He designed G.I. Joe – and he has tips for how you can make a successful career out of art

He designed G.I. Joe – and he has tips for how you can make a successful career out of art

A career in art isn’t easy, but Chris Lie, creator of the iconic action figure, proves it is possible


Chris Lie, once a unpaid intern, now the director of his own publishing studio.
Photo: Scad

Chris Lie remembers the exact moment his career took off. He was a lowly unpaid intern working for a publishing studio in 2004. “My drawing wasn’t good enough,” he says, “so I did a lot of office work. Scanning, FedEx, that kind of stuff. A lot of scanning. They would ask me to do some sketches and I would do it, but they would never use it.”

But that all changed when his project manager asked if he would like to submit a proposal to Hasbro for their new G.I. Joe toy line.

“I said of course I want to try. This was at 1pm in the afternoon,” says Lie. The proposals were due at 4pm that day. “I looked around, and everyone was busy, so I got busy too.”

Lie’s proposal was scanned and sent at 4pm along with the proposals from the other full-time illustrators working at the studio.

“At 6 o’clock the boss came to my table and said ‘Chris, come to my office,’” he remembers. “It was my first time going into his office. He said ‘Chris, Hasbro liked your drawing. So starting tomorrow ... we’re gonna pay you.’”

It was the big break Lie had been waiting for. “It was my first job, but I ended up working on it for four years,” he says.

Now Lie is the director of his own publishing studio, Caravan, where he oversees 35 artists and illustrators. But looking back on the process while he is in Hong Kong to speak at a panel discussion at SCAD about breaking into creative industries, he admits it wasn’t an easy road.

“I was from a small city in Indonesia in central Java,” says Lie. “There were no comic artists. I mean, most of the people there don’t really know about art.”

“When I went to college, my parents didn’t want me to pursue art because they thought I wouldn’t be able to make a living from it,” he says. “They wanted me to study electrical engineering.” To appease his parents, Lie chose to study architecture which he saw as being somewhere in between art and engineering.

But after working for two years as an architect, and another four in various other fields, Lie decided to go back to school to study his passion. He applied for a coveted Fulbright Scholarship, and with that was able to enrol in the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). It was during his undergraduate programme there that he was able to get his internship, and his big break with Hasbro and G.I. Joe.

The original G.I. Joe toy line that was designed by Chris Lie, and the break that helped him launch his career in the industry
Photo: Chris Lie

But his background is exactly what helped set his proposal apart from the others. “The design that I did was Asian-influenced,” Lie says. “My drawing had an Asian influence which was different from the three other artists, who were all American.” It was exactly what Hasbro was looking for, as Japanese manga was becoming more popular.

Aside from the original toy design, Lie worked on the packaging, style guide, store promotion art, comic books for the line and DVD cover for the animation based on his line as well.

“Our job is kind of like fun, like OK, draw or animate, it sounds fun, it looks fun,” Lie says. “But behind that, it requires a lot of hard work.”

Lie says it all comes down to commitment. “You still need to train yourself to have a good skill,” he says.

But for those willing to put in the work, there are plenty of opportunities to succeed. “There are more jobs, more opportunities,” says Lie. “It doesn’t matter where you are, location is not an issue anymore. There are so many outlets for us digital artists.”

When Lie is hiring artists for his own studio, he says it all comes down to one thing: potential. “After looking at their artwork, maybe just one minute, just a glance, we usually know if this guy has potential or not,” he says. “We don’t judge by the quality, we judge by potential.” Lie says that any artist needs additional training to hone their work for clients, so companies look for people willing to learn and adapt.

And being eager to learn and accept criticism is crucial for any artist. “I think being humble is the most important quality,” Lie says. “Even if you’re very good, you have to stay humble.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
G.I. Joe: a real design hero


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