Member Spotlight: Meet Erika Harano, UX Designer, Design Educator and Mixed Media Artist

Skillshare student Erika Harano is a UX designer, educator and facilitator who works to combat social injustice and systemic inequity in her work life and through personal art practices like zine-making, printmaking and dance. We sat down with her to discuss her unique approach to UX design, what inspires her work, and how curiosity has helped her develop her interests.

Hi Erika! We are so excited to talk with you about your work. You write that your philosophy is that “everything is design(ed).” Can you explain a little bit about that idea and its implications for you work (and beyond)?

Hi Skillshare! So grateful to have the opportunity to chat with you.

I believe in the ubiquity of design -- that everything is designed, that design is everywhere, and anyone who makes any kind of decision (so, everyone) is a designer. Too often, when we think of ‘design,’ we think of distinct fields -- architecture, web design, product design, graphic design -- and think that one has to have some kind of accreditation or external validation to be considered a designer. The field and practice of design ends up being very exclusive, with more privileged people designing and making decisions for those with less power. It’s not a tool that underprivileged people can access.

When we challenge that systemic inequity embedded in how we perceive design, we shift the thinking around who gets to participate in decision-making. We work towards more inclusive, equitable, and accessible processes, experiences, and systems. I believe it’s important to challenge the exclusionary nature of design and part of how I do that is through design facilitation and education. All of my work is all guided by this core belief that everyone is a designer and that design encompasses everything.

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

How do you approach UX design projects? What kind of challenges do you like solving for, and what do you hope to achieve?

I believe that UX design projects should be collaborative, critical, and learning-oriented. As a freelance UX designer, I typically work with people on a project-by-project basis, and I most enjoy working with folks who view me as a partner in their effort to address their specific, complex challenges. When I work on project, I try to challenge myself and others to constantly acknowledge and examine the underlying assumptions and biases we bring to the table. I like asking questions like, “who are we missing that needs to be part of this decision-making process?” or “what information do we still need in order to better understand this use case?”

I like co-creating approaches that support accessibility, inclusivity, equity, and consent. Sometimes that means that I seek out people or organizations that hold these values at the center of their work, and other times it’s about my bringing those lenses and values to the table. Ultimately, I hope to be part of the movement to make design more accessible, approachable, inclusive, inviting, and just.

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

How does being a mixed media artist and educator inform your UX design work, and vice versa?

My arts practices are deeply tied to my explorations of power and identity, especially as a queer and mixed race person. I write and make a lot of work around assumptions that others hold, and the identities people impose on me. That work, in turn, shapes my approach to UX design. It makes me an even fiercer advocate for challenging assumptions that we bring to UX design work.

My background in UX design feeds my obsession with continuous improvement and iteration, and it shows up in how I choreograph, how I set type before I print, and how I meet with the students I mentor. Feedback is golden to me;  I thrive on feedback to constantly adapt my art, work and my processes.

Transforming Paper: Origami + Papel Picado at Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2018. Photograph by Michael Thomas

Transforming Paper: Origami + Papel Picado at Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2018. Photograph by Michael Thomas

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by young people who use their agency and power to create transformational change, while fighting the multiple layers of oppression that often work against them. Young people can be so deeply marginalized, they’re stereotyped as being apathetic, or immature, or inexperienced, or selfish, and are systematically denied the ability to participate in decision-making. And yet, so many civic and social movements are led by young activists, particularly youth of color, who demand justice and change. Their commitment guides how I show up in solidarity for their visions.

How did you first become interested in the kind of work that you do?

I can trace my UX design work back to my undergraduate years, when I worked on faculty-led research around youth engagement through civic media. I was introduced to design thinking and human-centered design in a role working with youth. I thought it was a fascinating, playful, creative decision-making process; I worked with colleagues to apply design thinking to address challenges within the culture and climate of the organization. I found myself picking up web design tasks and projects at work, too, and eventually found my way to formally studying UX design.  

‘Zine excerpt by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

‘Zine excerpt by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

Even as I developed this interest, I disagreed with the ways in which design thinking and human-centered design perpetuate dominant power structures. There’s no critical analysis of the role of the “designer,” or how they design “solutions” for communities, rather than with them. This frustration and curiosity led me to working with Creative Reaction Lab, which is a nonprofit social enterprise committed to fighting racism by design with design through a framework called Equity-Centered Community Design. Through that work, I was able to connect with, and support the work of, other people and organizations who are similarly working to disrupt these dominant power dynamics within (and beyond) design.

