Li Zeng, Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator
Li Zeng, Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator

MCAD MFA graduate Li Zeng has done a lot since she earned her master's in graphic design back in 2012. In addition to graphic design, she has gone on to explore user-experience design, create a plethora of successful projects, and teach at the University of Central Arkansas. I got to talk with her recently about her memories of MCAD, as well as her new exciting children's book series, Entrepreneur Kid.

Li Zeng ’12, MFA, is a designer, educator, and entrepreneur who has been making waves in the creative and business worlds for years now. A pioneering Studio Science Fellow in Indianapolis, she served as the main organizer of Arkansas’ first Design Thinkathon and is the co-organizer for Hellen’s Hero, a women’s mentoring programs for African and Arkansas high school girls. She has been recognized by a number of major organizations, including Adobe Award, HOW Top 10 Poster Design Award, Design China, Visual China, and Vision-Union.

As a UX designer, Zeng is passionate about building products that are both simple and elegant. In her teaching roles as an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas (and at MCAD this fall!), she aims to use design as a powerful tool to make social change. As the founder of two organizations—Plus Designer, a social innovation platform, and Cube Lady, a creative studio—she helps address community needs in order to bring them significant products, services, and solutions.


Li Zeng, My Plate

What was it like studying at MCAD?

It was fun to be in a small college like MCAD. Not only did I have access to all of the facilities and faculty resources, but I was also able to build a close relationship with my mentor and advisers. Being that the MFA program has a lot of freedom, it took me a little time to figure out my exact path and what I wanted to do with my design study and career. However, thinking back, I am very grateful for the kind of freedom I had as an independent designer because that forced me to explore my own interests and work diligently to achieve what I want.

Do you have any fond memories of your time here at MCAD?

Definitely! Coming directly from China, MCAD was my first “home,” and it showed me warmth and introduced me to cultural differences. I still remember the Assistant Director of Student Activities Brett Smith would take us to fun places like the Black and White Ball, the Minnesota State Fair, ValleyScare, etc. Those fun events and activities formed a big part of my life at MCAD and I enjoyed it very much.

Of course, growing up in southern China, snow was not such a common thing to me. So it was fun to experience the Minneapolis winter. When I first arrived, people would exaggerate, saying that when winter comes the snow can pile up as tall as I am; and my first winter at MCAD, the roof of the Metrodome collapsed! I also remember several of us international students walked to a grocery store during a snowstorm (we didn’t check the weather or look at school emails) and found all the stores had been closed. It was just two blocks away, but we had to call the school to take us back because the snow was too much and we were not able to walk!

Is there anything that you learned at MCAD that you still utilize today?

My thesis was about the design thinking process and the difference between rational and emotional thinking. Those interests still last, and I have now written several articles on design thinking and participatory design, as well as about design education differences in western and eastern culture. I also remember I did several illustration projects at MCAD because I was not encouraged to make illustrations as an undergraduate. So, this interest still guides my instinct on fun projects like children’s books and creating customized greeting cards. My graduate study at MCAD definitely helped me figure out my interests and focus later in design.


Li Zeng, Entrepreneur Kid 


What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on Entrepreneur Kid, a children’s book series about real kids who created their own businesses.

These books are perfect for solo readers or as parent-child read-alouds. Each book in the series also makes for a fitting classroom read-aloud with potential for entrepreneurial or problem-solving activities to follow. Every book ends with a question to get kids thinking about what problems they'd like to solve. The series is a wonderful tool for introducing children to the concepts of entrepreneurship, perseverance, creative thinking, and philanthropy.

What do you hope to achieve with it?

In the series we highlight the obstacles and achievements of four kid entrepreneurs who will challenge kids reading them to think and dream big. We want kids to know that they don't have to be "grown up" to start a business. They can achieve their dreams now. It all starts with solving the problems they see around them.

Author Erica Swallow and I spent more than six months on this project writing, conducting interviews, and illustrating the whole series. We have completed all the preparation phases and now we are conducting a KickStarter campaign to raise the funds to help print the series.


Li Zeng, Shirt Design from Plus Challenge Design Thinkathon 

Do you have any advice for students who want to start their own project, business, or be their own entrepreneur in the art world?

Never stop exploring. I think knowing what you like and want is very important. So, take some time try to figure out that and enjoy the exploring process. At the same time, when you want to put anything on the market, you will also have to learn what the market need is. That may or may not be the exact thing you liked, so keep exploring that until you find something that can both satisfy yourself and the market needs.

Take a chance and start doing it now. Experience helps us understand who we are and what we want. So, take any chance to learn and experience different projects. It could be intern or freelance projects, or it could be anything you find interesting or worth doing with a friend. Sometimes it’s not all about what you want to do, it’s also about who you are doing the project with. Erica has a completely different background (journalism and marketing) than me, and I thought maybe we could do something fun. So I simply approached her and found we were both passionate about education. After we spent an afternoon together brainstorming, Entrepreneur Kid was born!

So, open your mind to know people from different fields. Be passionate about your projects/business, and just take a chance to start NOW! Make it happen, and spread the word out. Starting a project/business isn’t easy. Many people like to talk about starting their own businesses but never take real action. I would also suggest devoting time to making things happen first and then talk about it. That way, people will see your devotion and how much you have already done. They will also know how to help you in a more specific way! In the end, don’t feel shy to spread the word and ask for help.