We're back with another edition of Support Squad. Now, more than ever, we're all missing those people we rely on for love and hugs and thinking about what it means to be a good friend. This month we chatted with Marisa Jensen of ustwo, an independent studio responsible for some truly beautiful and award-winning mobile games and entertainment. Some of these include life enhancing apps like Alder Play which was made for children who will be spending time in Alder Hay hospital; helping them to understand what to expect, distracting them when necessary and rewarding them for bravery and participation.
ustwo also created the Moodnotes app, which empowers people to take control of their emotional health and mental wellbeing.
We found out about Marisa's role as a Senior Digital Product Designer and her international crew of friends and family who make life lovelier.
Over to Marisa...
A bit about me
My mother is Japanese, my father is Danish, I was born in New York. I grew up moving all around the globe, living in chapters of about 4 or 5 years. I came to London expecting to study for 1 year. Within a few days I had met the people that are my family to this day. I fell undeniably in love with the city, its music, its nightlife and its arts. 10 years later I’m still a proud Londoner.
You might think that my transient upbringing would make my relationships with people diluted, strained or short lived. But actually the inherent uncertainty of how much time you might have with a person encouraged me to fully embrace getting to know someone. I am truly lucky to say that I have fantastic friendships that stretch all over the world.
I’m a digital product designer, where I get to satisfy my rational brain and my creative brain. I need to be taken outdoors regularly, and I travel a lot and climb lots of mountains and trees to satisfy my dog brain. As a remedy to urban life, I own more plants than anybody needs, but I’ll take yours if you don’t want them.
I started my career working at a small service design agency where I worked with different charities building services for vulnerable people. It was hugely rewarding, although it could get overwhelming at times. Now I work at a digital product agency called ustwo, across UX and UI design. My job is to help figure out what problems we’re trying to solve, how we solve them, and then what the solution should look and feel like. The first part involves lots of research; interviewing people and interpreting their stories to understand what their needs are and where digital might help. The second part is about solidifying the outcome – experimenting, testing out ideas and seeing what works. Eventually we have a solid idea of what we need to do and we build the final product. Our teams consist of designers, developers, researchers and coaches, so you’ve always got lots of different perspectives feeding in.
Working at an agency means there’s lots of variety, and you sort of end up taking a crash-course within a specific industry for a while – whether it’s healthcare, fin-tech, sustainability or community building. At ustwo we seek out clients and projects that have meaningful impact on the world, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on some truly incredible projects within each of the fields I just mentioned. I’m also lucky enough to say whole heartedly that I absolutely love what I do, and the people I do it with. I can bring my one and true self to work, and that in turn makes me a better colleague, designer and mentor.
Speaking about diversity in design at Contagious Live 2019
When I was approached to write about my support networks, instinctively I knew I would focus on the brilliant women I know and love. Women need to support other women, and luckily for me, my ones really do. There are so many more people that I would have loved to include in this list, and cutting it down has been a challenge – I’m aware that’s a really lucky problem to have. The only exception that I could not bring myself to exclude in a list of supportive people is my father.
My name is Marisa
I live in Hackney, London. Have done for 10 years.
My job is Senior Digital Product Designer at ustwo
Today I’m feeling grateful to an unprecedented degree. I’m making my final edits at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic; a bizarre time for our generation, when having a support network you can rely on is especially poignant.
Fern and Jo
Me (left), Fern (middle), Jo (right)
I can’t even say the word “support” without thinking about these two women. It’s a testament to the palpable quality of our friendship that other people have regularly told me how lucky I am to have Fern and Jo – even after only observing us for a short while. I have a unique relationship with each of them, yet we work intrinsically as a trio. We are as different from each other as we are similar. All three creatives: I design digital products, Jo runs her own sustainable luxury handbag brand Mashu, Fern is an artist. Our personalities reflect our disciplines.
We met arriving in London, and have since then been through some of the wildest, scariest, and most transformative phases in life together. They are an irreplaceable foundation to my life experience; I can never go through my twenties again, and these two were right there for all of it. Day in and day out, riding the highest highs and lowest lows. Staying on the phone with me for hours in the middle of the night when I’m having a panic attack. Coming to get me when I got into a bit too much trouble. Beaming at me from the crowd the first times I did a public speech. It’s been a long time since we were 18, and who we are now at 28 is hugely influenced by the three of us pushing, protecting, encouraging, consoling, celebrating and understanding each other for the last 10 years. So much around us has changed, but the three of us remain constant.
I speak to them every single day, and see them every weekend. Fern and I spend many Sundays together, walking around our favourite cemetery, visiting a craft market or looking into nice shops. It doesn’t really matter what we do, but we’ll often do it while discussing mental health, feminism and the trials of dating. We are lifelong dance partners and can still rave side by side from dusk til dawn.
