14 min read

Pallet People: Bonnie Kate

A conversation about Bonnie Kate's path to design systems, the Figma takeover, and women in tech.
Pallet People: Bonnie Kate

A chat about BK's path to design systems, the Figma takeover, and women in tech.


Hello friends 👋,

The Pallet Post features conversations with awesomely insightful professionals, jobs from companies they recommend, and some of our own takeaways from building a startup.

Pallet People is a deep dive into experiences: failures, successes, and everything in-between, of founders, directors, and high-level professionals.  At the top and bottom of each segment you'll see a guest-curated list of companies you can follow to track jobs from!

Today's guest is Bonnie Kate Wolf, Product Illustrator on Design Systems at Netflix, writer and speaker on design culture and illustration systems.

The TL:DR


Constantly Learning

My monitor has been pushing me a lot to think about things more as a product designer and less as a brand designer. "How is this a pattern? How is this going to get implemented? Versus how does this look or how does this system function from a consistency standpoint. It's more how do we actually get things made, shipped, and understood by other people?" The other thing that pushes me honestly, is Figma, Figma changes all the time.

Impact as a Design Systems Designer

I've seen a presentation that basically covered how long it took a designer to build a screen before the design system and how long it took after. The difference was that it took them 8 hours versus 45 minutes. They were literally able to translate that into money, "If it takes eight hours, it's X dollars per hour and it costs this much money, now it's 45 minutes and it's this much money. A design system for every screen is saving us this amount of money. If we're able to cut the work by eight fold, we can show the monetary value because we know how long it took to make before and how fast people can be now."

Healthy Leadership

You need to have both women and people of color in leadership. This is very anecdotal, and very specific to me, but the best managers I've had have all happened to be men – the worst managers I've had have all been women. I don't think this larger problem is solved by hiring a female manager. Women also have a lot of internalized misogyny. We need to have everybody represented in executive leadership. It's important to have a diverse team where you trust people and there is psychological safety.

Path To Design Systems


You've had multiple creative roles within tech companies (Illustrator, Brand designer, Art Director) in just 4 years. How did you discover your path into design systems?

When I was at Square I built most of their icon system. I had just finished doing the design when we had a design systems designer on the product side join the team. He wanted to put my system on Figma. Long story short — I found out that Figma is amazing.

I started throwing all my icons in it, then realized I should do everything in Figma. That got me into the product design/Figma design community. I ended up writing an article for designsystems.com – a complete guide to iconography on Figma. Soon after, I decided to join Twitter because there were a lot of conversations about the tool and design systems.

From there, I joined OpenTable, since I had already been doing all this systematic illustration work, I worked with the design team to transfer them over to Figma. It happened naturally, but I fell into this role at Netflix where I'm doing a contract to help them get people comfortable with Figma. I'm doing some brand systems work as well. It all started with icons and learning, then teaching Figma, and now helping build the design systems with it.

It's awesome how one tool is really changing the industry so much. Have you seen that impact other positions so far?

For product design it's huge, but I think illustrators are starting to realize that Figma is a place you can illustrate. There are definitely going to be people who won't want to use it, but now there are a good number of established illustrators who use Figma as their tool of choice. It's really interesting because it's not designed for illustration. The teams where I've encouraged to use Figma all fall in love with it because it's so convenient.

I would also say it impacts content design and copywriting. Since the tool is collaborative, you can jump in and put your copy there. You're not necessarily designing, but you're doing all that content design writing within the file alongside the designer. That's changed the way that designers can work with content folks.

You've been at Netflix for about a month now.  Can you give me a gist of your role as a Product Designer for Design Systems?

I work on the consumer design systems team. Netflix has a two-sided business model where part of the business is consumer facing, if you watch Netflix that's the side you would have interacted with. The other side is the studio side, which are products that are aimed at people making films.

My job is to help create patterns, components, and educate people like me specifically. I help with Figma education, getting people using it correctly, and understanding how our design system is laid out. I also work on internal brand initiatives. We've been building new icons for various things, I am the person behind them now.

What are some other challenges you've been facing in that position?

One of the biggest challenges, especially in an environment with so much autonomy and freedom, is that all your decisions impact people. If you don't know the people you're impacting, you could accidentally ruin everything for them. For example, somebody came to me and wanted to change an icon because of a very specific use case. After they explained it to me, I said, "we should definitely change that, and I can very easily go redraw that icon and ship a new one. However, if we're changing this, it's going to impact a lot of people and I don't know them."

My job becomes like a detective's. I'm like Nancy drew trying to figure out, "Who's this going to impact? What can I do to make that impact less annoying? Am I going to have to give up on this change?" Basically, your fellow designers are your customer as a design systems designer.  You have to actually ask them, "I'm going to change this, is it going to break your entire product?" It's a little bit wild to do my due diligence with everything. Anything you touch in design systems impacts somebody and when they're your coworker they have your Slack!

Do you prefer being a contractor/freelancer or being in-house full-time?

