Posted on Jun 05, 2024Read on


Written by Katie Chiou

IN CONVERSATION WITH is a series from Archetype where we interview artists in/at the edges of crypto across music, visual art, design, curation, and more.

Adam Ho is a designer and artist based in Queens, NY. He currently runs Adam Ho, I.S.P., his own independent studio practice. Adam’s primary focus is on creating large-scale visual brand identities and interaction design for emerging technology companies.

Adam is a prolific brand designer in crypto, having worked with companies like Eigen Labs, Axelar, Coinbase, MoonPay, Mona, Valhalla, and more. Adam also released his own collection of NFTs in 2022 on Foundation called Liquidities, a series of NFT abstract motion expressions. Apart from his own studio practice, Adam also actively works with VectorDAO as a Design Lead.

Before forming Adam Ho, I.S.P., Adam worked in-house on design teams at Cash App and Zendesk. He has also collaborated with other design-forward brands such as Nike, Square, Medium, and Airbnb.

Over a video call, Adam and I talked about launching an NFT collection, creating the brand for EigenLayer, general design principles, and more. Adam even designed a new NFT to accompany this article, which you can collect for free on Foundation!

Adam Ho's R1Z0

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Katie Chiou: What was your initial foray into crypto like?

Adam Ho: My first time interacting with crypto was hearing about the coins they sold on Coinbase back in 2016-2017, like Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum. I talked about it with my friends from college at the time. I didn’t really think about crypto again until around 2020 when I started seeing a lot of people talking about crypto in very cryptic ways I didn’t understand—like what does the acronym “NFT” mean?

Foundation actually reached out to me before they started using the term NFT, and I thought it was just kind of a way to securitize art. I didn’t really put 2 and 2 together until after Foundation launched, where I could see people uploading their art for other people to buy. This to me felt like a shift, a second phase of crypto based on art, whereas the first phase was based on money and speculation. Now, I feel like we’re in a third infrastructure phase right now.

I tend to have an obsessive personality, so when Loot came out in 2021, I was really into it. That’s actually how I first met Jon Yan at VectorDAO. He was working on a Loot project at the time, and we started talking about other NFT collections and communities like Solvency and Azuki. I thought the whole space was really fun and new. So that was my foray into crypto, it started off mostly as money speculation and treating it as stock and then later figuring out utility for crypto through NFTs.

KC: You launched your own NFT collection on Foundation called Liquidities in 2022. What made you want to launch a collection, and how was that process?

AH: I was watching an interview recently with Ezra Koening from Vampire Weekend and Zane Lowe, and Ezra talked about how musicians get into music through different ways like live music or the gear, but he’s always been interested in discographies and the idea of entire bodies of work. To some extent, that’s similar to how I approached Liquidities. My first few NFT uploads were a bit random, and then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, this is on the blockchain, there’s going to be a history to this.” I didn’t want to continue to upload and mint just random things. For about a month or two after that, I really sat down and thought about the kind of work that I would want to produce that would be constrained and have a specific point of view—both in terms of the aesthetic but also the narrative.

A9-Kiwi Print, A5-Ripple, and A-12 Haunting from Adam Ho’s Liquidities collection

Liquidities is a play on the word solvency, and it also sounds similar to Solidity. Once I had a name and concept I liked, I made the art feel almost liquid, like they were on loop in this liquid pattern. The art looks generative, but it’s not. I did everything in a lo-fi way frame by frame in Photoshop, similar to what you would do if you were making a GIF. When I exported the files, I constrained the amount of colors which is why they look both random and specific. That’s on the art side. When I decided to launch the collection, I wanted it to feel like an album. That's why actually there's only around 10 pieces. I haven’t touched the collection in a while because I’m focused more on client work nowadays.

KC: When you uploaded NFTs for the first time, do you remember it being particularly confusing or difficult or different from other platforms you had used before?

AH: It was way different. I think I lost around $600 the first time I tried to mint because the gas fee was like $300 and then everyone told me, “Yeah, that's just how it goes.” It actually felt like a massive barrier to entry. To some extent, there’s a charm to engaging with things that have a bit of friction behind it. After the first or the second time, it also gets a bit better and more familiar. There was definitely friction and a learning curve, and to be honest, I'm still learning more about crypto every day. But the more things are out in the market and the more people are working on tooling, the more processes become easier.

KC: You’re known to focus on working with emerging technology companies, specifically in crypto. Are there any considerations you take into account when you work with a crypto company versus our average tech startup?

AH: There’s still a lot I don’t know about crypto, I still ask you and Jon questions all the time. But that’s also something I enjoy, I like learning new things and facing new challenges. There’s a challenge to developing a net-new visual metaphor for an object that no one else has had to think about before—like an asset bridge for example. Or, how do you make visual metaphors for zero knowledge?

A sample of Adam’s portfolio work for Nike, Cash App, EigenLayer, and more

I also have a very specific point of view in my work, it’s very graphic design-driven. A lot of inspiration I pull from is from the 1960s and 1970s, so part of the fun is developing a visual metaphor for something entirely new, while also pulling from older references. This is a tangential point, but I love the design inspiration I can take from someone who may not have had the same tools as I do now, but still did incredible work that I couldn’t do today.

