Life by Design

by Sara KM Kunz

 As a canvas-toting Fine Arts Major in College I thought I was so much cooler than graphic design students because I ‘had to work harder for my art’- as if being an oil painter who took 3 weeks and an existential crisis to do a portrait made me better than a graphic artist who could do the same thing in a day. Something about the grind of studio arts with my stack of empty coffee cups, a pile of donut crumbs, and the endless pursuit of “like- real art” was validating. Why did I need to validate art in the first place?

When I was an adorable bi-racial kid growing up in Kona, Hawaii, all I wanted was to be a Broadway star, a triple threat. My parents being medical professionals, suggested something more useful- like Psychology or dentistry. Two decades later, being the rebel I am (but too scared to major in theatre) I was majoring in Fine Arts at the University of Oregon. Spinning fire and juggling in my free time introduced me to the love of my life- circus arts. I worked full time through my Arts degree so I could pay for circus school in Beijing, China, and study contortion, acrobatics, and hula hooping (yes, it's a real thing). 567 empty coffee cups later, I finished undergrad and left my passion for large abstract oil paintings behind to pursue a career in circus arts.

From the moment the plane wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, my life revolved around two things- making art and travel. Living out of a 65L backpackers' bag with 4hula hoops strapped on at all times, I started my career in 2013 and let it guide me through 30 countries, countless artist visas, collaborations, and more lessons than I ever got in undergrad. Despite the challenges of this unusual path like breaking my back, tour-fatigue, and some trauma, I wrote and rocked the audiences with two different one-woman-shows, and learned emotional, social, and empathy skills that not only made me a better performer, but a better artist, and a better human.

It was a dream, and I was living proof to my parents and everyone else who said it couldn’t be done that not only could I make it in an ‘outdated art form’, but I could do so in a way that helped me see the world, run my own company, and eventually buy land on my home island of Hawai’i. In 2020, I was even getting ready to build a little sustainable cabin on my land to come home to in the offseason.

Then Covid-19 happened.

All of a sudden, this precious bubble I had created against all odds burst and I watched every gig I had in 2020 cancel, I opted out of the ones that didn’t cancel for obvious public health reasons. Luckily, I’m a gig economy worker which means I’m always prepared for disaster. So instead of forcing me into a hospital bed or job I hate, Covid-19 forced me out of the live arts and brought me back to my canvas –literally and figuratively. Days were filled with painting again, something I dearly missed with life on tour. But I missed my audience. I missed feeling like I could make a difference, like I had a purpose, like I had someone to lift up with my superpowers. And the more time I had to quietly sit with myself, the more this one nagging dream I’ve had got louder and louder. That’s the thing with being stuck alone with your own thoughts- at some point, you have to truly listen.

‘Build that app’, it told me. ‘This is the time; this is your opportunity to finally do it’.

Hold on-You’re wondering where in the world this digital daydream in my oh-so-analog-life came from, so let me explain. What I didn’t mention earlier, is that at the same time I started my dream job of performing, I was raped. A career I loved, travel, and years of therapy alongside my own research helped me recover, and I’m proud to call myself a resilient survivor. I’ve used my experience as a survivor and performer to shed light (oftentimes with a good dose of laughter) on a taboo crime that over 18 million women and 3 million men in this country have been victim to. I wrote a critically acclaimed comedy play about mental health, won first place as a storyteller talking about my own experience with being a survivor, and in 2018 I even got into the semi-finals of a startup competition here in Boston for this app idea.

But with all the obstacles I had overcome since the trauma, there was still one thing that ate at me over all these years- I wanted to help people in a more intimate way. Since 2013, I’ve wanted to build an app for sexual assault survivors that gave them the tools and support I never had. I knew my personal experience alongside my forte for social and emotional skills honed in my career made me the perfect candidate to create something truly life-changing for millions of people; and I knew an app was the safest, most affordable, and discreet way I could help survivors. The only problem: I’m an analog artist with zero computer skills. I can barely book a flight without clicking the wrong calendar and the idea of sitting at a computer made me want to vomit.

So, with nothing but time and the uncertain future of my performance career, I jumped in. The people I spoke to the industry told me that despite my seemingly unrelated background, my skills as a painter and performer would translate perfectly to User Interface and Experience Design. Despite my aversion to being on a screen for hours at a time, I knew they were right, and I knew it was the opportunity I’ve been waiting for since 2013. I researched boot camps and curriculums and decided on Career Foundry’s UI Design Intensive with a front-end specialization. The money I was going to put into the cabin I wanted to build on my land back home went into supporting me being a full-time student and supporting the future users of my app (Survivor Stories).

The more I looked into UX and UI, the more I saw how my tech friends were right about my background helping. Now that I’m nearly done with my UI intensive, I can tell you with all certainty- my friends were right. Creating user flows feels just like storyboarding my one-woman play again it’s about understanding the habits and thoughts of the user/audience to give them the best experience possible. Using the Lean Startup method and creating MVPs is just like cutting my teeth on the streets and stages of Europe and Canada where I did hundreds of shows, tested new tricks, and comedy material one piece at a time. Failing early and often is why I’ve been a successful performer, and it’s the attitude that drives most of my success and the ability to get out of my comfort zone and fail and learn more today, every day. Prototyping is the dress rehearsal. Mockups are the equivalent of the promo videos I made. The list goes on- name me one element of UX/UI design and I will tell you it’s parallel in my performance career.

What’s been the most rewarding part of learning UX/UI design is discovering how wrong my assumptions about work in design were. A large part of me believed working in Design meant being a pixel-pushing slave to the system and sacrificing art and my voice in order to meet specific guidelines or business needs. Now I know that those same guidelines and needs are a completely new style of creative prompt, one with endless possibilities, expressions, and ways to make the world a more enjoyable and beautiful place. I used to be afraid doing art from behind a screen would disconnect me from my audience, and now I know that through the screen I am able to connect with more people in a more intimate way than I had ever thought possible.

I think back to that overly critical, canvas-toting Fine Arts major who rolled her eyes at the graphic design students and laugh as I happily push pixels into perfection, and smile while I make art and functionality collide all from the comfort of my computer. The stack of empty coffee cups in the studio has been replaced with a mug of tea in the comfort of my own home, the canvas with a laptop, and the attitude of being better with one of humility and admiration for art and all its endless uses and forms.


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