Michael Killian's Distinct Color on the Larger Painting of Indonesian Pop Culture

A former basement on Jalan Senopati has now become a glimmering center of the capital city. Who would have thought that this clean white facade of the building would hold such a surprise inside. The bright red-walled interior, leopard-skin patterned furniture, and disco lights hanging in several corners of the room welcome every visitor—as if inviting everyone who comes to forget the hustle and bustle just for a moment. Not only does it offer entertainment, this place has organically grown into a meeting point for cross-disciplinary creatives. Founded in 2018, ZODIAC is now a barometer of Jakarta's social excitement. Michael Killian is the man behind these frenetic scenes.

Born in Jakarta, Michael, at the tender age of five, moved with his parents to Jayapura for work. The island of Papua itself is not unfamiliar to Michael's family, considering that Michael's father hails from Fakfak. Michael's childhood could not be further from the hustle and bustle of the city. Influenced by his father's passion, Michael often watched football and action films. In his spare time, he often drew soccer team jerseys and weapons that he saw in said action films.

His father, who, early on in his career, worked in advertising, seems to be the person most responsible for Michael's interest in the visual world. Around the age of six, little Michael was introduced to logo compilation books by his father. "When I was little, when I played with my father, the game [we played] was more like looking at the books and then choosing by column which logo I liked the most," Michael recalled of his childhood. “When I was little, I didn't even realize that this was what graphic design was. But actually from there, when I got older, looking at those [logos], I had my own interest, which I think is memorabilia from when I was little."

Michael's interest in the visual world grew as he got older. Not really fond of exact sciences, in junior high school he was certain he would join a graphic design study program by the time he went to college. In the middle of his academic journey, just a few months after entering high school, Michael decided to stop attending classes. "I feel like I just didn’t enjoy the lessons. I thought 'Well, why should I continue?' So when I was in high school I was basically left idle and was just waiting to graduate. That’s when I took the Paket C1 [exam]," Michael said.

In that period of not going to school, Michael felt he had ample time to consider and be sure in his decision. He used that time to look for further information about the university major and campus that would be right for him. Understanding what his son wanted, his mother gave her blessing and supported Michael's decision to stop going to school, take the Paket C exam, and pursue higher education at the Visual Communication Design (DKV) department at Pelita Harapan University (UPH). "I also promised myself that this is what I like and [so] I have to go all out when I go to college and achieve my dream of becoming a designer," he recalled.

In 2011, entering his fourth semester at university, he decided to study while working at a two-year-old restaurant called Potato Head. “I would come in [to work] from the afternoon until night. So I’d be at work from 1 p.m. and head home at 7 or 8 p.m.. So I would sign up to the earliest lecture times scheduled. If I'm not mistaken, the earliest lectures at UPH were at 7:15 a.m. So I just kept going until 12 o'clock. After that, I went from Karawaci to Potato [Head]'s office, which was still on Jalan Ciasem, Kebayoran Baru. I went home at night to do my college assignments," Michael explained.

According to Michael, at the time, most DKV graduates would build their careers at design studios or agencies. However, he chose to work for Potato Head because he saw considerable potential in the business unit and felt he would gain a lot of experience that he might not have had if he had chosen to work in a design studio or agency. “I was there for seven years. What I learned there was actually a development process. They can actualize their vision and mission at the start. Potato Head can be said to treat the company not like a restaurant, but as a brand," Michael explained. "What's even more interesting, and beyond my expectations when I was working, I ended up learning about the F&B business. To this day, my company is at the intersection of F&B, fashion and design.”

In between studying and working, in 2014 Michael and six friends created a music collective turned fashion label, Pleasure. Michael said, “Some of my friends happened to have just returned from studying [abroad]. When they returned, they felt that the party scene in Jakarta was really stale. Back then it was called clubbing. Even though you don't have to be ‘too clubbing’ either. It should be treated more casually, more intimately. Just for fun, we eventually made Pleasure.” This initiated event was held regularly every three months by inviting their closest acquaintances. At each edition of the event, they released exclusive t-shirts only sold at that event. Receiving a positive response and through a network of friends, enthusiasm for this event increased. They also started inviting DJs from outside Indonesia.

