Karen Ko — Adobe
Karen is a UX Designer based in San Francisco and is currently working at Adobe for the Creative Cloud team. In her …
Design is seeing how it's done, and then doing it better.
So, we all know a lot of stuff is done wrong.
I get perturbed whenever things aren't as they should be. By now, things should be easier for more people. Taking care of yourself shouldn't be demoralising. Living shouldn't be full of bullshit systems with misaligned incentives. Design, for me, is a means of being put into a system, reacting, and advocating one's self out of confusion or discomfort. Intent and execution is best when both are excellent, and aligned, and it's disappointing how obfuscated these pathways are, and intentionally so.
I feel like we all want the same things—to feel the sunlight, to frolic, to make meaningful things, and to be there for one another. It's quite a predicament, then, that profits are created by separating us from what we need, and then putting paywalls in between to access it again. It keeps us sick, and creates little value besides what is ultimately taken and co-opted.
Exploitation, colonisation, and environmental injustice linger in our infrastructures. The 'might is right' mentality has seeped into the groundwater of our society, the violence colouring every interaction.
I think it's radical to believe in love, and to care. In fact, this is the side of life that has always been here, otherwise we wouldn't be here.
Being a designer is a wish for a better world. I would rather feel agentic than bottled up and numb. My sensitivity, craft, and wish to share are my favourite things about myself, and I would like to surround myself with those who are on the same path.
As we plummet into one of the most existentially challenging few decades of human history, we have to stay kinds. I don't think of humans as good or bad. I think we just want to survive. Maintaining our empathy in times of challenge and instability can ensure that the best of human nature can come out. I am growing up in an age of destabilising and increasingly extreme weather patterns, mass extinction, widespread pandemic, persistent race-based violence, wealth inequality, and a workforce transmuted by technology. We must become resilient by becoming responsive to each other's needs and by breathing, as nature does. But yeah.
Let's talk about my history, haha.
I have always had this instinct to play and make. Growing up I would play act as a factory line manager, a conglomerate owner, a fashion designer, and actively 'hire' my friends to do stuff for me. I made art and music and skits for and with my friends. I made entire cities out of shoeboxes on the living room floor for the adults to step around. I would work on the weekends with my mum and dad in retail and wholesale, and also accompany them to trips to factories in China. I was immersed in the natural and digital worlds, getting inspired all the time.
And I would draw. All the time. Anything that came to mind. This was my safe space, and with my tens of thousands of hours, I grew to be regarded as the most talented artist in school. And beyond, eventually winning international awards and taking my art seriously to become year long research projects into certain aesthetic fields of culture creation. I got mentored by women scientists who were expert communicators and technically so gifted, and who celebrated and elevated my plurality as a scientist/technologist as well as an artist and poet.
A lot of life has been an attempt to stay true to who I am, and to take the best of all that I've encountered to become the patchwork that I am. For example, I still make art, music, and performance art. I've designed and produced fashion pieces, and I studied Product Design at Stanford to continue the journey of making.
My early forays as a natural encourager and guider of my friends has helped me learn how to lead and elevate a small team of brilliant designers in my sustainable design firm, ENTITY. The journey has just begun, but it seems I’ve been on it my whole life!
There is no typical day for me, especially as I change timezones and homes so often, but here are my constants:
I wake up and blast the sun in my eyes and dance around. Do some Ohms.
I do yoga.
I make breakfast.
I get heavily caffeinated. Coffee with (soy) milk, no sugar.
I light Japanese incense.
I journal, and draw abstract art.
I check social media and text people.
I like to put a "lewk" together. Pairing creative makeup and clothing is a great way to access my intention, craft, and power. If you aren't slaying every day, what are you doing??
I write out the list of what I need to do that day.
I check in with the ENTITY cofounders, Dion Brandt-Sims and Greyson Assa.
I walk around and look at spillages on the ground, at textures on buildings, and at life forms.
I visit art spaces, or factories. Sometimes this leads to collaborations, which enables me to return there to make something.
In more networking heavy periods, I am travelling. I am begrudgingly a citizen of the airport.
I try to eat soup every day, not because I want to, but because I have to.
I call my friends and family.
I get or borrow a guitar wherever I go, so I can continue to sing.
I started praying despite being an Atheist.
I lay awake and consume the internet (too much.) Or journal.
I sleep (irregularly, to my detriment).
I don't have an office, but I have been involved in occupying and set up a makerspace in SF, called MadSci.
In the spirit of Manifestation and #buildinginpublic, here's a space we are currently seeking funding for.
And here are our internal workspaces - A mix of Notion, Gcal, Figma and Figjam. Shout out to Dion and Grey for being organisational geniuses, and for keeping the faith as we build these systems out!
I try see beauty in the way things are, and how they balance their innate way they want to be, with how they adapt to their environment. It's like seeing roots morph out of concrete.
I like to see how different beings' natures interact, how they interfere or conflict, and how to create more harmony between natures.
It is my pursuit to see myself as part of the greater universe, and to honour the emergence of life by not denying my own creativity. Knowing my path has already been carved through time, it is my role to discover the most high potential version of myself, and to not stand in my own way.
Honestly, break-apart chopsticks. Those that you get for free from the takeaways.
They have been a GODSEND for me. Being nomadic, I genuinely feel like I can't justify buying certain basic things over and over again. So imagine my delight when I find them everywhere I stay! I feel like people think they're sacred.
And I'm grateful. Through them, I can connect to my culture, and to the food that is healing through ancestral lineage.
And better yet, they are functionally still as good as non-disposable ones, which is more than can be said for plastic forks and spoons.
