Freelance Engineer
Tatiana
Mac

Tatiana is an anti-disciplinarian designer who (pre-pandemic) spent most of the year away from home, working from cafés and airplanes, and building an open-source dictionary to encourage reflections of a more inclusive world.

Portland, United States • February 25, 2021

What led you into design?

Strangely enough, I learned all the early tools as a 10-year-old because of my parents’ business. I’ve always been mathematical and artistic, and yet, design was never my desired profession. I explored potential careers in law, journalism, and psychology, graduating with majors in math and environmental science.

When I realised my degrees did not make me employable, I emailed every single person I knew with a customised email asking how my design services could help them.

What does a typical day look like?

Because I am an ultimate free-spirit and work independently, I learned how to craft the most successful week for myself. Each day of the week looks different. I strike a balance between flexible boundaries that allow me freedom of choice, while enforcing some structure to keep me focused.

As I experience depression, I plan my week forgivingly based on where my mental strength and emotional energy is progresses:

Admin Mondays:
Goal: Clear inbox and to handle detail-orientated logistical work for the weeks ahead.
Emails, contract and proposal writing, invoicing, calendaring, travel planning, clear any Style Dot CSS (my online store) issues.

I clear my inbox every single Monday.

Strategic Tuesdays:
Goal: Focus on infrastructural aspects of all projects, strategising approach for week.
Work on my self-funded, Open-Source Software (OSS) projects: Self-Defined Dictionary (plan what words to launch, respond to pull requests), Devs of Colour (structural pre-work for database for developers of colour), and Style Dot CSS (pre-set products for the week).

Working Wednesdays:
Goal: Complete design and writing tasks. Ideally, I’ve determined what I need to design or write already, and it’s about execution.

Tactical design work and technical documentation work for all projects (personal and contract), personal writing (anything from talks, #RhymesForTryingTimes, my blog, to an interview, to a Twitter thread). It’s important to me to have a day that focuses on writing, as it’s restorative and critical to my design success.

Creative Thursdays:
Goal: Explore freely, often not associated with any projects.

Illustrating my plants or fun phrases I came up with. Much of my store materials comes from free play that I allow myself. Sometimes I leave the computer and do something completely tactile, like paint.

I also use Thursdays to design whacky alt versions for client work.

Forced and Free Fridays:
Goal: Clean up the tasks that didn’t get done.

I’m a monster with procrastination. Friday is the day that I force myself to do ugly tasks that I didn’t do throughout the week. I also allow myself some Friday free days where I do whatever I want.

What’s your workstation setup?

Because I spend most of my life away from home, my office set up has to fit in my bag. I miss having multiple monitors, but have learned how to navigate multiple OS Desktop settings very well.

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I keep my desktop clear at all times. One part of this is that I am private and that I never know when I’m going to plug into a giant shared monitor for a conference talk/client presentation; the other part is because I work very hard to eliminate distractions in all of my tools.

When I install a new app, I downgrade all of the notifications to none, then slowly escalate up. I only retrieve my mail via fetch, do not have text/Telegram notifications turned on, and allow absolutely no social push notifications.

As an international speaker, I also carry a lot of dongles and cords. My Zero Grid case keeps everything organised.

Lastly, my brain can go in a tonne of different directions, so I keep a very kempt Notion workspace for literally everything

Where do you go to get inspired?

I go to museums of all kinds, no matter what kind of city I am in! I try to honour the artists from the places I visit. One of my absolute favourites was Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico City. I hold a lot of respect for design in other media. Viewing architectural and industrial design reminds me of how humans take up space. When you work in the digital arena, it can be easy to forget the physicality of things. Luis Barragán thought of light in a magical way—how it moves and developes throughout the day. Nooks in the house honour this, illuminating statues and otherwise forgotten architectural details.

Getting dressed daily provides me with a source of inspiration. Taking time to set up an outfit photo most days allows me to play with composition, colour, and form in a low commitment manner.

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I get outside. Whenever I get stuck on a code problem or am feeling stuck on a design, I go for a walk. Even if it doesn’t always solve my problem, I at least end up with a few more steps and having met some new dogs.

I’m very privileged and blessed in that I spend most of my life travelling, which means that I’m constantly being inundated with new colours, sounds, textures; architecture, art, fashion.

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

I have been on the hunt for the perfect coffee table for the last decade. I finally found it this week, and of course, much to my chagrin, it is not for sale.

What is appealing to me is that it’s slatted in such a way that it can expand to the width you need. The function is at once not obvious, aesthetically, and also obvious enough to not require instruction.

To me, great design is the prioritisation of accessible function over all else.

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What pieces of work are you most proud of?

Unfortunately, most of the work I’ve done in my career is just for capitalist gain. I’m most proud of the work I’ve created that has supports my ethos.

Directing and photographing a shoot for Teocalí in Oaxaca was one of my seminal works. I love design systems and product design, but nothing beats solving physical problems. While computers sometimes feel sentient, working digitally tends to be less destructive and more controlled. When you’re dealing with a photoshoot, you have rain, wind, light, bugs, access, tired models, etc. Much of that is completely uncontrollable, so you learn how to plan, to adapt and to seize opportunities.

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I’m proud of the shoot because it was a small set up. We were scrappy, but I feel the narrative we told is rich, nuanced, and colourful.

I’m also really proud of my dictionary project. Part of the challenge I gave myself was to select system fonts first, then progressively enhance the font-stack with more elegant faces. Doing this allowed me to ensure that when fonts don’t load, the experience is still thoughtfully designed.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

My boss is a disorganised wench!

In all seriousness, the biggest challenge working independently is that I have to be very diligent and self-motivated to get things done. The price of ultimate freedom is ultimate freedom. If I choose to go on an all-day hike in the middle of the week, you better believe I will pay for it by working on the weekend. Beyond client work, I don’t have someone who will get mad at me if I don’t meet my deadlines for my own projects. Finances are also a struggle, because cash flow is erratic.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Spend time reflecting on and researching the ethics behind the work you create, for whom it is created, and by what financial means. More and more we’re starting to see the impact of tech corporations that are explicitly contributing to the imprisonment of children (through providing tech to ICE) and by perpetuating human biases (as is the case with police databases that falsely connect recidivism with racial bias).

It’s easy to disassociate the impact we have as designers, because we’re constantly told that our work is to make things beautiful. But we, along with all our peers, are complicit in whatever work we do. I wish more designers took that power seriously.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Style Dot CSS. I enjoy a good pun and a good outfit photo. I combined my hobbies into a little online shop and sartorial project.

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Self-Defined. I’m very proud of this dictionary project and its future plans. I sincerely believe that social progress begins with the words we use. The intent of the dictionary is to evolve as quickly as the words we use to define us. Future plans will include Twitter and Slack integrations that will help correct ableist, racist, sexist, etc. language.

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