PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How One Grumpy Old Man Became An Art Wizard On Instagram

PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How One Grumpy Old Man Became An Art Wizard On Instagram
Design

PSFK 2017 speaker Ji Lee just wanted his father to connect with his grandkids online—then his dad accidentally became Instagram famous

Matt Vitone
  • 16 may 2017

At its best, social media has the power to cross geographical divides and bring people together in ways that were previously impossible. Of course, many of us now take that for granted, so it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are millions of older people for whom social media is still largely a foreign concept. According to a 2015 Pew study, only 35 percent of those aged 65 and older regularly use social media, compared to 9 in 10 millennials. With loneliness and depression being two of the most common issues people face as they get older, social media has the potential to let senior citizens more easily connect with family and friends who may live far away.

Drawings for my Grandchildren psfk.com

Working as a creative lead at Facebook Creative Shop, PSFK 2017 speaker Ji Lee certainly knows just how powerful a tool social media can be. Part of a global family that spans three continents, Lee, who lives in New York, wanted to help his father, Chan Jae Lee, who lives in Brazil, better connect with his grandchildren who live in Korea and the U.S. This was the start of Drawings for my Grandchildren, an Instagram project where Chan posts daily drawings for his grandkids. From the fantastical—dinosaurs of all colors and stripes—to the personal—memories from his life and tidbits of Korean history—Chan uses his Instagram to both connect with his grandchildren in the present and leave something behind for them in the future.

While the account has become a viral hit, amassing nearly 300,000 followers, according to Lee, it was quite the journey to get his father—who didn’t even use Google or email—accostomed to posting on Instagram. In advance of his keynote at PSFK 2017, we got to ask Lee about the project that’s brought his family closer together, and how becoming digital citizens can change the lives of senior citizens for the better.

Ji Lee will be sharing how his father became a viral sensation on Instagram at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

What do you plan to talk about at PSFK 2017? 

I’ll be talking about my 75-year-old dad’s Instagram project called “Drawings for my Grandchildren.” Two years ago, after his grandchildren moved away, he learned to use Instagram to draw something for them every day. The project went viral and now he has nearly 300,000 followers and it has changed his life profoundly. Thanks to this, he has a new career and built a community he never dreamed of. The main message for my talk is that if a grumpy 75-year-old man who had never used any new technology for the past 50 years can create a personal project that changed his life and influences 300,000 people every day, then anyone can do it.

Your father is so talented, does he have an extensive background in art?

He never studied art, and never practiced it as a hobby until this project. He has a natural talent, but he himself never believed he had any talent with drawings (he still thinks his drawings are not that great). In Korea, he was a high-school teacher for geology. And before he retired, he had a small clothing store.

A lot of older people either don’t know how to or simply don’t see the point in using social media. What lessons do you think can be drawn from your father’s story about senior citizens becoming digital citizens? 

We also struggled in the beginning to convince my father to draw and share it on Instagram. He hated the idea and didn’t want to learn it at all. The turning point was for us to find a specific purpose of WHY he should do this. The answer was to draw for his three grandchildren—for now and the future. From that point, he was totally into it. Like my father, there are hundreds of millions of very talented elderly folks who need a little help from their family member and friends who can spend time with them and unearth their passion and find the new purpose to create and to rekindle their talent and re-experience the joy of making things. Once that happens, everything starts happening. You also need a little bit of patience and willing to teach, but the rewards are priceless for them and for those who are helping them.

Is there anything companies like Facebook or Instagram can do to make their services more friendly to non-digital natives?

Successful tech companies hire very talented product designers to create the simplest, user-friendly tools that people of all ages can use. The challenge so many elderly folks face is that many of them have been out of touch with the new technology for so long that it requires time and patience to learn a whole new way of using these new tools. It’s like learning a new language. It’s very hard in the beginning, but the more you practice, the easier it gets. The key, in my opinion, is the human factor. Having someone who can hold their hands and teach them at their pace can make a huge difference. Once they get it, they can become fluent. My dad is an expert in Instagram now. This thought was unimaginable for us two years ago.

Is there anything that surprised you while doing this project?

What many people don’t know is that my mom, who’s also 75 is the other half of this project. She’s the unsung hero who comes up with the story and writes them. My dad draws them and posts them on Instagram. My sister and I also often offer ideas for drawings and we translate them into English and Portuguese. So it’s really a family project. The project has made us talk to each other every day though Facebook Messenger which brings us together although we’re very far apart (São Paulo, Seoul, New York). My mom who has been a Korean literature teacher for the past 50 years writes beautiful stories. Before this, I had never read any of her writings—although she has written extensively. This project also made me discover her talent and sensibility. She’s able to express her creativity every day through this project. Her stories often touch me and I am surprised almost every day by her poetry.

Obviously, your father learned a lot through this process, but did you learn anything as well?

I’ve learned so much. This is one of the most rewarding personal projects I’ve ever done. One of the most rewarding things about this is reading the hundreds of comments below each drawing left by my dad’s followers. Many of the comments are very heart-warming and personal. People talk about their own relationships with their parents. Many say how the drawings help them through their hard days. Or how much they miss their parents and grandparents who are far or have left us. What started as a small project for our family has transformed into something much bigger than we could ever have imagined and I learn something new every day.

Aside from bringing your family closer together, what are some of the best things that have happened to your father as a result of his Instagram account becoming so popular?

He’s the same grumpy old man and he’s a completely new person at the same time. For the most part, he’s oblivious about his newly found fame. But I think deep inside he enjoys the attention he received from his friends, neighbors and the Korean community. But some of the biggest changes are very noticeable. He used to have very severe chronic pains from shingles he had six years ago from which he never fully recovered. Drawing every day for hours makes him forget about his pain. At 75, he has a whole new career he couldn’t even dream of. He sells prints of his drawings online (because so many people have asked for it) and he can pay for his living. He’s most happy about that. We will publish several books because so many publishers have shown interest. He will have exhibitions and we’re just getting started. I’m sure this project will add many years to his life and there’s no bigger change than that I can imagine.

What do Arthur, Allan and Astro think of their grandfather’s drawings?

I never met my paternal grandfather because he died before I was born. I knew my maternal grandfather, but I barely know his stories as a young man or as a young father. Whenever I can, I ask my mom and my uncles and aunts about him and my grandmother because I know their stories will eventually disappear forever. It’s very sad because I know they were remarkable people who did incredibly courageous things that benefited everyone in our family. As a grown man, I’d have loved to peek into their daily life. I think my dad’s project will be a wonderful gift to them when they grow up. They’re already a beautiful gift now, but I think it will mean something even deeper when they’re older. They will truly understand what kind of people their grandparents were. Their interests, sensitivity, fears, dreams and silliness, and how much they loved them.

Ji Lee will be sharing how his father became a viral sensation on Instagram at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

Drawings for my Grandchildren | Please Enjoy

Ji Lee is a creative lead at Facebook Creative Shop. Ji’s past jobs include Google Creative Lab and Droga5. Ji is the author of three books and he’s a frequent contributor for the New York Times. Ji was listed as one of 50 most important designers by Fast Company in 2011. His work has appeared in Time magazine, BBC, Wired, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC World News among others.

At its best, social media has the power to cross geographical divides and bring people together in ways that were previously impossible. Of course, many of us now take that for granted, so it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are millions of older people for whom social media is still largely a foreign concept. According to a 2015 Pew study, only 35 percent of those aged 65 and older regularly use social media, compared to 9 in 10 millennials. With loneliness and depression being two of the most common issues people face as they get older, social media has the potential to let senior citizens more easily connect with family and friends who may live far away.

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+senior citizens
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