Fond of art since young, Vanissa Foo decided to follow her passion by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. What was supposed to be an assignment for a subject serendipitously became a part-time business for her. While she had a short stint as a graphic designer after graduating, she eventually chose to focus fully on Humana from April last year.
With a name that is inspired by the word “human”, Humana is a fictional character created by Foo to express her creative thought process and view of the world. She draws the character having different adventures, including performing in a theatre, going to the circus, and visiting exhibitions and creative shows.
As she is not particularly interested in literature, the graphic designer-cum-illustrator uses illustrations to convey stories of the mundane and absurd in everyday life. She then converts the drawings into merchandise such as stationery, postcards, notebooks and zines. Meanwhile, those who love to decorate their journal entries will be happy to know that the brand also offers stickers and washi tapes.
Foo has created a variety of rich and fascinating designs, inspired by her love for bold colours. What do colours mean to her? “To me, colours represent happiness. I enjoy using them in my designs because I want my audience to feel joyful,” she says.
Her most anticipated project yet is the production of zines. For the uninitiated, a zine is a self-published work of original texts and images, used as a social commentary or just a medium for self-expression. In Foo’s first one, published last year, she created “Humana Costumes”, in which the character prepared garments for a theatre performance.
“I just wanted to have fun and experiment when creating them since they are personal projects. I have turned them into interesting booklets. The unboxing experience is especially exciting for people because it sort of brings them to a new world.”
This year, the 26-year-old made “Humana Theatre”, following Humana’s journey to performing on stage after all the hard work and effort it had put in during the first series. The zine provides customers with a make-believe experience as the set includes a total of 16 performances, a vintage-inspired playbill, an entry ticket, a mini theatre backdrop and two postcards. She looks forward to coming up with one zine each year.
Foo draws her inspiration mainly from a hobby she returns to when she has free time, which is collecting unique vintage items, largely found during her visits to flea markets. She will go the extra mile to study the history behind each piece. She started two years ago and has since collected more than 100 Hello Kitty products — she even created an Instagram account specially dedicated to showcasing her collection — and other antique discoveries such as vases, old magazines and graphic books.
“I always find it fun to explore what people had created back then. Discovering these objects at the market feels like I am participating in a treasure hunt. I like the thrill of it,” Foo shares.
Why Hello Kitty? “They are cute. They are so simple, but so attractive to me. I have designs that date back to the 1970s. I prefer the classic ones because the colour play and patterns are great. The latest collections are messy and don’t look as good any more.”
Foo initially registered her Instagram account, @humana_art, to keep a digital record of the random illustrations that she did. But it became a business channel after she decided to use it to sell some products. It now has more than 25,000 followers and this surge in number is the result of her collaborations with other brands — both international and local — including Casetify, Darkroom 8, ana tomy, kissthepink and Studio HHFZ, the last of which is a recent partnership where Foo helped design their clothes.
“The most memorable one would be ana tomy (customised notebook shop) because I love to buy and collect notebooks. I was surprised when they approached me for a collaboration. It was exciting because I was able to see my work on their book covers and it was for sale.”
Having their artwork copied without their knowledge is a common problem for artists, especially those just starting out. Early in her business career, Foo had to deal with this issue. “Since Humana is an online business, I often post my work on digital channels, thus running the risk of having my artwork replicated without my permission. There were people from an online shopping platform who copied my work and reprinted it on their products.”
She has learnt her lesson and is now more cautious when posting her illustrations on social media. To prevent such incidents from recurring, she “now posts physical product photos, instead of original digital artworks. I also discovered how to trademark my brand”.
Although most of her business activities are conducted online, Foo often joins pop-up events to expand the brand’s physical presence on the market. “I normally observe the market theme and target audience before I take part. The experience is always meaningful because you get to meet regular customers and some new faces.
“It is fun to explain your thoughts and art process to people who are interested to know and have a better understanding of your work.” After a successful outing at the Kuala Lumpur Art Book Fair at The Godown Arts Centre last December, Foo will be venturing abroad to the Singapore Art Museum for the Singapore Art Book Fair on April 14 to 16.
This article first appeared on Feb 27, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.