Who says you have to choose between science and art? Designer and illustrator Susan Lin prides her work on the harmonious intersection of the two, and how multiple passions and disciplines can actually inform you to create better work in all of your fields. Read her interview for her insights and advice on pursuing creative passions in a technical world.
For our readers who may not know, what is Treehouse, and why is it awesome? What do you do for them?
Susan Lin: Treehouse is an online education company, primarily focused on teaching anyone how to code. The company is notable for the four-day (32 hour) workweek. I’m a product designer. My day-to-day involves sketching, illustration, UX flows, and/or code. I was attracted to join the team for the work life balance. They’re a company with a mission to do good. It’s important to me that I do work that is not focused on selling users’ eyeballs. Granted, no workplace is going to be perfect, but the team is doing a lot of things right. For example, everyone gets the same excellent benefits, not just technical employees.
From your career to your speaking to your hobbies, you are extremely involved and passionate about the intersection of technology and art. Tell us about the work you do and why you think it’s important.
SL: Career-wise, I’m a designer who codes. I’ve never been able to pick just one thing because everything is related! My design philosophy is very influenced by my experiences building styleguides since they sit on the intersection of design and code. I am an advocate of creating designs in systems because it scales.
I’m also an advocate for diversity in the field. One reason it’s important to be involved in varying fields is to keep perspectives fresh. The tech industry is weird to pose the stereotype that individuals are one-dimensional. No one from the art world, for example, assumes I can or can’t do something based on my appearance. That hasn’t been the case in tech. I strongly believe you can pursue everything you want to pursue, and be as good as you want to be at each passion.
In addition to design, I’ve spent time making games, needle felting, and more intensely, painting. It’s important to branch your interests, because it ignites neural pathways you would never ignite by only doing one thing. Your interests end up being more related than you originally think too. Recently, I gave a talk on this very subject which connected my background learning how mix colors with oil paints with building styleguides for tech products.
What are your hopes for your future and the future of your work?
SL: Gosh, I really don’t know. I do know this I would like to keep doing what I am doing. The end game isn’t to quit design for art or vice versa. The end game harmoniously makes all my worlds meld together with meaningful work. It’s important to me that what I spend time making has a net positive on the world.
Can you describe one of your proudest moments since becoming a creative?
SL: It’s touching when someone reaches out and tells me my words had impact. Recently, my friend Elisabeth got a new job where she’s a developer. In her announcement post, she cited my tweet about dropping “pretend” from “pretend developer” as a source of inspiration! Oops, that wasn’t particularly about my creative endeavors. Similarly though, every time someone starts drawing and cites my posts as inspiration is also touching. I find the contagious effects of creation rewarding and I’m proud to be one of the positive influences.
What’s one of your biggest career challenges, and how did you overcome it?
SL: I’m a mega-introvert. I abhor talking to people and still convinced to this day I’m just faking great conversation. The internet helped me meet like-minded people. Getting to see updates and interact with folks online made it much easier to meet them in person. I’ve become great “in real life” friends with many of the folks I’ve met on the internet!
I also learned that it is okay to be silent during large meet-ups. I became more comfortable with my nature and happy with my workarounds to get the same engagement out of the community. If I want to have a deep conversation, it’s not so intimidating to ask someone to meet me later for tea back online. Sketchnoting was another great hack. I originally started posting doodles during events as a way to have speakers and attendees excited to talk to me. Some very kind organizers have let me join their post-event dinner as a result of seeing my sketchnotes! For someone who had just moved to the area and joined the industry back then, it was a big boost in my self confidence. Now I have a whole process around sketchnoting and have had paid engagements sketching at conferences.
Is there something specific that sparked your interest in your field?
SL: This is going to be really cheesy! The first moment I wanted to make anything was when I was five. I watched My Neighbor Totoro and got immersed in its world. This is why my personal branding is Totoro Hat Girl. Every skill I’ve pursued has been an enabler for me to try to build a similar immersive world. Tech was originally attractive to me since there was potential to both build those worlds and change this world for the better.
Why is it essential for underrepresented demographics in or entering the creative sphere to have a supportive community?
SL: I personally grew in an environment that believed you had the options of being a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure. I ended up being none of the above, but believed I was a failure for a long time. We need more examples of diverse people who grow up doing successful creative work. There is a lot of power in seeing someone who might be future you. It is so important to have an inclusive community, because you can’t assume anything about anyone. You don’t know what kinds of backgrounds they might come from and their personal struggles to find themselves. You have to trust that if they are here, they want to be. A community that assumes nothing and welcomes you is vital.
Do you have any advice for young girls interested in design and illustration?
SL: Skill matters, talent doesn’t. Build skill by making more things. Make things more often. You should be creating something and looking back on it in a few months and thinking, “Wow, I’ve improved so much!” Talent helps certainly, but I guarantee that it’s eclipsed by a driven individual’s mad obsession to keep making things that are incrementally better. How do you get better? Embrace your creative blocks. Self-care is incredibly important from both a physical and mental standpoint. A creative block is nature’s way of calling in a moment of self-reflection. In order to improve, you need to stop between sessions and think about those steps. Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself.
All photos courtesy of Susan Lin.