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Embracing an international perspective through design with Jay Demetillo
Meet Jay Demetillo, a Filipino-American designer whose career and life spans worldwide.
Meet Jay Demetillo, a Filipino-American designer whose career and life spans worldwide. Having grown up in New York, making his first cross-country move to design in the early days of Silicon Valley, and eventually making cross-world moves to further experience and embrace living an international life. He shares his experience as he navigated his design career and the decision points that helped him expand his worldview while actively contributing to East and Southeast Asian communities.
Interviewed in February 2023
Heads up, the interview contains some explicit language that may not be suitable for all audiences. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell us a bit about you. My name is Jay Demetillo. I'm originally from Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in DUMBO and eventually moved to Queens, then Long Island, with my family and sister because it got so expensive.
Back in the day, I was an artist and was super into art. Then, I got into design and went to a design school called SUNY Purchase which is semi-upstate [New York], about 30-40 minutes up north. Once I graduated, I took a journey to San Francisco and worked for a bunch of tech companies. After that, I got jaded by Silicon Valley in general and left. I ended up teaching design in China for a little bit, then a few other universities and high schools. Afterward, I went to Singapore and was there for five years. That's where I'm at now, working internationally and enjoying every bit of it.
Did you always know that you wanted to go into design? I actually didn't want to be a designer. Culturally, my family is traditional Filipino. Most Filipino families will push you to go into nursing or anything in the medical field—or even hospitality. And I was not interested whatsoever.
For me, I guess I was the black sheep in a way. I struggled because I wasn't sure what I wanted to major in. My first major was history, and then my second was creative writing. Finally, I was getting closer to what I wanted and eventually majoring in robotics which ended up with me taking a coding class.
We had to build our own websites with traditional HTML and CSS back in the day. A few people in the class were like, "Why are you in here? Your site is like being designed by a designer. You're not a basic coder." So they encouraged me to go to the design conservatory, and I got in and was very surprised.
I hated [the design conservatory] the first year. But once I found out about typography, all the Swiss designers—I guess I fell in love. There was also a MoMa exhibit at that point in New York City and Cooper Hewitt [Museum] that got me super into design.
So I was like, "Okay, I'm gunna hustle and make it my career as a designer." It was weird because, around that time, graphic design was seen as the dying profession, and it was going to be replaced by motion graphics.
My first internship that turned into a full-time job was working as a live animation designer at Comcast. It was stressful because the timelines were completely different from being a product designer [today]. In the job, I was learning about time limits and good daily habits for working. The work would be like, "We need these changes by 3 PM tomorrow. Can you make those design changes tonight?" or "We need this animation video shipped at 9:30 AM in the morning. Can you work on it and ship it at 11 PM to DHL via a video courier?" It was crazy! So you're going through the grind of a traditional design job that was advancing toward work in animation and motion design. Yes, it was so stressful because I was learning on the go. But, what I learned there helped me with micro-interactions in After Effects. So I'm grateful for the experience.
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I went to Silicon Valley after the [Comcast] job. I didn't end up at a traditional tech job at first—instead at Duarte, which is known for its presentation designs. So I worked there, but it wasn't my thing.
It was helpful to learn how to present effectively, which I got to learn from Nancy Duarte, the CEO. The role helped me understand how to tell stories in presentations and ways to keep them simple. These skills carried through my career: for example, learning how to present, tell stories to different people, and actually design a deck. And most people don't care about how to design a deck. It's really hard to do! Right, and people just assume it's just a deck, and we'll copy and paste something, and that's it.
After Duarte, you transition to an agency next. Was there any connection in the work you were learning and growing from Duarte to the next role? For example, branding, since a lot of decks are branding. I joined them in general because the agency cared about the San Francisco community, and I wanted to do something community-oriented but also on the cutting edge of digital. This was also a small agency of about eight people, with six designers and two engineers. In this role, I got to learn how to work on UX.
Back in the day, no Youtube or Linkedin courses existed yet. There were no boot camps per se. This was the golden age where everyone's learning UX just by doing it because Apple had just released the app store where you could build your own app. The Android store just came out as well. So we were all learning, and it was awesome.
We learned how to build apps with our engineers, talked to engineers about how to code things properly, and how to build responsive designs for websites, and ultimately it was just the beginning of UX. So I'm grateful for that experience because I don't think a lot of people had that.
And were conversations on figuring out what your role was or what you wanted to do and getting respected for your work also happening? It was a fascinating time because everyone in the Bay Area was focused on really nice visual illustrations on your website and how all these fancy new animations could be built with CSS. Or, even with WordPress sites—the focus was on making the designs more clean and organized.
