Art, Science, and Making: Five questions with Jingyi Li

Jingyi’s 2016 Halloween costume, as seen at Jacobs Hall.

If you’re at Jacobs Hall, don’t be surprised if you run into Jingyi Li: the fourth-year electrical engineering and computer sciences student has taken courses in Jacobs Hall for the past three semesters, does research with Jacobs Institute faculty director Bjoern Hartmann, and is an active participant in Berkeley’s student design ecosystem. Coincidentally, Jingyi even lives across the street from Jacobs Hall — so they’re a frequent presence in the studios and labs here.

Jingyi’s work often combines art and science, taking inventive new approaches to design projects. We talked to Jingyi about their experiences learning and making at Berkeley.

Here at the Jacobs Institute, we aim to serve as a hub for a diverse design community, offering resources from fabrication tools to hands-on courses. How did you get involved with the Jacobs Institute — and the broader design community here at Berkeley — and how has this environment shaped your work?

I largely arrived at Jacobs by hopping amongst tangentially design-related activities and people. Freshman year I joined a very popular and vast graphic design club on campus, Innovative Design. A few days before classes started sophomore year, a member posted about some new design course offerings. One of these was [Jacobs Institute Director of Programs & Operations] Emily Rice’s Design/Build class, a 1-unit pilot course in the Invention Lab where students designed and built their own personal laptop stand. I signed up on a whim and made a cat laptop stand, my first formal exposure to digital fabrication tools.

A sketch, prototype, and final product of Jingyi’s cat laptop stand from Design/Build — an early experience with digital fabrication.

Around the same time, I happened to be an officer in Berkeley Innovation (BI), a human-centered design club. The senior officers and I met with Emily to talk about plans for a new design building, and how BI could get involved. So, in summary, I had occupied design spaces on campus before, and when Jacobs opened we all sort of migrated towards it.

Since its opening, I’ve taken a class in Jacobs every semester. It’s a terrific place to be, in part because of its resources, but mostly due to the students and staff who inhabit the space. A whole floor devoted to a student makerspace! Windows for walls! It can’t get more inviting than natural light. Due to all the collaboration happening in Jacobs, my work has definitely gotten better: not just in the my-groups-meet-more-frequently sense, but also in the everyone-around-me-is-making-really-cool-stuff-so-I-gotta-pick-up-my-game sense.

This creative economy isn’t without room for growth, though. I think fabrication, as it stands accessible to students outside of the half-working research prototype, risks homogeneity in materials and approach. For example, a lot of first projects that come out of the laser-cutter don’t go beyond rasterizations on plywood. I think we’re all so enthralled by the ease of CNC machines — myself included — that we’re compliant in settling into these comfortable creative patterns. Keeping it interesting is much more challenging.

From digital illustrations to interactive products, you not only work with a variety of media and technical skillsets, but you also utilize these modes and tools in creative, unexpected ways. Can you talk a bit about moving between different kinds of technologies and practices, and how this shapes your work?

Pokemon fan art, circa 2005.

A central overtone in my life (and excuse the pretentiousness of such vast introspection — I’ve been writing grad school apps) has been trying to conflate art and science. One of my first experiences with computers was using my family’s Windows 98 to draw Pokémon fan art on Oekakis, online image forums. My first experience with programming was via the Neopets HTML guide, because I was a bored 10-year-old with an early obsession with aesthetic perfection, and I wanted my pet pages to look hella good. Throughout high school, I smudged charcoal everywhere while figure drawing, scrubbed away the smell of turpentine after oil painting, and mended thrift store purchases for my cosplays. I had no idea “UI/UX design” even existed.

I think this lack of preconception of what design is, or should be, has been liberating. I have the privilege of a hybrid artist/engineer training: human-centered design first, engineering constraints later. Instead of approaching problems through asking, “What sorts of systems would best leverage these technological optimizations?,” I can ask, “What sorts of interactions would best support my end-user’s goals?” and go from there.

I want to note that this narrative is not unique to me. Neopets, or using drawing software for animé fan art, has been the gateway to CS for so many of my friends, especially if they were from non-traditional CS backgrounds. I’m a huge fan of “Making” for this reason: sure, it’s become a high horse of Silicon Valley, but…at the core of “Making” lies the self-empowering act of creation. How do you get more people into CS? You let them create cool stuff with it. Code begins as just another tool in the toolkit. It’s definitely how I got hooked.

You have a broad range of projects featured on your website — from AniME, an automatic anime-style portrait generator, to G-Pee-S, a safe public restroom locator. Can you pick a recent project and walk us through how it came to be? Where did your inspiration come from? How did the process unfold? What surprised you?

