Brazil, with not much to do. He spent his days strolling around and watching lots of Korean TV at home. Both my mother and I thought this was bad and we needed to find something meaningful for him to do.
This is when I had the idea of introducing Instagram to my father. I knew this was a big challenge because he was completely technologically illiterate. To give you an idea, he didn’t know what an email was. He had never used Google. He had never seen a Facebook page. He has a mobile phone, but he only used it to make and receive phone calls.
My mother (73) was quite the opposite. She was very savvy about technology (she has Hotmail, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram AND Kakao Talk accounts. Yes, she’s amazing.) My mother and I decided she should force my father to draw, so she could photograph the drawings and post them on her Instagram page. My father reluctantly drew a few things, but he absolutely hated being forced to do it.
When they came to NY shortly afterward, I gave myself a mission: to teach my father how to use Instagram so he could do everything himself without my mother’s help, a challenging task to say the least. As I tried to teach him, I quickly realized he had absolutely no interest in learning it because he had lost his interest in drawing a long time before. Why should he bother learning how to use Instagram if he had no interest in drawing in the first place? This made sense.
So I had to think of a good enough reason for him to draw again. A purpose.
And I wasn’t going to give up on him so easily.
I knew the biggest passion in his life were his three grandchildren. He had also told me how sad he was because he would never see what Astro would become, because, by then, he would have passed away.
Or so he said.
With this in mind, I suggested he should make his drawings for Arthur and Allan in Korea, so they could see from far what their grandpa would draw for them. And for Astro for when he would grow up.
I wanted my son to see how creative and talented his grandfather was in case he wouldn’t be around anymore by the time Astro would be old enough to appreciate his grandpa’s talent – the way I did when I was young. I also suggested he could have an exhibition of his Instagram drawings later on. I guaranteed he could easily sell them – and with the money he could travel more often to NY and Korea to visit his grandkids. I told him this money could also be used to help with their college funds.
Now I had his ears.
It was amazing how suddenly he showed his interest in learning something he loathed moments earlier.
I helped him create a Gmail account. I even helped him create a Facebook account so when he’d share his latest drawings on Instagram, he could also share them on Facebook to get more exposure. We brainstormed his Instagram handle and we decided on @drawings_for_my_grandchildren.
We went through the all-important things one can do on Instagram starting from how to open the Instagram app. We went through how to take a photo, how to use the photo editing tools, how to write a story (he types extremely slowly), how to post, how to like a photo, and how to edit the text. We even went through understanding what a hashtag is and how to use it.
I showed some talented artists on Instagram and he said, “That’s it? I can do better than this!”
This was an important moment for him. For some reason, he thought his drawings were not good enough for Instagram. After a few sessions over a couple of days, he finally got it and he started to actually enjoy it.
This was an amazing experience for me in so many different ways.
First, I realized how much I take my knowledge of technology for granted. The vast majority of people in my father’s generation have absolutely no idea about what I find so elementary. Learning new things for anyone at any age can be intimidating. Imagine for someone as old as my dad who has for a long time formed an opinion that technology isn’t for him. But, if there’s a compelling reason to learn, and with a little encouragement, people may feel compelled to learn it very quickly, because their desire to understand the unknown may become bigger than their fear of it.
If my father can do it, anyone can do it.
I learned that my dad is still amazingly creative and more talented than ever before. I’m so happy I was able to help him finally express his talent and share it with the world. I’m so proud of him that he was open to doing it. I hope Arthur, Allan and Astro will come to appreciate his mind and his talent as much as I do. Years later, he’s still going. He’s still communicating with them this way. Only now, it’s with the world as well.
He’s made hundreds of drawings. He’s got almost 400K followers on Instagram.
Meanwhile, Astro is no longer a baby. And I have another 10-month baby boy. And Arthur and Alan are no longer so so young. My father though, he hasn’t changed much. He’s still a bit of a grumpy old man. But he knows a lot about Instagram.
And yes, hashtags, too.
Here’s a video version of the above story. I hope you enjoy it.