And to stand out, you have to be a really good visual designer. It's not just knowing UI but also illustration. Which is crazy when you think about it. Especially in the context of today, where there are specialized illustrators. Yes, but obviously, it helped that I did illustrations and whatnot. So, to stand out at the time, it was just, "how do you combine all your talents and produce things in projects that people see?"
One of my favorite projects I worked on was for a restaurant called Gaspar Brasserie, where I did the website, branding, and interior design. I also worked with the architect and owner to pull together his styles and create a vision for his restaurant.
We looked at patterns and fabrics that were floral but also organic, which relates to the French nouveau style. It was awesome when I got to work with the architecture and even what the molding would look like in the restaurant. Alongside my design director, we got into the details of not only physical but also digital work. I don't think a lot of designers get to do that. And I wish, nowadays, that more designers got to do physical stuff because you can see that if you can design something that can translate into the physical world that goes digital, it can speak a lot about the story of a designer's experience in general. So that's why I appreciated projects like this.
And I wish, nowadays, that more designers got to do physical stuff because you can see that if you can design something that can translate into the physical world that goes digital, it can speak a lot about the story of a designer's experience in general.
And you mentioned that there was a point where you started to get jaded by the industry in Silicon Valley. Was it a specific moment, or could you describe how you recognized that was happening for you? For me, it's related to the [idea] of breaking the bamboo ceiling in a way. It's weird because I'll have conversations with folks internationally, and they don't believe it's hard for an Asian American or Asian person to break into the ranks of leadership in Silicon Valley.
And it's unfortunate because when I was looking to level up, I was not getting those opportunities. So, maybe it was because of the situations I was in at certain tech companies, or it was just not how things worked out. So, I was like, alright, maybe I just need a different change of scene. And maybe I just need to try something else.
This opportunity in Singapore came up, and I was like, "yea, why not?" I figured they needed help and guidance, so I ended up going in.
What also pushed me into [taking the opportunity in Singapore] was that me being Southeast Asian and Filipino, there's something nice about giving back to the community and knowing that the company I worked for in Southeast Asia was directly impacting the community there, whether it's good or bad. So I rolled with it because there's always a pro or con with any company you work with, but as long as you see the impact can be positive, there's something meaningful about that.
Were there any particular moments that stuck with you or helped contribute to the decisions to really pull the plug and say, "I'm going to take the leap to design across the world?" The entire time I was in San Francisco, I volunteered at the Inneract Project. Seeing those kids react differently to folks of color, especially showing that there's an example that you can make it, definitely made me think that I'm glad I can be a representative.
Still, I'm also thinking about my own roots in general. I wondered how I could also become a representative for folks in Southeast Asia. When I worked at these companies, I wondered, "where are all the Asian leaders?" I would get into arguments with people because I'd ask, "what do you mean there are so many Asians?" There are a lot of generalizations that there are a lot of Asians in tech, but really, there are not a lot of Asian leaders in general. You could probably name only a few leaders off the top of your head, right? And that's unfortunate, especially if you're a Southeast Asian. You don't have a lot of role models.
When I was teaching at CCA (California College of the Arts), many folks from China studied there. And then also, when I taught in China, I noticed there weren't a lot of role models for designers to look up to. It was fascinating because they all looked up to Japanese or Western design styles, often focused on being minimal. I get it, but I also started realizing there may be colonization with design. Even as I studied design in school, the names we often heard cited were people who didn't look like us. So I always wondered, besides representation, it's also about exposure. The people who had power and access to a broader audience to share their thoughts just weren't possible for people who looked like us.
Around this time, I also started to see the rise of design leaders in the space that was often very well-known—whether that's because they were in leadership at a particular company or were very big at conferences and online. We weren't quite in the era of design influencers yet, but it was just about to start. Did you also experience this? I started seeing more design leaders online when I decided to leave Silicon Valley. I was so glad I left because it felt like it was getting a little bit much. I'm not trying to throw shade at anybody; everyone is entitled to celebrate themselves. Everybody should also celebrate whatever achievements they get in general.
But, I will say that there are people that I've worked with that I've seen often post on social media and are well known in the space, and when you work with them, you're just like, "huh, I expected a different type of level of seniority." Often, people say they've done stuff publicly or online, but they didn't really work on it or have the actual experience. So, as a result, their output doesn't meet your expectations.
Jay Demetillo recently spoke with Harrison Wheeler of Technically Speaking on East vs West Working Culture and the Bamboo Ceiling.
For me, while I do care about reputation, I care more about making sure I don't post things that are unintentional. I want to be intentional with everything I do, including talking to you for west & ease, and having meaningful conversations with the people that mean a lot to me rather than just posting random crap online. I also want to post more to ensure more role models speak up, especially as additional representation for Southeast Asians.
