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What drew you to the design field? I’ve always loved to make things. My mom encouraged my sisters and I to do lots of crafts when we were kids—cross stitch, beading, friendship bracelets, that sort of thing. Then, when the web came around, I started to build things with it. I was about thirteen when I created my first website, a place where I could experiment with creating code, words and images. Over time this evolved into an interest in graphic design, then architecture, and finally back around to interaction design.

You started out as a spatial designer. How has that informed your later work as a UX designer and entrepreneur? I see spatial design, architecture, UX and entrepreneurship as dealing with similar problems. Each of them has to do with designing and building something to bring people together. For example, in the architectural world, perhaps you’re designing a shop. You need to have an understanding of what will be sold there, the personality of the owners and the brand, and then the ability to pull it together and work with a series of contractors to make it a reality.

With UX, we’re thinking about what the best user experience will be and how that aligns with business goals, then working with engineers and other talented people to bring it all together. As an entrepreneur, I’m happy to have an understanding of designing and building projects from these different angles. It helps me break down the components of new skills I’ve had to learn along the way.

Why did you get an MFA? How has it helped you? In undergrad, I really enjoyed architectural theory. I was fascinated to learn about the evolution of built space and its effect on us. As Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterward, our buildings shape us.” After working in tech for a couple of years, I wanted the space and time to dig deeper to understand what the effects of our new networked society could mean. Eventually, I came across Liz Danzico and SVAIxD, the MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to repeat that level of investigation.

My degree has helped me in so many ways—learning about concepts like Cybernetics, working through a series of challenging briefs, and meeting similarly curious people and new mentors. Presentation skills were a surprising takeaway. Recently, I spoke to an audience of over 700 at TYPO San Francisco 2015, something I never would have dreamed of before grad school.

Having the time away from earning money was very important, too. I was granted a couple of years to be removed from the usual hustle, the complaints of clients and restrictions of everyday life. It was a time to think big thoughts and, mostly, do a lot of work.

What has surprised you the most about starting your own business? How much I’m learning about myself! I never would have thought that running a coaster company would be crash course in self awareness, but here we are. Long story short: I spend all day, every day, working on my own. I’ve had to develop all kinds of management techniques to make sure that I don’t overwork myself, or get caught up in work that is ultimately not very productive for the stage Coastermatic is in.

Do you miss working for clients? I miss the focus of client work. As an interaction designer, I’d get to focus on a particular set of problems and find thoughtful solutions to them. At Coastermatic’s current stage, I’m working on many things in short bursts, and don’t get to sink in the same way.

Where do you hope to take Coastermatic and your career in the future? I want there to be coasters on every table! They’re such a great way to keep ideas and memories close. More specifically, I’d like to grow Coastermatic into a company that can support five to seven staffers. I’m fascinated by business structures and internal cultures, and I hope to have the opportunity to create my own. Once we get to that stage, there will most likely be other products and new goals to work toward. There’s always something new to make.

Have you noticed more designers starting their own businesses? Why is this happening? Over the last few years we’ve had an explosion in networks and services designed to help people strike out on their own. I think the convergence of these tools and turbulent economic times—especially the crash in 2008—have encouraged, or forced, a lot of people to find a way to be more in control of their income. As designers, making new things comes fairly naturally to us, and now we have a huge market to show off those wares, whether it’s through Kickstarter, Etsy or a company of our own making.

What’s your advice to designers who want to strike out on their own? The biggest thing to keep in mind is that making something is only half of the job. Once it’s beautiful and out there for the world to see, you need to tell people about what you’ve made, and then tell them again and again. Building an audience and learning how to talk to them has been the biggest challenge for me, and it’s something that I work on every day.
In 2012, designer and entrepreneur Tash Wong founded Coastermatic, a friendly Instagram-to-coaster company. She blogs and speaks about her experience of becoming a creative entrepreneur, most recently at Typo SF. Prior to founding Coastermatic, she worked as a UX consultant for a variety of clients, including The New York Times. She holds an MFA in Interaction Design from the School of Visual Arts, and currently lives in San Francisco.
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