Erin Woo ’09 
Principal Product Designer at Slack 

Q: In college, you studied Fine Art in Communication Design. How does a degree in fine art apply to the work that you do? 
A: It wasn’t until I started taking my core art major classes such as Typography 101, History of Letterpress, or Intro to Composition and Color, that I understood how together all of these make up the fundamentals of design. I consider these things every day I do my job: the anatomy of type, color hierarchies, and how words sit next to an image. I have to translate these things into interactions on a screen and ensure that the experience of using it is both comprehensible and intuitive. 

Q: You currently work at Slack. What do you create there?
A: For those who don’t know, Slack is an internal workplace communication tool. The company has expanded into external communication and that’s the effort that I’m focused on. What comes with that is tackling issues around user trust and safety. For example, how do you make sure people feel comfortable using our product to share private documents externally without worrying about sending them to the wrong people? I also focus on new ways of collaboration within the tool, like looking at inventive ways to connect people more seamlessly and quickly than email. 

Q: In what ways does your skill set go beyond just the design aspect to include innovation?
A: There are a lot of responsibilities of being “product designer” beyond knowing the fundamentals of design.  You have to think about the business needs. You have to be considerate of software best practices in backend and frontend development, know how to make trade-offs in the development process, and collaborate with people really well. And most importantly, as a product designer, you really have to understand how the features you design help the business, in my case—Slack, be more successful. Design is such a broad field and depending on how you decide to specialize in it, you learn to flex different muscles and hone certain skills.

Q: How would you describe your personal design aesthetic?  
A: I think “stickers on a trapper keeper” is probably the right aesthetic to describe me. I do appreciate classic Swiss design, but I also appreciate breaking the grid and clashes of color. My desk is very clean, but I have a poster that is bright orange against a dark background. I think spontaneous is another good word, which to me means that I like a lot of things. I’m a hodgepodge of a lot of styles. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to just a nice clean system with maybe a little bit of mess. 

Q: Did your time at College Prep influence your decision to search out a career in art?
A: The desire was always there to pursue art and there was a point in college that I realized it was the right path to take. I knew I was decent at math. I knew I liked art classes. At College Prep I did student council and I played on the basketball team. Just being on a team or in a community was really important to me. Being a leader in that community was something I realized that I liked and was a direct translation to the work I do now because it’s all about collaboration with your peers and working on a team to move work forward. In college I studied architecture and that was basically influenced by my high school experience: I like math, I like science, and I like art. Architecture seemed like a natural combination of those things. It wasn’t until college that I saw this other degree called Communication Design that I discovered my real passion. I saw that it involved doing things I wanted to be doing, such as creating graphics or telling stories through posters, so I investigated it. 

Q: You also work freelance. What types of projects inspire you and what do you seek out? 
A: I really only freelance with small startups because that lets me the churn out ideas really quickly. Whereas at Slack, it’s a pretty mature work environment so there’s no pressure to work under the wire or until 11:00 pm every night. I’m at a stage in my career where the people around me matter more than the subject matter, so when I consider freelance clients, I tend to pick passionate people who can sell me easily on their ideas, so much so that I want to help them bring them to life. The projects that inspire me are the ones where the founders care a lot and can convince me of the potential to impact the industry they might be disrupting. 

Q: Have you had to pivot in your work this past year and a half during the pandemic?
A: Yes. I actually switched jobs during the pandemic. I went from Microsoft to Slack. I think the reason was less about my creativity and mostly just wanting something new after a year into the pandemic. Moving back to California was one big change. I’m consciously saying that I want to spend more relaxing time with my dog, spend time with my partner, and see my family. I do think that the pandemic has made me say I don’t need to think all the time about my creative output, that’s not a hundred percent of my identity. Pushing my craft to the limit is no longer the most important thing for me and that’s okay because I’m still a maker, I’m still a designer. I still love what I do. Now I want to enjoy my life a little bit. 

Q: What are some of the trends you see in digital
product design?
A: I see a lot of nineties Internet trends that are coming back. If you think about some of the most-used digital products—Facebook, Twitter, Google, et cetera—they’re all starting to look and feel like the same sterile user interfaces. I think a lot of these small tech companies are coming in and saying let’s disrupt the boring white canvas with some really fun and inventive elements. A lot of visual references are from a previous time in tech when the Internet was still the new and exciting playground. So I’m seeing a lot of bright colors, wackier typography choices, and bolder statements.
Q: Do you have a dream design project?
A: A dream personal project would be to design and build a house. I’d like to feel the materials that I want to surround myself with. I want to partner with an architect so that I can finally learn first hand the process they have to go through to design a space. When you design for a computer or phone screen, you can’t really hold the thing you’ve made. You’re mostly interacting with it with a cursor or tapping on a screen. Anything that brings me back to the physical space I think would be really, really lovely.

Q: What advice do you give College Prep students who want to enter the digital product design field?
A: I remember being a fresh college grad, moving to New York, reaching out to alumni and getting coffee with them. I remember how awkward I must have been. But some of those conversations were some of the most helpful ones early in my career, and it showed me that people are really generous with their time when it comes to sharing any advice from their experiences. I try to pay that generosity forward by talking to any students who reach out to me for advice. Showing that you’re curious and hungry to learn will get you far.

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