I recently had a conversation with a friend where we're starting to see the rise of the Southeast Asian tech scene and designers. Tech and design haven't been practiced a lot there, and now technology is finally caught up. The rise of design is being celebrated in Southeast Asia in general. But, there hasn't been enough writing, books, or focus from the rest of the world. So that's why it's good for me to be out here and celebrate those designers.
I don't want to say I'm part of that change. I don't take any of that. I'm more or less trying to help shift the perspective to being that there is great design everywhere in the world and not just in Silicon Valley or Europe.
After being in Silicon Valley, you left for Singapore. When you got there, did you start to see a shift in the types of people prominent in the design space you were now in? Especially since it's both culturally in a different space and physically in a different location? That's an amazing question. When you move to a different country or new region of the world, you find out who the experts or tastemakers are. That's when I found all the different types of people I had been missing out on, which is fascinating.
The weird part is that it's not a generalization, but culturally, Asians, especially in Asia, don't try to make things about themselves. The culture is not very individualistic, like Silicon Valley or generally in the Western culture. They care more about the collective as a group.
So if you were to try and stand out, it's looked down upon. I appreciate that, and there's something to be said about working as a team, especially in the design and tech field.
And, of course, you can tell some people stood out that are very gifted. And one of the things that hinder them from being big is the language barrier. I often talk about this in my talks, where speaking English doesn't mean intelligence whatsoever. These folks are very good at speaking their language, whether Indonesian Bahasa or Korean, etc. There are many talented designers, but speaking English or even posting something hinders them potentially because not a lot of people can read or understand what they are saying. And that's unfortunate because there are so many talented people out there that they should be celebrated. They should be held in high regard, but they won't be hired at places like Apple or Google because they can't pass the interview with their language barrier. That's the unfortunate part. And that really sucks because it closes us off from an enormous amount of talent and potential around the world.
I think it's important for me to be inclusive. In general, I don't think the design community on social media or on the Western side is inclusive of different cultures or other designers from different cultures.
You even see it at conferences or talks. Where are the people from Tencent design speaking? Where are the people from Grab speaking at these events? There are so many good startups in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
For me, I want to make sure that wherever I go, I hire an inclusive team. I hire people based on potential and talent, not just because they can speak English or whatever, right? So it makes me think about how do I grow my team? How do I make sure that I become a good leader that takes all these things into account that I learned not just from Silicon Valley but also working internationally?
I'll talk to managers in the design world, and often, they've only worked in Silicon Valley. They don't know how to handle different cultural backgrounds because everyone works differently. I had to adjust big time when I moved to Singapore. For example, the whole radical candor goes out the window. You can't be radically candid here; you'll be dragged! laughing It's a totally different beast.
And so, for me, the things I took away from working at my past company [in Singapore] are now things I want to make sure are still in the culture I make or the team I'm going to make going forward wherever I land.
More importantly, I want to make sure that the people I work with represent my beliefs and culture but also empower folks to make sure they can stand on their own two feet—whether they stay in Southeast Asia, APAC, or go to the West and vice versa.
As you were speaking, it reminded me of a recent conversation with a colleague in Chile. She asked me, "how do you, as a product designer in the United States, design globally?" It was a hard question. We don't think about it as much as we should because we want to build at scale—but everything tends to be very Western-centric. And that's a big hindrance to how we approach problem-solving because I'm unaware of cultural nuances. Luckily we have many global colleagues we can lean on, but wouldn't it be more powerful if I could work in many places worldwide to help inform how to approach design problems differently? It's real. On top of that, we don't realize how much privilege we have, especially working in Silicon Valley. We don't realize the impact we're making until we see it on the ground.
Why do you think the work you're doing is important? For me, it's realizing that your career doesn't define you. Yes, I've done a lot of cool stuff; I've moved everywhere. But for me, it was because I wanted to try different cultures. I wanted to live in different parts of the world. Maybe I'll move back to the [United] States, but I don't know. I needed a different perspective on living in general.
I want to live a life that's fruitful, and I don't want to just depend on a tech job to carry me through. And while, yes, I've already gone to another tech company, at least I'm living in a different part of the world, trying different things. And at least, when I'm old and gray, I can look back and tell people that I did try. And I did push the limits of getting uncomfortable to get comfortable with the way I'm living.
So, I think your career doesn't define you; it's just how much you want to push yourself to try different things. I've done digital nomadism before, and it's amazing. But a lot of people are scared—I get it. We get comfortable with the pay we make, right? The golden handcuffs are normal. But once you leave that, you find out that there's more to see and to do. You start realizing that tech isn't everything and there are a lot more meaningful things than just your job.
So, I think your career doesn't define you; it's just how much you want to push yourself to try different things.
