The year ahead: a conversation with Soleio, Julie Zhuo, and May-Li Khoe

Just a few weeks ago, we rounded out 2021 with a look back at what (and how) teams designed, built, and shipped, even while thousands of miles apart. As we kick off the new year, we wanted to zoom out beyond the work. So, we reached out to design leaders Soleio, Julie Zhuo, and May-Li Khoe to share how they’re thinking about 2022, in the design community and beyond. In this Q&A, we’re sharing their personal reflections, predictions about creative work, and guidance for the year ahead.

Soleio on relocating, organizational hygiene, and the metaverse going mainstream

Over the last couple of years, the world has learned a lot about remote work. Figma has moved to a hybrid model, and you and your family relocated to the UK. What are your predictions for what creative work will look like in 2022?

I anticipate that creative work will continue to reflect much of the ongoing transition we’re seeing to a hybrid workforce model. Context and institutional knowledge will shift to digital environments versus physical ones. The traditional “blue sky” whiteboarding session will relocate from the office conference room to tools like FigJam. I also expect we’ll see more people feel at ease with using creative tools no matter their field—their use will expand across the entire workforce as they become more collaborative, accessible, and egalitarian.

What has your personal experience been like adjusting to a new place and ecosystem?

The biggest adjustment for me has been building up a mental model of how London differs from Silicon Valley. Tech is the predominant industry in the Bay Area—by comparison, it is the up-and-coming, disruptive sector in other regions. Much of what we might consider to be common knowledge in more traditional tech hubs is often new and novel in emerging markets.

London is an ascendant ecosystem: we are seeing a notable influx of investors to the city who want to support British entrepreneurs at the earliest stages. In the past, ambitious founders would have to travel and even relocate their startups to Silicon Valley in order to raise financing and build competitive businesses. Now the UK can be home to the next generation of tech giants. And the founders at the helm of these companies can play a direct part in shaping the city of London to come.

We often talk about how design is becoming more collaborative; it’s also becoming much more global. What do you think the effects of those shifts are?

One key shift will be how we coordinate asynchronous feedback and alignment across multiple timezones. Teams will need to be more deliberate about structuring their processes and real-time collaboration, especially when colleagues are active across different parts of the workday. We’ll have to be clearer in our writing and rely more on video recordings for providing feedback and direction to teammates.

Whereas in the past we could rely on shared context through in-person meetings and shared office space, teams with remote workforces will rely more on clear documentation and transparent decision-making. Good organizational hygiene will become an even bigger advantage.

In your talk at Config 2020, Figma’s first user conference, you said that design is the future of open source. What other emerging trends or concepts do you think are inevitable?

We should expect to see substantial progress in how design exploration and feedback becomes increasingly automated. In much the way that we now inhabit collaborative environments with other people, I anticipate that we will find ourselves in a future where more knowledge work, feedback, and iterations will happen through virtual collaborators: non-human agents that are well-tuned to the types of tasks we manually do today. This is a massive transition because it changes the nature of teamwork if individuals can move through an opportunity space that much more rapidly.

Soleio speaking at Config 2020, Figma’s first user conference

What are the spaces where you’re seeing the most design innovation?

I’ve been continually impressed with the innovation happening within software development tools and next-generation productivity tools. Knowledge work will operate very differently in five years than it did five years ago, in large part due to how software and data have become more directly accessible to non-technical workers and how this change has shaped the composition of the modern workforce.

As you think about the design community, what are you most excited about?

I’m really excited about the sheer range of design challenges that the community is now tackling. Not only are designers serving customers across a wider gamut of needs—consumer, enterprise, internal tools, software development itself—but they are also tackling problems of ever-increasing scope and complexity.

Designers today are creating interfaces to onboard people to their first crypto wallets, to pilot next-generation space transport, and to write code with the help of assistive AI. Mainstream products will soon span dozens of devices and contexts: AR/VR headsets, mobile phones, smartwatches, desktop browsers, automobiles, smart mirrors, and more.

Software now touches so much of our lives that the diversity of approaches and methods will create a very broad range of expertise—a sign of the maturation of our field.

