Q & A with YVONNE LIN
Feminist designer; STEM warrior, tireless creator.
For Yvonne Lin, creating is a necessity.
Yvonne took a break from her many creative endeavors to answer a few Red Jellies
questions. Here’s the scoop on raising feminist children, the importance of pipe cleaners, and how a set of candles inspired her to write her first children’s book.
Where do you live?
I live in New York, in Manhattan.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Bay Area in California. My parents are Chinese, but not the stereotypical
"Tiger mom" kind of parents. They were much more relaxed. There's this Chinese proverb,
"1,000 miles traveled is more educational than 1,000 books read." And so we traveled. Not
like to Disneyland, but to Rwanda.
What were your favorite books growing up?
I read a lot growing up. I was super geeky, and there were a couple years where I was more comfortable with books than people. In fifth grade, I read like a book a day. I loved series books where I could just devour all of them, like Ramona Quimby, Nancy Drew, and Me and My Little Brain. Most had spunky little kids who were smart-mouthed and knew better than the adults around them. I loved Harriet the Spy and Pippi Longstocking, too. I named both my kids after Astrid Lindgren characters.
What was your favorite toy growing up?
I loved building stuff. I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. I used a lot of duct tape as a child. I attached a sail to a skateboard, I tried to make a hover board with an old vacuum and a piece of wood. I played with Legos, but it would never just be Legos; it would be like Legos and pipe cleaners.
When did you first think about becoming an author / illustrator?
This book came about accidentally. I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. A couple years ago, I was reading at least 20 books a night to my kids, and so many of the books were all about princesses. I work with design and gender a lot, and I thought things were veering a little better on that front, but then I was watching the princess-ification of my daughter and got annoyed.
That combined with a visit to a Christmas pop-up shop in New York that had these Secular Saint candles featuring Einstein and Tesla and Freud, and of course there was one Frida Kahlo candle. So I was annoyed because there were like 19 guys and one female. So when a pop-up shop opened in my neighborhood and asked local artists to contribute something, I drew images of women and put them on candles. I schlepped around with the candles for months before I realized that no one really cared about the candle part. They just cared about the drawing and the women I chose. So I turned the drawings into a book because it’s lighter. I self-printed them for years before an agent sold the book to a publisher.
In The A to Z of Wonder Women, you write about women from across the globe, including both modern and historical figures. How did you decide who to feature?
I wanted to do a mix of people who were known and people who were unknown that I personally cared about. I have a document on my computer with multiple options for each letter. I wanted to end up with a range of women throughout time, with different fields and expertise.
Which woman in the book is your favorite? Why?
I live in Manhattan, and one thing I love about going downtown to Chelsea is seeing [architect] Zaha Hadid’s building going up. She spent much of her life designing things digitally but not actually having them built. Now she has a building going up, and I love it.
Xue Xinran is basically the Ira Glass of communist China. She traveled to rural places in China and interviewed normal people live on the radio. She spoke to mothers who had to give up a child; they talked about what that was like and why they did it. Her books are transcripts and commentary on these interviews. I spent a lot of time reading her books and crying while I was pregnant and backpacking through China. She’s amazing.
As a kid, I either got straight As or straight Ds because I always did what I wanted, and my teacher was either okay with that or not. I survived a fair amount of early childhood because of Maria Montessori. I could not have gone to a different type of school.
Which women would you have added if you had unlimited space?
Originally I wanted to include Laura Ingles Wilder because I love the Little House on the Prairie books. There are also people living right now who I think are pretty amazing, like Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia. She drives a lot of the social good and environmentalism the company supports. Ellen DeGeneres, for what she did for gay rights. I love Julia Child and what she did for American cooking. Mae Carol Jemison was the first female, black astronaut. She went to Stanford at 16 to study chemical engineering, and her professors didn't know what to do with her.
When did you start drawing portraits?
I've always been better at drawing people than things. I've always drawn people.
I come from a family of visual artists who are constantly drawing everything and everyone. I’m always making and drawing and creating. If I’m not, I’m a really unpleasant person. It’s not so much that I want to do it; it’s more that I have to do it.
Do you want to write more children's books? Would they have a theme similar to The A-Z of Wonder Women?
I am working on a second book called Everybody Sucks. I found 48 people across all fields: art, academics, business, and athletics. Half are men and half are women. I'm collecting stories of amazing people who had life really suck for a while. For instance, Mia Hamm, the Olympic gold medal soccer player? She had badly deformed feet and legs growing up. I think it’s really important to tell those stories.
Your kids are 2 and 5—that's pretty young still! Do you talk to them about feminism?
We haven't used the word feminism really. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because if I talk too much about how girls are just as strong and adventurous and cool as boys, it’s almost like I’m putting it in their minds that they might not be. They aren’t questioning that right now. We're working on just broadening my daughter’s scope beyond princess, and I think we’ve convinced her that growing hair like Rapunzel is not necessarily the most amazing superpower. We figure that as long as she has people she looks up to that are both men and women—not just guys who do cool things and women who grow hair—she’ll be okay.
What are your favorite children's books to read to your kids?
I want books that have amazing female characters who just are amazing female characters, like The Gruffalo’s Child and Lady Pancake and French Toast. I want them to explore and have fun adventures and for the world to be amazing and wonderful, the idea being that you could do anything. The Atlas of Adventure books are great, and Martha and the Green Beans.
What's your favorite thing you've ever designed?
A couple years ago, Under Armor asked me to redesign their sports bra. We had like 300 girls on the team of all different sizes who did all different sports. We got Under Armour to do regular bra sizes, and we made them all supportive and cute. I'm proud of that.
One of the first things I worked on was the OXO mixing bowl. It has been 15 years, and they haven’t changed it at all. I still use it, and honestly everything about this bowl is just right. The spout. The handle. The grip on the bottom. I’m so proud of it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the toy design work you’ve done?
In the past I’ve worked on toy design for big companies, like Nerf and Hasbro and Lego. I worked on the redesign of the Lego Minestorm sets, Nerf guns, and Super Soakers when those companies wanted to do versions of those toys for girls. I tried to make them a little less pink and a little more cool.
Two years ago I started a company, Wondernik, to make original toys. The prototypes won a lot of awards and got a lot of press, and I’m working on actually making the product. It’s complicated because it involved wood with plastics with fabrics with circuits, and I want to make it a little simpler. I realized as a mom that kids don’t really need an expensive toy technology kit. What kids actually want is a bunch of little projects that take two hours each and are relatively interesting.
What is the next design problem you’d like to tackle?
I think what I do is pretty cool, but most people don’t really know that products are designed. There are a lot of people like me who, as kids, wanted to make stuff, were kind of artsy, and wanted to make an impact on the world, but have no idea this whole field exists. I want to pick seven jobs kids don't know about and make something—maybe videos or an app or a toy—to raise awareness about different creative career paths.
I think this is a way to extend who’s interested in STEM. If you think about STEM toys, it seems like if you don’t want to build a robot or a truck, then science and technology isn’t for you. That’s not true. Everything in the world has science and technology in it, but as adults we put blinkers on what STEM is and exclude a lot of kids who would be great at it and enjoy it.