A major choice: Alumna pursues design at USC’s Iovine and Young Academy

November 18, 2019 — by Brandon Wang and Oliver Ye

The faces of five mathematicians — Euclid, Leibniz, Mandelbrot, Euler and Gauss — span the width of the wall facing the math quad, accompanied by equations and diagrams against a background of beautiful swirls and bright pops of color.

The process of creating the striking mural was not an easy one: It took a large team of students dozens of hours and three months to finish it in January 2015. 

Lilian Zeng, a 2018 grad who attends the University of Southern California, managed the creation of the mural, one of many projects she worked on in high school that allowed her to develop a passion in design. She said the most challenging part of creating the mural was directing a group of students and telling them what to paint; she ended up creating a digital design and projecting it onto the wall so students who weren’t for artistically proficient to get started. 

Following in Zeng’s footsteps, many other student groups approached her and sought guidance in creating their own murals, including Media Arts Program projects and the murals on the science wing.

“I saw the gray walls of our campus transform into stunning visual pieces dedicated to various clubs and organizations,” Zeng said. “Each piece is artistically powerful, but their true value lies in the conversations they facilitate.” 

Today, Zeng continues to pursue her interest in design and applicable art at USC. In addition to being the design editor for the Daily Trojan, USC’s student-run newspaper, Zeng also studies at the prestigious Iovine and Young Academy (IYA), an interdisciplinary program that merges design, tech and business. Students take classes in coding, business, design and interactive generative computer graphics. 

At IYA, Zeng interacts with a cohort of 24 other students, taking all of her core academy classes with them, meaning that they see each other every day and are constantly working on group projects. 

“This promotes a really unique ability to learn what each person’s strengths and weaknesses are, as well as your own, and helps you decide what kind of areas you want to focus more on,” Zeng said.

This interaction with a diverse and driven group of individuals has led to the creation of various design projects, such as Pepper, an online platform that organizes USC’s campus events according to users’ interests.

Zeng remembers always being interested in art and recalls sketching and painting still-life from a young age. Zeng’s first experience with graphic design was making a promotion flyer for the freshman class while at SHS, but because she didn’t even know how to use the Adobe studios, she ended up creating the flyer in Google Slides. 

Later, while participating in yearbook and becoming its editor-in-chief senior year, she got much more interested in design and gained deep skills in programs like Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. She said that she particularly enjoys design, as opposed to pure art, since it appeals to her interest in engineering and is more practical.

She also aligns more closely to  the UX, or user experience, aspects of design, rather than the UI, or user interface, side, focusing more on “business needs” and “engineering capabilities.” 

“While I love art and design, I see it as a tool to create beautiful products and a skill that I can employ on whatever I’m working on,” Zeng said, “rather than the sole thing I am interested in.”

This past summer, Zeng worked for Blizzard Entertainment on designing web pages for the Overwatch Nintendo Switch and LEGO Bastion Challenge announcements. Both of these projects involved working with other companies, which meant having to work within stricter design constraints, Zeng said.

Zeng said that she has found her IYA experience positive. She especially enjoys the entrepreneurial focus of the program, especially because IYA itself is still only five years old, and its synthesis of multiple disciplines. 

“When I was deciding where to go for college, I was trying to choose between art programs at some schools, business at others and engineering at others,” Zeng said. “And I realized, why choose?”

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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