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How I Got My Job: Designing NYC’s Coolest Restaurant Merch and Food Labels

From eye-catching labels for chile sauce to restaurant wallpaper, Overice founder Meijun Li translates culinary vision into visual design

A photoillustration featuring design work by Meijun Li and her portrait in the center.

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Meijun Li.

Restaurant merch is having a serious moment. As restaurateurs got creative to make up for lost income during the pandemic, many saw opportunity in selling more than just graphic tees and totes to customers who wanted to show their support. Eater New Guard member Eric Sze, chef-owner of the Tang and 886 in New York City, estimates that his restaurant sold about 60 jars of Sze Daddy Chili Sauce per week when it was open, and during the pandemic it became a hot ticket retail item, selling out when it first became available online. Take one look at the label, designed by Meijun Li, and you’ll understand why: The bright colors and graphics — specifically the illustration of Sze — immediately draw you in, promising spoonfuls of silky, spicy flavor.

For most, a food label is a piece of paper that provides information. For Li, it’s an opportunity to make a lasting impression. In 2016, while studying abroad in Paris, Li used the microblogging platform Weibo to share her graphic design work, resulting in freelance requests from restaurants, cafes, and other businesses across the world. The practice that came from working on new projects every month allowed her to get comfortable designing for more restaurants and food companies. When she returned to New York City, she was introduced to Sze by her then-boyfriend (now husband), Andy Chuang. Sze was hosting an event, “An Evening with Dragons,” to celebrate the commencement of the annual Dragon Boat Festival, and Li was tasked with designing the poster for the event. This exposure led to design requests from Tsingtao and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Since then, she has founded her own design studio, Overice, and worked with big-name brands such as Dermalogica and Nature’s Soy, and NYC restaurants 886, Madame Vo, and Nowon. In this interview, Li takes us through her career, how the pandemic has affected her work life, and why aspiring designers need business cards.

Eater: What does your job involve and what’s your favorite part about it?

Meijun Li: My job includes maintaining client relationships, designing, and art-directing. The first part of any project is always about getting to know the client, to learn about their personal stories and who their customers are. I help them translate their passion and vision into a very specific visual language that speaks only to and for them. The second part of my job is design. This involves a lot of drawing, sketching, and Adobe. My designs range from branding (logos, menus, merchandise) to physical assets (wallpapers, lighting, and events) to digital assets (social media, emails).

Gathering inspiration is a big part of my design process. I love to walk around the city for inspiration. After gathering inspirations, I like to mix and match visual ideas with different typography styles. I like to print out all versions of the design and pin them on the wall to look at for a week before showing them to the client. Most creatives enjoy doing the creative part. When I work with designers, illustrators, and photographers at Overice, I love to have everything communicated to me by the client and translated into design terms so that my teammates can easily pick up. I function as a translator, a bridge between our clients and creators that makes the process efficient and seamless.

My favorite part of my job is meeting passionate people from different industries and helping them empower their presence in their respective industries with my design. One of the reasons I shifted my focus from UI/UX to branding is because of the people I have come across: passionate people who love what they are doing.

Illustrated choking posters by Overice for Madame Vo and 886.
Overice’s work for Madame Vo and 886.

What was your first job?

I got my first paid design job when I was a sophomore in high school. I did a brochure for an international kindergarten in Shanghai. My friend introduced me to the owner. At the time, I barely knew how to use Photoshop or other design tools so I created the whole brochure using PowerPoint. One of my professors at Parsons [School of Design] once told me it doesn’t matter what tools you use as long as you get the job done.

If I learned anything from that experience or from any of my early experiences, it’s: Always say, “Yes, I can do it.” If someone gives you an opportunity and it’s a little challenging, it is your job to find any resources and learn to complete the task. This mentality is the reason I was able to grow as a designer.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in your career?

I found it hard to price my work or services fairly. When I first started freelancing about eight years ago, I don’t think designers were valued as much as they are today. Sometimes I feel bad charging a higher price and I worry that it might be too much for my clients, but in recent years, I have grown to understand the value of my own creativity and gained confidence in my work. But I often still find myself trying to charge lower, hoping for potential exposure or future collaborations.

