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Vandana Pai, Senior Product Designer

November 2021

Article

Spotify Design Team

To showcase our band members, every now and then we put a Spotifier in the limelight. Today's headliner is Vandana Pai, Senior Product Designer for Freemium in New York. Put on your headphones, hit play, and read along!

Questions & Answers

Why are you a designer?

Like so many designers, I’m drawn to making things. I find satisfaction in pouring my energy into creating something (tangible or digital) that is useful, helpful, or inspiring. Though it all began with the designs I made for my Neopets websites (definitely useful). 

I redirected to something more “traditional”, so I planned to go into medicine, then biomedical engineering, and finally public health — clearly I was a bit lost. The common thread here is that all of these paths relate to helping people. I think at baseline, I’ve always been passionate about connecting with others in a meaningful way. I’ve loved being able to learn about people’s problems and help solve them in creative ways through design.

I consider myself to be an inherently curious person who loves to learn, so being surrounded by lofty ideas, experimental visions, and technical design is important. Design is an enormous and varied field — there is so much talent and so much to learn that it constantly pushes me to grow. It fulfils both the creative and analytical parts of me.

Describe your job at Spotify without using the words "design" or "designer."

Since joining, my focus has been to ensure the messages our listeners receive throughout their Spotify experience are relevant, personalized, and engaging. To do this, I create tools that enable Spotifiers to do their job efficiently and effectively. These tools help Spotifiers to organize, manage, and create what they need to reach millions of listeners seamlessly! 

Lately, I’ve been exploring what being a “top fan” means, and how artists can better connect with their biggest supporters. I’m putting my research hat on to figure out how we can strengthen the relationship between creators and fans through fun interaction opportunities. The goal is to incentivize users to engage with Spotify by rewarding specific behaviors.

Show us a picture of your desk, and explain why it looks how it does.

  1. Ergonomic mouse: Sometime in 2020 I started developing horrible wrist and forearm pain… it’s not “aesthetic”, but it’s absolutely necessary.

  2. Tea: I am always drinking tea — no coffee for me (ew). Black tea in the morning, green tea or chai in the afternoon, and herbal tea at night. My sister, mom and I have these matching yellow mugs.

  3. Pothos plant + candle: I love the white marbling on this pothos. I became plant-obsessed during the pandemic, like everyone else. They add so much LIFE. Also, warm woody scented candles, because sometimes you need to work with a vibe.

  4. Picture of my grandparents: I lived with my grandparents in Bangalore, India for about 2 months when my grandpa was sick. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I love this photo of us at one of the botanical gardens pretending to be monkeys.

  5. Quirky face pots: I’m obsessed with these little face pots from Mexico. They’re so cute. This is definitely a mezcal shot glass I’ve repurposed for succulents.

  6. Notebooks: For sketching, writing, and ideation. Figma and typing don’t always cut it.

  7. Pens and markers: I have a lot more, but they are there for when I actually do any lettering art.

  8. Thunderbolt monitor: I just liked the aesthetic of this more than a regular monitor, so I hunted one of these down on eBay. I took this photo in Switzerland while hiking the Hardergrat trail.

  9. Desk lamp with smart light bulb: This color-changing bulb is the best white elephant gift I’ve gotten. Again, sometimes you need to create a vibe.

Tell us about a time you beat an intimidating design challenge.

My most intimidating design challenge comes from a previous job when I was a junior designer. I was owning an entire flow that was one of the most important actions a user could engage with on the platform. Needless to say, I felt a lot of pressure to create something perfect. The stress grew as countless opinions weighed on my design decisions, the most intimidating coming from the C-suite. I was really struggling with giving in to pressure to appease people, versus the fear of saying no and following what I knew to be the best direction.

It was a lesson in not only leaning heavily on data and research to prove hypotheses but also following my intuition. I learned to find the confidence to say no and explain why the proposals I had designed were the best direction, even if they went against what a CEO might want. Especially early on in my career, it was hard to confidently stand behind my design decisions when there were far more experienced and knowledgeable people in the room — but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or that your opinion isn’t valid.

Name three non-designers you feel inspired by when designing.

  • Hans Zimmer: Without a doubt, he is the greatest composer of our lifetime. I really admire his ability to evoke specific emotions and create entire worlds through his music. I’m in awe of his creative genius. Drop me in any setting, from pushing pixels to hiking through the mountains — and the otherworldly strings or booming brass of Zimmer’s orchestra will push me and drive my imagination wild.

  • Mrs Brasher: The one teacher who had the biggest impact on me is Mrs Brasher from speech and debate. I’ve always been in awe of her vivaciousness and commitment. Her tough love broke me out of my little, shy shell and helped me to find my voice. She inspires me to always bring that energy and confidence into everything I do.

  • My mom, among all other immigrant women and mothers: There’s a special strength that immigrants have, and more specifically, the mothers who have left their homes to live and raise kids in an unknown place among people who don’t look like them and don’t speak the same language. I admire the strength it takes to be a strong, independent woman in patriarchal communities. Namely, it’s a daily reminder that I can be working 10x harder.

What would your self-portrait look like?

Any final shout-outs or things you'd like to share?

Shout out to everyone in my life who has supported me and inspired me. Especially to my parents!

You can find me on Instagram at @vandanapai_ or @lifeofpai.jpg, where I post designs occasionally. Or, babbling randomly on Twitter.

I love reading, so here are several books I’ve read recently I want to pass along that have impacted me: 

Design

    1. The Design of Everyday Things by Dan Norman Probably the fundamental design book I tell everyone to read if they’re thinking about becoming a designer or want to understand that design is not just about aesthetics.

    2. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans When I find myself feeling restless and lost, I use this book to reevaluate my life and goals based on design methodology!

Fiction

    1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara I have a love-hate relationship with this one because it’s so emotionally taxing. I’ve never been so consumed by something. It’s incredible.

    2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett I really enjoyed the themes of biases, identity, and race in this. Great food for thought.

Non-fiction

    1. Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas One of the more impactful books I’ve read this year that has completely shifted my perspective on fast fashion, capitalism, sustainability, and the environment.

    2. A History of the World in 6 Glasses Book by Tom Standage The number of times I’ve referenced this book is embarrassing, but I love this unique lens on history through liquids.

Memoir

    1. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner Ugh, this one broke my heart. Just a must-read, especially if you’re first-gen.

    2. Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard I love Patagonia’s CEO telling his story about being a reluctant leader and how to run an environmentally-friendly business.

Credits

Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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