SJ Zhang — Compound
SJ is a designer, developer based in Brooklyn. Before tech, he dabbled in Fashion.
I grew up in a creative household, and I always assumed I would end up in some art-related field. When my family got our first iMac, my older sister set up Photoshop (you know, from a disk) and I started to tinker with making things digitally. Later in my teens, I taught myself a little web development to have the coolest MySpace and Xanga layouts. I never thought any of this could be a career.
I studied Graphic Design and Fine Arts in college, but I also didn’t see a career in that for myself. All throughout school I worked multiple retail jobs at Anthropologie, J.Crew and Crate & Barrel (literally at the same time, no idea how I did that) as a way to learn and practice visual merchandising. I was interested in designing physical environments for retail. However, it takes many years of hard physical labour and customer service to make it a more corporate design job in the retail industry. That became unappealing to me– retail beats you down.
I started taking on some freelance graphic and web design clients when I graduated. Those opportunities all came from a single connection I had from one of my work-study jobs at school and it just spiralled from there. When clients asked if I could also build websites, I said “yes” even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. Eventually, I got my first “real” tech job as a Front-End Developer, started going to meetups in Boston, and learned about Product and UX Design. I’ve always held hybrid-type roles that have an engineering title, but I carve out space to be a designer in those roles.
Wake up around 6, feed the cat, drink water and make coffee. Depending on what I’m working on, I might check in on Slack first thing with my coffee to catch up with some of my colleagues in Europe. Otherwise, I reserve mornings to work on my own projects, read, or do chores. After some breakfast, I head to my garage gym and get in a lift session before my meetings kick-off for the day. Some days are more meeting heavy than others, and since I’m on the West Coast I usually have the afternoons open for focus time. I try to wrap up around 5 or 6 and end the day with a quick walk before making dinner for myself and my partner.
People and their stories inspire me. I watch a lot of movies and TV series, and I’m constantly learning new things about humanity and about myself through those experiences. The act of fully engaging in a story for ~2 hours can have a lasting impact on you, and in some cases help you navigate your own journey.
I’m also inspired by the design systems community, which for me is almost entirely online. It’s really hard work that many of us take quite seriously, so having connections with others who have similar backgrounds and interests is motivating– especially early on in one’s career. I remember reading some posts from people with careers I didn’t really know existed previously, which helped me craft my ideal role and responsibilities.
I have a little bit of an IKEA obsession. The majority of my office is IKEA, and they have some gems that are affordable and accessible. Recently they launched a collection called VARMBLIXT, a collaboration with Sabine Marcelis. The products mainly focus on form and light and feel quite trendy and fun.
On the interface design side, I’ve been using a photo app called Glass for a few months and it feels like a refreshing take on social media. I specifically appreciate how photos are the main attraction on the feed page, and you only see who posted it and the details if you slide to the right. It gives you so much more time to really look at and evaluate the photo without any context.
I’m proud of what I’m working on right now and have been chipping away at over the past 8 months or so. A lot of design systems work is somewhat invisible, but it’s there quietly doing its job. Design tokens are one of those things. We started by tokenizing our spacing, sizing and typography patterns and have since re-worked our color system to fit into this model. It’s essentially an exercise in naming things, finding consensus with the team, building/eng stuff, and documentation. There are so many moving parts that depend on each other and it takes longer than you want, but in the end, it’s worth it to have that infrastructure in place. If designers have an easier time understanding when to use a specific color or size, we have succeeded.
What I’m seeing lately is a healthy tension between accessibility and efficiency. As we continue to build more experiences for issues and projects, there’s concern around making sure users can complete a task as efficiently as possible. I think it’s easy to remove steps in a workflow to achieve a quick interaction (like removing a “save” button from a multi-select menu) but at what cost? Accessibility is a huge priority for the company, so we must work with those requirements, not against them. This is a positive “challenge” and creates a space for designers to be creative and find solutions that balance both accessibility and efficiency. It’s an ongoing process of testing and iteration, and I’m excited to see how we continue to evolve and prioritize these values.
Stay curious and open to learning new things. If something makes you feel defensive or anxious about your work, lean in and figure out why. This applies to life in general, not just design.
If you can, do some work on boundaries early in your career. As an ambitious designer, it’s easy to throw yourself into your work and let the company you work for define who you are. Just like building a habit, boundaries take time to form and it can be difficult to uphold them with the pressures of work culture. The earlier you establish those habits, the better– but it's never too late to start.
I started a podcast recently with Anthony Hobday called Complementary. Each episode is a conversation related to interface design. Find it anywhere you listen to podcasts.