When was the first time you felt successful?

I’m happy when I walk around the city and I see things I’ve designed. There have been some packaging projects that I helped design that got pretty popular and I get to see them in stores all the time.

You designed Sze Daddy Chili Sauce for 886. What makes a good food label design?

The label definitely has to be eye-catching and memorable. During my creative process, I imagine the label on the shelves with tons of other sauces, and I ask myself whether it will stand out. A good label should always have traits that are strong and able to leave a lasting impression.

Secondly, being on-brand is always important. Labels are very direct for branding and marketing. Customers should be able to register a key message in one to three seconds when they glance at the shelves. Is it handmade? Is it vegan? What is special about it? For Sze Daddy, the chile oil is made by hand so it is all about creating the high-quality crafty feel while adding small details that reflect influences from Taiwanese culture, just like the chile oil itself. The label has a nostalgic feel to it as I used a lot of vintage elements, and for people who aren’t familiar with the culture, the color and shapes I chose still speak to Asian culture, something they will identify as “authentic” and would like to try.

The label is a piece of paper that provides information. Like most designs, it’s all about deciding hierarchies and rearranging the information. The brand, logo, product name, net weight, and warning info should always be clear and easy to locate no matter what the design is. I always find it very frustrating when I am not able to locate expiration dates or storage information. Some designs tend to hide everything behind the visual, but I think a good label has graphics and text complementing each other.

Sze Daddy chili sauce, with a label designed by Meijun Li.
Sze Daddy chile sauce.

Restaurant merch is a great way for people to support local businesses and represent their favorite places to eat. What makes a piece of merch something people want to buy?

When I started designing merchandise for brands, I really wanted to create something people would constantly want to wear and feel cool in. I always like to compare buying merch to buying Hermès or Supreme. The logo itself tells so much about a T-shirt or a bag. Wearing a certain piece of merch communicates so much about a person. It tells people where you eat, where you get your coffee, where you go to work out. It’s something that’s very intimate, a bold statement of your lifestyle.

When I design merch, I tend to think of the T-shirts people will collect, frame, and hang up on their walls, or something that will age well. I personally love merch with a simple, good statement that aligns with the business, whether it’s about coffee, ramen, plants, or being vegan. A good piece of merch makes the wearer feel proud to walk around in it.

What impact has the pandemic had on your work life?

There were a lot of projects that either got pushed or were put on hold. Compared to 2019, 2020 was definitely a quieter year with a lot of uncertainty. But I did help some new businesses set to open later this year. During the pandemic, businesses shifted to delivery and focused on developing stronger social media presence. Merch also helped businesses get through that tough year.

I helped Nowon design a sweatshirt that says “The tiger depends on the forest, the forest depends on the tiger.” It’s a metaphor about how restaurants depend on their customers, that restaurants were essential to the community. I really loved the idea behind the message and the art inspiration was derived from traditional Asian paintings that added a more poetic touch to it.

For 886, back when restaurants were completely closed during March of last year, they had to keep their costs down and were not able to create any new art assets. So I altered the mural we created and made a fun to-go menu with it. I also designed two to-go wrapping papers for their beef noodle soup and braised pork belly rice. I made a bunch of prototypes before finalizing it. It was quite a crafty project.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Take advantage of social media. Share your work with people, talk about your process, and let people know that you are open to taking on new projects. Nearly all my clients are word-of-mouth. I am the friend they know who designs who is introduced to everyone.

A good attitude is also important, no matter if it’s corporate work or freelance work. Set boundaries and have a working schedule if you are freelancing. I love to reply to emails as soon as I can, and always sticking to deadlines is an important rule I follow. I do everything to stay on a set timeline, being early if I can manage.

I carry business cards. I go to restaurants that I think could use branding help and I give them my card. I say, “Hey, I’m a designer. If you guys ever need designs or you want to update your menu, you can reach me here.” I know a lot of people don’t carry business cards anymore, but I think it’s a good thing to have.

And lastly, take every job seriously, no matter if it’s just a favor for family or friends. No matter how much you get paid, always bring your A game because the work will represent you as a brand in the future.