UNUSUALLY cute. Behind the Book with Zoe Sidhom

For her architectural thesis project, Zoe Sidhom printed a truly original book that puts her design skills, knowledge, and research on center stage. It’s called UNUSUALLY cute. and we just had to know more. Zoe let us in on her bookmaking process (from color palettes to typography to storytelling) and explained why putting her ideas in print opens “a whole new world of design.” We also talked about portfolios and how to catch the eye of prospective clients. But first, the creative spark that started it all… 

How did you come up with the idea for this project? 

Since my dream is to one day work with Disney, it’s only fitting to say that it all started with a Disney character; but let me take a couple of steps backward first. As an architecture student, I was lost as far as what type of thesis would be meaningful and important to me. Everyone was all about having a stance on how buildings should perform—in the past, present, and future. For me, I knew it wasn’t just about the building. I was most interested in user experiences and how we, as designers, curated the stories these buildings held. 

With that in mind, I remember specifically sitting next to my professor and going back and forth with him on what types of architectural theories could define social interactions and experiences. We were searching the interwebs for inspiration when suddenly he referenced the Walt Disney’s Baymax vinyl sticker on my computer (my favorite character). “Well, look at Baymax—what about him makes him cute?” 

From there, we came up with the idea of essentially building an entire thesis around the idea of cuteness and how the constructs of this endearing quality can bring out innate senses of vulnerability. We can then use this sense of vulnerability to spark more meaningful experiences with the environment and people around us. 

Tell us about the process of curating and designing your book. How did you decide on the layout, typography, color palette, and images you wanted to include? 

This is a little different for me, because of the fact that this book was the end product of a year’s worth of research and design work. It was meant to be the last hurrah before I graduated, but it turned into so much more. So that in mind, throughout the year, I wrote up an essay explaining my thesis concepts, ending with a final project that tested and applied these ideas to a real-world building (spoiler alert, it’s Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation—or as I called it, the Cutité). 

From there, I considered how long I wanted my book to be, and how I was going to break up my essay into a more eye-catching format. I listed out the chapters I wanted to have, and then read through each section, asking myself what imagery would help support my story. 

As far as the color scheme goes, throughout this project I actually went through many different phases. Color is one of my favorite parts of design, so it’s no secret that I spent a lot of time thinking about what would work best. And whenever I was stuck, I would internet search for palette ideas—finding interesting combinations and then altering them to make them my own. With each design experiment I did, I tried a new palette. Eventually, I got to a point where I gave my eyes a break, and when I came back later, I thought, “yep, that’s it.” 

In a digital age, why is it still important to have a printed version of your work? 

For many reasons! It’s the same idea as why someone might prefer to go purchase a physical copy of a book over downloading the online version—it opens a whole new world of design. With the physical copy, you get to think about the density of the book, the texture, and finish of the cover, the lightness of the pages, all the way down to the appearance of the edges of the book when closed. And, of course, there’s the general sense of analog security in the event technology fails you.

All that aside, the biggest appeal of having a printed version is being able to bring it with you to any interview, career fair, and so on. Yes, you can provide a link to your online portfolio and hope your prospective employers remember to take a look at it when they get home, but there is nothing like being able to actually hold a physical item you designed, literally telling the story of your work as you flip through. It will draw your audience in, and bonus points if they get to keep the copy to refer to later. 

How did your approach to the visual layout or storytelling for UNUSUALLY cute. differ from your approach to a digital compilation? 

This is very similar to the difference between designing my website and Instagram profile vs my physical portfolio. Different platforms mean different ways in which you present your designs. They also mean different audiences, and how long they might be willing to look at your work. The color scheme and typeface stay the same, but how I am actually telling my story is what changed. With a physical portfolio, I considered how many chapters I wanted, and what content would go into each chapter—literally thinking about how my story would unfold as you flip each page. Inversely, with a digital poster, I’m much more focused on how I can clearly tell my story on one page—giving you a general idea of my work in under 5 seconds. 

What role do concept projects like this play in your career development?