Fern and I at a festival in Amsterdam 2019
Jo and I go to fitness classes together, and empathise with each other’s career passion. We used to live together and now she lives down the road from me. I’ll often be sprawled on her sofa, either hung over and eating pizza, or drinking wine and ordering sushi. I’ve spent a lot of time with her large family in London and in Greece, who generously treat me as their own.
Jo and I in our first year in London, 2010
When the three of us ask each other how we are, we’re really asking, and we’ll really answer. We can be our worst and our best selves with each other, because we can simply be ourselves. They are my security blanket, my coaches, my heroes and my sisters.
In front of our childhood summer home in Spain
My actual, blood-is-thicker-than-water sister. We are two years apart, which is just enough to feel the big sis / lil sis dynamic and still be best friends. Maiya and I are ‘same same but different.’ Growing up, I craved adventure, had a big mouth and dove headfirst into any new experience I could find. Maiya sought stability, spoke with care and always wanted to make the right decision. Yet our shared upbringing has shaped us with similar values, ways of thinking and priorities.
Visiting our dad’s side of the family in rural Denmark
As we grow older we’re increasingly merging; I’m becoming more like her, and she’s becoming more like me. But that feeling of balancing each other out is always there. Being the big sister can mean that sometimes, I must act stronger than I’m feeling. But pretending to be strong also kind of makes me strong. The act of supporting her also brings me comfort and self-assurance. And having a sister means you grow up with solidarity – against mean school teachers, against your parents’ expectations, against the collapsing world. We live in different countries now, so while we text and FaceTime regularly, time in the same physical space can feel precious. We travel together as we always did, visiting each other’s homes or going back to places from our childhood. I love her in that fierce way that almost hurts when you think about it, and I wouldn’t know my life without her.
Maiya came to visit me on a trip to Los Angeles
Mom and Dad
My parents show their support in nearly polar opposite ways. My mum – an only child growing up in Tokyo – gave up her career in music to have children, and encouraged an extremely varied program of extracurricular activities for my sister and I. The most draining of these was diligently practising music for several hours a day, often ending in tears or shouting matches. As a teen I started to pull away from a career in classical music and pursued visual art as an act of rebellion. My relationship with Mum could feel quite strained at times. I often struggled to articulate myself well enough in Japanese, and there were lots of misunderstandings. But one day I came home from school and my mum had lined my bedroom with plastic sheets so that I could make paintings day and night. While I didn’t really understand her ‘tough love’ approach as a teen, as an adult I realise what my mum gave me was work ethic, determination, and opportunity after opportunity to try my hand at different things. She believed that I could do pretty much anything if I really set my mind to it. Everything she did, she did out of love. Now that I’m a self sufficient grown up (sort of), our relationship has evolved. She can celebrate my wins without also needing to push me to do better. We’ve always had a particular bond over food – my mum is an incredible cook, and whenever I visit home she always plans around all the different things I want to eat while I’m there. Sometimes, when I’m at my parents house, I’ll pull out my old violin, and she’ll come creeping into the room to listen.
My dad on the other hand, is the emotional one. He grew up in rural Denmark, barely stepping foot outside of his small town until he made a career travelling the world for Denmark’s foreign ministry. When it came to tangible accomplishments, he had fewer expectations, and therefore everything we did was a success. Where he focused was on matters of doing the right thing and being a good person, and I took some heavy reprimands during my bratty teen years for that. While fights with Mum were more frequent and explosive but forgotten within minutes, fights with Dad could last for several, horrible, stomach-churning days. Yet he always made sure I knew that I could tell him anything, no matter how bad it was. My dad and I bonded a lot over music and I obsessed over his records from the 60s and 70s. He sees music as a way of bringing people together, and he loves to get me to sing to his piano. But the real glue to our relationship is our ability just to talk about anything, for hours on end. The two of us have taken several trips together, and there’s never a shortage of conversation. He’s very candid about himself, which invites you to do the same. He’s taught me that it’s OK to fail sometimes, and to forgive yourself, but also to remain positive, and just keep trying.
Marisa and I on a 5 day hike through the Andes in Peru
On my first day as the new kid at school in Tokyo, I was hovering around outside my classroom and a girl came up to say hello. She asked me what my name was. Against all odds, her name was Marisa too. That was the start of a friendship that felt almost telepathic. We became nicknamed MJ and MP after our initials, and we were a gruesome twosome: always scheming some crack pot plan, creeping out to parties or coming up with ways to make boys fall in love with us. She slept over at my house so many times I eventually told her to just leave her toothbrush. We always seemed to be on the same wavelength – it was like if you put us two on a team we were guaranteed to win. I imagine it’s similar to what some twins have with each other.