What else should we be thinking about?

We’re moving steadily towards a transition to spatial computing (aka the metaverse) and I think it’s important for designers to anticipate a more disruptive leap than the prior transition from desktop to mobile.

Augmented reality will force us to revisit almost all of the software design patterns that we’ve accumulated over the past decade or more. It will wipe the slate clean on how we think about interacting with information, other people, and virtual collaborators. I’m really excited to see the metaverse go mainstream.

Julie Zhuo on leadership, the “discomfort zone,” and the importance of input vs. output goals

A couple years back, you released your book “The Making of a Manager,” based on your experience leading a design team for the first time. How would you amend the learnings you shared for a hybrid or digital-first working world?

While the principles of good management—helping a group of people achieve great things together—haven’t changed, it feels like the challenges and tactics certainly have, far beyond what any of us could have imagined in this post-pandemic world! The biggest difference in my experience is that it’s a lot harder to connect as humans remotely. We miss body language, sporadic hallway conversations, lunches and happy hours, waving someone over to your desk to look at your latest creation on your screen. Finding ways to make space for that is critical in the era of remote management. Everything from more intentional 1:1 check-ins, whether via chat or video, to creating new team rituals that foster a sense of togetherness and collaboration.

I think we're all going to need to put creative energy into trying and sharing ideas in this space. For example, one thing that has been widely adopted on our team is starting large team meetings with a prompt on a collaborative whiteboard that everyone answers in the first five minutes. Seeing everyone's words on the screen appearing at the same time evokes a bit of that "we're all doing this together," sentiment, and a chance to hear from everyone and react to what they're saying. Every time I ask other managers what remote rituals they’ve adopted, I get tons of creative and inspiring answers, so I hope to see the community sharing broadly. This goes hand in hand with experimenting with remote-friendly tooling! I am still waiting for a breakthrough product that can sense which people are in a room together physically, and which people are remote, and help make that a wonderful experience.

You once wrote about the importance of staying in the “discomfort zone” to challenge yourself and stretch your skills. How do you hope to see that come to life this year, either personally or in the community more broadly?

Some years ago I started setting input goals for myself rather than output goals, because the practice of design has taught me to trust in the process: do anything enough times, and it morphs from being hard into being a habit. For 2022, I'm looking to deepen my data viz skills by designing a graphic every week and expanding my understanding of the systems that shape our world through spending an hour listening to/reading about history, finance, or business.

You have talked a bit about designing for web3, as the conversation around web3 has really exploded. What challenges and opportunities do you think designers will face in the immediate term and beyond?

In the short term, I see the primary challenge as one of education. For someone who doesn't yet understand, what exactly is web3 and why, exactly, is it valuable? Right now, millions of people associate it with "scam," "ponzi scheme," and "environmental destruction." Browsing many web3 sites does not make this any easier. There are a lot of insider terms being flung around—gas fees and daos, abbreviations and long random strings. This perception can only be changed with a show of value, as well as good metaphors and thoughtful design patterns that help users understand transparently what is happening and when they might want to think twice about allowing something.

In the long run, I see huge opportunities to solve existing problems in entirely new ways. As blockchain transactions get cheaper and more scalable, they're going to enable many more use cases beyond finance and art. We can't imagine them all today, just like we couldn't imagine the rise of Uber and Lyft when mobile phones first came out, but I see a lot of green fields for design when it comes to creator-dominated areas like music, gaming, video and writing, as well as social communication.

What conversations should be top of mind for us this year?

It seems like every week, I hear about another designer founding a company or organization and I am here for it! Especially on the heels of the pandemic, which gave us all a period to reflect on what really matters in life and the kind of work we want to do, the answer for an increasing number seems to be: create the thing I want to be a part of, whether it's based on a meaningful mission, an exciting problem space, or a way of working. I'd love to hear more conversations that widen the creative-to-entrepreneur path. Designers have always been inventors and problem solvers—now how do we scale that to building a sustainable business? There are more opportunities than ever now, and more and more examples of how to do this well.

