Joanna Ngai

Joanna Ngai — Microsoft

Seattle based designer, building stuff for the cloud. Freelance illustrator, sporadic painter and tea drinker. She frequently writes about design on Medium.

What led you into design?

For the longest time, the idea of a creative career wasn’t considered an option.

I had enjoyed doodling, arts and crafts as a kid, so as I grew up, it was a natural transition into Photoshop and later, Illustrator. But I grew up with the impression that pursuing a creative career meant living in a permanent state of instability, something that was essentially equivalent to the phrase “starving artist”, so in my mind, it was never practical to pursue a creative career. I also did not know that “design” was a job, and lumped it together with art. It was only later in college that I discovered design through several friends already in the design program.

I took a leap of faith and switched into design from a science track and have considered it to bone of my better life decisions. I look back on my experiences in a Psychology/Biology lab as training to be more curious about different disciplines, analytical about data and precise in what I produce for my deliverables.

What does a typical day look like?

After waking up, I drink water with lemon or tea and then cook some sort of healthy food (usually the same thing everyday) while mentally going over my plans for the day. I check my schedule and reminders on my phone. At the office, I check emails in the morning and also spend some time scanning Techmeme or NPR.

Something that regularly happens to my immediate team are design crits. We do crits within our studio, within a larger studio and also monthly, an even larger share-out. I think that’s the challenge and opportunity in a large company, there are so many groups and maintaining communication and collaboration does takes time. After that, it really depends.

I try to be intentional about how I use my time, not attempt to do everything at once and journal so I can reflect at the end of the day.

What’s your setup?

At the office, I have a large monitor as well as my PC laptop, all on an ergonomic desk. I like to be in a clean environment, with lots of random items I made myself: a 3-d printed BMO, laser cut coasters and emojis, doodles, succulents and lots of cute stuffed sheep plushies (from a researcher on my team).

I rely heavily on OneNote to stay organized and enjoy custom icon sets (as you can see from my dock).

Where do you go to get inspired?

Colossal - A Webby nominated art/design blog

The Garage - A makerspace for Microsoft employees with lots of fun tools: laser cutters, 3D printers, CNCs, hardware supplies, etc. I spend time trying to learn how to use everything, or working on a side-project (currently I’m learning to make an LED cube).

I tend to browse Pinterest, dribbble, Medium and Quora for different ideas. I also read quite a bit (though I’m trying to transition into audio books/podcasts so I can give my eyes a break from too much screen time).

I find that learning different topics (outside of design) creates a nurturing environment for ideas, so I read up on whatever I happen to be curious about. Knowledge can be pictured as a tree, where you are always making new connections and associations with things you’ve already learned. So you can strengthen your design “branch” by exploring other fields like marketing or psychology.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

When I think about a product that has both beauty and utility, I think of the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

I know vacuuming is one of the mundane activities that you wouldn’t normally bring up in a conversation, but personally, I believe ordinary household items are the things that can benefit most from great design (side note: I daydream about living in a MUJI home). Before, I was struggling to haul up a mess of tubes, cleaning brushes and other tangled cords and now, everything just works...it’s a very satisfying feeling.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

What I currently work on gives me lots of excitement because it’s new and unknown. I don’t dwell too much on past work but looking back, I am most proud of the moments where I took risks and that is not exclusive to any one project.

Another area where I feel proud of myself is public speaking, though it’s not a piece of design work, I have always had a fear of speaking in front of any large audience. I was given the opportunity to do so in front of an audience of 2,000 (including my college design professor) at AIGA conference 2016 due to being a designer.

I am proud of myself for facing challenges and taking risks in areas where I know there is still room for improvement.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Maintaining perspective. By this I mean transitioning from a mindset of an independent designer to understanding a team/group/organization/company goal. Knowing these larger goals helps you get more perspective. If you just focus on your day to day, you will still get things done but may not be designing with the right priorities in mind.

The cloud is a technically challenging space, so I spend quality time listening to the researcher/lead PM to find resources or to get a basic foundational understanding of a new project. It’s okay to not know at first, and there’s no need to be shy about asking questions or for more help/resources.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Seek out mentors. Dream big and take practical steps toward your goals. Assess what is important to yourself often, and make adjustments. Don’t be afraid to ask for an introduction or ask for help. Communicate and take risks.

From a mentor: work will always be there. Have perspective. You have time for what you make time for.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I write about design on Medium, and have an ongoing mobile series with daily UX inspiration. I also have a book on design thinking.

Something that I’m excited for is a new series I’m working on with several inspiring female founders. It will launch on Medium, so be sure to check it out.

Aside from that, I’d like to encourage other designers to give back to your local community. Invest in your community and others, and it will reap good things.

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