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Written by Marta Fioni Product Designer
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08 Jan 2019  |  Culture

Female Role Modeling in Product Design

4 minute read

I’m Marta, Product Designer at Paddle, and I’ve been a woman working in tech for a decade now. Female role models are so important to women working in industries dominated by men and I wish I’d known these remarkable women working in product design when I was starting out. Here is a bit about my work at Paddle and the women that inspire me in my work.

First things first. What does a Product Designer do?

In terms of the role at Paddle, a Product Designer solves strategic and open-ended problems for the business and our users. The result is the interface of our digital product and the user experience as a whole. We collaborate continuously with engineers and product managers to find new and innovative ways to create value for different types of users.

How I got into Product Design

Product Design was certainly not on my list of ‘what I want to do when I grow up’ as a kid. I come from a humanities background and, having completed my Semiotics degree, I was on my way to pursue an academic career.

While studying, though, I got a scholarship to study at UC Berkeley, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and that’s where I was first exposed to how tech can revolutionize lots of aspects of everyday life. I made friends with both artists and software engineers and I found myself literally at the intersection of the two types of thinking. The experience had a great impact on me. I decided to move away from academia in favour of exploring and contributing to an industry where creative problem solving can be powered by new technologies.

Why are role models so important?

Growing up in Italy, digital product design was far from an obvious career choice. The industry was really in its infancy at the time and so I didn’t even know the role existed. If I had, I’d have got started far sooner. Visibility of these roles, especially for women, is the best way to help people find their career path. Here is my personal list of product design role models. Their work has been felt on a global scale, impacting people’s everyday life with an original touch.

Female Role Models

Susan Kare: the designer who gave the Mac a face

Susan Kare was the main designer on the first ever Mac team. She made history by designing the now infamous desktop icons that transformed a PC from a screen of words and symbols to an interface that you can communicate with using pictures. This is very familiar now, but at the time it meant re-inventing the whole interaction between technology and the human that uses it.

Kare came from a traditional arts background and put together the new icons in the constrained grid of pixels that were available in an early Mac, much like mosaics are constructed. Her work shows how design can cross-pollinate different disciplines, such as ancient art and software engineering, to create something new. She worked alongside a team of engineers to make the Mac approachable; an interface that anyone can understand, whether they can code or not.

Caterina Fake: preempting the world of social media

I really admire the work and entrepreneurial drive of Caterina Fake. She originally co-founded a company that launched a multiplayer game which never really took off, and then adapted the product into the first ever photo sharing platform: Flickr.

In these early days of Flickr, Fake effectively initiated the era of social media. She appeared to see the way the world was headed and focused her attention on the social capabilities of the early internet. Product design at large is all about creating experiences, and here Fake used her creativity and intuition to re-shape and re-purpose the entire product around human and technological trends, inventing something new.

Fake now invests in seed companies as part of her latest project, called Yes VC, that provides early stage capital to design-driven companies. I love how Fake sees the potential that this field has to harness cultural change.

Julie Zhuo: designing for a global audience

Julie Zhuo designed the first version of Facebook having met Zuckerberg on campus at Harvard. Now the VP of design at Facebook, she is a powerful and relatable voice for women in this industry as she believes in sharing the challenges of her work.

In 2017 she published a series of articles, and is soon to publish a book named ‘The Making of a Manager’, in which she writes about product design culture, collaborating with project managers and growing as a designer in a organisation that is rapidly expanding. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the problems and questions her role brings up, including stress, career progression, ownership and the ambiguity that can often surround design projects.

Re-writing our stories for role modeling

I believe the stories we hear influence the way we think about the world around us. A lot of the stories we’ve heard up until now have been written by men. One of the responsibilities of the new generation is to rewrite history in an inclusive way. Female product designers are out there, but no light has been shone on us in the past and we’re only getting a limited share of the spotlight even now.

Having visible female role models like the women I’ve discussed is crucial because you don’t feel alone if you know people have done something before. There are lots of us out there and we - and our work - can be even more powerful and impactful. We just need to make ourselves more visible and dare to tell stories that can be heard.

Want to join Paddle as a Product Designer? Check out our Product career openings here.