About this episode
In this episode, we'll hear how she loves the complexity and challenges when working on design systems for clients and the importance of staying curious even after finding an initial solution.
Matthew Munger: Hey Katie. Thanks for joining me.
Katie Cooper: Hey, Matt. Glad to be here.
Matthew Munger: Let's start out. Just tell us about who you are and a little bit more about yourself.
Katie Cooper: I’m currently a Senior Product Designer at Forge Studio, which is an agency that primarily focuses on product design, research, web design, designing Webflow sites, and also building them. I have been in the design industry for quite some time, probably 10 plus years, ever since I graduated college. I took a couple of weird jobs, getting my chops in mainly illustration, branding, even some communication stuff, then freelanced for quite some time, I think around three or four years. Of course I've always kind of freelanced on the side through being employed. But, from freelancing, I have been doing the agency life, which means working with a lot of different clients, a lot of different people, a lot of different needs, which I think is really fun. You get to learn about industries you'd never probably research on your own.
My career started more in visual design, doing branding, illustration. Web design was kind of an afterthought. It's like, “Oh, my branding clients need a website. Yeah. I'll do one for you.” I did have some computer science classes in college, so it wasn't totally foreign to build a website. But I was still using Squarespace for a lot of those. And then I discovered Webflow and I was like, “Wow. So I can hand off a website and not have the client ruin it.” They don't always do that. But–
Matthew Munger: That's funny.
Katie Cooper: You had so much more control over the design, like being able to customize it. I thought it was fascinating.
Matthew Munger: I want to hear a little bit more about Forge Studios.
Katie Cooper: We're remote, none of us are in one spot together.
Matthew Munger: Mm-hmm. And what of the size of the team, and the individual roles that kind of make up the agency?
Katie Cooper: Yeah, we are a small team. But we're really good at what we do, and currently that's focusing on design systems. At least that's my special interest, that's not the only thing we do. We work on a lot of products, and that might look like building from zero to one. That might look like scaling an existing product, re-architecting features to perform better, but have better user experience. And then we also do a lot of research and strategy, and depending on the project's needs, we'll also contract out other experts to consult with us.
Matthew Munger: Very cool.
Chattanooga, United States
Matthew Munger: Where are you located and what's it like living there?
Katie Cooper: I am in Chattanooga, Tennessee, technically Rossville, Georgia. It's like right on the border. I could throw a rock and I'm over in Chattanooga, so it's just easier to say. I don't get the perks of the no state income tax in Tennessee, which I miss because I used to live there. And then before that I lived in Memphis, but–
Matthew Munger: Okay.
Katie Cooper: I moved to Chattanooga. It's really beautiful. I really love the mountains. It's small, and I like that too. But I really like being around the outdoorsiness, even though I'm actually not that outdoorsy. I'm pretty indoorsy but yeah, I just like it.
Matthew Munger: Technically in Georgia, where you're physically located, but Chattanooga is kind of the closest, I guess, city center. So it's kind of a suburb of that?
Katie Cooper: Yeah it's very close. I mean, I live on a ridge so the houses on the other side look into Chattanooga, or I look into Georgia because I'm on the other side of the street. So that's how close it is.
Matthew Munger: Hmm. When you get out of the house, where do you like to go and visit?
Katie Cooper: That's a hilarious question because I haven't been getting out much. Usually if I am traveling, I'm going visit my mom in Kentucky or I am going to visit my partner's parents. I'm typically hanging out with my friends. We'll usually go get cocktails somewhere, grab a beer, eat, there's a lot of eating and drinking.
There’s a really cool dog park here called Play Wash Pint, where you can drink while you watch your dog play with other dogs. I really like going there. And then there's a lot of great places to hike, but I don't do that as often because, remember, I'm indoorsy. But I do like to go when I'm feeling up for it. It's like everyone here is extremely active, it feels like. So they are probably going every weekend, every day rock climbing–
Matthew Munger: Yeah.
Katie Cooper: And I’m just like “Okay I'll go every once in a while.”
Matthew Munger: Since you are indoorsy, as you described it, what does your workspace look like?
Katie Cooper: I've got my standing desk and I've had it– I've got one monitor and my laptop open. I've got a lot of art on the walls from various designers that I love and bought their artwork, and behind me I've got my saltwater aquarium. I only have three fish right now, it's two clownfish and a yellow wrasse, which looks like a little tiny banana, but yeah that's one of my hobbies so I love that. It has a lot of corals in it too.
And then I used to have– the other half of my office was a pottery studio. But just last weekend we had an extra room downstairs that was basically storage, or like we’d throw clean laundry into that needed to be folded. So I was like, “Okay what if I move my pottery stuff down there?” So last weekend I moved everything down there and I’m getting that set up.
Matthew Munger: So what are you gonna do with that extra space now in the office?
