Sha Hwang: An Architect of Many Things

What the hell is a Gifpop? You take a gif (you know, the usually funny images that run on loops online) and turn it into a physical print, using a technology called lenticular printing. (Printing on raised lentil shaped corrugations, it seems.) It brings your favorite gif off the screen and into a piece of art.

A Gifpop

Why would you want to have a gifpop, you might ask? Because maybe you really want your favorite Feminist Ryan Gossling winking adorably at you from your bedroom wall? Because it’s just cool? Because it’s awesome to push the limits of technology and play with the relationship between the digital and the physical?

Gifpop is just one of the many ideas brought to life by Sha Hwang, designer technologist and entrepreneur.

I met Sha a few years ago when I interviewed him for a startup I was working on in a class at Harvard, and we’ve kept in touch since. We chatted last week about his unorthodox journey from architecture and on.

Sha’s story is pretty impressive. He’s the cofounder of a successful startup—Movity which visualized neighborhood data (like crime rates, and noise levels)—which was sold to Trulia in 2010. He was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Real Estate and in 2013, Sha was recruited as part of the ‘tech surge’ to help save HeatlhCare.gov.

From Architecture to….Out of the Box
Sha graduated with an architecture degree from UC Berkeley. While he enrolled, not intending to practice architecture (architecture was the closest he could get to industrial design,) by the time he graduated he was “sold on the idea of practicing.” He worked first at IwamottoScott, an architecture firm known for its concept-heavy work, and interest in computation and fabrication techniques.

Working at IwamottoScott fueled Sha’s growth. IwamottoScott was exploring concepts that required the use of new technologies: He was learning processing and other programming techniques, 3D animation and rendering. Competition work was a big part of Sha’s workload and it was experimental and exploratory.

Sha left the firm to move to New York City, and landed at a small residential firm, and that’s where he “hit a wall.” I was “becoming a real architect,” he says, working with contractors and focusing on detailing and construction, but “I stopped learning new skills and the pace of work slowed down.”

While working at this practice, Sha kept pursuing projects on the side, and one day, while working on a competition with a friend, realized he’d rather work on the competition than go in to work every day. He put in his two weeks notice. “I left my job without a real plan,” he says.

“It wasn’t about the competition, in retrospect,” he muses, which the team ultimately didn’t win. Not only was being a “real” architect slow, but Sha missed the “theoretical rigor of conceptual architecture.” Professional practice was much less about “questioning assumptions” and more about “designing in the context of tight constraints.”

Twitter tracker Sha worked on for Stamen which visualized the “mood” of the internet after Kanye West’s famous dissing of Taylor Swift.

After quitting his job, Sha freelanced for a time—his skills in rendering and animation made him marketable, and eventually moved on to Stamen Design, a research and design firm well-known for their data visualizations. Sha loved the work, and there, his talent at “making complex datasets and systems more human” began to take shape.

Designer to Owner
In his two years at Stamen, Sha began to notice that his practice was making incredible tools for clients, but ultimately, “we didn’t own any of the things we made.”

One of the tools Sha developed for Movity/Trulia visualizing commute times.

Enter….. his future cofounder, and not in a way you might expect. One day, Sha was teaching a three hour Adobe Illustrator workshop, and happened to meet Eric Wu, a serial entrepreneur who was interested in getting into real estate. A few minutes of chatting turned into a lunch, with Eric and Sha exchanging ideas, showing each other work, and the partnership that would draw Sha out of professional services, and into starting his own company, Movity, was formed. Movity took Sha’s passion for data visualization and cities, and turned it into a product that created value for users, by helping them make better decisions about where to move to. Movity got into Y Combinator, and eventually was bought.

Systems, Not Objects
Fast forward, Sha was handpicked to take his design and ‘humanizing information’ skills to a new level as part of the Healthcare.gov team. Healthcare.gov has been a “complicated beast,” Sha says, but his experience with it exemplifies one of the key facets of his approach to design–designing from a systems perspective. His task on Healthcare.gov was to design a “visual language that could be reused all over the place” and make the complex process of shopping around for health care simple, clear, and easy to understand for users.

This systems approach underlies Sha’s approach to design and has been a thread that has run though his work since the beginning. “When I look back at the work I was doing in school,” he says, “I was mapping sites, doing analysis, thinking more systemically about assembling form.” This interest in cities and their data and patterns, meant that he had a very specific take on architecture: I was “more interested in designing cities, than designing precious objects.”

Get a Meshu: Custom jewelry made from your personal network map.

Sha’s side projects exemplify this: Both Gifpop and Meshu (a service for users to make network maps of their favorite locations in a city and turn them into custom jewelry) which he founded with friend Rachel Binx, are more about designing a process, than designing, and mass manufacturing an object.

The pattern underlying Sha’s developments and pursuits has been a drive to keep learning. “For me, it was about skills and continuing to develop skills,” he says. An “impatience about seeing more and getting to develop technically,” has been the guiding light of his unique journey. Sha also has a willingness to take risks and let the world surprise him: A competition he’d rather work on than go to his job leads him to the next stage; a surprise meeting at a three-hour Illustrator class leads him to cofounding a company.

Sha’s path may not be conventional, but it shows the potential of design as a tool to tease out new ways of structuring and understanding our world, to create products and experiences that drive better outcomes, and even to create cool stuff, just cuz. In Sha’s words, design is that wonderful, complex “chaotic meander,” and just because it’s not a straight line, doesn’t mean it doesn’t produce value at scale.

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