The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Yesenia Perez-Cruz

Yesenia Perez-Cruz

  • designer
  • writer

Yesenia Perez-Cruz is a Philadelphia-based designer and speaker working at Intuitive Company. She honed her design and user experience skills while working at Happy Cog for clients like Zappos, MTV, and Jose Garces. She also acts as an acquisitions scout for A List Apart and is an instructor for GirlDevelopIt Philadelphia.

Tina: Describe your path to becoming a designer.

When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a writer. I moved from Puerto Rico to the United States when I was five, so early on while other kids were outside playing, I was reading and trying to learn English as quickly as possible. As a kid, I spent a lot of time reading books, drawing, and writing stories about my dog. Up until high school, I thought I’d do something related to writing.

In high school, I managed a Christina Aguilera fansite—I was a webmaster. (laughing) I spent a lot of time creating custom layouts and graphics. I even taught myself how to use Illustrator by making vector illustrations of Christina.

Then, in my senior year of high school, I took a graphic design class, which was taught by Richmond Garrick, a painter from Sierra Leone. He does amazing oil paintings about his experiences during the Sierra Leone Civil War. I took his graphic design class because I needed another elective, but I ended up loving it. I had been visiting schools to look at their writing programs, but about halfway through that process, I decided to major in graphic design. I had a week to meet an application deadline for Drexel University, and Mr. Garrick helped me put together a portfolio and take photos of the work I had done in his class. I shipped that off to Drexel and I was accepted.

The graphic design program at Drexel was pretty traditional. We learned visual communication, theory, fundamentals, and primarily print design. But what was nice about going there was that they offer a co-op program, which meant I had to spend six months of my junior year working. I remember having a choice between an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or this digital agency called Electronic Ink. At the last minute, I decided to try out the digital shop and see what it was like. There, I got a lot of exposure to user interface design and the web.

During my senior year at Drexel, I took a web design class, which was taught by Chris Cashdollar, who is now the VP of Design at Happy Cog. While I was taking that class, he asked me to come in for an interview. I started at Happy Cog two weeks after graduation.

That’s amazing!

Yeah, especially in 2009 when the job market for recent grads was rough.

And you recently transitioned into a new job, right?

I was at Happy Cog for five years and recently left. I’m working at an agency called Intuitive Company, which is in Manayunk, a neighborhood in Philadelphia that is outside of the metropolitan area. After spending five years somewhere right out of school, I wanted to expose myself to different types of work and push myself out of the nest.

Are you in a similar role?

Yeah, it’s mostly web design, but I do a range of tasks: strategy, information architecture, wireframes, and aesthetic design, as well as communicating with developers about how to make that come to life.

Was creativity a part of your childhood?

It was a huge part of my childhood, primarily because I spent so much time reading and writing. I also did some drawing as a kid, mostly to go along with the stories I wrote. I was in the literary club in high school, and I designed, printed, and bound all of the literary magazines during my senior year.

“I think everyone at Happy Cog was a mentor to me, considering it was my first job out of college…What I learned the most from working there was to question everything. I was encouraged to push myself and find new ways to solve problems…”

Design for the second annual MTV O Music Awards
Design for the second annual MTV O Music Awards; winner of the 2012 Webby in “Celebrity/Fan” category
Design for the second annual MTV O Music Awards
Design for the second annual MTV O Music Awards; winner of the 2012 Webby in “Celebrity/Fan” category

You mentioned living in Puerto Rico until you were five. Do you still have family there, and do you get a chance to visit?

Yeah, most of my family is still there. My parents and sisters are in the US, but my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles are still in Puerto Rico. We didn’t have too many chances to visit when I was young. I spent about 11 years away from Puerto Rico because it was so expensive to travel there.

I actually just went to Puerto Rico for work. I redesigned the online version of the most renowned newspaper there. It was amazing to redesign the newspaper’s website because my parents read it every single day. My grandparents don’t have a computer, but they’re familiar with the newspaper, so it was an emotional experience to fly there and work with such an iconic client.

You mentioned choosing graphic design over writing. Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you knew that design was what you wanted to focus on?