I like contracting and freelancing because my work is very targeted. I've found that when I'm full-time, in house people pull you in for random tasks that are not super interesting. You have to do all this random stuff. I'd always ask myself, "Why am I doing this?" You want to work on the big media, exciting projects, and those projects always go to agencies. Somehow, everyone's always doing a rebrand. "Why don't I get to work on the rebrand? Why do I have to build LinkedIn assets? Why am I building a display banner?"

When you're a contractor, they are usually paying you more per hour than as a full-time employee. They have to give you a scope of work to sign the contract, so they give you very specific things you're going to be working on. You get to focus and it's awesome. There are some contracts that are 40-hours a week, where you might be working more broadly. But, the kinds of contracts I've done are usually very targeted. The Netflix one is a 40-hour a week contract, but they have been really good about being specific on what I have to work on. If I want to do other stuff I can try to find other stuff to work on, but I don't need to make a random asset for a random thing.

It seems like working in design systems is a more of an experienced designer type of position. What did you wish you knew before going into it?

I come from a brand rather than from product (background). I wish I knew more about engineering and how things actually get implemented. My biggest struggle is trying to understand how things actually are going to get put into production on the engineering side.  The usual path is to go from product design to design systems designer. I don't know anyone else who's gone from brand designer to design systems to product designer. If you're coming from a more traditional path – product design to design systems, it's great to have more brand knowledge. A design system should be in full support of the brand, it's your job to make everything cohesive. I think other people would benefit from that, I definitely did.

Before I interviewed for this job at Netflix, I took an online course – I found everything there. It's literally like three hours of videos and it covers building a successful design systems. That course basically taught me everything that I felt like I really needed to know to get a handle on understanding it.

What are the metrics you use for your design system? How do you know what's working well?

We use Spectra Analytics. Figma analytics also tells you how many times the component has been used. Every month we'll do a little report that basically says which was the most popular component. It's almost always a label button. Then we'll tell people how many times that button is used or which template was most used.

That's one way to say, "Okay, these are really, really popular...maybe we need to build more of these." We can also see who's detaching instances - where are they using design system and then ripping it apart and not actually using it. If there's people doing a lot of that, then we also know that there must be problems because we've clearly not built something not usable.

I've seen a presentation that basically covered how long it took a designer to build a screen before the design system and how long it took after. The difference was that it took them 8 hours versus 45 minutes. They were literally able to translate that into money, "If it takes eight hours, it's X dollars per hour and it costs this much money, now it's 45 minutes and it's this much money. A design system for every screen is saving us this amount of money. If we're able to cut the work by eight fold, we can show the monetary value because we know how long it took to make before and how fast people can be now."

It's awesome how quantifiable a designer is right now compared to before. I feel like it finally brings more of the value designers deserve. You had experiences at many tech companies, when did you know that the time was right to go into the next one?

My first job in tech was at SurveyMonkey, I did a 6-month contract there. They extended the contract, but forgot to tell me, it was all an internal error – I switched because I thought that my contract was ending.  

Then, I went to Square. I was there for a year and a half and I actually really wanted to stay there. The reason I ended up leaving was kind of two-fold. One, I had an offer for a 40% increase at OpenTable, additionally there were some HR issues that made me realize it wasn't worth it. At Square they were trying to promote me without giving me a raise. I didn't like that, it's essentially asking me to do more work for the same amount of money.

I went to OpenTable, but left after a year. It just wasn't a good fit, and I thought I was going to go to Thumbtack, but my offer got rescinded because of the pandemic. Since then I've been freelancing.

At both Square and OpenTable, I ended up leaving because of a culture issue. When I realized that I wasn't going to have the support from the people in charge – I knew that it was time to leave. At OpenTable I realized that certain people were treated differently than others. I wasn't going to put up with that anymore. It was just too much of a drain.

Women In Tech


Do you feel like that's widespread in tech or has your experience been more inclusive?

I think if you ask any woman or any person of color if they've experienced any discrimination that caused them to leave a company, I would guarantee you that every single person will say (at least if they'd done a couple jobs) "yeah, they have left for one reason or another." I think a lot of the time women and people of color and not treated the same or given the same opportunities. It's so obvious..when terrible things happen, or even unpleasantness happens, they're not supported.

For example, I was in the acapella group at one company, which was a fun work activity. I noticed that our group, which was mostly made up of engineers, was that every single woman had left between when I joined and when I left. In just a year and a half it was a completely different group of women, but almost all of the men were still there. That was a random slice of the company, just people who happened to do acapella. It wasn't on my team specifically, but most women left because they felt that they didn't have the same opportunities to succeed. Which sucks, because they were all great at their jobs. They all went to other great places or changed careers, but the older men were still there.

What kind of environment do you think best supports women in tech? How do you see that changing?