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In 2015, a collaboration offer Pleasure came from Dover Street Market. "It turns out that this kind of fun can also become serious and we never expected it," Michael commented. Since then, Pleasure has been treated as a fashion label. Events began being held outside Indonesia, in countries like Singapore, Japan, and France. In 2018, after seven years on the job, Michael decided to quit his job at Potato Head for another adventure. “Seven years is a long time. I don't want to end up feeling like I'm staying in my comfort zone. In my opinion, there are still many things that can be explored further and I felt that Pleasure has great potential," he said. In the same year, Pleasure also opened a showroom at Paris Fashion Week.

It looks like 2018 became a crucial year for Michael's career. It was also in that year that an offer was made to utilize a former parking lot on Jalan Senopati. He turned the place into a bar. It took Michael just about three months to create the concept and execution of the space. "Well, why not give it a go? Just make it fun while I have plenty of time. I could run it and I think this could be something fun. Eventually, we made ZODIAC there," Michael said. "And when I created it, I didn't think that this [ZODIAC] would become a real company."

Beyond an interest and skill, design deeply permeates Michael's mindset and methods of developing ideas. Broadly speaking, just as crucial as working on the designs themselves are structure and communication, which he always emphasizes in many things including business. Regarding how much of his work is intertwined with design and fashion, for Michael, graphic design and fashion are things that will always be connected. "When I'm working on a graphic design project, I will always think about the fashion elements in it and vice versa," said Michael. 

When working with a team, Michael considers references to be an important point as a common foundation. References can help teams that consist of a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds and expertise. In this way, they all start from the same understanding of each project being worked on. Michael also has his own method of distributing his ideas to the team. “I will always tell you what my vision of what the output should look like. I will also explain what kind of communication we want to convey," Michael explained. Aside from that, he considers storytelling to be a significant point in the creative direction he builds. "In my opinion, within an idea, storytelling is very important because with storytelling, in the end, no matter who it is, no matter what their background is, they should be able to understand. The [comprehension] will differ from people [who work with] visuals, operations, marketing, [public relations] if we don't deliver it with proper storytelling."

Meanwhile, as a graphic designer and creative director, Michael sees the significance of the story and vision of a project when handling both personal projects and those involving clients. “First thing above everything else is the story. This is the most important thing in my opinion. What does the term 'behind the kitchen' really mean? The second is the vision," Michael opined. “From every project, whatever it is. In my projects with the team or with clients, I will always dig for or want to know the story behind it. The story can vary. It could be the background of the people involved in the project or what influenced them to want to make this project in the first place. Because in my opinion that is the base. From that base, we will then translate it with several other elements into a concept," he explained.

Aside from being one of the founders and creative directors at ZODIAC, nowadays Michael is also involved in HYPEBEAST Indonesia as managing director. Michael himself still pursues commercial projects with the studio he built. In all forms of projects he handles, he believes that good design is functional, relevant, and able to communicate the designer's ideas. For him, graphic design will continue to develop. Looking at the last 10 years, he feels that design has become an inseparable part of life and, in the current era, people will increasingly be aware of the design’s importance. In Michael's view, the things people see and touch in this digital era are all products of design.

Reflecting on Michael's work in the creative world, his ideas have given color to popular culture in Indonesia. His creative thinking brings graphic design to broader horizons than previously thought. Through his flavors, graphic design is stirred in with various other creative elements in just the right composition.

1Paket C (lit. package c) refers to the Indonesian equivalency exam equivalent to a high school degree usually taken by those who do not have access to the formal education system.

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About the Author

Daud Sihombing

Daud Sihombing has been writing professionally for the past 9 years. This fervent alternative publishing enthusiast prefers his quaint little town over the hustle and bustle of the city and doesn't let sleep stop him from watching every single AS Roma match.