It was in high school when I took that graphic design class. I’m not sure exactly what it was—I think it was just a feeling. I was excited about learning something completely new, and I wanted to keep going. That’s actually something that drew me to the web over print design when I was in college; the web is something that’s consistently changing. When I was graduating, I knew I wanted to be in an industry that was always changing.

It’s crazy to think that the web isn’t that old, but we’ve already done so much with it.

Even in the past five years that I’ve been working, it’s changed so much. When I was taking that graphic design course in college, web font services were just starting to gain momentum, and there was no responsive web design.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

I think everyone at Happy Cog was a mentor to me, considering it was my first job out of college. I worked with really knowledgeable, smart people. What I learned the most from working there was to question everything. I was encouraged to push myself and find new ways to solve problems, which is how I grew so quickly.

Were you surprised by anything as you made the transition from college to working full-time?

A revelation for me after I left school was that I didn’t know how to ask good questions. I think that’s because when you’re in school, you’re constantly presenting your work, attending critiques, and are taught to justify your work and have an answer for every question. It took me a long time to learn to ask questions. I’d burn myself out trying to solve problems, and then realize that if I’d asked more questions about what I was doing before I started, it would have been way easier.

Yeah, it’s easy to get so focused that you forget to take a step back and ask why? Why am I working so hard on this solution when there could be a completely different way to solve it?

I had a lot of tunnel vision when I first started out. I would focus in on micro-level things without fully understanding why. Learning how to take a step back to understand the bigger picture of what I was creating took a long time.

Have you taken any big risks to move forward?

I think that leaving Happy Cog was the biggest risk I’ve taken. I have a lot of friends there, and it was where I grew up professionally. Starting somewhere so young and working there for five years, I felt like a lot of my identity was interwoven with the company’s identity. I’m just now figuring out how to differentiate myself. It’s definitely a process that I’m working through right now.

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

My family has always been super supportive of what I do. Growing up, I felt like they were hard on me; if I came home with a 92% on an assignment, they’d ask, “Why didn’t you get 100%?” I didn’t understand until much later that they wanted me to push myself to do the very best and not settle. By the time I decided to major in graphic design, they trusted that no matter what I did, I’d give it my all. They’re always super proud of me. They were extremely proud when I worked on the website for the newspaper in Puerto Rico.

Out of curiosity, why did your family move to the US?

My mom remarried when I was three, and my stepdad is an engineer. He had done an internship at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia and has now been with the Navy for a long time—about 20 years, I think. My step-dad actually learned about engineering by reading Popular Mechanics and he thought, “That’s what I want to do!” There wasn’t anyone around him doing engineering or encouraging him to do it. I have a huge amount of respect for him for pursuing it. We moved to the United States when he was hired full-time at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia.

Do you ever think about how your life would be different if you had stayed in Puerto Rico?

I wonder about it all the time. The move changed my personality. In Puerto Rico, I was with family all the time and was very outgoing and talkative. Once I moved and couldn’t communicate with people as well, it made me very introverted and more reclusive. I think it had a huge impact on me.

Were you learning English when you were in Puerto Rico?

No. Students are taught English now, but not when I was younger. I didn’t learn English until I moved here.

“In Puerto Rico, I was with family all the time and was very outgoing and talkative. Once I moved and couldn’t communicate with people as well, it made me very introverted and more reclusive. I think it had a huge impact on me.”

Design for the third annual MTV O Music Awards
Design for the third annual MTV O Music Awards, influenced by the music history of the American South
Design for the third annual MTV O Music Awards
Design for the third annual MTV O Music Awards, influenced by the music history of the American South

So, do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something outside of yourself?

Absolutely. As it relates to my career, a huge thing is that when I was going to conferences for the first time, I never saw people on stage who looked like me—there weren’t a lot of women or Latinas. I realized that if I wanted to see more Latinas on stage, I’d have to push myself to get up there. I hope that others will be inspired by that.

In the future, I would love to get more Latinas involved in tech in a bigger way, maybe though starting a mentoring program where I can be more directly involved.

Awesome. Do you have any upcoming speaking engagements?

