It’s a monotonous Sunday afternoon as I log in to the video conferencing client for an interview. My twenty three year old guest has a very inspiring journey of getting into design from offbeat career fields and has faced a lot of hardships her way.
She is the founder of one of the largest design communities in the world – Design Buddies – and a UX designer at Electronic Arts. I had been reading about my guest on the net, stalking her on LinkedIn and following her other social media presence for a while and was prepared for a grim discussion around her ventures and the struggles she’d had to face as a student in high school. Alex Cornell’s ‘I’m on hold’ played in the background as I waited for her in the call.
A couple minutes later, a vivacious girl enters the meeting room with a chime and greets me with the most cheerful smile ever. My apprehension and the preparedness for a stern, serious interview vanish in an instant.
The most fun and laid-back interview with Grace Ling has just begun.
So, Grace, everyone knows your journey post Design Buddies. Tell me something about your childhood, your family, where you were born, and how you got into doing all the things that you’ve done?
Yeah, of course. So I was born and raised in San Jose, California, right in Silicon Valley, right in the middle of like, a lot of engineering, and law tech and stuff. Growing up with both parents as professors, they always encouraged me to pursue higher education and get a PhD as an engineer. But I never imagined myself doing any of that. I’ve loved drawing anime and manga, drawing comics, and playing games. And I was never very studious, I’d just draw, and kind of be like the class clown and disrupt everyone. I never really cared about my grades. I was like a random kid who screamed in class being cheeky and goofy with everyone else around you.
My parents had to bribe me to actually try and school and the only thing that would motivate me to actually try was video games. So that’s what kind of got me into gaming.
This is even more amazing. Because looking at the tonnes of achievement you have in studies, which you were not even interested in initially.
Grace (with a chuckle): Yeah. And then in high school, I ran cross country and track, and I got really competitive and running. And then I had a lot of dreams to run in the Olympics one day. Around the same time, I started my blog on Tumblr called IRunGracePace. I was actually bullied a lot as a kid as well, just because a lot of kids in my middle school and high school were really into engineering, medicine, science and all that while I was just into games and different than everyone else. And so I was bullied really badly because of that. The blog that I started, talking about my struggles being bullied and how I was left out on my team and overcoming that, kind of went viral. And I got a lot of followers through that. That got me into blogging. And then in college, I studied, I came into college as a bioengineering major, something I had never thought of, because I was interested in running. I was also convinced by my peers that I should study engineering. Influenced by that as well I took bioengineering because I wanted to learn how to biohack myself to run faster. That’s really fashionable, running, and I want to learn the ins and outs of a human body. So I could optimise myself to run faster.
You have a knack for juxtaposing different career paths, right? So, you got into bioengineering to use that to become a better athlete. That’s amazing! How did you get into design after that?
I was a junior in college a third year undergrad, and I decided to go into game development, virtual reality game design development. And then I got an internship making VR games to train surgeons doing surgery at Intuitive Surgical. I thought I wanted to go into software engineering just because I like STEM. I graduated from college in June of 2019 but didn’t really know what I wanted to do after that, and continuing my Master’s in computer science and engineering. And it was then that I kind of got into design. I found like this online design class and really enjoyed it and decided to pursue that.
Awesome! So tell me a bit about your family.
So I have a younger sister who’s three years younger than me. She always like, got really good grades. And I was the one who only drew without any focus on studies.
You’ve changed career paths, like thrice. How do we really know that you’re not going to be switching again and that your heart really lies in UI/UX?
I don’t plan on switching. I feel the most happy now. The other paths that I tried like medicine, research and software engineering I soon realised that I didn’t like being in those paths. But after like two internships as a full time role in design, this is my final destination!
Great! So do you still hold the dreams of running the Olympics one day?
One day, one day, I was actually supposed to run to the Southeast Asian Games representing Singapore but then I got injured so that didn’t happen. But maybe one day!
Grace, what is this obsession with bunnies? How deep does this rabbit love go?
Really deep actually! I’ve always liked bunnies. I just feel like it just reflects my personality. I just like bunnies because I feel like it’s a reflection of me.
In UI/UX, we talk about discovering users’ pain-points, right? What would you say some of the pain points of UI/UX designers are?
Yeah, I feel like UI/UX design is relatively new. And a lot of people are getting into it right now. And just like how I was unsure on how to go about it, because design is like, a way of thought and not something that can be taught much. And so, getting into UI/UX is tough.
And also in terms of design communities. From my personal experience, design communities aren’t very welcoming if one doesn’t have a design degree. When I was enrolled in a boot camp, people didn’t take me seriously. I thought they kind of just looked down upon me. And so that’s how I created Design Buddies. And I founded it with a mission to make it inclusive to anyone interested in learning design. Ever since the launch in April 2020, we have about 15,000 members now. And I realised that a lot of people felt the same way in other design communities – judged. So I think I solved other people’s problems as well by solving my own.
One of your projects was Selfie while you were a bio engineering student, right? A virtual reality game which shed light upon the gender gap in STEM. Do you think such a gender gap or bias exists in the design world as well?
Interesting. I personally don’t really know and I haven’t looked at any stats. So I don’t really know about that. But I do see a lot more females in design compared to STEM. Like my classes in computer science were like, a lot more males compared to females. But in my design class there were mostly females. I definitely feel like it is a good and diverse field but I haven’t personally experienced it.
Okay, so what inspires Grace to be a better designer. Do personal experiences inspire her designs?
Yeah, I just like improving people’s lives, I guess I feel like I’m really passionate about, like, I really like games and community, and what actually comes from actually being bullied a lot growing up. And that’s why I’m really passionate about building inclusive communities that are safe spaces for people. So they will experience the same thing. So I’ve been on the other side and know how it feels. And so that’s what drives me to keep rolling on. And we’re also really interested in games specifically, because I love games.
Great. So, last question, what do you think is the role of art and aesthetics in UX design?
Both. So art is just like expressing oneself and design is like solving problems. And I definitely feel like the user experience had a design like tapping into that human aspect that art expressive acts, but it’s important, but it’s also important to making sure that it’s actually solving the users problem. So I definitely think both art and science have an important role because of that user experience and the human aspect to it.
This article was last updated on November 26, 2023; Originally published on February 23, 2021