Catching up with Manjia Zhao, M.F.A. Graphic Design 2013

Manjia Zhao recently won Red Dot Design’s prestigious “Best of the Best” award for her prototype game app, Airnergy. The app, which was part of Zhao’s M.F.A. graphic design thesis project at Academy of Art University, encourages players to take stock of their energy use and make minor, real life changes—each of which enhances the game’s colorful, whimsical “virtual garden.” Red Dot received more than 16,500 submissions from nearly 70 countries.

We recently caught up with Zhao, 26, a native of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China. A self-described “gamer,” Zhao was happy that her app was singled out by Red Dot, but hasn’t had much time to bask in the glory of her award—she’s too busy dreaming up ideas for San Francisco start-up Rip van Wafels, which makes individually packaged Amsterdam-style sweet snack wafels.


Manjia Zhao. Courtesy of Manjia Zhao.


Manjia Zhao recently won Red Dot Design’s prestigious “Best of the Best” award for her prototype game app, Airnergy. Courtesy of Manjia Zhao.

How long have you been at Rip van Wafels?

 I started in Rip van Wafels as an intern last summer, 2013, when I was still in school. Then I went back to school for my final semester and they decided to hire me after [graduation]. I officially joined this company in February 2014. This company is really young. It’s a start-up and the average [employee] age is probably 25ish which means we do everything from scratch.

 How many people work there?  

 It’s a small, 10-person company.

What are your days like?

My roles and responsibilities are more than simply those of a graphic designer, it is because I’m not only dealing with the design (the fun part), but I do much more. I think of strategies that will take the brand to another level, am frequently involved in marketing plans, and work closely with every department of the whole company including sales and operations.


What are the pros of working for a start-up?

I have a chance to really see how a product works in the market and how a company or a brand is being built. These things are hard to learn from a big, already-successful company. I think from this experience, I can take myself to another level, become a good designer as well as a good strategist who can really bring a product or company to life, and that feels amazing. And I need to learn so much during the process. It’s a really good chance for me to level up. I want to become a designer that can do more than just design nice visuals, but who can manage a brand that helps people.  

What were the highlights of your time at the Academy?

What I appreciate about the Academy of Art is that every course I took was very down to earth, especially those from the Graphic Design department. Every skill and knowledge is very close to the market but still not losing the beauty and the aesthetic. Maybe someone would say, art is art, it’s supposed to be abstract. But I would say, when art is really doing good things and being useful, that is the real art; I want to make art valuable. Because of the way classes were taught at the Academy of Art, I have been able to fit into the real world design market so quickly.


Have you always wanted to be an artist?

I think I realized that I wanted to be an artist at a pretty young age and it’s a natural process because my life until now is pretty much surrounded by arts. I started learning piano at four, and then fell in love with Guzheng, a Chinese traditional music instrument. I was thinking I could become a musician. However, the whole time I was studying music, I was in love with drawing and comics. Then I entered a drawing competition in middle school, won the prize, which made me pretty confident to become a designer. I just chose a path, believed in myself and went for it.


Where do you find your creative inspiration?

To keep my ideas fresh, I think it’s easy. Just look more, read more, go on a trip and relax maybe. Creative juice does not come from stress. Taking breaks is great (which is the concept of the company I’m currently working for). We can have as many as we want in the office and we take breaks every day.

I’m sure your break room is stocked with Rip van Wafels. How do you describe a “wafel”?

It’s very delicious. If a person never tried it before, I would love to present him or her with the ritual, which is put the wafel on top of a hot beverage, let him or her sit down, take a break, wait for the steam to heat the wafel, then enjoy the short break.



When asked where she finds her creative inspiration, Zhao said, “To keep my ideas fresh, I think it’s easy. Just look more, read more, go on a trip and relax maybe.” Courtesy of Manjia Zhao.

Airnergy_Last picture replacement

Zhao’s award prototype app was part of Zhao’s M.F.A. graphic design thesis project. The app encourages player to take stock of their energy use and make minor, real life changes. Courtesy of Manjia Zhao.