Yes. I’m going to be speaking at Smashing Conference in Freiburg, Germany, in September. I’m excited about that! Then I’ll be at Future of Web Design in New York in November.

And you’ve done some writing on A List Apart as well.

Yes, and I’m an acquisitions scout for ALA. I reach out to potential authors who might be interested in writing, but don’t know what topic they want to work on yet. I help them craft a thesis statement around a topic and develop an outline. That’s exciting work, too.

It’s great because you get to combine your love of writing and your work on the web.

That was something I didn’t realize in high school. I thought I had to choose one or the other. I thought that graphic design was purely visual, but the more time I spend in this business, the more I realize that there’s so much writing involved; it’s all about communication. I still get to do what I enjoy by expressing thoughts in different ways.

Yesenia speaking at Artifact Conference 2013
Yesenia speaking at Artifact Conference 2013; photo by Chris Casciano

“…when I was going to conferences for the first time, I never saw people on stage who looked like me—there weren’t a lot of women or Latinas. I realized that if I wanted to see more Latinas on stage, I’d have to push myself to get up there. I hope that others will be inspired by that.”

Are you creatively satisfied?

No, and I don’t think I’d ever want to be anywhere close to satisfied. I’m really motivated by progress and always want to feel like I’m evolving. I get restless if I feel too comfortable. And I still have room to grow with how I express myself creatively.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting out?

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to not compare myself to others. A lot of people say to find someone you respect and emulate what they’re doing; that tactic didn’t work for me. What worked best for me was to understand what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at, and work on ways to improve based on that. I always saw my introversion as a flaw, and felt like I’d fail unless I learned to be extroverted and super talkative. Instead, I ended up figuring out how my introversion benefitted me. Work with what you have instead of trying to become someone else.

How does where you live influence your creativity?

One thing about Philly is that it’s not super polished. People are pretty real. That influences my work in that I try not to create things that are overly polished or trendy or so minimal that they have no life in them.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community?

I think it’s super important. I’ve learned so much from attending and speaking at conferences, especially during downtime when I’m talking to others. I’ve met some really encouraging, inspiring people, and I always leave with ideas for new things I want to try.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Right now, I live in the city, but work just outside of the city, so I have a reverse commute. I commute about an hour, partially on the subway and partially on the train. I wasn’t sure if I would like having a commute, but it’s actually been a nice opportunity to read or sit and not think about anything. Since I live in the city, working somewhere that’s quiet is a nice change.

I usually get up around 6:30am, catch the train, and arrive at work by 8:30am—I’m learning how to be a morning person. I leave work around 5:30pm and catch the train back. When I get home, it’s a mix of different things. A lot of times I’ll cook or work with authors for A List Apart or go to the gym or watch bad reality TV.

What music are you listening to right now?

I try to keep up with new music, but nostalgia usually wins. I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen recently. I think I have nostalgia for the three-hour painting studio class I took in college—my professor always played Leonard Cohen. I’d like to get back to the point where I’m able to do anything for three hours without interruption. (laughing)

I’ve also been listening to Modest Mouse and The Shins, which takes me back to high school.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

My favorite TV show was Breaking Bad. I desperately miss it! As for movies, I love The Graduate; the soundtrack with Simon & Garfunkel is perfect. And then I don’t think I go a week without quoting Mean Girls, which is a little awkward if people haven’t seen it.

What’s your favorite book?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I’ve read it over and over again at different points in my life.

Your favorite food?

Tacos. They work for every occasion, and I could never get tired of them.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I hope to empower people who might not be confident about entering the web industry. A lot of this has been inspired by my 15-year-old sister, who is currently in the Engineering Academy at her high school and taking C++ classes. I want her to come into this industry, or any technical industry, and feel like she’s in a safe place where she’s going to get a fair shot and be supported. That plays a huge role in the kind of legacy I want to leave.interview close

“I always saw my introversion as a flaw, and felt like I’d fail unless I learned to be extroverted and super talkative. Instead, I ended up figuring out how my introversion benefitted me. Work with what you have instead of trying to become someone else.”