They serve as the best conversation starters for any job interview or conversation that I have been a part of! Post graduation, I’ve learned very quickly that prospective employers want to see designs based off of plausible research. They want to know how you obtained information from the real world and brought it into your design projects. How you used it to inform how you might be able to make an impact as a designer. Naturally, a year-long architectural thesis is the perfect opportunity for this. Even though I’m no longer pursuing architecture, this project still renders itself useful. It will forever be an example of my ability to research and apply informed and innovative decisions to my designs. 

What would you like prospective clients or employers to know about you after seeing your book? How did that inform your design choices during the bookmaking process?

I would like prospective clients and employers to know that I care about every aspect of design. From the feeling of my book when you hold it in your hands, down to the flood of colors that you see when you quickly flip through it. I choose to make the most out of any and every design opportunity I can find, even if it’s as simple as the page numbers on the corner of each page. They’re all crucial pieces to the puzzle, in my book (no pun intended). 

That said, this informed my design choices during the bookmaking process in that I decided right off the bat how I wanted my final book to look and feel. I decided the goal page count, size of pages used, and finish of paper I wanted—all before actually compiling my book. I found this important because these are all choices that will guide how I move forward—how many chapters I’ll need to have, what selection of quotes I’ll want to highlight on a single page, what level of vibrancy I’ll need in my color scheme, and what size font and graphics I can use that will make sense with the proportions of my selected paper size. Considering all of these factors, and many more, allowed me to design with more intention, creating a more impactful piece in the process.

What advice would you give another artist or designer who is thinking about creating a book? 

The biggest thing I can recommend is to start by finding a book you love, which format-wise captures the look and feel you want in your own book. This should now serve as your go-to reference. I don’t mean to copy the book and everything about it but rather understand exactly what it is you like about the book. What about it feels successful to you, and inspires you most? That’s what you want to put into your own work. Stay consistent, and whenever you find yourself stuck, go back to that same reference book. 

At the end of the day, there are no right or wrong answers, just have fun with it! My book was meant to be a creative outlet for me to compile all the research and design experiments I conducted over the course of a year. I genuinely believe I put the time and love into the book that I did because I saw it as an opportunity to make something I was proud of—something I could look back onto and truly appreciate. And believe me when I say this, but I’m no expert. This was the second book I ever made, the first being a mandatory portfolio compiling my first year at college (I still cringe at the thought of it…). So that said, if you have the passion for it, you absolutely can do the same! 

Where do you look for creative or design inspiration? 

Everywhere? Honestly, as frustrating as it is to say, inspiration never comes easy. In fact, it usually comes when I didn’t ask for it (when I finally decide it’s time to take a break and go to bed). That said, my go-to, whenever I’m really stuck, is to stop and think about the what. What message am I trying to create? From there I focus on developing a concrete concept/story that I can consistently go back to for design decisions. With this concept, I research as much as I can and search for ways I can use my findings towards my design. As a result, I find this contributes to a much more thoughtful and full-of-life design. 

Do you experiment with other artistic mediums, and how do these feed your creative practice? 

100%! In addition to majoring in architecture, I took on a minor in fine art to do exactly that. I played with oil and acrylic paints, soft pastels, graphite, charcoal, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, various 3D modeling software, and the list continues to grow. For me, it’s not about specializing in one medium but rather learning as much as possible about the various art forms out there. I see it as growing my personal “toolkit”. The more I understand the different ways a single art piece/form can be done, the better I can inform myself on how I would want to do it in a way that feels unique to me. That all said, I’m also the type of person who gets bored very quickly. So switching between artistic mediums is a fantastic way of reinvigorating my passion for the art industry, and furthering my growth as a designer.


Note from the author: UNUSUALLY cute. is a book that documents research and design experiments I conducted throughout my final year of architecture school, testing the constructs of cuteness and how they could apply to real-world environments. I graduated with a BArch in June 2019, and today I’m working in Orange County as a junior designer at a design and fabrication agency that specializes in brand experience and installation design. 


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