AMA: Ash Huang, Independent designer and writer

over 5 years ago from

Oh, hello, humans! Ash Huang here, independent designer and writer in San Francisco, CA. Check out my digs at http://ashsmash.com.

As a designer, I've worked with places like Twitter, Pinterest and Dropbox, both as a full-time employee and a freelancer, on product and brand projects. As a writer, I've written essays for Fast Company, Offscreen Magazine and Lean Out. My first novel won first place for literary fiction in the Writer's Digest Self-Published e-book awards. I'm working on my second novel, which will be up for pre-order on May 13th.

A range of recent projects and essays:

This is an AMA, so sky's the limit, but if you want to know more about living dat independent life, working in tech or publishing books, or how to travel with a snowdog mix without drowning in hair, this is your time!

I'll be back around 10AM Pacific time on the 10th to answer questions, and will pop in periodically the rest of the afternoon.

EDIT: Thanks for your questions, I'll be in and out the rest of the afternoon, so feel free to leave one or ask follow ups!


  • Koen Bok, over 5 years ago

    What are your favorite tips for getting better at writing? Any specific ones for people that are used to focus on visual communication?

    4 points
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

      Sorry everyone—learned not to use emojis in comments :) n00b problems.

      Hi Koen! Great q. Writing and design are very similar. In writing, you also primarily worry about story, contrast, hierarchy and pacing. I found that poetry was a good way to get started. It's similar to making little design moodboards, conveying ideas in the simplest, most effective and beautiful way.

      And, like design, the best way is to sit your butt down in a chair and write. You can read all about it, but as I often say, nothing cures but doing the work. This is the only way to develop your voice and figure out what interests you. A teacher once told me that when we write, we reveal our obsessions. I have found this to be true. You have to be mildly obsessed to keep going through writer's block and doubt (it's just like having a great mission statement!)

      If you're looking for things to read, two of my favs: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

      4 points
  • Justin EdmundJustin Edmund, over 5 years ago

    What would you currently like to do more of in your work, and what would you like to do less of?

    2 points
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      Hi Jedmu! I like this question because it's why I left fulltime work to become independent. I'm a severe introvert, so meetings, interviewing candidates and open office plans rate pretty low on my excitement meter, so I wanted to spend less time doing that and more time creating.

      I'm greedy for time. I'd love to be doing more and exploring more modes of making, like ceramics, perhaps. I'd love more time to explore photography, illustration and poetry, which has taken a bit of a backburner in the past few months.

      I'd love to do less paperwork. The only way I can get myself to do receipts now is to put on a TV show while I do it. And tax season is more complicated. Lots of little pieces of paper to lose.

      3 points
  • Alice YangAlice Yang, over 5 years ago

    Yay Ash! :D This is perfect timing. Can you talk about how you made the transition from full time to freelance? I'm at a point where I want to make that leap, but having never done it before, I'm kinda terrified of the multitude of unknowns. Did you have similar reservations when you made the change? And if so, how did you go about addressing them?

    Unrelated: how do you navigate a dark wardrobe when your life is constantly saturated in light pet hair?

    Thanks for doing this. Looking forward to Suspension <3

    2 points
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      hey Alice! First: Accept your hairy fate. I don't even lint roll anymore; my pup is multi-colored so he's on everything I own. But in seriousness, avoid wools and knits. Embrace cotton twills and synthetic fabrics.

      There are different things you can do to get ready, like find clients slyly on the DL before you leave. Definitely make sure you have enough money to last ~8 months or so in your rainy day fund. Even with success, dat income can vary wildly, to the point where you're making 5 months' salary in a month and then nothing.

      However, for the fear, like pet hair, you have to accept it. It's just going to be a bit scary, I think that's the only way to continue. I always knew I wanted to leave full time work, the question was just when. I definitely didn't feel ready when I left, and there was never a moment where I wasn't terrified.

      It might help to know you can always go back to full-time work if you don't like the freelance life. It's certainly not for everyone and the only way to know for sure is to try. But, also, things become relative. I was terrified of leaving full-time work for client work, but now as I'm trying to get my own projects going, I think, 'I can always go back to client work' :)

      2 points
  • Kayla Ervin, over 5 years ago

    How do you get new freelance work? Does most of it come from referrals and people you know?

    1 point
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      Hey Kayla! Most of my work comes from referrals and people I know. I've taken a few cold emails, but I prefer when I know the client or they are someone vetted by someone I know. It makes the process a little easier, and trust runs a bit smoother.

      I'm pretty happy with my network right now, but if I weren't, I would probably cold contact more companies that I liked. Perhaps if I wanted to break into designing for a new industry!

