Kat Zhou, Product Designer
To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're proud to present a special series of In the Spotlight to celebrate API creators and the community. Today's headliner is Kat Zhou, Product Designer for the Design Platform team in Stockholm. Put on your headphones, hit play, and read along!
Questions & Answers
Why are you a designer?
So...I became a designer because I failed at almost every goal in my five-year plan from five years ago. Five years ago, I thought I wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I actually started off studying public policy and ethics, focusing on codified racism and refugee resettlement. Halfway through college, I realized I missed having a creative outlet and impulsively switched to design (shoutout to my parents for encouraging me to tinker around, make stuff, and tell stories as a kid and for not freaking out that much when I later bid law school adieu). Policy and design are more similar than not, since they both exist to solve problems—although designers are a helluva lot more fun than policy wonks, in my humble opinion. I believe that, as designers, we have the privilege and responsibility to advocate for accessible and ethical products as well as empower the marginalized in the systems we impact. Also, five-year plans are silly.
Describe your job at Spotify without using the words "design" or "designer."
Currently, I’m scaling up Backstage, an open-source platform for developers. At Spotify, we use Backstage for all the rad stuff that you don’t see in the music app—machine learning, experimentation, and more. Now we’re creating a version for engineers at other companies to use. What I love about my job is that I get to work with not only an incredible team of folks at Spotify, but also a thriving external contributor community from all around the world. There’s something so inherently democratic about building in the open in a truly participatory way. When I’m not building our core user experience and defining the components and patterns in our language, I’m using systems thinking to figure out sustainable processes for our contributor community. My biggest takeaway from this challenge: when you’re building in the open, you’re going to make mistakes in the open. And that’s okay. Communicate clearly and keep on moving!
Show us a picture of your desk, and explain why it looks how it does.
My WFH setup has been a work-in-progress during quarantine. For context, I had just moved into this studio right before COVID-19 escalated in Stockholm, and nearly everything I owned was still on a Very Slow Boat in the Atlantic. In the past two months, I’ve finally made this place feel a bit more like home.
Haven’t gotten around to ordering a desk yet so I currently repurpose this vintage Scandinavian table as my workspace.
Noise-cancelling headphones are a lifesaver, especially when your neighbor decides to RENOVATE THEIR ENTIRE HOME.
Notebook to doodle! It’s always nice to have a break from looking at a screen these days.
Loose leaf tea! I’ve only had coffee twice during this WFH period, please clap.
Not pictured: the monitor that I occasionally haul up onto the table for more screen real estate when my laptop isn’t enough.
Always have a book by my side.
Tell us about a time you beat an intimidating design challenge.
My biggest challenge happened right after I became a designer in tech. At the time, I had naively jumped on the Technology Revolutionizes The World™ bandwagon. As you can imagine, I got disheartened after reading about how certain companies were doing the...exact opposite. My disappointment turned into frustration as I heard the same discourse about why we needed ethics in tech, but not what we’d do to actually get there. That’s how the <Design Ethically> project was born. Part framework, part toolkit, <DE> helps product teams analyze the ethical ramifications and forecast the consequences of their products. Collaborating with the AI Design team at my last company, I got to pilot <DE> methodology with our product teams. Bringing ethics to our industry in a meaningful and impactful way that centers the most marginalized folks is certainly not a checkbox item, which is why <Design Ethically> is an evolving project.
Name three non-designers you feel inspired by when designing.
Grace Lee Boggs
I wish I learned about Grace Lee Boggs in my history classes. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she later went on to become a dedicated activist in the Civil Rights Movement alongside her partner, James Boggs. Her last book, “The Next American Revolution,” was written in 2011 and it’s still so relevant.
I know nothing about American football, but Colin Kaepernick is such a fantastic example of someone who has the guts to stick up for the right thing - someone who puts the community first.
Ocean Vuong has this way of storytelling that is absolutely raw. A recent quote of his that’s been on my mind these days: “We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.”
What would your self-portrait look like?
“Sensei” (sculpture by Fujikasa Satoko)
“Hate is a Virus” (face mask campaign by Uprisers)
“Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain” (painting by Guan Daosheng)
“Self-Portrait” (painting by Pan Yuliang)
Young girls at protest to support Huey P. Newton (photo by Roz Payne in Oakland, CA, 1969)
Editors of Gidra, a radical, activist Asian American publication (photo shot in Los Angeles, circa 1970)
“border/softer” (poem by Ocean Vuong)
ungovernable no longer a citizen
to any of the names assigned my body
“The Next American Revolution” (book by Grace Lee Boggs)
The world is always being made fresh and never finished.
“Remarks by the First Lady at North Carolina A&T University Commencement” (quote by Michelle Obama)
We’ve got a responsibility to live up to the legacy of those who came before us by doing all that we can to help those who come after us.
Any final shout-outs or things you'd like to share?
First things first...Happy AAPIHM!!! ✊🏼 If you haven’t already, check out Spotify’s "Our Roots, Our Sound" campaign for some good vibes.
Secondly...we are living through a pandemic, and this is a difficult time. Many folks have been impacted by COVID-19, and it is more than okay to take time to grieve and process. For those of us who are lucky to be able to WFH comfortably and remain relatively safe - should you have the means to do so, here are two ways to leverage your privilege and support causes that are near and dear to my heart.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Bystander Intervention Training: This is a series of webinars that focuses on safe ways to intervene if you see Anti-Asian and Asian American harassment in person or online.
Know Your Rights Camp: COVID-19 Relief Fund: If you’ve got some extra wiggle room in your wallet, consider donating to this relief fund, which is working to offset the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on black and brown communities.
My tweets are 50% this kind of stuff, 40% ethics in tech, and 10% design shenanigans.
Our latest in Inspiration
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Meet Hui Yuan, Product Designer for the Data & Insights Platform team in New York.
We interview Senior Product Designer, Janey Lee, about how she's learning to uncenter herself and her experiences from her design practice.
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