Designer Spotlight: An Interview with Joanna Chao


Interviewed by Ahmed Siddiqui:

Joanna Chao is a visual designer based in San Francisco. After years spent on a misguided psychology degree, Joanna eventually discovered her love of design. After getting her hands on a pirated copy of photoshop she proudly built her first, horrific looking website. Endless hours of fervent tinkering later she crafted her second, still horrific looking website. Ten years later she seems to be doing okay. She has worked at the tiniest of startups to the most frantic of agency-style studios, but has found it most gratifying to work with her own clients as a contractor.

Joanna loves well-thought out typography, masterfully-crafted user experiences, and cheese. You can peruse her work at

Joanna shares her recent experiences at Startup Weekend SoLoMo July 27-29 at Qualcomm Labs. Follow Joanna on Twitter @jo_annachao

AS: How did you find out about Startup Weekend?

JC: I actually knew I was itching to participate at another hackathon, so I searched on Eventbrite for upcoming hackathons and Startup Weekend popped up as the soonest one. After I did some research and realized how international and large scale Startup Weekend was, I signed up immediately.

AS: Which team were you on? Can you please describe what your product/service does?

JC: My team built a mobile web app called TrainTrain. The idea is to help people put their lost time commuting on Caltrain to good use. We help people with specific skills set up paid tutoring sessions with people who want to learn them, all on the same train. For example, if I commuted everyday from San Francisco to Mountain View and wanted to learn French, there might be a fluent French speaker also doing the same commute that could give me a lesson every morning on the way to work. In short, it’s skill-sharing on the train.

AS: What was the best part about that team?

JC: The best part was definitely the people on my team. I have learned from past experience that you should always pick your team based on the team members, not the idea.  If you have an amazing idea and a team that drives you insane, you’ll never be able to execute anyway!  It’s important to choose quality, competent people you feel are passionate about the idea. It’s the only way to make things happen in such a short amount of time.

AS: What did you learn about yourself during the weekend?

JC: As it turns out I am far more passionate about UX than I ever realized. Generally I market myself as a visual designer (i.e. “I make things pretty!”), but I spent a good chunk of the first day championing for a good user experience and making sure that our app was usable and intuitive from the start. It was a bit of push and pull between myself and our Ruby developer, but I think we both built something we’re proud of and want to put out there in the real world.

AS: Why should designers come to Startup Weekend?

JC: Before my first hackathon I had this terrifying fear of being the last kid picked on the playground, but when people are forming teams they nearly come to fisticuffs for the few designers available to be on their team. There is a massive demand for designers because lots of programmers are starting to realize now that having a designer can be all the difference between a “hack” or a “finished product.”

What I really love about Startup Weekend is the chance to share about your own expertise and really learn about everybody’s respective fields. Think programmers don’t care about design? Teach them why it’s becoming more and more relevant to successful businesses. Have no idea how to design for mobile?  Ask an iOS or Android developer to explain about the limitations and rules of app design. I have learned SO much simply by talking with developers about what they do and how they do it. It has helped me get a better picture of how I can create better design for superior products.

Startup Weekend is an awesome place for designers to experiment on a type of project they’ve never done before, to really challenge and stretch their abilities, and to showcase why design is so important.

AS: Any advice you can give to designers thinking about going to an upcoming Startup Weekend?

JC: If you’re at all intimidated at the idea of a hackathon, don’t be.  People who participate in Startup Weekend are incredibly open, friendly, and welcoming, especially to designers. Everybody really WANTS more designers to show up, impart their knowledge, and make their products look hot.