Kurt Osaki is a graphic designer and founder of Osaki Creative Group. He studied at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and went on to create brands for Fortune 500 clients, including the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets. Before taking part in a Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” panel discussion in Honolulu, supported by the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, entitled “Does Hawaii Have America’s Strongest Sense of Identity?” he chatted in the green room about childhood beach trips, an athletic approach to life, and being yourself.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
I love to read biographies. I’m on Phil Knight right now, Shoe Dog, and it’s very interesting because he came to Hawaii. That was his first stop after Stanford, before he started Nike. Hawaii influenced him; he actually almost stayed. I love to read about how people fulfill their dreams, went through their struggles, got through that, the effect they made on other people. It inspires me.
What’s one of your happiest childhood memories?
I have a lot. I’m lucky, I have a real good family, and we did a lot. With my parents it was all about us. My happiest memory was simple: It was just going out to the beach every weekend. And now I appreciate it so much, because I know how much time it took for my mom to make food for us, my father to pack up all the fishing gear, come home and clean it up. I realize how much they went through every single weekend to provide us with those memories. We definitely weren’t the richest people, we were definitely middle-class, but I felt like we were the richest people.
When are you at your most creative?
I know a lot of people who say, “In the shower.” The shower does help, because it sort of confines you to a place and isolates you. But I think I’m most creative just before I go to sleep. I wake up at all parts of the night thinking about ideas, creative solutions, because I don’t think I have any distractions around me. It’s just sort of me and myself there.
And what do you wake up to in the morning?
I wake up to stress, knowing what I have to face. It’s stress, but exciting stress. I was an athlete in high school, not a great athlete, not a good athlete, but I love sports. And I kind of approach life that way, like coming out of the locker room. Every day is a new day; yesterday was yesterday. I’m going to move forward, and it’s exciting, and I could do something that maybe is going to influence other people in the work we do.
Was there a teacher or professor who really changed your life?
There were a few. I’m originally from Kauai, which is small, moved to Oahu, went to the University of Hawaii, didn’t know what I was going to do in life. Finally, I took a class in Design 101, and I got this instructor, Clem Lagundinao. He reminded me of Yoda. He really never said much, but whatever he said had a lot of strength behind it. He made probably the biggest impact in my life, when I left the university and went to California, to ArtCenter. The day before I left, I went in there in my slippers and shorts, and he was kind of ignoring me, and all of a sudden he looked at me and said, “Aren’t you supposed to be in California?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m leaving tomorrow.” And he didn’t say anything for a while, and then he said, “I bet you’re scared.” And I said, “Yeah, a little bit.” There was a lot of pressure at the school I was going to go to. And he said, “I bet you’re worried that you’re going to look different from other people.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I bet you’re worried that you’re going to be dressed more casual than the other students because you come from Hawaii.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m a little bit concerned about that.” And he said, “I bet you’re worried about how you speak, with Pidgin Hawaiian.” And I said, “Yeah.” And all he told me was, “Don’t worry about it. Just be yourself and you’re going to do fine.” And I took that all the way through my entire life, just being myself.
What do you value most about being from Hawaii?
I know the word ohana is used often, but for me it extends a little bit more. It’s not just about the immediate family, it’s about the friends, the people around you. Hawaii brings people together; people protect one another, people care for one another. My sense of ohana is about working together. I always feel like when I’m in Hawaii it’s hard to fail, because you’ve got so many people supporting you. I think the world needs a lot more ohana.