Isra Safawi, Product Designer at Reddit and WILD Editorial Co-Lead, believes aspiring design leaders should forge their own path. Hers is about asking thoughtful questions, exploring what she really cares about, and finding her own authentic voice in design. Isra’s observations on the challenges designers face and her hopes for the future of design highlight exactly that–an emerging unique perspective in design and leadership.
How did you get started in design? Where has your design journey taken you personally and professionally?
I have been making things ever since I can remember. As a teenager, I used to love taking apart my copies of Total Girl and Bop magazines and putting them back together to create my own. When I finally discovered Photoshop in the 9th grade, being able to take what was in my head and bringing it to life became my superpower.
I majored in visual communication and strategic branding from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. While studying, I also started freelancing to put my skills into practice in the real world. I loved the responsibility as well as the freedom these projects offered. This experience provided the initial steps toward setting up my own design studio. My naive confidence allowed me to develop crucial skills in time management, negotiation, and people leadership.
At the same time, I was approached by Apple India’s marketing communications team with the opportunity to work in an intense, highly skilled role. There I learned to deliver high quality work from some of the best talent. I was largely working with print design through my studio work, and at this time, I started to see the potential of expanding into digital design.
I decided to move to Silicon Valley to pursue my Masters in Human Computer Interaction from the California College of Arts. Since then I’ve started working at Reddit as a Product Designer in the Internationalization team which aims to make Reddit accessible for people all over the globe.
What advice would you give to aspiring design leaders?
As an aspiring design leader myself, I believe it’s important to forge my own path. It’s invaluable to have mentors who I can count on and people who I look up to, but it’s crucial for me to know and trust myself.
So my advice for young design leaders is to dig deep and understand what you truly care about. Shape your own unique journey rather than following anybody else’s footsteps.
What are the biggest challenges facing design leaders today?
I think a lot about the increasing homogeneity in the world, especially when it comes to design. It’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish apps and logos from each other. Whether something is made in Estonia or El Salvador, they end up looking quite similar. Somewhere along the way to optimizing for large audiences, we’ve been losing individuality as a result.
What are you most passionate about in the world of design?
I live and work in San Francisco, in the city that has been responsible for some of the biggest innovations of the 21st century. It’s exciting and inspiring to be surrounded by innovation on a daily basis. But at the same time, when I look at the rest of the world, I see so much inequity.
Everyone else is trying to ‘catch up’ with the western world in a lot of ways. I have seen first-hand how access to information and technology can transform lives. While there may be start-ups that are working on the ‘next big thing’ popping up on a daily basis, I feel really strongly about helping the rest of the world access the life-changing tools that already exist.
What are your hopes for the future of design?
My hope for the future of design is that we design products and experiences that empower and enable people to regain control of their lives. Today, our lives are all governed by various forms of technology. I feel we have adapted–scarily–rather too well to this digital landscape. Instead of us adapting to technology, technology must adapt to us!
What are the superpowers you associate with great leadership? Why?
Three super powers: self-awareness, resilience, and empathy.
It’s very important for leaders to be honest and genuine in their practice. In order to inspire a team, they need to know themselves and be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their team.
They need to be able to get back up after failures and motivate their team.
And finally, they need to lead with empathy and vulnerability, to build trust and cultivate a healthy team culture.
How do you stay motivated and inspired yourself?
Growing up in Vietnam, from a very young age I was surrounded by people from a wide breadth of vibrant cultures. I find it really inspiring to explore how people from all over the world lead their lives, understanding the customs they follow, experiencing the food they eat, and appreciating the arts and crafts they develop over generations. Traveling definitely helps with this. But it’s also crucial to allow myself to be right where I am and make a practice of simply asking questions, which transports me to different places and experiences too.
How do your personal interests and hobbies inform your work?
My day job requires me to sit in front of a screen most of the time, so to balance that I love making tangible things with my hands. These days it’s pottery and crochet. Both these crafts involve patience, attention to detail, and embracing imperfections. And valuing human touch. I try to carry these principles with me throughout my practice. Next up is stitching! I just got myself a sewing machine.
Favorite design and culture resources:
Other sh*t you love:
As Women in Leadership & Design (WILD) redefines paradigms of design leadership, we elevate the perspectives of the creative leaders in our midst. “WILD Portraits” shares the distinct stories of Bay Area women and non-binary design leaders, highlighting each individual’s unique path and point of view. Together, these profiles provide a sketch of the state of design leadership and how it’s evolving.