Sure, I’d like to talk about Adshirt! It was my final project for Eric Paulos’ Critical Making class last spring, and my favorite one yet.

Adshirt was our group’s exploration of wearables, self-identity, and capitalism. There are so many tech shirts unironically worn on campus. I guess the people who wear them get a free shirt, but more importantly, the companies get free advertising. Adshirt is a LED matrix display that turns its wearer into a walking billboard. We developed a web interface that let companies create advertisements and place bids on the Adshirt: the highest bidder got their ad displayed, while the user, in turn, got rich. Our main motivation was to find the line between sacrificing personal expression for making money.

Adshirt was the best group I’ve ever worked in for a class project. In terms of process, we followed the tried-and-true design cycle, with three CS people (myself included) focused on building our web app (Meteor back-end, Semantic UI front-end) and communicating with the Raspberry Pi, and the Mechanical Engineering student on enclosure design. If anything, I was surprised that, within a week, we had achieved our minimum viable product — we all liked working on Adshirt so much, we often did so to procrastinate on higher-priority work.

The AdShirt team.

We presented Adshirt at the end-of-semester Jacobs design showcase, which was really fun! I would often read the nametags of visitors and place an unrealistically high bid for an ad that said, “Looking good today, [name]!” I remember Amy Dinh even drew the Jacobs logo. In iteration, I think we would have liked to make more nuanced design decisions to probe further at Adshirt’s cultural questions. I also had a lot of fun making Adshirt’s video, which I am going to shamelessly plug.

Between doing research (with Jacobs Institute faculty director Bjoern Hartmann), courses and teaching, and working on your own projects, you seem to be pretty busy! Could you tell us a little about what you’re currently up to? Any pet projects you’re currently working on, or ideas you’re interested in exploring?

In terms of coursework, I decided to take all project-based classes, and since we’re nearing the end of the semester, I am knee-deep in them. I’m in Interactive Device Design, where my team and I are in the middle of a prototyping cycle for Mewsician, a cat-shaped musical friend designed to help children get intrinsically motivated to practice their instruments. For Abigail De Kosnik’s New Media class (Making Sense of Cultural Data), I’m developing a fanfiction analysis toolkit which aims to understand the broader economy of Archive of Our Own, the fastest growing fanfiction hosting site. My end goal for this project is an interactive web visualization app where you can query a name of a fandom, and see how its fanfiction stats lie in a spectrum against other ones. Finally, I managed to squeeze in inking something every day in October for Inktober: as someone with project follow-through issues, I am pretty proud I made it through!

Jingyi and Bjoern Hartmann in class in Interactive Device Design.

Before I do five(ish) more years of this as a graduate student, I plan on graduating a semester early and taking an industry design position. Hopefully the normalized work hours will prevent future burn-out. It’ll also mean I’ll have more time to do Actual Personal Projects. For a while, I’ve wanted to publish a surrealist zine around my (surrealist) experiences in tech. I love zines. I love their history, their distribution format, and, as Jacobs Design Field Notes speaker Amy Wibowo recently said, their tolerance (even invitation) for imperfection. My only lament is that, post-graduation, I won’t be able to put my free CS printing privileges to good use.

At Berkeley, there are constantly new opportunities to explore exciting developments at the intersection of design and technology, and to experiment with your own ideas. Do you have any advice for students who are looking to get involved in the greater Berkeley ecosystem for design and making, but don’t know where to start?

Yes! My first advice is that you’re not alone, and if you think it’s too late to get involved, it definitely isn’t. First, check out Design at Berkeley. It was made by some great people a few years back, and serves as a comprehensive undergraduate guide to design culture on campus. Berkeley has so many design clubs! Some are application-based, some aren’t. Find one you vibe well with.

My second piece of advice is to take a class. No matter your home department, there is probably some interdisciplinary design class for you. Ones that I have taken (in CS, in order) include User Interface Design, the Critical Practices/Critical Making suite, and Interactive Device Design. The {design.} Decal or Jacobs’ Prototyping & Fabrication are really great primers, although I heard spots for these classes go fast. But the people behind all these classes recognize and favor devotion and enthusiasm.

My final piece of advice is to talk to people. You are probably doing this already if you do (1) and (2). Bond over bad typography or debugging hardware or being kicked out of Jacobs at 11pm. You are so much more than yourself. I believe in you.

Learn more about Jingyi’s work here.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

By Kirra Dickinson & Laura Mitchell