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Designer Life

WORK and PLAY are one and the same for this GOOGLE DESIGNER, who spends her out-of-office hours creating ART inspired by the BEAUTY of LANGUAGE.

Katherine Walker has a way with words.

Not just the spoken type, although she has helped launch a design conference and run mentorship programs, but with words on a page (or a tablet, a phone, a website or even on packaging). The senior designer uses words, and how they look, to help define the branding for one of the world’s most recognizable companies – Google.

You know when Google alters its homepage logo into a creative tribute to events and holidays? It’s called Google Doodle and Katherine works on that.  

“There’s just something really lovely and interesting about language itself, and type as an image, and the way a brand can express itself through a logo or words,” says the 30-year-old creative from Tennessee. “I love the way it can give you a sense of the spirit or tone of a brand in a really fun yet meaningful way.”

Her job extends beyond words, of course. She works on everything from package design for the tech giant’s products such as their Nexus phones, to the design of interactive digital experience like Google Maps. That’s all in a day at the office when you’re part of the Google Brand Studio, the team of creative thinkers tasked with shaping the future of the brand.

But for Katherine, design doesn’t stop at 5pm. The San Francisco-based businesswoman spends her out-of-office hours combining technology and more tactile mediums to create art inspired by the beauty of language. Think a 10,000 word children’s book displayed on one eye-catching poster or an exhibition that uses typography to represent some of the world’s non-translatable words. 

Her love affair with design started with an interest in political cartoon in the New Yorker.

“I loved seeing those little cartoons that could be so funny and explain so much in one small image,” she explains.

At 18, Katherine left Tennessee for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and took classes in typography and graphic design where she discovered the bold and graphic work of Swiss poster maker Joseph Muller Brockman and she was instantly hooked on design.

“When I go to a piece of art or a piece of design, I love that first moment of shock and awe when you fall in love with something right away,” she says. “We look at a million things during the day and we don’t even realise how much design we see but it’s that one piece that has that one little twist that connects with you. That is such a powerful moment.”  

Her passion lead her to the Grillo Group in Chicago then on to VSA Partners where she worked on brands like IBM and Harley-Davidson and last year, she was hired as a senior designer at Google where she handles different parts of the brand from events to packaging to larger ‘identity expression moments’.

The tech giant is known for the freedom it gives its employees, especially its creatives.

“Design is so subjective. There is no right answer at Google, just an appropriate one,” Katherine says. “So there are a lot of opportunities where you can have fun and are not living and dying by the brand book. It’s not so, ‘this is our colour and this is what we look like’. The company gives us lots of flexibility.”

Of course, it’s never about design for design’s sake. The best design is the type you don’t notice, Katherine explains, the design that helps you through your day.

“Designers can make anything look pretty but at the end of the day, a Google design has to be meaningful in some way, tell a story, and be conceptually sound,” she says.  

Inspired by the talent of the creative people around her, Katherine collaborates with her colleagues on incredible design projects outside of the office for both the love of it and the benefits it brings to her work.

“I’m a big believer in side projects. You start using muscles that you don’t necessarily get to flex during your 9 to 5 work day,” she says. “It keeps you excited about what you do. And all of that extra stuff you learn comes back 10 fold into your office life. You never know what you might use for a project down the line.”

Recently, Katherine collaborated with former colleague and designer Brandt Brinkerhoff to create a series of ‘Story book posters’. Using typography, colour and scans of original illustration, the pair transformed entire children’s books, such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, into stunning posters.

“I think what’s really nice about them is that it’s content that you already know and love but that you’re used to experiencing in a linear way,” Katharine says. “I love that it has different levels of discovery. You can see the whole picture or you can sit down for an hour and read the book. It’s like a choose your own adventure.”

Last year, Katherine and her boss at Google, Ken Fredrick, showed an exhibition called Types by Display in a Chicago gallery. They created digital and print representations of ‘untranslatable words’ from different languages, for example the Swedish word Mangata which means the glimmering reflection that the moon creates on water, and a Japanese word which expresses the hope that someone you love dies after you so you don’t have to be the one that’s left.

“These words are so poetic and emotive, there’s so much depth and power in just one word,” Katherine says.

The prolific designer has also teamed up with other creatives outside of work to launch an all-female design collaborative called Quite Strong, which champions women in design. The group holds a conference called Moxiecon, which teaches women about the business of design including how to have a stronger voice, take credit for their work and negotiate salary.

“Women tend to thank everyone but themselves for their work and generally don’t negotiate for a higher salary like men do,” explains Katherine. “We felt the need to try to empower women in this area.”

Katherine says what she learnt at Quite Strong lead her to introduce a ‘sorry jar’ in her office, a reminder to women not to use the word needlessly.

“It’s all about being aware of the little things,” she explains.

As for the future, Katherine says design is only becoming more important to a global giant like Google.

“In software or hardware, design is the experience of it,” she says. “It’s a really exciting future.”

Find Katherine's story book posters here.