Katie Cooper: Well we had a random, I wouldn't really call it a couch, if a day couch is a thing, that's how I would describe it.
Matthew Munger: Like a chaise lounge maybe?
Katie Cooper: Kind of, yeah very similar, it’s from Ikea–
Matthew Munger: Okay.
Katie Cooper: It was in that room so I brought it up and put it in the office.
Matthew Munger: Do you like to read or is that just another space to kind of sit with your laptop and work?
Katie Cooper: I'm not an avid reader, which sometimes I feel embarrassed to say. But I'm such a visual learner.
Matthew Munger: Hmm.
Katie Cooper: And I don't necessarily like fiction so videos are my jam.
Matthew Munger: So watching YouTube videos that recap books would be the way to get that information?
Katie Cooper: Not necessarily. I just think if I'm gonna read a book, I'm trying to learn something. It's on a topic.
Matthew Munger: Hmm.
Katie Cooper: And if I can’t binge it in one sitting– so I have a lot of half read books because it's not like I dislike reading, it's just I'll read half a book, put it down, and then forget about it, because I'm like “Ugh I get the point.”
Matthew Munger: Yeah, I mean, if we're gonna be honest, there are a lot of books out there, nonfiction books, that could probably be 30 pages instead of 300 and get the same points across. But you know, for publishers' reasons, they want everything to be expanded on. Have lots of examples and stories to back everything up.
Katie Cooper: Right, see that's what I'm saying.
Katie Cooper: So yeah, but I really enjoy drawing
Matthew Munger: Oh.
Katie Cooper: I don’t think I'm great at it, like I used to do some illustration work back in the day, but now I don't ever get paid for that. So it's a fun thing to do.
Matthew Munger: Mm-hmm, it's a hobby.
Katie Cooper: I don’t have a lot of pressure to perform and I actually really like that. I don't ever really want that to be something I'm trying to get paid for regularly.
Matthew Munger: It's for you, right? It's a way for you to express yourself and kind of do something different, creatively without the pressure to perform.
Katie Cooper: Yeah exactly. So I've really gotten into learning how to draw people, which is so hard. You’d think it'd be like “Oh we see people every day,” but getting the proportions right and having it not look wonky, it’s not easy.
Matthew Munger: Any other hobbies, like you mentioned– you’re the one who's doing pottery?
Katie Cooper: Yes, that is definitely a hobby. The unfortunate thing about pottery is that you can only make so many things for yourself, so you're kind of forced to monetize it. Otherwise I would just have a garage full of pots that I don't need. But once you fire it, if you don't like it you just destroy it. I guess I could donate some stuff. But I won't lie, the side cash is kind of nice. I don't I rarely do drops but I'm hoping once I get my little studio downstairs set back up I'll get more active. I try to make a kiln load worth of stuff at a time because I need to take pictures of them and post 'em on my website. And then I'll just be like, “Oh I've got some stuff. Enjoy.”
Matthew Munger: While available, yeah.
Katie Cooper: Yeah, I just do small batch pottery. My mom buys a lot of my pots.
Matthew Munger: Thanks Mom.
Katie Cooper: I'm like, “Mom, you're turning into me where I have too many and I don't know what to do with them. Like, you gotta stop buying them.”
Matthew Munger: What if somebody else wanted to buy those? But–
Katie Cooper: And I'm also like, “I would give these to you. You don't have to buy them.” But she loves supporting me.
Matthew Munger: Ah.
Katie Cooper: It's nice.
Matthew Munger: Yeah.
Matthew Munger: Can you describe for us your role as a Senior Product Designer?
Katie Cooper: Right, so I’m primarily focusing on design systems. Some product designers are in the trenches designing the product, which I do, but I'm currently focused on design systems. So my audience, or customer or user you could say, are the designers designing the product. I will build out the foundations, the component libraries, which are all of the little buttons, the inputs, the cards, the stuff the designer shouldn't be making over and over again–It’s just a waste of time to have to do it– and just make sure the product itself remains consistent.
Matthew Munger: So working on design systems, how is that different than when you started, or what maybe you imagined you would be doing at this point?
Katie Cooper: I never really thought I would be working on design systems, because if you would've asked me a few years ago what a design system was, I wouldn't have been able to give you a very good, accurate answer. I knew what it was and I got the concept of it, but I didn't know how deep that kind of career path or subject matter went. To me, what I thought of a design system was honestly just like a UI kit that you'd start with.
Matthew Munger: Hmm.
Katie Cooper: But the more I got into the product space, I realized how much I love digital organization. Like, I thought it was so neat that you could just have a system that works for you to help you design faster, to ship faster. And how simple it could seem on the surface for your users using it, but also how complex it can get. So the problems you're solving can be really challenging.
Matthew Munger: How would you describe the differences between a UI kit and a design system?
