Alumni Spotlight: Michael Yap Design Strategist at Etsy, New York City. By Josh Sucher.

by Jason R. July 6, 2016

As I began acclimating to my new life as an IxD alumnus, I thought it might be therapeutic to check in with another graduate to see how his design practice and career have developed since his time at SVA. Conveniently, one of them sits directly across from me at Etsy, as the company’s first UX Strategist! Michael Yap ‘12 is a member of SVA IxD’s second graduating class; he returned to the department last fall to teach Introduction to Cybernetics and the Foundations of System Design.

You graduated from SVA four years ago. Looking back, how does your experience in the program relate to what you do now?

It’s the foundation for everything. The path to where I am now wasn’t super-linear; in ways, it was more exploratory. In school, I had so many interests. Maybe I was spread too thin, I was pursuing so many different ideas and contexts and environments and people. After I graduated I did the same thing. However, I’m thankful because all of that exploration has led me here.

For instance, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with MACHINE, Ryan Jacoby’s design and innovation consultancy. Our connection was formed when I briefly sat next to him while he was location lead for IDEO, New York. The fact that we met and I was able to follow his moves after he left IDEO to start up MACHINE — just being part of each others’ networks — was made possible by SVA.

The experience of working with MACHINE's brand of design was really valuable. It’s something I’m hoping to bring to Etsy.

On that note, what can you tell us about your new role at Etsy? What is a UX Strategist? 

This UX Strategist position is very new — both to Etsy, and also to the UX field. It’s currently being defined by the field as equal parts UX design, research, and business strategy. One of the things I’ve observed is how the field is just starting to catch up to how I saw Liz designed the program — she had foreseen the future in a way. The evidence can be found in the curriculum. If you look at the makeup of the classes, it’s the perfect way to think about this emerging practice of UX strategy. Back then, probably 35% of the curriculum was a mix of thinking about business, markets, and value creation, and the other 65% was design methodologies and user research. So, I feel like it was the perfect foundation for inhabiting this position now.

Credit: Michael Yap

In what ways are you applying that full skill set now?

There’s work to holistically understand an experience and then there’s work to understand its “tiny” moments. It’s hard for designers to do both of those things simultaneously, on large-scale projects, but I’m able.

How did you develop that muscle? What in the program, or elsewhere, helped you learn to think holistically about a problem?

I’ve found it really helpful to start by distilling human behavior into goals and methods. This was something that came from Cybernetics, which I now teach. Of all the ways to think about human behavior — whether it’s behavioral economics, or psychology, or just our own powers of observation — the goal-methods framework from Cybernetics is the most closely aligned with design. Through modeling, it allows us to understand current human behavior and design how we want people to behave.

Aside from Cybernetics, what else do you use to get teams aligned?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from SVA is how to work in teams, it’s the hardest thing. Part of it is understanding how ideas spread within a group. If you want your ideas to materialize someday, they have to somehow take root in people’s minds. Providing a forum for ideas — in a way that their value can be communicated — is one of the things we spent a lot of time doing.

There are a couple of classes that come to mind — Selling Design with Jeffrey Zeldman and Design Management with Karen McGrane. And then there’s the endless hours of critique that we had, learning to give feedback to other designers. But I think Selling Design is particularly important when trying to get others behind an idea or establishing a vision for something, then creating momentum behind it. I often relied on the idea of “selling design” within high-stakes agency settings after school. And, although I’m new to Etsy, I suspect I’ll be relying on those lessons here too.

Which lessons?

The idea that a design is pretty much worthless on its own. That part of a designer’s job is to articulate the value of a design. How you do that is up to you, but it’s a sale to be made. The lesson is that you can’t rely on the value of your design to be self-evident. That was really the crux of Zeldman’s class.

So now you’re teaching in the department. Any recommendations to the rising second years as they begin working on their theses?

Imagine what you want your career to be, and understand that your thesis is a first step to that career. Your thesis can really be a springboard to that, in the sense that it’s an artifact that helps you say “this is what i’m interested in” to others. It points to where you want your work to go, or what you want your practice to be.

On the other hand, it’s also your last opportunity to design without constraints. Be intentional about it. You can establish an independent practice or pursue self-initiated projects outside of school, but those are much harder to maintain. So, thesis is a very precious time.

How about incoming students?

One of the things that this program is designed to do is to get you to work in teams. In addition to that, if you’re inclined, it can prepare you for design leadership. Leadership is about getting groups to achieve objectives, setting vision, and managing performance — that kind of thing. Design leadership encompasses encouraging designers to follow their intuition, or sometimes asking them to be more rigorous. It’s about managing creativity. One way to think about it is this idea of meta-design, which is maybe the greatest perspective the program has given me. That is, what are the conditions for great design to occur? These conditions don’t occur by accident. It’s the idea — and this is a Cybernetic view — of designing how to design. In a way, that’s the main activity of design leaders.

What creates fertile ground for design?

There are many things. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is psychological safety: the idea of being able to create without penalty, either from managers or teammates. Also, grit, the ability to persist is something you want all of your designers to have, of course. Both of these things require cultivation and maintenance.

Credit: Michael Yap

This has been extremely insightful; thank you! Any parting thoughts you’d care to share about IxD or design in general?

One thing that’s really interesting to me is how definition of design continues to be contested. How we define “design” is very convenient for things like payscales and salaries and hiring managers. It’s also convenient for naming design programs. But in terms of practice, titles like “UX design” or “interaction design” have semi-to-no bearing on the individual design practice that one creates. So the question is, when you’re formulating your design practice, for whom are you creating value? In addition to that, what environments do you want to operate? I anticipate that practices that kind of straddle different fields, or move between them, will become increasingly valuable, and that’s where I’m choosing to operate right now.

Lastly, what are you reading right now?

Oh! Hippie Modernism; it’s a catalog put out by the Walker Arts Center. I’m also reading a book on circles by Bruno Munari. He’s an Italian graphic designer. And there’s a book that people from Etsy have recommended to me: Small is Beautiful. It’s about economics and markets and how they don’t have to be destructive.

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