After we graduated high school, we went our separate ways and lost touch. 8 years went by without speaking to each other very much – for no reason other than distance. I don’t even remember how, but we randomly got talking again and she casually invited me to come visit her in LA sometime. So I took a chance and went – and it was like not a single day had passed. Now we have started travelling the world together – taking sleeper trains from Kerala to Goa, and observing monkeys from a treehouse in the Amazon rainforest – the Marisa’s on Tour. The beauty of having someone who is always on your wavelength is that they make the perfect travel partner. There’s never any compromise, and we appreciate the same things. We share the load equally. And we challenge ourselves and support each other through it. It’s a proper partnership.
Lucy and I are both always keen to maximise sunny days.
My current flatmate, and friend. There is something truly wonderful about a good flatmate. Despite finding each other via Spareroom, Lucy and I formed a flatmate-ship that is easy, comfortable, and genuinely fun, without ever really needing an adjustment period.
Mostly we just hang out together inside the flat, being that person who’s there on a Sunday morning or at the end of a terrible day. Sometimes we’ll go for walks, get brunch or drink wine and watch MasterChef together. My friends love her as much as I do and she’s frequently invited out with us. But we’ll also do our own thing and respect each other’s space. There’s little need for discussion – mostly it just feels natural. One of the most wonderful things about Lucy is that she’s such an easy laugh – and having a good laugh together can make the worst feelings in the pit of your stomach dissipate enough to make things feel OK for a bit. She’s lifted my mood more times than she could possibly know, and having such a source of light and laughter right there in your home is a real treasure.
Helen and I at the ustwo Christmas party 2019
The design director at ustwo, and my boss. I’ll never forget that on my first day of the job, she gave me a giant hug. Helen is the life blood of our design team, with an unshakeably positive attitude. I think the studio could be burning in flames and she would say “Isn’t it nice and warm?” Helen has shown me that you can be approachable and down to earth, without compromising respect or authority. She gives me her time and her undivided attention, despite a calendar that makes my eyes water and raising a family. She pushes me just enough, and celebrates my successes with joy. She really, truly listens to me – and each and every other individual on the team.
I emerged from university into an industry that didn’t really provide many role models. My future looked murky, and I often felt slightly uncomfortable; not quite at home. I was lucky to find ustwo and become completely surrounded by brilliant women in all sorts of roles, who are not only incredible at what they do but are equally inspiring mothers, partners, friends, and colleagues. It’s one thing to have female colleagues but what’s more important is to have female colleagues that support each other in a world that tells us to compete. Helen role models supportiveness in her leadership, but also fosters a nurturing culture in the rest of us. She shows us how to look out for each other, and help each other along each of our journeys. In the current climate where we are all working from home feeling anxious and alone, Helen’s efforts to bring the team together and connect with us personally have been particularly appreciated.
Some of the wonderful women at ustwo
Minoo and I have known each other since we were 8 years old. Our friendship had rocky phases from the beginning – in the early days, we swung from being attached at the hip to being mortal enemies. It wasn’t until I left our school and moved to Tokyo that our relationship took proper hold. In true 2000s style we created a blog together, but instead of posting anything publicly we ended up writing long, rambling private posts to each other every day signed M1 and M2. We sustained this pen pal relationship throughout high school. We were teenagers, embroiled in angst, insecurities, passion and drama. What we had in each other was like a diary – one that would write back to you, and one that could always provide an objective opinion but would still always take your side. It was our own secret little world, just the two of us. We visited each other once or twice a year, and we would talk about the house we would live in together when we were old and plan how we would decorate it.
After several years of this, we stopped writing in the diary so much. Eventually the blog platform folded, and years worth of our deepest secrets vanished. We stayed in touch in a more ad-hoc way, but as we set about discovering ourselves in adulthood our differences became increasingly defined. Our friendship went through lots of pressure. Sometimes our stories to each other feel extremely different, but we listen. Other times, it’s like we still have the same personalities as when we were 13. Although our blog has gone, throughout the years Minoo has shown me immense acts of love that can’t be erased: baking me personalised cakes, sending me Valentines cards and flying to London for a surprise trip to Hogwarts. We can go a month or two without really speaking, and then I’ll call her and say “I’m stressing out, and I only have 20 minutes to talk” and she’ll say “Tell me everything.” She will always be that person rooting for me from afar, as she has done for the last 15 years.
THANK YOU, Marisa for sharing so openly and for giving us an insight into your life and your beautiful friendships.
P.S. Catch up with our other Support Squad interviews including a visit to Argentina to chat with illustrator and designer Luli Bunny and inspiring store owner and curator Leanna Lin in Los Angeles.