Leslie is a content strategist at Facebook who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. She talks to us about how her background in journalism and fashion writing ended up in the tech industry, her move to New York City from California during the pandemic, and how her personal style evolved and found its way into her work.
I’m someone who prioritizes stability and steady linear progression, so I don’t think I was ever suited to a career in journalism, let alone freelancing right out of the gate. I stumbled into my current job of content design, UX writing—whatever you want to call it. A faculty member at my university coaxed me into applying to a corporate communications internship with Instagram, and from there I weaseled my way into the UX side.
A content designer is likely behind any words you see in the app that aren’t user-generated, whether that’s onboarding, a new feature name, or a public health PSA. What I enjoy about my job is the opportunity to approach ‘design challenges’ from a language-first perspective. In editorial journalism there’s a balance of getting information across clearly while telling a compelling story, and one can draw parallels with content design. You always have to take a step back and make sure everything slots together into a cohesive product narrative.
I was definitely a nomad kid. My family moved often and I attended an international school where people were constantly coming and leaving. This does contribute to a sense of displacement or just floating along. I never felt strong ties to people or places; it was always looking ahead to the next place.
I feel the most emotionally attached to New York and plan to stay here for the foreseeable future. It started out as romanticization: As a frequent visitor, I was enamored with Manhattan’s frenzied energy. It’s easy as a transplant to eternally operate within the boundaries of trendy downtown restaurants and coffee shops. Moving during a pandemic emphasized that you can’t come to a place and consume, consume, consume without giving back. I’ve been involved with local volunteer groups and community fridges in North Brooklyn and Chinatown and it’s built a more meaningful, thoughtful relationship with New York.
In retrospect, I was being dressed by the internet for a long time. It’s common when getting into things to just absorb and regurgitate what the masses deem as interesting, cool, or high-brow. I adopted a more utilitarian approach to dressing after settling into ‘desk job life’—it felt pretentious and detached from reality to be wearing a bomber jacket with a bunch of dangling straps to sit at a monitor and move pixels around all day. I think I can now better separate conceptual admiration of a piece of clothing from the need to own and wear it.
My style is much more pared down. I often stick to the same silhouette: cropped, boxy jackets with wide-legged trousers serve me well. It’s liberating to have a uniform in a sense, but I do sometimes feel the tug of consumerism to buy more.
I suppose there’s a similar mindset behind both personal style and work. Usability supersedes aesthetics, and visual choices should be complementary not distracting.
The goal oftentimes is not to be interesting. I work on tools for group admins to help them manage their communities so I don’t deal with ‘traditional’ metrics like revenue or conversion. We focus a lot on improving efficiency because admins have insane workloads. Creativity happens in the process—figuring out ways around constraints and such.
The pandemic forced both industries to grapple with existential questions. When the collective focus is on survival, what role do these platforms, services, and products play in people’s lives when there’s no real room for excess? With fashion, consumption feels meaningless, clothing as self-expression feels tedious, and flexing comes across as incredibly tactless. On social media, the traditional hands-off approach that allowed for the unfettered flow of opinions increasingly leads to radicalization, disinformation, and harm.
With COVID, government failures forced people to rely on one another to get by—mutual aid, crowdfunding, and so on. The silver lining is a sense of deepened interconnectedness; there’s common understanding that inequality permeates everything and nothing can remain neutral or unaffected.
The big players in both industries are driven by profit and growth, not morality. Especially when it comes to racial justice, responses will always be swayed by public opinion and diluted by what stakeholders want. Compared to in 2014, there’s immense pressure to speak up… and to put your money where your mouth is. I don’t know if company statements are sincere, but it’s a step forward.
I hope that tech and fashion can continue to be receptive and malleable. I don’t think companies and brands are necessarily qualified to lead on social issues, but they are capable of amplifying messages and contributing to cultural shifts.
Whenever I hear the word ‘inspiration,’ I still picture big lightbulb-going-off moments. But my brain is slush at this point. In reality I get little hits of it here and there: provocation when reading an article about designing online social spaces to mirror public parks; serenity felt on solo museum trips.
I have a lot of sprawling interests and not a lot of discipline to pursue them. It’s kind of a meme at this point to be into vintage furniture, but I’ve always had a fond spot for chairs. I look at a lot of old wacky chairs online for entertainment, yet I always come back to what Bruno Munari wrote: “…Design does not mean inventing a new form of a certain piece of furniture, but rather putting a common piece of furniture, a vulgar lounge chair, in the right place.”
You can follow Leslie on Instagram at @zhang.