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Alumni Spotlight

Catching up with Paul Lau, Product Designer at Etsy

Paul Lau sitting in chair

Alright Paul, what's your story?

In 2008, days after graduation, I moved to NYC in search of the dream. Since competition was stiff (along with a looming stock market crash), I focused my attention on informational interviews and meeting the greater design community. I landed an internship a few weeks later but continued talking with designers in search of something more substantial. My last meeting ended up with Khoi Vinh, who unbeknownst to me, was the design director of The New York Times. That informational interview led to an actual interview with several other designers and staff, which landed me a freelance position. A few months later, I was full time and would be for 4.5 years until I left for Etsy.

Etsy, NYC
Etsy, NYC

What does a typical day in your current role look like?

It can vary wildly depending on the day and where we are in the lifespan of a project. Some examples of what my responsibilities look like: Partnering with my product manager, researcher, analyst, and engineering manager to understand overall problems our users are facing and hypotheses solutions; Designing different experiences, aimed at solving problems from different angles; Working with my research partner to test design directions throughout the project; and Working with my engineering partners to make sure everything is pixel-perfect and that the animations and flows work as designed.

Who inspires you right now?

I still get inspired by the Paula Schers, Stefan Sagmeisters, Paul Rands, etc, but these days (this is cheesy as hell) I’m really moved by my peers. The design giants are working at such different altitudes (scale, cost, etc) that it’s somewhat hard for me to appreciate on the day-to-day. My peers however are working within the same contexts, have the same limitations, and are really pushing the space that ultimately benefits the lives of our users.

That said, outside of graphic design, I’m really moved by Alan Yang, Lena Waithe, Aidy Bryant, and so many more. People that really push the boundaries of their field while bringing so much honesty.

"I don’t turn my work upside down these days, but I do think about my work in different and broader contexts other than my own."

What’s one memory from your time in the design program that has stuck with you?

One day in the studio, I asked Kent Smith (Some old guy) if he could look at a logo I had been working on. He took my laptop and held it upside down. I was… shocked. Seeing someone lift a computer (that was extremely valuable to me) incorrectly threw me off but when he talked about looking at your work from angles and contexts, it really opened my eyes. I don’t turn my work upside down these days, but I do think about my work in different and broader contexts other than my own.

Paul's illustration
Paul's illustration

What new strategies have you developed to stay creative during COVID-19?

Watching the world fall apart last year was incredibly hard but a lot of it felt really abstract — like it was too big to comprehend. In February of last year, right before NYC went into quarantine, I started to see shops and restaurants in Chinatown shutter due to increased xenophobia. It was painful to watch and I felt completely powerless to help. Then it happened, my favorite restaurant was closing. While it was just another restaurant, it represented so much to me — a feeling of home, of culture, of warmth, and so much more. I immediately started drawing the restaurant that I fell in love with over a decade earlier and started selling them to raise money for the community. I ended up creating another print and then set up an Etsy shop to sell prints that raises funds for other causes I believe in. While it doesn’t make crazy money, it feels good to be able to help in a small way.

As collaborative work comes online, how are you working with fellow creatives?

As with everyone, we’ve had to adjust and are continuing to iterate and adjust based on feedback. Some things we’ve learned over the past year...

Meeting fatigue: It’s real and it’s stopped us from having multiple hour brainstorms together. We needed to incorporate more breaks and break down the schedule to fit accordingly

Asynchronous learning: Instead of gathering everyone together to listen and learn, we started sending out material to be consumed ahead of time so that the time spent together is focused on discussion and questions

Collaborative apps: Figma, Miro, Google docs, etc — these applications allow for multiple people to work together simultaneously. Each has their pros and cons and maybe you’ll need a combination of them.