Product Designer at Etsy
After exploring various interests in different fields such as event planning, marketing and museum management, Eleonora casually dabbled in Photoshop and web design when she felt a calling for design. Eleonora embarked on a completely new journey of digital design and now works at Etsy as a product designer, by way of Seamless.
Where are you from and what do you do?
I am from Italy, born and raised. My hometown is called San Donà di Piave. I come from the Northeast of Italy so a lot of the thoughts that people in America have about Italians don't necessarily match with where I come from. I grew up in more of a fast paced society, rather than what is known as the south of Italy. I'm an only child. I don't know what it's like to have a sibling. There was points in my life where I wanted an older brother
Now I live and work in Brooklyn. I'm a senior product designer at Etsy. I work mostly on the website and the apps on the discovery team and we help users find what they are looking for.
How did you end up where you are now?
I did not know that I was gonna be a designer so I wasn't one of those people who knew early on what they wanted to do. I had a lot of different dreams ranging from archaeologist to pilot. Because I didn't know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, after high school, I went to college for communications science and that was still in Italy. That was a very broad bachelor degree that touched a lot of media studies, a little bit of website coding and the history of art. I spent a year in Ireland as an exchange student and that was eye-opening for me in terms of where I wanted to be and I knew that it wasn't Italy. I'd always been very fascinated by the English language and I just wanted to explore the world before settling down somewhere.
So after college, I took couple of internships for museums in Venice and I developed an interest in marketing for small museums.With that in mind, I went to Rotterdam and that's where I took my master's degree in Cultural Economics. I wanted to explore as much as possible in actually finding jobs in museums and galleries. That year in Holland was amazing - I learnt a lot and left with the goal of working for a museum. During that time, I also met someone significant and we decided to move to New York.
When I moved to New York, I did a couple of internships for marketing agencies and nonprofits, organizing events for Italian wine and food. I kept an eye out for museum opportunities but it just seemed so competitive and hard to get. At the time, for casual reasons, I just thought I'd play around with Photoshop, to help out with poster creation and started thinking, we need a better website. When that happened, my dad asked if I would considered going back to school and learn some design skills, enough to build a website.
I went back to school. I went to the Pratt Institute, where I studied computer graphics on a certificate program, so it was nights and weekends in school. I learned the tools of the trade, like web design. Right after, I found a job with Seamless and I was there for four years. I learned more coding and refined my skills in design, focusing mostly on visual design. But I understood that my real interest lay in product design, thinking about how we develop digital products from beginning to end. That's where I put all my efforts into while I was at Seamless and I left as the lead designer there. Most recently, I joined Etsy as product designer and it's been absolutely amazing.
When you were making that decision to go back to Pratt, I'm assuming you were a little older. Tell me about the process.
I was very excited about my choice and the opportunities that could open up. I talked to some people that were very discouraging, thinking that it was too bold of a move and that I was already building a career in event planning and management. They were basically asking why I’d throw all that away to start afresh. It's really hard to describe but I had that sense of calling. I just I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to pursue and I've never felt that way before. The discouraging part was that when I started this process I was already 29 and I understood that I would have not only have to compete for a job but there was high likelihood that my peers would be people significantly younger than me. That was still sometimes a little scary. Like I felt way behind.
You mentioned that you had this calling. Do you have any examples of when you felt like this?
It's when I built my first website. I took a trip across the states the summer before I started school at Pratt. It was on Amtrak and we went from New York to Chicago to Flagstaff in Arizona and then to Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The whole trip took 2 weeks. So with the photos that we collected, I built my first website. My ex-boyfriend was an excellent writer so he wrote the copy for it and I just created this mini guide that was extremely skeuomorphic with like fake passports and tickets. I mean it was cute looking! Not exactly how you would think of a website these days. By building that site and seeing it through and just finishing that process was immensely rewarding. The fact that I did it all on my own. I mean I still have people emailing me about that website, asking for information.
What I liked about it was that part of it felt so intuitive and I'd always been looking for something that felt almost natural for me to do. Of course I had to sharpen my skills and all of that but I'd always been looking for that thing that I was naturally good at doing. Immersing myself into this new field felt like I was entering a comfort zone, kind of like putting on a nice blanket.
Do you think there were things that were part of your growing up that made you attracted to good design?
I think so. I always had an appreciation for design, especially book design. I would always evaluate objects and fashion and I think that developed my taste and understanding what was good and what wasn't. I guess that part of my growing up probably had an influence on me. I tried to always design everything I did. Even when I was writing an essay, I always played with the fonts forever until I could decide which font was the best for that essay. I almost cared more about how it looked than the actual content itself.
If you could go back, what would be something that you would tell yourself, knowing where you are now?
The first I would say is that not only is everything gonna be okay but it's gonna be beyond any expectation you have. Because I cannot still believe that my life turned out the way it has. I am extremely fortunate.
Initially it was hard for me to believe that because of where I was. My personal life was quite difficult. I had broken up with my ex-boyfriend and there was a lot of investment in our relationship when we figured out it wasn't working. That happened right when I was starting school at Pratt. There was a lot that I had to go through on my own. During that year and a half of school, from a working perspective, was very fulfilling but I was perpetually waiting for that moment to turn that into a real job. So the anxiety of getting a stable job combined with the weight of being in New York without the person that I came here made things very difficult. But I think that probably helped me believe in myself even more because I was like if I don't believe in myself, no one else will. There was a big drive that came from within because of my situation.
What was the hardest thing about adapting to this new place?
