Jenny
Fan

Jenny is a multidisciplinary product designer, researcher, and artist currently at Palantir. Her work focuses on designing for complex systems ranging from visual programming tools to democratic digital governance mechanisms.

she/her • New York, United States • January 6, 2023

What led you into design?

In some ways, I think my appreciation for design developed backwards in time, starting from an early love for digital technologies that led me to deeper appreciation for graphic design, design of artifacts and the built environment, and visual culture at its core.

Like many digital designers, my journey into design originated from a childhood love of art and fascination of being able to use technology to craft entirely new worlds. I may sound like a dinosaur now, but the online communities of Web 1.0 (and the tools used to build it) were such a rich and fertile ground for free play and experimentation. I remember painting in Microsoft Paint, pixel by pixel, to make my first computer wallpapers when I got a few moments of precious computer time as an 8 year old. When online communities like Geocities, DeviantArt, CSS Zen Garden, and various online forums and blogging communities proliferated in the early aughts, I got totally sucked into the scene. I often hear from musicians that the communities that they ran with in their teenage years influenced their work long into their careers. The same holds true for me: though I eventually developed an appreciation for the aesthetics of graphic design (especially typography!) and interest in many more tenured branches of design like industrial and architectural design, I will always think fondly of the pre-templated, maximalist web of possibility, full of marquee text and glittery cursors.

CSS Zen Garden first opened my eyes to the power of how much CSS could change front-end.

What does a typical day look like?

I'm in a hybrid office setup and also tend to work in bursts, so no day is typical. Because I am juggling a full time job with (usually) a number of side projects, I tend to have phases where I am sprinting on a certain project to get a side project done before moving onto the next thing -- sometimes it's designing a sweatshirt for a client, doing some cool digital graphics for a conference, or pouring myself into literature review for an academic paper. The toughest part is balancing when and how often to meet. Meetings are necessary and beneficial to build consensus and also just be a good human and enjoy building something together, but it can also be a big friction on your day. Having done some PMing in my life, every Product Manager with a packed 8AM-8PM calendar full of meetings has my sympathy and admiration -- I don't know how you do it.

A mindset shift I've really enjoyed since the early days of pandemic lockdown is thinking of my mind as a garden, not a machine -- it meanders and has unexpected growth, sometimes with patches of emptiness and other moments of fertility. To me, this is the antithesis of Pomodoro timeboxing, unhealthy work culture, and commoditizing one's time as money. I've been trying to find ways to still be creative and productive while rewiring how I think about time. It's natural to be distracted some days, so on those days, I'll do more mindless tasks or spend it connecting with coworkers at the office to find inspiration and stay connected. If I have to think through complex product design problems (and as a designer of complex tools, this is often the case), I have to clear out everything and work in total silence, often at home. But my favorite "phase" is when I have a larger patch of uninterrupted time and have a perfectly scoped task at hand, like a set of Figma mocks that I have a clear idea of what needs to be made and I just have to build it, or grinding through the early parts of a website build. I can get into a flow state and crank things out, only to look at the clock and see that 4 hours have passed.

What's your workstation setup?

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I used to have a dining table but now I just eat crouched on my coffee table. (I know that chair looks uncomfortable. It is.)

Where do you go to get inspired?

Something I'm reading randomly on the web will usually catch my attention and inspire me in an aesthetic way, and lately I've noticed that a number of thinkers I like to follow know each other, like stumbling upon nodes of a scenius (communal genius, as described by Kevin Kelly). Sometimes the scenius is somewhere physical, like NYU's ITP Summer Camp, which I attended this past year and not only met some incredibly inspiring artists and designers but also learned about the artists that inspired them in turn. One featured work was from the artist collective 100 Rabbits, who are doing really interesting creative work at the intersection of technology and sustainability (and lifestyle experimentation, as they do a lot of their work remotely on a boat floating around the world). That's incredible, and I'd love to learn more about what designers and technologists can do to reimagine the energy impact of our designs.

For tactical design topics, HeyDesigner is one of my favorite newsletters. When it comes to visual style, I really love the aesthetics of Cargo (their weekly newsletters are also always unexpectedly poignant, kudos to whoever is writing it). Instagram is also a great source if you can get the algorithmic overlords to recognize a certain style that you're interested in, and the app will keep serving up interesting related styles. It's a little spooky, but I think somewhat productive way to collaborate with algorithms to finetune one's creative practice. But there's never a better way to beat the filter bubble and discover something you didn't know you liked than to browse through bookstores, record shops, and vintage shops. I'm lucky to live in Brooklyn where there is so much interesting signage and graphic culture.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

The last thing that really gave me pause was Low Tech Magazine's Solar Powered website. I love how holistically it thinks about design, all the way up to the energy sourcing of the server that runs it. And the fact that it goes down sometimes? *chefskiss* This idea was brilliant, and I've been trying to learn how to replicate it.

Low-Tech Magazine's website is served off a solar-powered server and has visual cues to indicate when the battery is low. The styling (text, dithered images) are all designed with consideration to its energy footprint.

I'm also a fan of Obsidian, a personal knowledge base tool that takes simple Markdown files and allows building cool graph views of linked topics (what can I say, I'm a sucker for a good graph view).

I love tools like Obsidian with the unlimited upside and flexibility, but the start-up efforts of setting up your notes to be useful in this view is definitely daunting.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

For the past 5 years, I've designed the conference websites for HarvardxDesign's annual conference on topics in design and technology. It's always fun to think about how to represent abstract concepts like "power" and "reality" in design, and the conference team is always great to work with in giving me freedom to explore the theme. Read more about the project on my website

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I spent 3 years working on Quiver, a complex analysis tool, which was one of the most challenging projects I've ever had to work on: dozens of overlapping primitives, complicated user tasks, hundreds of features, and a superpowered dev team that moved very quickly. Learning how to build a design system and product vision for this complicated tool taught me so much about rapid iteration and product thinking.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

The design challenges that come to mind are all relate to needing stronger partnerships with product managers. I think the two forces need to work hand in hand to create effective products.

1. Done is better than perfect: Product thinks in MVPs; designers need to maximize craft within the constraints of the team. It can be hard to define "good enough" but that's necessary in rapidly moving products.

2. The spherical cow: Design has some luxury to smooth out edge cases in the demo/mocks, but they still have to be addressed in the product. This can be challenging when working on complex products with many edge cases.

3. Boiling the ocean: Tackling deep product debt can sometimes feel like boiling the ocean. Focus and targeted efforts can make these efforts much more effective.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Learn how to learn. Design is an inherently interdisciplinary and changing discipline. This is especially true for product design, which will have ever evolving user/industry demands on top of aesthetic trends. I was originally a self-taught designer so when I finally went to grad school for design, I expected to be bestowed knowledge from the hallowed halls and instead was redirected to 400 hours of YouTube tutorials like how to make a Blender donut (truly legendary though, a 3D design rite of passage). Schools and workplaces are most effective as ways to learn from talented peers, so being amongst other designers and product thinkers can really accelerate your growth. Stay curious and have fun!

Anything you want to promote or plug?

It's pretty lowkey but I'm experimenting with making things in all sorts of mediums and posting about it on IG @supra_liminal (or my portfolio: www.jennyfan.com).

interview