You need to have both women and people of color in leadership. This is very anecdotal, and very specific to me, but the best managers I've had have all happened to be men – the worst managers I've had have all been women. I don't think this larger problem is solved by hiring a female manager. Women also have a lot of internalized misogyny. We need to have everybody represented in executive leadership. It's important to have a diverse team where you trust people and there is psychological safety.

My team at Netflix is actually really diverse, even though our team lead is a white man. He's great and has clearly built a team with a whole bunch of different perspectives of people from lots of different places and different life experiences. I think not hiring a homogenous team is the key to having a healthy team. When I was at OpenTable our team was almost all women, but there wasn't psychological safety on that team because there wasn't diversity. It was a bunch of white women basically – it's different than my team now where I'm the only white woman. Our team is basically split 50, 50 male, female as well. We have actual diversity, we get to do good work, and we trust each other – it's lovely.

What are the challenges for women in tech?

There's a bunch — but there's one I have in mind surrounding brand design. I've noticed people will use the word feminine as an insult when they're talking about brand design. They don't mean it in a mean way, but they'll say, "That design is too feminine." I've never heard anyone ever say that design is too masculine. I think masculine is viewed as neutral. I'll replace "feminine" with "softer" or "prettier", maybe "delicate". Those are actual words that describe what it looks like rather than just woman stuff.

The main issue though is harassment. Women experience a ton of harassment, and sometimes it's as blatant as "This person assaulted me." Sometimes it's very clear cut, but other times it's like what happened with me at Square. It was not okay. HR said, "we don't really have a box for what happened to you, so there's not much we can do." This wouldn't have happened to a man. Every person I've spoken to knows that this wouldn't happen.

It's the feeling of not being included, if you're not the right kind of person – if you're not a man. I'm know that people of color have similar issues or adjacent issues. I can't speak directly to that experience, but I'm sure there are lots of parallels. I've grown to realize that the solution is a zero tolerance policy.

Netflix essentially has a zero tolerance policy. If somebody does something that's out of line and upsets someone else —  you can't do that. There's a culture of freedom at Netflix, you're allowed to make your own decisions and behave the way that you deem appropriate, rather than being told. It treats people like adults, but there are consequences.

What other ways do you feel like Netflix culture is supportive in that sense?

There's a strong sense of ownership, I feel like I really own my projects. I own my decisions. I was talking to my manager today and I was starting to try and convince them of a choice I've made, he said "You don't need to convince me if you think that's the right choice, we'll do it." You're trusted to be the expert, but if you don't do your due diligence and something goes wrong, it's your responsibility to fix it.

On Design And The Industry


What other companies do you think design well?

Netflix was the number one place I wanted to work, it was my dream company. I feel very, very lucky that I'm at my dream company. I'm like, "Is this even real? How did this happen?'"

I love being a freelancer and I love contracting. The companies that I would take a full-time role with, where I would give up that freedom would be:

  • Lyft: I've worked with them as a contractor and I would love to work on their product iconography and illustration team. That's the team I worked with when I was a contractor. I love how specific that team is and how much impact they get to have on illustration at such a prolific company.
  • Airbnb: Again, I've also contracted with them. I feel very lucky I've gotten to contract with all these places I love.
  • Pixar: I don't know what their culture is like, but the one person I met who works there has been there 20 years. He seems to think it is the greatest place to work on the planet. I think getting to work on movies that touch people's lives in that way would be amazing.
  • Glossier: I don't know about their culture, but brand-wise, Glossier. They managed to somehow make Instagram ads not annoying. I don't know how they did that, but that's a pretty amazing. They feel very transparent as a brand. I worked in beauty before I worked in tech, so I'm still interested in fashion and the beauty space. I can see myself working there if they had a place for me to do things.

Where else do you see exciting things happening in the design field?

I think that five to ten years from now, Webflow is going to be huge. My dear friend is the design director, so I'm a tiny bit biased cause I love Webflow and I love David. I would love for every person in America, if not the world, to have the ability to have a store to sell whatever things they want to make...Webflow is going to change the future.

When I re-did my portfolio I chose to go with Webflow. Even though it's more expensive and more time-consuming to learn, it was totally worth. It's actually customizable too – if you decide to customize with Squarespace, you basically need to know how to code. They have Webflow university too, which is free. If you're a watching videos kind of person, you can watch all those videos...I really think it's the future of web design.

What do you do to keep learning?

My monitor has been pushing me a lot to think about things more as a product designer and less as a brand designer. "How is this a pattern? How is this going to get implemented? Versus how does this look or how does this system function from a consistency standpoint. It's more how do we actually get things made, shipped, and understood by other people?" The other thing that pushes me honestly, is Figma, Figma changes all the time.

They're building such great features. Every couple of months I have to relearn something. I don't want to fall behind. I don't love this word but they're constantly innovating, because of that I'm always having to up my Figma game. That's teaching me new ways of thinking about how to build and how do I teach other people how to do this? A big part of my job is education.


Check out Bonnie Kate on Twitter

Check out Bonnie Kate's Website

Also, check out the Design Systems Course she took before she got her job at Netflix