Product Designer at Khan Academy


ElizabethLin (Product Designer at Khan Academy)

Elizabeth is a Product Designer at Khan Academy designing experiences for the classroom. When not designing, you’ll find her talking about Alexander McQueen or giving unofficial tours at the SFMOMA.

San Francisco, USA • June 7, 2018

What led you into design?

This is the first logo I designed! I drew it with MS Paint for my “Design Agency” on Neopets. (In case you’ve never played, Neopets is a virtual world of pets, petpets, and petpetpets 🐶.) I learned how to customize my profile page with basic styling and created custom banners for my Neofriends. In fact, I credit Neopets for introducing me to life skills & drawing graphics on a computer.

Growing up, I didn’t really know what design was. I just loved being creative and making things. I chose to study computer science in college because I thought I wanted to specialize in computer graphics, “drawing graphics on a computer”. Clearly, I had no idea what computer graphics actually entailed.

Throughout my time at Cal, so many clubs, events, people, classes, and experiences contributed to my discovery of design. This is a graphic I made my junior year that tries to piece together my path to understanding design:

What does a typical day look like?

It really depends on where I am in the design process! Typically, only a small portion of my day is spent iterating in Sketch or Illustrator. The rest of my day is a combination of co-sketching, design critiques, classroom visits, and teacher interviews.

What’s your setup?

As you can see, my monitor is more of a bookend and bulletin board 🙃

Where do you go to get inspired?

I love going to museums for inspiration because exhibits are both concentrated and immersive. One of my favorites is the Dia:Beacon right outside of New York City. Because the museum is in an old factory, they have the space to display large Minimalist installations and sculptures. The experience is so magical 🧝‍♀️✨

Untitled, by Dan Flavin - Photo by @varunrau

If you want to experience something similar in San Francisco, you can walk through Richard Serra’s Sequence for free on the ground floor of the SFMOMA!

Sequence, by Richard Serra - Photo from SFMOMA

If you’re lucky, you might catch me giving an unofficial tour there.

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

Photo from Reformation

The shopping experience at Reformation on Valencia in the Mission is amazing. It’s hard to explain in words, but you add items to your “wardrobe” by asking an associate or by using their touchscreen monitors. When your dressing room is ready, your items are magically in the wardrobe inside the room. You can even continue shopping with the screen inside the dressing room!

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I worked on a prototype for an in-class review game last year. I really loved this project because it was so iterative and fun to design.

Conceptual exploration for an in-class review game

More recently, we had a Harry Potter-themed Hackweek and I illustrated some materials for it 🧙🏻!

Crests for each Hogwarts House Khan Academy edition of the Quibbler

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Khan Academy offers content across math, science, and the humanities. It’s difficult to balance designing for all these domains. For example, in the teacher product, math and history teachers define mastery and success differently. Math is more easily evaluated with exercise questions while history depends heavily on critical thinking skills. Our team isn’t large enough to design separate experiences that optimize for every subject, so we have to design an experience that’s flexible enough to accommodate for all teachers.

I’m currently designing a way to surface student performance and progress to teachers in all subject areas. This is a view that teachers can project while students are doing practice in-class. Because the progress bars here are anonymous, students have a shared sense of accomplishment when an entire skill turns gold.

This is still a work in progress!

What music do you listen to while designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

There isn’t a formulaic way of becoming a designer! Many designers are self-taught and don’t have a degree in design. The designers on our team have backgrounds all over the board: art, finance, chemistry, and computer science.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Khan Academy is currently looking for senior and principal designers to join our team! Take a look at our listings if you’re interested.

Also, if you’re looking for a puzzle game to play on your commute, check out Monsterz!