Having grown up in India, in a culture that prized adherence to a rigid path over individual freedom, I felt for a long time the opposite was true, that being free to write my own rules would lead to the best life. Time gave me a new perspective, as well as two small, boisterous sons. I’ve learned to appreciate the tension between the measured approach I was raised with and the free-spirited West.
Mary Kim, now a UX designer at IBM’s Watson West Design Studio in San Francisco, grew up experiencing a rich family life and the tightly-bounded education system in Korea, and an open-ended culture here in California. She now draws on both traditions in her work as an artist making analytics approachable. I first met Mary while she was presenting “Data Like Water,” her evocative, storybook-like set of illustrations for anyone setting out to distill value from their data. Here, she tells us how she began the journey to creativity that led her to a design career at IBM.
It’s wonderful to get a chance to sit down and talk to you. You work in San Francisco — have you always lived there?
No, but I was born here and lived here as a young child, before my parents moved with me and my brother to Korea. I came back to the States to study Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design.
So you grew up with two cultures — how would you characterize them?
In Korean education there’s no freedom, and scores are paramount. I’m grateful I had the education because now I understand the Korean mindset, but I finished high school with unanswered questions: Who am I? What am I good at? I started looking back to my early childhood, trying to remember what I was like before entering the education system. I figured out I liked making things, drawing things; I would hold exhibitions and show my family all the drawings and objects I’d made. That memory led me to an idea: what if I study design, and challenge myself in a new way?
I can relate to this because I grew up in India, where the career path basically is you’re an engineer or you’re a doctor. So if you don’t fit into one of those, then you’re kind of looked at like …
…you’re less appreciated.
Right. Having everything preset for you is very limiting. Can you make your own choices in the Korean education system
No no no, the path is really narrow AND you don’t get to choose. My grandmother wanted me to be a dentist. In music or art, it’s much harder to challenge yourself.
How is it coming back to San Francisco as an adult? How has it changed since you were a child?
It’s changed a lot! So much. I remember all the visual things exactly — they’re fixed in my memories, like drawings, and it looks the same, but the vibe, the feeling, is completely different. It feels like an irony: I know this place, like I know my own family, but it’s new.
How was LA, by comparison?
Going out to do LA things like Hollywood? No, I’ve never experienced that! In design school, my friends and I would bond over all-night assignments, because design never ends, we had no deadlines, we just pushed and pushed ourselves to make the best work possible.
Do you travel?
I want to travel, but I also want to go home to Korea.
The way you keep saying, “home,” I can feel you really mean it; I feel your passion and energy is in Korea.
I feel that where there’s warmth, that’s where I call my home. In Korea I have my school friends, my parents, and I feel more comfortable speaking in Korean.
How do you say “shut up” in Korean?
(Laughs) Is this being recorded? You say, “dagchyeo”
Where I grew up, in the Southern tip of India, there is no word in the native language, Malayalam, for shutting someone up. People like to hear you speak. I never heard my parents or anybody tell another person to shut up; instead I heard conversation and stories all the time. I want to tell you a quick one now, you can say, “dagchyeo”.
That’s not something I say! But tell me.
Like you, I came to school here. I went back to India to do my MBA, but in the North, Punjab, where there was terrorism going on, because they wanted a state of their own. I was in a phase where I wanted to be free, so I explored as much as I could. One day, I’d taken a 7-hour train journey to a town I’d never visited, and I found a place called Dharmakshetra where you can eat and sleep for free; they give you a couple of rotis, and sleep in a cot outside, because it’s so hot. I took a cot and fell dead asleep. Next thing I know I wake up because something is jabbing me in the ribs. It’s about 11 at night, but still light, from the moon. I look around and the man sleeping next to me is cradling an AK-47 on his stomach. His belly’s pretty big already, so every time he took a breath, the barrel poked me. For a 19-year-old from a completely different culture in the South to wake up to a loaded AK-47 poking me in the ribs…
Wow, okay, well my experiences have been quieter! But I draw from my Korean life here all the time. There, there’s an importance placed on just being together, doing things together. Here, the individual is more important.
Yes, here, your self-identification is more important than the group you belong in. It’s me, and what I’ve accomplished. That may be why in America people constantly ask, what’s the purpose of what I’m doing? When I go to Asia people never ask what’s the purpose of life, they just follow the purpose.
Yes, even in the workplace, designers around me ask that question really often. What’s the value of the work I’m doing? Not the financial value, the worth.
How is your work here at IBM?
We always designed for consumer products in school, so the biggest challenge was to understand the domain, analytics. I studied, but the technical words still felt so far away, and I felt distance. So, to help myself understand, I took an analogy: water. Data is like water. How it works feels similar; you need to collect the rain, filter it through a filtration system, then when it’s clean, you drink it or use it to make things grow. This became illustrations for the product page, to help all customers. Different experiences are so valuable. Approaching analytics as a designer, the States as a Korean, or I guess what you experienced in Northern India as a Southerner: it’s all a way to learn and to see. There are endless opportunities.
Home Town(s): San Francisco (hometown), Seoul (home)
Currently Working On: I am currently working on creating the global experience for IBM Cloud Private for Data
Favorite Park and Museum in San Francisco: Museum: SF MOMA, Park: Alamo Square
Favorite Korean “Thing”: Chi-maek (chicken + beer)
Top 5 Design Inspirations: nature, life experience, human interaction, Bauhaus design, Karel Martens
Dinesh Nirmal – Vice President, IBM Analytics Development
Follow me on Twitter: @dineshknirmal