Katie Cooper: A UI Kit, I would describe as it lives in Figma. It's whatever tool you're using to design your product in. It's not living in code anywhere, it's just something you're using to get you started, get you a little jumpstart. A design system, however, for every component you make there is an engineer you're collaborating with that has developed it and it's living in code somewhere. So that way it's more accurate when designers know if they're using this button, that that's how it's coded already. Where UI kit doesn't have that layer to it.
And there's nothing wrong with working with a UI kit. Because essentially you could, if you're creating a design system from scratch, you're kind of starting with a UI kit. I mean, it hasn't been developed yet. They're also really powerful to use. But there's also Storybook. I haven't used their plugin for Figma yet, but I think it will actually preview the component that's built in code for you to also reference in Figma.
Matthew Munger: Webflow's official Figma to Webflow plugin has just launched. So anyone who's listening, go check that out. It lets you convert auto layout designs in Figma and just copy and paste those directly into Webflow. And yeah, your styles and your elements and everything are brought over.
Katie Cooper: I'm really excited to try it out, that looks really awesome
Matthew Munger: The second thing I wanna shout out is you actually have worked on a library that is in the Webflow marketplace.
Katie Cooper: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Munger: Tell us a little bit about that library.
Katie Cooper: The library was really fun to make because in a lot of ways it was like making another design system.
Matthew Munger: I don't think I mentioned it. What's the name of the library?
Katie Cooper: Spark Library. Waldo did the development on it and we didn't have a lot of time to make it. So we just hammered out over a hundred components. Yeah, that was a lot of fun. And then I actually have been using it on some personal stuff, or even with Forge, just to make building faster. So it's like, “Oh I need a contact form? Let me just go look up that component and throw it in.” It's great if you just need some base to start with and then edit from there, and it's even better if you have no idea what you're doing. If you know how to navigate to where to find the components, you can easily just build an entire website without knowing how to use Webflow in depth. That's pretty cool.
Matthew Munger: So Spark Library launched at Webflow Conf in November of 2022 this past year. Libraries allow you to get these smaller, reusable sections or layouts, right? I've used some of the Spark Library and I'm a fan, I like the style. It’s actually got a little bit of opinion to it rather than some of the other libraries, which are more generic use. So check out the Spark Library if you want something that gives you a nice starting point.
Matthew Munger: What excites you and motivates you about doing design system work?
Katie Cooper: Again, just like how high level it can be and also how detailed it can be. At one point you might be negotiating with stakeholders about why it's effective to begin with, and working with designers and engineers in their product areas solving for a specific use case. You're juggling a lot. Yeah, that's just exciting to me. I feel like there's always something new to learn, so that's what gets me excited about it.
Matthew Munger: Design systems are always bringing up new challenges and complexities to work through.
Matthew Munger: What is a resource that you think more people should know about?
Katie Cooper: If you see me on Twitter, I'm constantly probably tweeting about the tokens, the Studio Tokens plugin, to make more headless design systems that are themeable. So a company has multiple brands or multiple products they're putting out. They can use the same design system and retheme it according to that brand.
Matthew Munger: That’s a Figma plugin?
Katie Cooper: Yes. So that plugin gives you the ability to, one, use tokens to apply styles, and then retheme for different brands very easily. You can turn your light mode designs into dark mode, then you don't have to worry about changing each individual color or even swapping a component to a dark mode. So yeah, I would just shout them out.
Matthew Munger: Who in the Webflow community inspires you?
Katie Cooper: Jose Ocando, I worked with him at Whiteboard. I could build Webflow sites before, when I was freelancing, but he is probably one of the kindest people I've met. And he's obsessed with Webflow and is so good at it, knows a lot of the best practices. So just being around him. He does have a Skillshare class and a YouTube channel, the stuff he does have there is gold.
Matthew Munger: Absolutely. Anytime Jose posts I know it's gonna be a good, valuable resource to save.
Matthew Munger: What is some advice that you would like to share with others in the community?
Katie Cooper: Probably just to stay curious. That sounds a bit cliche, but I think that's what has helped me level up in my career. Using Webflow as an example, you get a client who comes to you with a feature they want, but you're not exactly sure how to do it. That's okay, that doesn't mean you're not the right fit for the project. Just be curious and decide that you're gonna learn how to do it. Be confident in your ability to figure it out. And even when you find the right solution, think like, “Okay, well what's another way I can build this?” Then figure that out. That way you have two solutions if not more, and you know the pros and cons–
Matthew Munger: Hmm.
Katie Cooper: Of doing either or, and then you can present that to your client or whoever you're working with and help them decide. So yeah, just stay curious.
Matthew Munger: Thanks for joining me today, Katie. If anyone would like to reach out and connect with you, how could they?
Katie Cooper: On Twitter. My handle is katiecooperco. Yeah, DM me, tweet at me. You could also go to my website, katiecooper.co. But yeah, those. I'm most active on Twitter and I love helping people out, so don't be shy.