Okay, now for some theory:
Stanford Professor BJ Fogg's breakdown of what ‘simple’ means is that it's a quality of a solution that trades what someone is scarce in with something they are abundant in. For example, one can be abundant in money, but not abundant in intellectual processing, so they pay someone to think for them. They may have a lot of time, but little physical strength. They will spend more time moving 1 box at a time, rather than 3 boxes at once.
In the case of these chopsticks, I have a certain 'number-of-object limit' on things to carry over from one place to the next, but need these for my life force. These are free, and I don't have to continue my journey with them if I don't want to. They are simple for me, so they are great.
It was a labour of love to craft our online identity, and write appropriate copy to legitimise the work. Do us a solid, check it out!
An installation that says that plastic has entered our biosphere and is here to stay.
fuse energy website
Communicating the urgency and technology behind a nuclear fusion revolution.
An experiment in biomaterials with Manufactura.mx
Vertiver Re:FLex, Delhi.
Specifically, looking at the PVC advertising banner production to waste stream, and seeing whether it could be used in upcycling, and realising it can't, writing an accord to the primary producers to change their material to a recyclable material.
The Human Mood Ring
This AR filter picks up your brain waves from a BCI, and opens flowers when you're happy, and closes them when you're sad. In collaboration with Anna Brewer, Vlad Ilic, Louise Lai.
Doughnut Economics: A Regenerative Action Plan for Tamaki Makaurau
Creating a report for Auckland City's planetary bounds & societal baseline according to Kate Raworth's work, with a deep curiosity and commitment to decolonisation. In collaboration with fellow WEF Global Shapers, Lei Gu and Pok Wei Heng.
This work, having received a 10K grant from the Climate Reality Project, also, led me to the privilege of attending the Shapers Summit in Geneva in September 2022. This is a picture of me outside of the WEF HQ wearing a dress I made with my Calligraphics print, with my friend and designer Jenny Ruan.
- We started nearly 2 years ago, 1 year out of college, 1 year into the pandemic.
- And so we are still establishing our reputation & outreach channels.
We haven’t launched yet
- We’re a bit shy, but it's because we know we're really good. Coming up with copy that strikes the balance of confidence, and willingness to be of service is really hard.
- But we are very close to nailing down our public presence. What’s left is to complete the last 5%, and get over our paralysis.
Getting our work valued
- The climate change agenda is underfunded because it too, is new.
- And guess what? It’s anti exploitation! Which seems to not agree with the dominant philosophy of capitalism.
- But also, guess what! It makes financial sense to businesses because climate-aware design is fundamentally future-proof, and is doing right by the ecosystems and people that support them.
- I’m in a jacked-as-hell immigration process to the US and so have been nomadic for 2 years. This makes coordination hard, time-zone wise.
- This requires faith in the team, and faith from the team.
Building the plane as we fly it
- We are building systems while we act as design contractors. It’s a hard balance to strike. But I have faith, especially as our work’s valuation has been increasing, that we can afford more time to designing our business such that we can weather hard times, and make more good times roll!
Balancing art with design
- We run ENTITY because we want a survivable world, but we make art and do R&D because it gives us LIFE.
- Giving enough time to this is a matter of patience, discipline, and balance. And finding benefactors/doing things frugally. Watch this space.
- The climate crisis is real shit. fr.
- Design, especially in social impact spaces, is an empathy game. Someone tell me how to deal with grieving?
- Financial security is tied to emotional security. Dealing with the fluctuations and creating our financial ‘suspension system’ in our payroll is a good move for anyone.
Challenge yourself to melt into whatever you’re doing. Melt into rest. Melt into brushing your teeth. Melt into the task. Get over that internal resistance. Embody the task. Give yourself the set and setting to operate easily, and most importantly, flow.
If you're doing things right, it won't get easier, because you're doing ever more challenging things. As long as you're challenging yourself appropriately, and you have the right support and communication channels open, you're golden.
Be Nice To Yourself:
You are responsible for giving yourself the (subjective) reality you want every time. So be careful about how you talk to yourself. It helps to be around ambitious people, who don’t put themselves down. Saying nice things to others helps you too. (Scientifically, it makes you healthier!)
Know yourself in a loving lens. Via your passions. What this means is that you must allow yourself to be moved, and to allow that emotion to move you to action, and creation. It's only natural to create! As birds sing and waves crash, you must also make.
Don’t let others or yourself shame yourself for wanting to do make things beautiful. This is the honour of being alive. Who’s to say you can’t make things as swagged out as possible?
The Good Work:
It’s also important to acknowledge: The good work is almost never done. Neither is the good work is well paid. Ambition is moving away from the point source. Moving away from the common, the mediocre, the already-commercialised.
Know that the people out here doing novel things are moonlighting as ambitious designers, and are otherwise managing their time and resources to have space to do that. In this way, it is actually amazing. Designers are prototyping value in the world. The market follows.
It’s not a crime to want to be a star designer. They are the only ones who get the good work that is paid well, anyways. The trick is to already radiate light before anyone rewards you for it, for it is its own reward.
Collaboration is almost always better, especially since everyone has different shapes of interest and skill. I've learned to stand in awe of the talent in my team, and to trust and to guide them. It's amazing to honour their growth, them coming into their own power. This is part of becoming the hive mind.
Seeing others' gifts, I allow myself to let go of the myth that I need to be good at everything and do everything by myself. But it is in this net of mutual competency that you can grow your skills.
Share dreams to keep them alive, but don’t congratulate yourself for just having a good idea. It’s enjoyable to actually bring things into real life.
And get off your phone. Spend some time in the dark expanse of your mind’s eye. You'll be surprised at how it will show you what you need to see, what you need to feel. If I don't do this enough, it can almost be too much! But I believe that if I followed this more, all necessary things, including the peace I was looking for, would be revealed to me.
Forgive yourself. This is good advice in general.
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