Meet a Mentor:
Janice Cho, Senior Experience Designer

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Janice Cho is a designer, scholar, artist and author. A four-time mentor in the DESIGNATION program, she is a longtime UX designer with experience at Underwriters Laboratories, Greater Good Studio, Local Projects, the Gene Siskel Film Center and more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself! Where do you work and what is your title?
Well, that’s a little complicated, as I’ve been on sabbatical since the beginning of July. I started off going on a trip to Copenhagen as a design mecca for myself, and I made a point not to travel all around Europe. It was very tempting to go to Paris or Berlin, but I made a point to stay in one place for 3 weeks, and I was so inspired by Scandinavian design. Not just the art, but also the typography, which is really my #1 thing in terms of design. I’ve been using the rest of my time to rest, pursue passion projects, and determine which subject matter I want to take on for my next job.

I love books, letterpress, independent film, fashion, and Game of Thrones. Team Stark for the win. The north will prevail.


Got it. In that case, what were you doing right before that?
I was at Underwriters Laboratories and my title was Sr. Experience Designer. When I was first given the job, it was this little experimental group that only consisted of five or so people. And it was the way for design to be introduced to UL, and for evangelism to occur within their culture to some degree.

And it was also a space for innovation. Within the five of us, we were all very different. But it became about growing a UX organization internally within a huge company, and figuring out from the ground up, what does that look like.

It was a struggle. I’m not going to say it was easy at all. As a designer, it’s very difficult to be told, “Just make it pretty.” Or the non-acknowledgement of design as a discipline can be really hard. But it’s absolutely critical for that organization to have UX, and ultimately that’s what made it so rewarding.

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What is it like being a designer in a company that’s not design focused?
It was interesting pushing a design agenda forward in the context of the larger company. The hardest part was validating the job, and kind of explaining its existence. I think in terms of politics, our group was given a lot of permission, which was great. But at the same time, it wasn’t enough. And I think that it’s really sad to say, but more and more, these larger corporations, it’s not about design. So I think it’s critical for designers to have that one person up there that will push forward and speak for them and advocate, otherwise it will never last.

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How did you first become a mentor for DESIGNATION?
[DESIGNATION co-founder] Aaron called me. Honestly, I think he found me on Linkedin but it’s been a dream ever since I was introduced.

What has the experience here been like?
When I was starting out, I didn’t have someone that was specifically my mentor. I had advisors, and people in school and work who were always looking out for me, and who I would refer to as my mentors, but it wasn’t formalized.

But through this experience at DESIGNATION, I’ve met so many people that have been so wonderful and inspiring. Each of them, I’ve been so impressed by, they’re all so interesting to talk to as humans. And something I love about Human-Centered Design is everyone comes from their own background and that’s part of the formula. So that’s been really inspiring. Overall it’s been a great experience.

“Through DESIGNATION, I’ve met so many people that have been so wonderful and inspiring. Overall it’s been a great experience. “

What does mentorship mean to you?
A mentor is someone to learn from, to be inspired by, and to be challenged by. I don’t like a lot of, “Yeah this is great.” I enjoy critique in a larger level, and I want to be put out of my comfort zone so I can be better. And the mentors I’ve had are always teaching me something new, and always allowing me to question my beliefs, not so I could change them, but to strengthen my beliefs that I had already decided on where appropriate, or to switch to something else if new data comes along.

But also, it’s to sustain that passion. When you find a mentor who is happy in their life in the same industry you’ve committed yourself to, it’s very inspiring and a little peaceful. I really enjoy that.

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Although you were the mentor, did any of your mentees ever teach you anything?
Each one has taught me so many things. I couldn’t name one thing, so I’m just going to go down the list.

Courtney taught me to re-investigate what it means to be excited. She’s somebody who’s so sweet, and so talented. There was this one project where she wanted to work for this Korean drama company. I don’t really watch them, but they get super intense, and everyone gets cancer, and it’s really tragic and wonderful, and she was telling me how she loves it, and there was this project in New York to redesign the interface of how those dramas are accessed online. And I was like, “Yeah! Do it!” and it was that excitement and passion that really taught me figure out what makes me excited, in the heart of my life. What are the little things that excite me, and how can I bring that joy into anything I make, even if it’s just a little button.

With Lan, I was impressed by how much thought, and the diversity of work she’s been involved in, from a non-profit political standpoint. And there were similarities in terms of our research, and I thought that was really surprising and fantastic, and really inspiring to see what she thinks about on a daily basis, and what she’s encouraged and inspired by, and where she wants to go. It helped me re-pivot and make the decision to go on my sabbatical. She was part of one of many signals to push me that way to reconsider my love for government and social policy, and what that looks like from a design standpoint.

Rebecca and I connected the most with art. Her coming from an art education background, and spending a lot of time in the art world, and knowing that world, and that vernacular, we were really able to connect on that level. She is someone who is really great at analyzing information and research. So from her I learned that it’s important to take a jump, and to pursue what you love. That’s not easy. And she just called it and did it, and that boldness and braveness, you don’t meet people like that every day.

And Johnny, he is a brilliant genius. I think he’s a thinker, he’s a philosopher, and I always love that, and the fact that he has this ability to have strategy behind his work. I’ve noticed that he is also very level-headed, in terms of his decision-making and what he gets excited for. And that discipline is very inspiring, and he pushes me to think more about the philosophical ideas of how things are constructed.

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What do you think is the future of UX design?
The future of UX is deciding what is and what is not going to be technology. Within that process of determination and research and making, I think that more and more we’re going to have to decide what to leave as human interaction so that we can sustain a healthy culture for ourselves. So for instance, I just met with this robot named OSHbot, a beautifully made robot that Loews just purchased and will use in their store. It stands in the front roaming around looking for people. But then when you find it, it asks, “What are you looking for? Can I help you?” And the way this thing is designed is great, you search within it, and it tells you where the thing you’re looking for is in the store, and it offers to walk you there. And in the UX of the Home Depots of the world, that’s fantastic, because the people who are employed there are knowledgeable about many things, and you don’t want to waste their time asking them to help you find a simple hammer. So in the experience of a person coming into a hardware store, separating that which needs an opinion and that which is commoditized, is really beautiful.

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Lastly, any other cool projects you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a book right now! I wrote a book about two years ago, and it all started with me taking on the challenge of gardening. I’m someone who has always somehow killed all their plants at home and I was determined to conquer this. I was born and raised in a city, never had to farm, those things are just not in my backyard or natural to me, so I was very determined to do this. And I was learning so much, and I research a ton, and when I was researching about gardening, there were these snippets of info I was finding that about how you should plant this plant next to that plant because they’ll help each other, but without any of the science or background. And I found these maps online of plants that could be placed next to each other, and why but it was still overwhelming in the way that I was introduced to it. There had to be a better way to learn this world.

So I began to humanize these plants and treat them as people, and I began to realize that the ones I was really learning about, and seeing their physical structure on a day to day basis, and why they were good for each other… I started to get it. And it just became this little family. And I said, you know what, this would be a really interesting kids book.

So I wrote the story and my friend did the illustrations. It’s called, “Bennet Bumblebee: Discovering Companions in the Garden”. This run will be all hand printed and painted, handbound, wood covers and everything. And then when that’s done I’ll be looking for a publisher.

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