Rich Tu is pushing design to take a generational leap
The creative changemaker on diversifying creative spaces, mentorship, and his podcast ‘First Generation Burden’
Thursday 16 June 2022 By Lilly Smith
In July 2020, Rich Tu, then vice president of digital design for MTV Entertainment Group, found himself at a professional inflection point. The year before, MTV Viacom had bought a huge quantity of media space at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in advance of that year’s VMAs. The space is typically used for concerts and large sports events; in 2020, it was the site of protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police – protests that Tu himself took part in. MTV Viacom had already committed the cash for the media buy; they had the space. They wanted to use it, and they asked Tu to figure out how.
Tu was in conflict: professionally, it was his job to determine how to best use the space within a new and unpredicted context. Personally, he felt that running any kind of event campaign at that moment was wrong. So, he called two friends and leaders of colour for advice: Terron Moore, editorial director of MTV News, and Antonia Baker, then senior director of brand and consumer marketing at Viacom. With their guidance, and within the course of a month, Tu and his team transformed the space into a massive public art show of 100 individual pieces by creatives of colour. Tu described it as ‘one of the hardest asks I’ve ever had’. And through it all, Tu returned to two key questions: ‘How much do I want to push?’ and ‘What can I change in order to adjust the course of action?’
As it happens, those provocations are indicative of his overall motivations as a designer and leader. Tu is an optimist. He sees design as a way to ‘build the future’: a transformative change agent capable of shifting the landscape of cultural influence. But, according to Tu, in order to meet the moment, it needs to change – and make room for new languages to enter the design ecosystem. Whether through his role at MTV; his podcast, First Generation Burden; the newly launched Colorful grant he cofounded with The One Club; or his current role as group creative director at Jones Knowles Ritchie, Tu is at the centre as a change agent and space maker, encouraging the next generation of designers to make a leap into the industry, and throwing a rope back for them to grab on to when they do.
One of the most direct examples of this is his podcast, First Generation Burden, which he launched to highlight the intersection of creativity and the immigrant community in 2016. He’s since interviewed 70 creatives across various industries, elevating voices such as art director Zipeng Zhu; Nike global design director, Diego Guevara, and most recently, Bobby and Ben Hundreds – founders of streetwear brand The Hundreds – earning a Webby Awards nomination in the process.
According to Tu, the podcast’s name is a reference to the immigrant experience, and the ‘obligation one feels to family, and home, or the concept of home’. He mentions one of his favourite comedians, Ronny Chieng, who talks about changing the course of a family in a generation or two, and his mother, the first in his family to immigrate to the US from the Philippines. ‘That’s the generational leap one takes when you immigrate to a new place with the hope of the leap of yourself and the leap of your children,’ says Tu. ‘And if you’re reaching back, you’re often in charge of bringing your family with you, too.’
There’s a parallel here with his professional motivations. Asked if he’s experienced the concept of the first-generation burden in his own life, he says, ‘from a broader spectrum, it’s the generosity of wanting to give back. That’s what I feel the duty has shifted to.’ In addition to the podcast, Tu does this through The Colorful grant, which he cofounded and which awards talented creatives of colour a no-strings attached monetary prize. Tu is also bringing younger designers up with him through mentorship. ‘It’s important to show the next generation what’s possible,’ he says. ‘I never saw leaders like me being leaders in the space,’ he says. ‘I want to be able to provide the Eureka moment – not just for AAPI kids, but for a lot of kids of different backgrounds.’
For a long time, design has had a Eurocentric idea of what ‘good’ means: it meant Swiss grid; it meant Bauhaus. ‘It’s about time we mix that up a bit,’ says Tu. ‘It doesn’t necessarily create an opportunity for culture to evolve.’ Through his work in centering creatives of colour, Tu is pushing design to make a generational leap: to open up the apertures of design and the parameters of what we consider ‘good’. As a leader, Tu recognises the promise of his industry, but also is constantly evaluating what he can change. In 2022, he’s the current face of decision-making. Through his daily work, he’s looking decades ahead and making space for the new faces, whoever they may be.