May-Li Khoe on creativity, "subverting the status quo," and what makes her optimistic

The word “unprecedented” has gotten pretty old. How would you describe 2021, and how do you want 2022 to be different?

To quote an ancient error dialogue, "Something went wrong."

In all seriousness, I've seen so many people wring their hands over the use of that word “unprecedented” in the last two years, especially those who study history and/or public health and have studied precedents. When I hear phrases like "we've never seen anything like this" or "nobody saw this coming," I always ask myself: "In this context, who exactly is 'nobody'? Who exactly is 'we'?” I hope this is an opportunity for people to learn and search for possible answers in different, better places.

I’d describe 2021 as a kind of blacklight. It’s made brightly visible the many gnarly issues, breakages, and faulty designs of our current world order. The disconnect between conventional market indicators and people thriving in their daily lives is more glaringly obvious than it already was. At the same time, there have been many new beginnings of all kinds, and new headways made in labor organizing for this century, some of which are actually precedented history from past pandemics.

In the darkest times, the constraints of adversity can give rise to incredible human creativity and amplify the hope-giving aspects of human nature. The toughest circumstances can lay potential ground to move new people from complacency into action. I’m hoping 2022 will be a year to find, highlight, and cultivate all that is good in the face of adversity, especially in terms of valuing lives and labor, care and maintenance, and our collective imagination of a dramatically different future for the planet as a whole.

It has been nearly two years exactly since you talked about the importance of “joyfully subverting the status quo” at Config 2020. Central to that is how design can play a role in accelerating change. How do you hope to see that come to life this year in the design community?

I see design’s role as more of a gardener for the collective imagination. We have skills to observe the world in nuanced ways, imagine multiple possible futures, and render those possibilities in ways that enable others to imagine them too.

May-Li Khoe giving her talk, "Joyfully subvert the status quo," at Config 2020

I’d love to see designers continue cultivating greater critical foundation and far wider range of historic, societal, and cultural understanding, so that they can more fluently avoid recreating historic problems, and learn from some of the less flashy great work that’s already out there. In my mind, we’re past technology’s era of naive optimism.

I’d be excited to see the conversations in design shift further away from manicuring capitalism. Truly new ways of thinking and being don’t happen overnight, and they certainly don’t tend to be what generates an easy buzz. I think we need to be okay with that. Fads can be fun, but they’re rarely long-term, sustainable answers.

Ideally, great design involves a great deal of consideration for the well-being and ease of others, anticipating needs and creating the conditions for thriving. If we take a longer lens and see our society and planet as deserving of our consideration, what ways of being would we design? Truly great design should value systems of care, not extraction and denial of responsibility for harm.

What makes you optimistic this year?

I do think that interesting thinking from the margins is finding its way to more hearts and minds. Years ago, giving consideration to the work of bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs as a technologist or designer generated a lot of question marks. These days it does so less. Even within popular culture I’m seeing more interesting voices and narratives and questions raised and centered, in no small part thanks to the hard work of so many creative and caring people behind the scenes.

There’s a little pop-up community clinic in my neighborhood that provides Covid-19 tests and vaccines. The city partnered with Unidos en Salud/United in Health, UCSF and Latino Task Force to set it up. It’s great design in action, and feels designed by the neighborhood, for the neighborhood. Every day, they observe how their operations go, chat about what could work better, and make adjustments. By the time I got my booster shot there, I could feel the care that had been put into every moment of the experience, from registration by the woman with her friendly set of rainbow gummy-bear nails, all the way through to the waiting area complete with cute prizes for the kids, snacks, and a little radio blasting a curated playlist of reggaetón in one corner.

They had administered 500 vaccines the day before I got there. It’s in a parking lot, 100% bilingual in both speech and signage, located to serve essential workers and vulnerable local population, ready to help the digitally challenged, and a model of what public health can be despite adversity. With all the papel picado dancing in the breeze above the clinic area, it feels like a public health party. So, that’s also giving me hope.

We’d love to hear what resonates with you, and what you’re excited about for the year ahead—let us know on Twitter!