      0 points
  • Account deleted over 5 years ago

    Your "graveyard of v1s" has really resonated with me. My company champions the most minimum of MVPs, yet never looks back after they ship. I'm not really sure what my question is, as this is a pretty tough problem to address. I am thankful for your voice and articulation of this phenomenon. Graveyard of v1s is a potent visualization of the problem when I articulate it to my PMs.

    Unrelated question: what tips do you have for doing user research or testing (of any kind) when you don't have resources or access?

    1 point
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      Hi Brett!

      Thanks for reading :) related to research, I'd ask what you would do if you were in a similar position for something like engineering or design. If you would make resources available for another eng or designer (on a contract basis counts), I would consider doing the same for a researcher. A good research study saves so many cycles of pain and sadness. There are good research contractors out there!

      Of course, we all need to get scrappy once in a while. It doesn't take much money to get a few people in the door; depending on what you're trying to find out, you can ask a few users if they'll come in, or even post up a Craigslist/FB post share for friends of friends.

      I've heard some people have had success with usertesting.com as well, as another option.

      1 point
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, over 5 years ago

    Hey Ash, how come you're so rad?

    1 point
  • Jessa ClarkJessa Clark, over 5 years ago

    How do you balance your writing projects and other independent art projects with design work for other people?

    Do you find that when you hit a block with one creative process, it affects you in all of your creative pursuits, or is it specific to the task at hand?

    1 point
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      Hey Jessa!

      I had a friend in high school who didn't like it when her food touched. She would eat around where they'd merged, leaving little lines of food on her plate.

      I, however, love to mix my food all up, sometimes in confusing ways. Similarly, my work all seems to magically hang together as a bibimbap-tiramisu of themes. I block out specific time in my busy weeks to work on each project, but I work on 3–4 things most days. I'm a big believer in 'procrastiworking' (credit Jessica Hische on that one). It's partly why I stay so busy—but usually working on something else helps me through my blocks on whatever I'm working on.

      Sometimes I do hit universal blocks. I spend a lot of time in my head, giving myself pep talks, running scenarios. When I'm at a good place internally, the blocks are very isolated and tend to naturally evaporate as they cook in the back of my brain. I get concerned when the block grows, because it means some lizard-brain program got inserted into the CD-ROM drive I didn't know I still had. I have to mash the eject button and deal with the consequences.

      1 point
  • Max LindMax Lind, over 5 years ago

    Hey Ash! Thanks for joining us.

    • Talk a bit about the process in writing Firesteel... more specifically, the logistics of literally getting the book produced.
    • Do you notice yourself more so enjoying/preferring design or writing... or is it usually a tossup based on the project?
    • How has working in a full-time role at companies like Twitter, Pinterest and Dropbox helped your independent, freelance lifestyle?
    • In your Fast Company article re: Diversity, you say, "If the industry is to attract more diverse talent, it first needs to expand the sense of whom it serves and represents—and that's a task that ordinary tech workers can take up all by themselves." ...talk a bit about those tasks ordinary tech workers can take up by themselves. How do communities like DN follow suit and learn from things like: Project Include?
    0 points
    • Ash Huang, over 5 years ago

      hi Max!

      • Hooo, boy. There were a lot of moving parts to getting The Firesteel produced. Part of it was actually writing the thing, which took a very long time. I hired an editor to help me get the plot and scenes just right. I have a print background, so I worked directly with Thomson Shore to print the books and ran a Kickstarter to make the burning hole in my pocket a little less fiery. At the time, producing the book was my full-time job. It's a lot of work talking to printers, designing, writing and setting up websites!
      • I love design and writing equally! To me, they are actually somewhat the same, just different materials. Some projects require more of one than the other, but mostly everything I do incorporates both.
      • I met a lot of wonderful people at my full-time jobs (note: I contracted with Dropbox, though they felt like full-time family!). Since we've worked together, this being San Francisco, lots of those people have moved to other roles at other places and we've gotten to work together again. Working full-time also definitely leveled up my skills. I learned how to run many parts of a product, from wiggly little settings designs to growth funnels and marketing pages. I joke that working full-time was a sort of grad school.
      • Tech in particular has an obsession with hockey stick growth, big numbers going up. Metrics are great, but they can blind. Being inclusive is more than 'set it and forget it', it is hard and it's done with small actions every day. If you want to help, when you see something, say something. Don't just ignore it. If someone interrupts someone, say, 'wait, I wanted to hear the rest of that thought!'. If someone makes a racist joke, ask them to explain why it's funny, say it doesn't make sense to you.
      0 points
  • Christina FowlerChristina Fowler, over 5 years ago

    Hi Ash! Loving your article on improving diversity in tech :)

    0 points