How an incoming IYA graduate student transitioned from economics to design

Four young people smile as they hold donuts up to their faces, as if peeking through the holes

September 15, 2021 | Sam de Leve

Of all the cross-disciplinary combinations in academics, few students choose to blend economics and design. But as incoming Iovine and Young Academy graduate student Colette Zhou can attest, the synergy between the two is surprisingly potent.

“As econ allows me to understand what people need, design allows me to take those insights and use them to build products that can better help allocate those resources or even provide solutions to meet people's needs and solve problems in society,” she said.

A recent USC graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and a minor in communication design, Zhou chose her field to understand society’s needs and how to better allocate resources. She never expected design to be anything more than a hobby.

"In the beginning, I didn't think that I would be a very creative individual,” she said. “But the more classes and club activities I participated in, I felt my interest in [design] grew. After I graduated, I decided it was something I really wanted to do and potentially as my future career."

Zhou discovered UI/UX design in her junior year, and before she knew it, she was taking on projects. She rapidly gained experience through extracurriculars, producing designs for the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Innovative Design, USC’s premier creative agency that is made up of photographers, designers and web developers. 

If economics taught Zhou to analyze and identify people’s needs, now design gave her a toolbox to do something about it. As creative services director for USG, one of the her largest assignments was the Get ConSCent campaign. The campus-wide initiative leading up to the 2019 USC vs. UCLA football game educated students on sexual assault and misconduct, bystander intervention and university resources for support, safety and reporting.

A flyer for a campaign called Get Consent
A graphic for a program called Nick Nack. Sample mobile designs are mocked up on the left, and on the right is a screenshot of a desktop, including a videoconference call

As she discovered the power of design to create awareness and effect change, Zhou pressed forward with progressively more ambitious projects. Her proudest project to date was her submission for the Adobe + Nickelodeon Creative Jam Design Challenge last year. Zhou worked with two other student designers to create Nicknack, a video platform that allows kids to safely interact with loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their project won first place out of 145 teams from the United States and Canada. 

"It was a really meaningful project for us because it was a project for us to hopefully provide a safe way for kids to communicate, to share, to connect with their friends and families during COVID-19,” Zhou commented. “Our goal was to help them … learn how to practice better hygiene and learn how they can feel safe at home without feeling bored and trapped at home."

While Zhou studied economics and gathered work experience in design, she started looking for master’s programs that would harmoniously combine the two, gravitating toward human-centered design. In her search, Zhou discovered IYA’s Master of Science in Product Innovation.

“I found the USC’s product innovation program to be the most interesting and attractive for me because it covers all the fields I’m interested in from design to engineering to interactive media,” she said. “It’s a very well-rounded program and I feel that I have more freedom to explore and discover my future career path.” 

One of her biggest goals during her time at IYA is to further pursue her interest in accessibility design, which is a topic she first discovered from an undergraduate writing course. 

"I hope that my capstone project will be something relating to a digital accessibility tool targeting those with visual impairments,” Zhou stated. “I know that about 70% of websites online are inaccessible to people who are visually impaired so hopefully I can create a toolkit for everyone to use.”

As she prepares to enter the program this fall, Zhou looks forward to expanding her interdisciplinary horizons by meeting peers with their own wide-ranging interests.

"I know the Academy recruits students from different and diverse backgrounds so I'm really excited to learn from them and work with these amazing individuals ... in the upcoming years to build very great projects,” she shared.