It's often a difficult decision to make the move to prioritize yourself over your job. Do you have advice for those who are on the cusp? Of course, everyone has nuances and circumstances affecting their decisions. Part of it is a privilege. In terms of my social-economic status, I did have the capital because I worked my butt off for that capital, right? It wasn't because it was handed to me.
I think you just have to plan it and plan it in advance. For me, it was like, "okay, I'm going to quit my job this year because I have enough capital to do this and the privilege of this and just live."
In terms of advice for folks, right now [in February 2023], it's not a great time probably. If you've been laid off or going through a lot of financial hardship, it's a bad time to do that. But, to be honest, a friend that's a business owner shared with me that you just got to change your perspective that your debts can be paid off. It's how you handle that debt mentally and how you want to live your life. Things eventually work out.
People have a hard time letting go and have the restraints of that lifestyle that they potentially have been living in on that large paycheck. So maybe it's not good advice, but for me, I think that debt goes away. It's not the end of the world. Bankruptcy isn't the end of the world either, especially if you're a business owner. And I've talked to a lot of business owners. It's not the end of your reputation, either. It's just a fact that it happens.
And for right now, the layoffs are cyclical. This has happened before, and jobs have come back. Everyone's even scared about AI because now all these new apps are coming out. But if you think about it, they still need people like us to build stuff out. And AI—it's just a tool. It's just the tool to ideate faster. So I don't think we should think about limiting ourselves. We need to expand outside our mental state, which is hard. That's hard to do, but once you do it and find out that you can do it, it changes a lot of perspectives, like once you get out of that system.
And you start living the life of maybe hiking in the jungles of Thailand. It sounds so romantic. But what about living off the country in the Midwest? That's definitely doable if you're in the States, right? I've seen people just quit their jobs and do it. They live on a farm, and it's awesome. They love it. So whatever is fulfilling for you, and you want to do it, just try it. Why not? Do it for three months and take a sabbatical, and things happen. You can't control the economy, but you can control your life.
So whatever is fulfilling for you, and you want to do it, just try it. Why not? Do it for three months and take a sabbatical, and things happen. You can't control the economy, but you can control your life.
If you already have the idea to try a more nomadic lifestyle or even leave your current role to start planning, and through the research, you can actually realize it's actually possible? It's definitely a mindset as well because, for someone as risk-averse as me, it's hard to take that jump, but once I do, I will experience the magical parts of things working out. I definitely agree.
Are there any misconceptions about you that you want to share? Yes, especially since I do public speaking, where people think I'm an extrovert. I actually like being by myself a lot. That could be partly because of Covid-19 [pandemic]. When I have large parties, I like to just get away for a little bit and have time for myself.
I realized that I just enjoy hanging out at home. I don't want to stay out late. I still go to concerts and go out in big groups, but I don't like it. I would rather connect like this one-on-one and be blissful about it.
Is there any advice you'd share with the past you? Well, I'm already resilient in general. But, I wish I could have told myself to be a little bit more open-minded in terms of knowing that there are going to be different cultures involved in my daily life. And that I probably should have appreciated that when I was younger. And I wish I did.
Because now I appreciate [different cultures] so much more. When you're a kid, and your parents take you to different countries, groups, or places, you don't realize or know that. You're just like, "I don't care about this," and being a little jerk. But, then, you realize when you get older, it's like, I should have probably appreciated that a little bit more than I should have because those days are gone. And you can't recreate it.
I wish I had taken more time appreciating those times with different people, family, and cultures, and because now that I'm international, I wish I had more time to spend with those folks.
I would have told myself to go chill and appreciate this because you don't know what's in store for you in the future, so you should probably appreciate it a little bit more. Though, now that you're older, you're definitely more intentional.
Give us a list of three things you'd recommend. You choose the topic.
I actually have five things.
If you're a designer, go to the Basel Summer Workshop in Switzerland. Classes are amazing for anyone, and I want to go back.
Paragliding in the Alps. If you're not scare of heights. I've done it twice!
Travel! If you're in Vietnam, hit up Hanoi and Saigon. The food is amazing.
Visit the Philippines, especially Palawan beaches.
Visit China. People are so nice, and they're so grateful for visitors in general.
What's a favorite song or song you currently have on repeat?
I'm a big music nerd, and I like to shoot concerts on the side. So I've been listening to SZA's new album, SOS. And Joey Badass's 2000.
Jay is also passionate about giving back to Inneract Project. Inneract Project is a 501c3 non-profit organization working for over 18+ years to empower the next generation of Black, Latinx, and underrepresented designers of color. As part of this Conversation, a donation was made to Inneract Project.
You can support Inneract Project by donating directly.
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