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How did you get started in digital design and learn the necessary skills? I have been involved in design projects since childhood. I used to attend art- and design-focused workshops at the Boys & Girls Club, and I joined the yearbook club in middle school. When I was fourteen years old, a close friend taught me HTML, and we made simple websites through Angelfire. As time went on, I continued to code and design as a hobby, and I also took some courses focused on photography and Adobe Creative Suite during my undergraduate studies. When I was getting my first master’s, in urban planning, I paid for the program with a graduate assistantship that required me to do work in WordPress and also design newsletters for prospective students.

What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? I’ve been involved in community development as far back as I can remember. My dad was a two-time city councilman, and I helped him with his campaigns during my teenage years. In my early adult life, I also gained experience with parade-float competitions, props and set design. When I look back at everything I’ve done, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t look at tech or design as serious career paths until after I graduated with my first master’s. I’ve been a designer all my life, regardless of what field I’ve been working in.

How has your background in urban planning informed your design work? I’m a big advocate for collaboration and human-centered design. As a planner specializing in community development and revitalizing cities, I’ve attended and organized many neighborhood charrettes, which are essential design-thinking sessions for stakeholders. For example, when I first moved to Philadelphia, I was organizing green block parties and working with block captains to get residents involved, and when I lived in Buffalo, New York, I was involved in charrettes focused on helping residents identify community needs. It’s really important to make sure that stakeholders are a part of the conversation.

I’ve been a designer all my life, regardless of what field I’ve been working in.”
What have you learned about how design can impact communities? Having had to bring together stakeholders with different interests and needs, I learned a lot about the benefits and challenges of collaborative design. It’s important to try to see things from different perspectives and to know how to communicate ideas without stepping on someone else’s toes.

In the wake of Facebook’s data scandal, what needs to change? Was there really a scandal? I believe blame is to be spread amongst all of us; we all need to accept some of the responsibility. When you don’t take the time to read an end-user agreement before utilizing a platform, your laziness can come back to haunt you! I also strongly believe that Facebook needs to make their end-user agreement clearer and set stronger guidelines for developers. I actually had made a response video immediately following the Senate hearing.

What did you learn from leading Webjunto, the mobile and web development company you cofounded in Philadelphia? Mainly, it taught me the importance of work culture. I had always labeled myself the team’s “happiness officer.” I wanted to create a work environment that was truly inclusive and diverse. That required building a culture around communication, collaboration and cultivation.

How did you feel when Webjunto closed its doors, and what are you looking forward to working on next? While we had an amazing run at Webjunto, I can say with great confidence that running a services agency focused on app development is not something I’m personally passionate about; I want to have a greater impact. I needed to refocus on what feels right to me. I’m really excited to be moving forward with some of the other projects I’ve been working on—I’m creating meaningful content and experiences for entrepreneurs, innovators and professionals. My long-term vision is a world where inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation are the norm and not merely an afterthought.

What’s distinctive about the tech community in Philadelphia? I’m 100 percent sure that Philadelphia’s tech community has something very special. First off, it’s an affordable city in which to grow a business. It’s also got one of the most connected and genuine tech communities I’ve experienced. People within our local tech community sincerely want to see each other do well. We support one another day in and out! We’ve also got one of the largest and most active populations of women working in tech in the country.

What tips do you have for a designer who wants to take on entrepreneurship and start her own business? Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. You can study how to be an entrepreneur, but nothing prepares you for it like diving in headfirst. You’ve got to be mentally ready to handle the highs and lows, or startup life will burn you out. Resilience is everything.

What trends in digital design are you most interested in? Lately, I have been experimenting with video and podcast content. Podcasts are beginning to dominate the market, especially when it comes to young professionals.

There are a ton of challenges when it comes to content generation. I’m very much a stereotypical creative, and it can be tough to stay on task because I often have one idea after another. I’ve been trying to surround myself with people who can help me follow through with one idea at a time. On one hand, I don’t want to stifle my creativity; but on the other, I am comfortable admitting that I need help staying focused. The big picture requires team effort, and I look forward to building a team to fill in the gaps.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? How to articulate and look into my interests. It’s not so much that I didn’t know which things I enjoyed doing, but I did not have access to the proper language necessary—I did not know design could be a career. This was not something that my guidance counselor or teachers ever presented to me. When I thought of design, I often thought of it in the context of fashion and the Fashion Institute of Technology—not in terms of apps or industrial design. As a result, I’d love to help make information about careers in design and technology available to more people.

Liz Brown is the chief executive officer and head of experience at Design Jawn, a company that creates curated experiences and tools for entrepreneurs and professionals. Previously, she cofounded Philadelphia-based user experience company Webjunto. Over the past fifteen years, she has worked on a wide range of projects, including research on motivation theory, cognitive learning theory and user experience. Before cofounding Webjunto and after more than ten years of taking on side gigs as a web designer and front-end developer, she earned a master’s degree in information design and technology from the State University of New York (SUNY) Polytechnic Institute. Brown also received a master’s degree in urban planning from the School of Architecture and Planning at SUNY Buffalo and previously practiced as an urban planner specializing in urban revitalization. She continues to work in the community as a civic hacking enthusiast, event organizer and public speaker.


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