The Rewards of Playing Nice (Even When Your Feet Hurt)

Digital Design and Classical Animation grad Jen Yu knows the benefits of staying cool under pressure.

Despite near-comical workplace challenges, she rode the first big social media wave and built an amazing portfolio of work during her time at ABC Family/Walt Disney and as a UI Lead at Slide (now a part of the Google empire).

With experience working in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Cannes, Manila, and Taipei, she’s been able to apply her wide-ranging skill set to a number of successful initiatives. Jen recently offered her thoughts on how she’s been able to find such success in a tough industry.

Hi, Jen. Could you start off by talking about what you currently do in the industry?

Jen: I do UI/UX design for social media / casual games these days. I still make films on my own time though.

You’re a graduate of both the Classical Animation and the Digital Design (formerly named “Interactive Media”) programs. How would you describe your time spent at VFS?

Jen: Time well-spent. I got everything I needed to learn to survive in a really competitive field. Both from a technical and problem-solving standpoint. The extremely short times we were given to produce projects was a good exercise to really understand what I needed to learn in the long haul.

You’ve got a pretty wide professional skill set, from video editing to interactive/UI design to digital animation. What bonds it all together?

Jen: I think the need to make something cool is what bonds it all together. I think, with any artist worth their salt, it’s always the basic desire to create something, and technology is just a tool to get there.

Plus, these days it’s really not enough to just know how to do one thing. Knowing how to do one thing extremely well is important, but being flexible across other media on some level is also quite valuable. I was lucky enough to learn this early on.

Can you talk a bit about your work for ABC Family/Walt Disney? How did you find work with such a massive corporation and what were some of the challenges you faced there?

Jen: I worked with the Digital Media (Advertising) end of the operations. When I first joined them in 2007, we had absolutely nothing. It was a brand new department with about 20 people and one HTML page that was nothing more than a list of show schedules. We didn’t even have our own area in the building, to the point where we were stationed at a different floor every month. I once had no desk for a week, and worked sitting on the floor. We had a lot of extremely long hours, VFS-like 48-hour design marathons.

I got in after somehow convincing them that I could take on anything from film/video work, animation, illustration, UI design, all the way to front-end web development. With limited resources, they wanted multi-tasking creatives who could be assigned to do anything quickly. One day I’d be out on the lot shooting, the next day I’d be sitting in front of a computer doing UI. One time my schedule changed without notice and I was running around shooting and climbing ladders in stilettos. Needless to say, I went home with bleeding feet.

The biggest challenge was trying to navigate through a pretty young social media scene, where we actually HAD to figure out what exactly Twitter was in the first place, and how do we leverage that into our creative methodology. With large corporations like Disney, there’s a lot of spec and processes you have to comply with, but the beauty of being there when Digital Media wasn’t quite defined, was that we could really push the boundaries of the games and sites we produced. Plus having a team of really amazing people helps. This was pre-Twitter and Facebook mega-popularity, and most people regarded the Digital Media folks as the “low end” of operations, so we had to work harder to prove something.

Yeah, take that, internet unbelievers! Everyone’s swarming towards social media now! (I like being able to say that.)

“Jen is a graphics and UI rockstar. Talented, funny, dependable, worldly — the total package. I would happily work with her again.”

That’s a LinkedIn recommendation from your former boss, who is now an Executive Producer at Google/YouTube. And there are more glowing responses to your work and personality. What’s your secret?

Jen: There’s no secret, lol. I think it’s always important to not be a jerk. No matter how talented or smart you are, if you’re a jerk, NOBODY will want to work with you. I also recognize what I do well and what I don’t, and I’m always up front about it – so I don’t give people unrealistic expectations. That way you don’t let anyone down. A general “what can I do to help” attitude also always comes through.

You’ve worked all over the world. Where’s home?

Jen: Yeah, this question will take forever to answer. But San Francisco is my favourite city. (Sorry Vancouver, too much rain. It’s my 2nd fav city though.)

What kind of advice would you offer to aspiring designers who might be considering a similar direction for their career?

Jen: Work harder than everyone else, always be hungry for innovation and art until your head explodes from overstimulation, and don’t be a jerk. :)

Want to see more of Jen Yu’s work? Check out her portfolio site at bang-theory.com.

You can also connect with her on Twitter: @jensterjuice

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