Interview: Katherine Liu on Books, Blogs, Empathy, & Facebook Design

Photo credit: Katherine Liu. Katherine Liu is a product designer and illustrator at Stanford. We asked her a few questions about her work for our design/shine interview series, a new series from Envato highlighting talented women in the industries of design and technology. The name of the series is a nod to shine theory, a concept that’s been used across many industries and fields, and even recently by female staffers in the White House.

What do you do, and why do you do it?

Katherine: I’m a digital product designer studying Symbolic Systems—basically, cognitive science with a heavy technical bent. My background as a product designer comes from my time at Facebook and Salesforce, helping design workflows and interactions for different interfaces and systems, but I also do a lot of illustration and graphic design work on the side for fun. I love design because it’s a type of problem solving that places huge value on people. It’s a challenge both in terms of figuring out strategies and in terms of empathizing with other people and trying to build something that will help them.

How did you end up studying the field of design?

K: As a kid, I had always loved art, and in high school my friends and I used to mess around on Photoshop and Illustrator on the school computers. I started doing a bit of graphic design (although I didn’t know that’s what it was), and I spent a lot of my free time making posters and digital collages. By total chance, I met someone who introduced me to the company where I got my first UI design internship, which was an amazing, chaotic experience—I had no idea what I was doing since I had only been making posters before, but somehow they trusted me enough to redesign their entire website and client system! That was really my first taste of how design could extend beyond the printed page, into something living that people can interact with. I remember being really, really excited the first day our new website launched with all my designs! But I think that the problem-solving in design, listening to users and trying to work toward a goal—all of that has always appealed to me.

What are some of your favorite trends in design lately?

K: I’m not sure if this counts as a “trend,” but I love that there has been more and more awareness surrounding accessibility in design recently. There’s been an article going around lately about how the web is becoming unreadable, and companies like Khan Academy are building accessibility visualization toolkits that help designers and developers understand what it means to create for a wider audience.

Tell me a little about some recent projects you’ve been working on.

K: I’m probably the most proud of the work I’ve done at Facebook and Salesforce, but I can’t talk about them in detail since some of those features are still being built (so exciting)! Although most of my work is digital, I also love working with paper—I’ve been doing a lot of risograph printing lately. Something that I really enjoyed making recently was my set of “Good Vibes” scratch cards. Life always gets pretty stressful around the middle of the school year, and I wanted to give people something surprising and cheering—each scratch card is exactly like a lottery card, but the “prizes” are encouraging messages. I’m also working on a set of mini travel guides from my recent backpacking trip in Japan, a zine collection about happiness and reflection, and a series of illustrations supporting feminism!


If you had to give an aspiring designer one book to read, what would it be?

K: There are so many great books, it’s hard to choose! But one of my favorites also happens to be the first book I had ever read about design, Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug—I remember reading a little bit of it everyday during my first internship, and it really shaped the way I think about usability. This book helped me realize that design is way more than visuals, and just how much power and responsibility we have as designers.

As a student, what direction do you see the field of design going in the future?

K: I think that design is going to be more and more about setting the vision—this is heavily inspired by Julie Zhuo’s article on the future state of design. People are starting to realize the value of design at the very early stages of any product or organization, so we’re already heading in the direction of designers being leading voices in determining the vision for what’s being built. I think craft and execution are still critical skills to have—that’s part of how designers communicate their vision—but the job of design is definitely no longer going to be something like “just make this look good.”


What blogs/sites are your must-reads for creative inspiration? Design aside, what else inspires/influences your work?

K: My favorite places to go for creative inspiration: It’s Nice That, Typewolf, looking at old signage when I’m traveling, my Instagram feed. I also love reading—the books I read are a huge source of inspiration. My goal for 2016 was to read thirty books this year, and I’m on book number twenty five right now! I do read a bit about design, but I also read quite a lot of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Currently, I’m working my way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace and reading a few poetry collections by Jane Hirshfield and Billy Collins. Reading a story is like being carried into someone else’s world for a few hours—it builds empathy, and it’s a nice change of perspective from my own day-to-day routines.

All photos and design by Katherine Liu. 

Read more interviews from this series: 

Brittany Jezouit

About the Author Brittany Jezouit

Brittany is a Contributor to the Envato blog. She helped launch the publication and was its founding Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @brittanyjezouit.