In terms of consideration for working with teams, I try to just make sure we are as aligned as possible. By alignment I mean that I’m very upfront about how I work and my point of view. What you see on my website is what you get. Once we’re aligned on process and method and there’s implicit trust, we can work together.

KC: There’s sometimes criticism about how crypto website copy and design tend to use a lot of very technical jargon that isn’t accessible to most people. Curious if you have thoughts or reactions to that discourse?

AH: I tend to not participate in these types of discussions publicly, but I have had private conversations about this. I think my work was even mentioned in a thread about this, but I don’t take offense to it. I understand where the perspective comes from, especially since the industry can seem convoluted to outsiders. However, many of these products are designed for insiders, they’re not meant for mass-market—particularly infrastructure companies aiming to improve the world through partnerships with other companies that later are consumer-facing. They need to be able to talk to developers in a certain way that makes sense to them, and then those companies can more easily build for consumers, be it Coinbase or MoonPay. It’s an evolution, I guess.

While we can always strive to make things more approachable and do a better job of it, my main goal isn't necessarily about accessibility. Rather, I aim to help differentiate the company I work with from its peers. This may involve making things more approachable as a byproduct, but it's not my primary focus.

KC: Walk me through the process of how you work with teams as clients.

AH: One of the challenges of working with emerging technology companies is that oftentimes, they’re proposing something entirely new to the market. Only, maybe 1,000 people actually understand what they’re building. Even the clients sometimes have trouble trying to explain to me what they’re building in simple language. They’ll apologize and say something like, “Sorry, this is really complicated, we just need a new brand.” I totally understand that, and it’s my job to be honest when I don’t understand something and to do my best.

For example, with EigenLayer, restaking just sounded like some kind of buzzword to me at first, but when I dug deeper into it, it actually was pretty profound—the thesis of expanding resources and non-zero-sum games around data availability and economic security. Even those terms are their own separate mouthfuls.

Brand assets created for EigenLayer

I feel more aligned with a company when they’re able to have a longer discussion with me about what they’re building. In the past, I would turn away clients because I didn’t understand what they were building. Now, I take on more clients than I would in the past because the learning curve has gotten easier. As time goes on, I build a better foundation of knowledge that allows me to better understand future clients. Especially working with foundational infrastructure companies in the past, it helps me better understand other companies both vertically and horizontally.

That all being said, I really don’t need to know that much about a company in order to work with them. With EigenLayer, I had to understand the baseline concept of restaking, they told me about their culture and how the team is very academia-driven. The branding reflects that, with my own twist on it, incorporating typefaces typically used in direct-to-consumer contexts.

KC: How do you think about the importance of a personal brand as a designer?

AH: I'm probably a bit of a purist in some way in that I want to be known for my work and for my work to speak for itself. That's the most important part. I try to do a lot of work so that I can show a lot of work and therefore get more work. Some people try to fill the gaps between work with more personal brand-oriented posting, but I just feel really weird when I try to act cool on the internet. I did a lot of that early in my career where I would respond to posts, and sometimes I would get hundreds of followers from that, so it definitely works.

The homepage of Adam’s personal website

But I think these days, I'm a little bit more focused on showing my work. Hopefully it’s good work that people resonate with. When I meet people that know of my work nowadays, it’s usually through my website. That’s also a part of personal brand, I think it’s important for designers to update their portfolios. You learn so much in a year, it’s like a year of studying or a year of school. I really enjoy having annual portfolios that reflect that growth, it’s meditative for me. So I think it’s a shame when people learn so much but don’t update their portfolio.

KC: What/who are your biggest design inspirations nowadays?

AH: There's a Japanese designer that I think passed away 4 or 5 years ago, Mitsuo Katsui. I found his work somewhere and he had such a deep body of work that I felt resonated with what I'm trying to do with my own work. I’m kind of speechless at how he was able to accomplish some of his work without the tools that exist today. Besides that, it’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of Karel Martens. I have books from both of them.

Work by Mitsuo Katsui (left) and Karel Martens (right)

KC: Do you have any general design principles that you live by?

AH: The first is always maintaining a healthy balance of art and design. By that I mean, in the corporate branding world, art is usually reference and design is what you actually do. I think those two things can be much closer than people tend to think. I try to merge those worlds as much as possible.

It also doesn’t have to be profound, it’s just graphic imagery—like the Baldessari dots, for example. Brands need to be instinctively visually captivating, people crave unexpected experiences, even if they don’t think that they do.

Thirdly, there should be a method to the madness. Whenever something feels chaotic, make sure there’s a reason to it, so that you can scale that reasoning.

Next is similar to the first one, but conflict brings cohesion. I don’t mean interpersonal conflict, I mean playing with tension between concepts and understanding them.

Then lastly is paying homage. Especially as we’re talking about emerging technologies that can be extremely referential, I think it’s important to understand the past and why people made the decisions that they did.


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