I was definitely not making enough money to do much. I was working at a non-profit where we were only three people in the office and the other two people were gentlemen in their sixties so I had very few opportunities to meet people my age. It was hard for a while to be able to build enough friendships with people around me. I eventually made friends through work. When I started at Seamless, that helped a lot and then I met friends of friends. I actually met my now husband through a coincidence when I had friends visiting me from Italy who introduced me to someone they had met in New York. We became good friends and now we’re married. It's funny, I think it happens a lot to me where in New York, when one thing starts and ten other things follow along. That's also difficult. You just have to find the first right thing to get the ball rolling.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Feeling fulfilled by what I do and being able to find exactly what I wanted to do or to be. No matter what, being able to build a successful life with a network of people around it in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do anywhere else. I guess finding myself has been the American Dream. I can speak for sure that in Italy, it would be very difficult to do the work that I do, with the support and network that I have here and the recognition that I get. I'm not just speaking in terms of money. People here understand that my job has value and that I can be valuable to the company that I work for.
How do people perceive the role of designers in Italy?
It's interesting because I don't know anyone that does the same job that I do over in Italy. Definitely none of my friends. I don't even know if there is a term in Italian for the work that I do. I don't have a network there so it would be hard to tell how developed my profession is there. What I remember and I'm speaking more about graphic design here is that people expected graphic designers to work for free and for fun, which is such a shame because industrial design is so strong and highly recognized in Italy. I never understood why for print or digital art that level of recognition hasn't translated over.
What brings you fulfillment as a product designer, as a person living in NY and as a someone in a relationship?
There are people that I trust, whose opinion I highly regard. Recognition from those people means a lot to me. But beyond that, it is knowing that when I truly believe in something that I'm doing, when I reach that moment and no matter what anyone else is telling me anything, it doesn't matter. I can stand on my own. I think that's what gives me fulfillment. Even in the riskiest situations, knowing that I did the best that I could.i If things didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have any regrets.
Do you think the environment in this country fosters that type of spirit?
Yes, for sure. It’s something that I'm learning everyday working in a place like Etsy, where I'm constantly challenged by others, recognized by others and where people are always raising the bar. At that same time, they understand the importance of failure - doing something that seems wrong anyway because you're learning something. Before I worked here, I never experienced a community that made me want to be better everyday.
What cultural qualities to do you bring to the pursuit of your American Dream, both good and bad?
I don't think I have a poker face. I think that's a double-edged sword. I know that I'm very expressive and I don't have a problem hiding how I'm feeling about something. That has helped me build very transparent relationships. But other times, I feel that it's better to wait. I think being expressive is just part of the Italian culture.
In my personal life, I'm a warm person and I really care about talking and making conversations, especially around food. That means the world to me. An ideal weekend to me in spending it with six of my closest friends and spending most of the time sitting around a table playing games, snacking, making cocktails. Putting a tablecloth on the table and preparing food together, and bringing people together is really part of what I come from and I hope that I can transfer that happiness here.
A lot of people want to be product designers. How do you think about your work? What's your process?
I'm inspired by the designers that I'm surrounded by, designers that I know personally as well as those that I may not have met but found out through reading articles. I'm very interested in the process of a final design. An end result without an explanation on the design process is only one third of the answer. I try to read articles from other companies and designers. I look at the work of other designers that I work with. I listen to podcasts on design. I love illustration and in particular concert posters, like screen printed ones, I have a ton at home, and I follow different illustrators and designers. That is a pure source of inspiration for me. I don't know necessarily if that bleeds into my product design work but it definitely fills my design heart.
What are some struggles that you face?
I don't know if I'm loud enough, or if I'm loud in the right way. It's not a matter of volume but also the quality of information that I try to share. I'd like to be more impactful with everyone. With some people I know I am, with others I know I'm less so. I'm always trying to be heard, whether they agree or disagree with me. Sometimes I feel that my voice gets lost and I don't know if I'm just projecting this on myself. But I think it comes back to the fact that it took me a while to find what I wanted and there's this part of me that feels very hesitant about what I say.
What do you love about living in New York?
The diversity of cultures and people that I'm exposed to. That is just absolutely amazing to me. The opportunities that this country has given me, I'll always be grateful for. This is the first place I felt like I was home. With all the crazy things that have happened, I still believe in this country and I feel a sense of belonging that I never felt before. I feel a sense of pride. I'm a permanent resident, not a citizen, but I've been here for almost ten years so my husband keeps saying "You're a New Yorker, trust me, I'm from Long Island and you're a New Yorker" so I'm going to quote him on this one. I still don't feel a 100% but it's like I'm proud to say that I live in New York and that I achieved success and found myself here.
If you could bring anything from your home country what would you bring?
I miss the warmth that I feel with my network of friends at home. There was something really easy about getting together and spending time together that I've started getting from the group of friends that I have now. But in Italy, it was so easy. You see your friends and you hug, it's not even a question. I can hold my best friend's hand there while walking on the streets, like really there's a physical intimacy but that translates into an open heart. You can talk freely without much filters about anything. If I met one of my Italian friends, I'm probably gonna drop the veil immediately and tell them everything, even the most intimate things. That would take like three drinks for me if I were to tell that to some of my American friends.
I’d also like to see more of an appreciation for what is old and what is classic. For us, it is so embedded in our environments that sometimes we take it for granted. Seeing history with my eyes, like walking around a place where I can see how the history has changed and from monuments to buildings and bridges and breathing that old history and all that happened. That's what I miss.
What do you think about Italian food in New York?
I don't go to Italian restaurants very often. I'm afraid of being disappointed. I know there's good food here, it's just that when I really want to eat Italian food, I'd rather cook it. But I eat pizza all the time. And the pizza is good.
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