Ask a Designer: Kathy Zheng
Q&A with the illustrator and GitHub product designer | Framer.com
I met Kathy Zheng in the kitchen of a cozy old house on a tiny island in the Oslofjord at Bakken & Baeck’s An Interesting Day conference. Kathy is a San Francisco-based product designer at GitHub focused on the discovery and contribution experience in open source. Most of what she’s working on now will be shipping for their annual conference GitHub Universe.
In her spare time, Kathy maintains a blog called Make A Fox that showcases her vulpine illustrations to much fanfare on Tumblr. I spoke to Kathy about her background, mentorship, how games can help with problem-solving in design, and her advice for designers just getting started.
How did you find design?
Like a lot of other people around my age, I was introduced to the joys of creating on the internet via games and platforms like Neopets (HAHA). I obsessed over websites that were dedicated spaces to anime and subsequently I created assets to trade — buttons, banners, Neopet graphics, pixel sprites, and the like. I’d share my favorite sites, or shrines as they were called, but most of the ones I can remember have long been shut down.
When you see people making things you love, you want to make those things too. I ended up making a few crappy sites of my own during that time with a limited understanding of HTML and CSS. I didn’t make the connection that this could be my career until nearly a decade later, when I was in my fourth year of college, studying toxicology of all things.
Which hobbies or experiences have made you a better designer?
When I started in my first professional gig as a designer, I had the most amazing mentor who prioritized my growth, elevated my work, and was always my advocate. But the mentoring relationship never had to be explicit. I feel that everyone I work with now is a mentor in some capacity. You can always learn from someone else when you work together. I feel that if I’m part of a group of people who cares about the same problems but have very different skillsets and experiences, I am going to feel myself pushed in ways I can seldom experience on my own.
The biggest positive influence I have is the people around me. But I can point to hobbies like illustration, reading, and games as repeatable sources of inspiration. I think games are great examples to turn to when you’re looking at problems like onboarding, storytelling, and repeatable mechanics. I see them as the intersection between so many difficult problems that, when done well, you should strive to learn from. Games can provide examples of empathetic, immersive experiences as well as dark patterns and lost opportunities.
How have you dealt with failure over the years?
I think that this came with understanding that I have weaknesses and limitations as a designer. It was also necessary to understand the role I played in the ecosystem, whether that was an organization or a team or a side project.
It was really hard for me to accept failure in my first two jobs, where I lacked that perspective and was entirely driven by the desire to solve meaningful problems, design great experiences, and keep a steady vision. Anything short of that gave me immense frustration, and I simultaneously did not know how to solve for the root of my frustrations. Dealing with the problem meant knowing how to introspect, communicate, and empathize with the ecosystem around me.
What do you think your greatest strength or weakness is as a designer?
There are various design skills that I’ll always be trying to improve on — ideation, communication, systems design, establishing visual language — but I think a core problem lies in my wandering focus. I think I get excited about new problems very easily, and there are always so many new things I want to work on and old things I want to improve on. It’s a strength when I have ample time, but it turns into a self-imposed stress vector when I evaluate my time poorly and end up not accomplishing anything.
Do you have a design mentor or someone who has influenced your work a lot?
Going back to the earlier question, I would say I have several mentors, explicit and passive. Everyone I work with helps me get better in numerous ways. I often find myself surrounded by people better than I am — at design, product, engineering, maybe in life?
At GitHub, I think there are so many opportunities for passive mentorship. For example, discussions and decisions often happen in writing on GitHub, since employees are distributed. This means that you have to be able offer context and a framework for productive conversations through your writing. Since so much knowledge is being transferred in asynchronous discussions, you can be learning from what and how others communicate.
What advice would you give to designers just starting their careers?
Give your time to opportunities that help you grow. This means jobs, side projects, collaborative work, and new experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, as there are a lot of people who are willing to lend you a hand. Always seek to get better at something, and recognize when you need to recharge :)
This is the second piece in a series on beginnings and getting started. Read Frank Chimero’s Q&A and stay tuned for more.