I’ve been drawn to education since high school but I had no idea at 15 that this is the kind of work that I’d be doing, but I’m so grateful to be where I am.

I’ve been dancing since childhood, so movement arts have been part of my being for a long time! I took to zinemaking about five years ago; I was looking to use photography and my writing to explore my mixed race identity, and for all of it to be tactile. Printmaking is a newer practice for me (I just started exploring this summer) and I think it’s an extension of my attraction to engaging with analog, manual forms of communication and expression. 

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

UX design mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

What is your day-to-day like? 

Every day is different, but my day-to-day is typically some combination of meditation and movement, mentoring UX design students, client outreach and follow-up, and design work, all of which look different depending on the season and project phases. My partner and I both work from home and split an office. I get restless working on a computer all day, so I try to break up screen-based work with other projects, like print work or sketching on paper, and I usually try to get at least one mid-day walk to recenter and clear my head. Cooking home-style Japanese food is an important cultural practice for me, so I make a point of cooking what I grew up eating on a near-daily basis. My partner and I aim to eat dinner together as much as we can to disconnect from our work and to connect with each other -- between the time he spends with organizational leadership, data-informed process improvement, and Vedic astrology, and the time I spend with experience design, creative practices, and training and mentoring, we have a lot to talk about and can often support one another in our respective work.

On some days, I work on prints at a local print shop, and have dance classes in the evening. Depending on the season, I spend parts of my week working with a local farming collective, or spend more time creating works for zine expos.

UX Design Mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

UX Design Mockup by Erika Harano (image courtesy of the artist)

What are you curious about?

I’m curious about history, especially critical perspectives on history, which are often dismissed, ignored, or censored. I’m curious about planets and stars, and our relationships to them. I’m curious about plants and plant guilds. I’m fascinated by patterns in nature, like fractals and murmurations, and about how to apply patterns in nature to how we individually and collectively interact with one another as human beings. I’m curious about how people identify, especially when there’s dissonance between what one identifies with and what others identify them to be. I’m super curious about quantum theory, subtle bodies, and mycelium.

What role has curiosity played in your career?

Curiosity has had a profound influence on my career in two main ways. I’ve been fortunate to have the space to find and pursue self-paced learning through online platforms like Skillshare, and in retrospect, I can see how these have been seeds for shifts in career directions. Curiosity in design thinking has fueled my curiosity in UX design, which in turn has fueled my curiosity in becoming a design educator.

Curiosity has also helped me cultivate deep relationships, both personally and professionally. On a number of occasions I’ve reached out to people I didn’t know, whose work or craft I admired, just to see if they’d be open to a chat or to meet over coffee. I’ve been amazed by the willingness of people to connect. Building relationships with people in this way, by genuinely being interested in who they are and what they care about, has led to mentor opportunities, pivotal educational experiences, and a widened perspective on what I understand to be possible within how one carves a career path.

Transforming Paper: Origami + Papel Picado at Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2018. Photograph by Michael Thomas

Transforming Paper: Origami + Papel Picado at Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2018. Photograph by Michael Thomas

What advice would you give someone who is interested in some of the subject areas you are exploring?

Advice is hard! It looks and feels different for everyone. Connecting with other people who are already doing the work has worked for me. Whether in UX design, dance, zinemaking, or  education there are so many people doing incredible work in these spaces. Reaching out to form meaningful connections can be vital.

I also routinely connect with chosen family, the people whom I hold close. I’ve been fortunate to establish check-ins with a good friend, and we chat over Hangouts once a month to catch up about how we are progressing toward the goals we’ve set for ourselves. I can’t say I always meet the goals I set, but touching base helps me to recenter on my priorities and my passions.

Last, but not least, I think it’s crucial to get started on something and to go with the flow. Admittedly, I have a hard time making decisions, and sometimes get caught in the “analysis paralysis” cycle of thinking about what I might want to do, and not actually doing it. I used to (and sometimes still do) tell myself I’m not qualified enough, or that my perspective doesn’t matter, but being able to break through those patterns of thinking have led me to find and develop practices I deeply love. They have helped shape where I am with my career. I’ve come to learn that the best way to start on a project, or to build a skill, is to suspend any judgment and self-doubt and just start. Sign up for one class, start one challenge, or find one community to join, those acts can all be the starting points of incredible journeys!

Finish this sentence "curiosity drives my _____"

Curiosity drives my connection to myself, others, and the world we are part of.


To learn more about Erika Harano, check out her Skillshare profile page, her website, or find her on Medium, Dribbble, Behance, and Twitter.