The Heart of Tech: Design for People

June 20, 2018 • Design

Two months ago, I moved to Sunnyvale, CA to join a user experience team as a visual designer, so I had to take a break from blogging about designing for tech to actually designing in tech! 

My transition began when I first got a one-way ticket to San Francisco – can you believe that was over a year ago? From volunteering at tech events to figuring out how to lead design for a tech non-profit, finally starting my first corporate job in the tech industry was a coincidence with my April feature on Georgie’s Hey Girlfriend! series about women in tech.

Looking out of my workplace to a very green Sunnyvale.

Since I’m learning so much about what it means to design for tech, I’ve been putting together this post over the last few weeks (work life means I have about half an hour of free time every night ) to talk more in depth about why I got into tech, how to be creative in tech, and how it reflects my experiences and passion so well.

My Hidden Disability

Not many people know that I can’t really hold a pencil. I can sign my name on my credit card receipt but it is impossible for me to draw anything on paper. I had an injury when I was 20 which left me with a weakened grip.

At the time I was in college, so naturally I searched for ways to compensate. I put all my energy into web design because it didn’t require any handiwork, and I even learned learned how to code. Video games helped me gain a bit more motor function back over the years, but I don’t know if my hand will ever be the same. Most of the time I get away with it, as we hardly ever need to write these days.

I would only use Adobe Illustrator whenever I had to draw, and I developed a rigid art style purely with vector graphics. It worked, some of the time. I specialized in drawing faces, which is why my graduate thesis contained 40 character designs.

Self-portrait of my various looks.

When I learned the latest technology now can mimic pen pressure for drawing, things changed. If I didn’t have to worry about the limits of my hand, I could instead focus on being more creative with my art. I didn’t have the resources to buy new equipment at the time, but I started following tech-industry designers to adopt their style with whatever tools I had, hoping that I’d get there too.

Once I started my job, I knew it was time to upgrade to the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil! 

The iPad Pro makes it so easy to sketch anything, such as calligraphy!

The iPad Pro is an amazing tool and I absolutely recommend pairing it with the Pencil for illustration work. It’s not a small investment, so if you want a more affordable option, the good news is that the Pencil also works with the newest regular 9.7 inch iPad. What everyone forgets to mention though, is that the iPad Pro has a special surface laminated just for the Pencil, which means it’s much, much easier on your hand. The extra cost was a toughie for me, but I’m so glad I went through with it. Using my iPad Pro at work has allowed me to try drawing a lot more freestyle.

Me at work, blending in with the carpet.

Illustrating Trends in Tech

When I first started designing, manipulating images in Photoshop was the way to go. And then digital design slowly took over. It seems like in the last two years, illustration in particular has blossomed as the number one way for the tech industry to tell a story.

Illustrating scenes with people allows for possibilities that would be much harder to execute with real life models. These days, just about every tech company has embraced a particular style – simple, flat colors and organic body shapes. This style promotes freedom, diversity, and inclusion through visual association. Not to mention, having unlimited control of color allows the imagery to fit better with the grander design and brand!

I put together some illustration examples used by leading tech companies on blog posts and other parts of their product to help people understand them better! Which one is your favorite?

Screenshots taken in product or compiled from Mailchimp, Ueno, Asana, Atlassian, and Yelp.

Design Mentality in Tech

So why does tech work so hard to be inclusive? I learned that it’s because products are meant to be used by everyone. Thus, tech designs for everyone. And everyone includes people from different life backgrounds, different ethnicities and cultures, as well as what’s often overlooked – people with disabilities.

Before I got into tech, I only knew to focus on what the design community felt was good. For most creatives, art symbolizes feelings and self-expression – and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you choose to be in tech, I believe it’s a part of yourself you’d have to sacrifice, and instead channel that creativity to come up with solutions for people.

For example, a person in Japan might not understand an American metaphor. Meanwhile, someone who is color-blind may not appreciate low-contrast. That means I can’t design something understood only by an English-speaking audience, and I can’t use colors in a way that would be hard to see. I used to love blending pastel colors and even this blog design is guilty of it. Oops.

Designing in tech means following a standard defined by other designers, backed by user research and engineering. “Useful before unique” might sound like a big creative block, but now that I have to do it, I see it like any other design challenge. 

Design for People

I think it’s nothing short of a miracle for me to work in tech. I don’t exactly consider myself to have a disability, but tech definitely changed the way I see myself as a creative. Five years ago I didn’t think I would design again, but now I’m encouraged that through many ups and downs, I’m even able to be here.

As for my future – I don’t have my life planned out yet, but I’d love to be able to use design and tech to address needs beyond what I see in my life here in Sunnyvale right now. I want to break traditional mentalities about creative careers and say that there is always a way, a way someone’s creativity can make a way for someone else. I really believe every hand is necessary. Everybody’s talents have to be used to design for everybody.

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4 Comments to "The Heart of Tech: Design for People"

Hiro wrote on 21st June 2018 at 5:40 AM

Woo hoo! I think I’ve already said this, but congrats on your new job! 🙂

And yay for Universal Design/considering the A11y-ship of designs!! It’s definitely a hot topic these days, and especially with my company, since we partner with the city, people are having to learn really quickly what it means to be creating ADA compliant and accessible products!

And great thing about universal design is that in general, accessible designing makes it better for EVERYONE to easily utilize the product/design ☺️ What benefits us ends up benefitting society as a whole!

I never really sat back and thought about the whole “tell a story trend,” but it looks so obvious when you put them all together like that! Wow! 😮

Hope you continue sharing your discoveries on the intersection of techXaccessibility!! (My favorite topic! 😆)

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Georgie wrote on 15th July 2018 at 11:26 AM

I love the topic you explored here! I think it’s great that you are writing about it in light of what you’ve learned in your career so far. It’s true that a lot of companies use illustrations to convey meaning but yep, they do need to be accessible to everyone 😊

I’ve always loved Dropbox’s illustrations, but I do admire the work of Alice Lee, whose illustrations are really famous. She did some illustrations for Dropbox many years ago, the ones that most people might recognise!

The reason I stopped using the aqua/teal colour on my blog is because it’s not accessible. I couldn’t make it work well and have enough colour contrast with white (and it didn’t look appealing with black), so I went for a deeper blue and favoured large typography for my new blog design :’)

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Pauline wrote on 21st July 2018 at 11:39 AM

I really enjoyed reading this post and getting an understanding of how you got into technology.

I never knew about your hand injury, but it’s honestly so inspiring that despite this you’ve turned it around and now an incredible designer! 🔥 Congratulations on the job btw too. Onwards and upwards!!

My favourite design is the Google Calendar one for sure. I love all the different images that come up whenever I add a new event to my calendar e.g. adding “gym” has a cute gym design – it’s so aesthetically pleasing.

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Claudine wrote on 3rd September 2018 at 9:28 AM

I really enjoyed reading this post! I never knew about your hand injury at all and it really surprised me that you had that condition 😮 But it’s so nice that you learned to work around it and it’s amazing that technology has helped you do what you love to do despite that “disability” <3 Congratulations on your new job!

I'm in love with the Google Calendar illustrations and it's part of the reason why I'm using it, it's so pleasing to the eye <3

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