What led you to becoming a designer?
When I was ten, Neopets were the craze. Neopets is like an online game for creating your virtual pets. They had pet pages, and every month they had contests for the best pet pages. And obviously, to customize your pet pages you had to know a bit of coding or know a bit of graphics. The winners were always people who customized it to the max, and entered all this HTML code in their pages. I wanted my pets to win and I thought, “Why not give it a shot, I'm artistic.” So that's how I started teaching myself HTML.
I remember it was summer, and I was attending a Chinese school camp, and it was so boring. So I grabbed my Dad's HTML 4 book. At the time that was like the new HTML. I sat in class reading and I just downed it. It was so interesting to know how to manipulate web pages. That got me started building web pages, not entire sites.
And then, when I was thirteen, I kinda dabbled into Photoshop because I was wanting to make my own graphics. I was into art, I was a painter at the time as well. My dad was working for a cell phone company, sort of like a startup. The manager wanted some graphics for a cell phone app and my dad said, “Hey, my daughter knows Photoshop.” So he hooked me up with a contract, a fifty dollar contract. And that was like, the biggest bill I'd seen handed to me as a 13-year-old (laughing). I was like, “Oh that's great, I have no idea how to make icons.” So I hit up my favorite designers and looked at their work, talked to them a little, and just started building stuff in Photoshop from then.
What advice do you have for designers just starting out?
I'm going to borrow from my experiences as an entrepreneur and say, “Fake it till you make it.” Don't let your lack of experience become an excuse that can hold you back. What you lack in experience, you can make up in enthusiasm, ability to adapt, and the willingness to work hard to learn.
Also, a lot of people starting out their careers fear that they won't be taken seriously because of their age or status as a student. Looking back, some people I've worked with may have judged me because I was young. That's okay, it will happen, and it's been fun proving those people wrong. The most important thing is not letting such experiences affect your mindset. Other people can do the judging, but don't let it undermine your own value.
“Don't let your lack of experience become an excuse that can hold you back. What you lack in experience, you can make up in enthusiasm, ability to adapt, and the willingness to work hard to learn.”
What is the most difficult aspect of design?
For me, the barrier I often run into when designing is my work not living up to my tastes, and I end up not releasing it. I think it's an issue that a lot of designers and creators alike struggle with. Sometimes I look at something I'm working on and think, “This does not represent my full potential as a designer.” And then I scrap it. Ever tried to design your own portfolio?
Quality and attention to detail is important, but I think meaningful design comes from a motivation more powerful than the need to satisfy one's own taste. Like solving a problem you care deeply about, or fulfilling a burning vision that is going to yield something awesome in return. When you weigh out the benefits of releasing your creation versus giving into perfectionism, you can then convince yourself that what you are releasing to the world is more important than your personal desire to make things look perfect. Which goes back to what I said about design being a selfless endeavor. I truly believe that great designers are obsessed with a transcendent motive that drives their work.
What do you value most about design?
I think many people have the impression that to appreciate good design you've got to be an elitist who's gone to a prestigious art school. I think design at its core is a selfless practice and generous endeavor. Nature has ingrained in all of us to find harmony in well designed things, much like how we can't help but to be attracted to certain features in other people. When you take a plain A4 paper and trim a few inches off one edge, the paper now looks awkward. This is the perception of design at work. You don't need a design background to appreciate this. Taste is universal, and the job of the designer is to uncover what makes people tick. That in itself makes design a rewarding pursuit.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Tough question. I tend to internalize a lot of my accomplishments. But in context of where I am now, it's probably ditching school to do a startup. I recently gave a talk in my college in front of people who might otherwise be my classmates had I not made the decision to put school on hold. I realized just how much I've learned during the eight months outside of school.
“The worst you can do is limit yourself because of what other people told you.”
Was quitting school a difficult decision?
It wasn't really a tough decision at first. It kind of made sense for me to take some time off and really explore what I want to do outside of school. I was sort of in a stuck position at the end of my third year at university. I was freaking out about my thesis. Well, I didn't have a thesis back then, but I was freaking out about the prospect of doing a thesis. I didn't know if the courses were interesting to me in fourth year. So on the school side of things I wasn't too sure where I was going. And then, outside of school, I was really enjoying the freedom of putting all my energy into building something that mattered to me.
I just want to explore that further and see if I can take this skill set somewhere further. I want to develop something that will be useful to people instead of putting energy into my own education, when I didn't know where that was going.
It's kind of like you're building your own education through experience.
Yes, that's what I've been doing all along with design and development. I just read tutorials and go ahead and build stuff. That's the optimal way for me to learn. When I was put in a school environment, there were some courses that taught me one thing or another, but I was never an academically oriented individual. I could never really put one hundred percent of lecture material in my brain, crunch some magic stuff, and make it work. I have to sit down and actually build something in order for me to make it happen.
“Taste is universal, and the job of the designer is to uncover what makes people tick. That in itself makes design a rewarding pursuit.”
How did you become involved in Vizualize.me?
I was friends with one of the co-founders before we started Vizualize.me. I was actually right out of school. I went to an internship, and I met him on my internship. He and I went to Startup Weekend, and that's where we met all of our other cofounders, and started building Vizualize.me that weekend. And it took off, so we all quit our jobs and that's where we started.
So you didn't leave school immediately for Vizualize.me?
Yeah, my intention after my third year was to take an internship and see if I enjoy the industry. I wanted to get out of town as well, so I moved from the small town where my university was to Toronto. I just wanted to network more, and be more involved in the tech community, as well as the startup community. It was also a goal of mine to join or start a startup. I guess it works out that it was a pretty easy transition from school to a startup.
Did you feel a lot of support when you were quitting school and moving to Toronto?
In terms of my friends who I told, “I'm not coming back to school,” at first it was like, “Oh ok, you're crazy Hannah, what are you doing with your life?” I found that there's always a place you can fall back to, and people will always support you if they're your true friends. Just do what's happy for you and there are always people who will support and embrace that. Also in Toronto I've made a bunch of friends. The funny thing is, outside of school, everyone's older than me. At first it was a shock. Eventually you find common ground, and it's great to have these people around me.
Do you ever feel out of place because of your age?
I work in a coworking office. It's like an incubator setup where you have a bunch of smaller companies in a big space. It's mostly business people, so you hear people shouting on the phone all day. There aren't many designers that I interact with on a daily basis. There are some startups in Toronto that are focused on experience design, and sometimes I get their feedback on things. But I always have to go out of my way to meet other designers.
In terms of age, I find that it's not that big of a deal. I guess people always assume I'm older than I am. I guess it's good to let your work speak for itself. If people judge you, it's their problem and it shouldn't get in your head. The worst you can do is limit yourself because of what other people told you. From my experience, people haven't really judged me or limited me because of my age.
It seems like you're getting to do what you love.
Yeah, it's startup life so it's really up and down. Sometimes you hate your game, sometimes you feel like you're on top of the world, almost. But it's a worthwhile tradeoff from being a student, or working in a large company slaving from nine to five. Right now I'm at home and it's pretty chill. I can take any day off, and just stay home, and take my calls at home as well. It's a lot more flexibility and you integrate it into your lifestyle. Your work has to matter outside of work for you to grow with what you're building and what you're working on.
What are the lasting impressions you want to leave with your work?
I've always found it humbling when someone else draws inspiration from my work and uses it to create something of their own. Kind of like paying it forward in creative energy. I guess that would be the best kind of impression I'd like to leave with my work.