How Principal Designer Kevin Zolkiewicz Blends His Passions Into a Career

Kyle Sparks
Kyle Sparks

June 30, 2023

Kevin Zolkiewicz’s passions reflect a mind that’s curious about dissecting and understanding every layer of the world around him.

He’s dabbled in interior design and architecture; as well as urban design, urban forestry, and transportation systems that ferry neighbors through our cities. His lifelong interest in these topics, and his local roots, have earned him a reputation as 8th Light’s foremost authority on Chicago history.

On another level, Kevin’s interests form a holistic study of the user experience of everyday life, transcending material artifacts to achieve a broader sense of satisfaction or purpose through function. He’s brought this same sense of wonder to the digital environment, and for the last couple of decades he’s discovered his sweet spot at the intersection of humans and technology as a UI engineer — a term that didn’t exist yet when his career was starting.

Kevin Zolkiewicz, Principal Designer
Name: Kevin Zolkiewicz
Location: Chicago
Time at 8th Light: 7 years and 6 months
Time in the industry: 22 years and 6 months

Starting a Career In a Growing Field

Kevin studied design in college because he wanted to build things on the web. “Particularly around 2000, there wasn’t Squarespace or WordPress or any of these other services where you can go in and voilà, you’ve got a website,” Kevin says. “You had to learn HTML and CSS; and if you wanted to do interactive stuff, you had to learn Perl or PHP.”

His classes sparked passions for both the design and development aspects of crafting digital products, and he was a natural student at the more rigid and quantifiable aspects of building with code. “One of the most memorable critiques I had in school was a website project, and the instructor said what I did was technically good, but not creative enough,” Kevin recalls. “I struggled because I like design, but I’m not an artist.”

That type of feedback can cause cognitive dissonance for a design student looking to succeed. “You know the old slogan, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ and that’s something that’s gone through my head,” Kevin admits. “I don’t want to be seen like I’m not good at something.”

For someone genuinely fascinated by system mechanics, software represents a seemingly endless frontier of rabbit holes. One of the biggest challenges can be focusing on the right holes to jump into. “I’ve had to remind myself that it’s ok to have a specialty and an area I perform well in,” Kevin says.

He’s mapped out the niches that intersect his interests, and built up expertise in a field coming into its own at the same time.

Finding His Sweet Spot in UI Engineering

Kevin’s career path has followed his voracious appetite for learning. He previously wore a variety of hats, including designer, engineer, project manager, and conference manager at a small software consultancy that was acquired by 8th Light in 2016.

It wasn’t Kevin who changed so much as the industry (and the ecosystem) around him. “In the early 2000s, this whole concept of interaction design and UX design was more in its infancy. It certainly wasn’t covered in college courses,” Kevin says.

But over time, interaction design evolved. JavaScript opened a Pandora’s box of tools and technologies. “That was something the industry at large kind of struggled with,” Kevin says. “All of a sudden, ‘front-end developer’ became this loaded term.” Where previously “front-end” encompassed HTML, CSS, and minimal JavaScript; the bounty of new groundbreaking frameworks led to a split into two specializations — “The front of the front-end and the back of the front-end,” Kevin explains.

Kevin’s passion and specialization is at the front of the front-end. “When we’re talking about code that’s putting pixels on the page, that’s the part I’m interested in. But when you’re writing JavaScript to query GraphQL, that part I’m less interested in.” His domain includes code relating to performance, the overall user experience of an app, avoiding some of the common pitfalls of cross-browser and -platform applications, and meeting accessibility standards. This expertise lives at a crucial intersection that renders life from digital and abstract inputs. “My background in design enables me to work closely with product designers to make their ideas a reality while ensuring the creation of systems that are maintainable, scalable, and accessible to people with disabilities,” Kevin says.

He showed off these skills during an engagement with a global design agency to develop a system to help people with Type 2 Diabetes live happier, healthier lives. “That project demonstrated how both design thinking and technology can come together to create a product that can transform lives in a positive way,” Kevin says.

Learn With Others

Kevin found another way to connect his passions for technology and user experience by organizing the WindyCityRails conference for 10 years. After starting as a small one-day event with 150 attendees, the event ballooned into the largest Rails conference in the Midwest in its time. This experience uncovered another passion in general hospitality.

“It all connects to user experience. At the end of the day, I care a lot about the experience people are going through, whether that’s using a website or application, or going to a conference,” Kevin says. “That’s the driving piece that ties together all the work I do, this idea that we’re going to bring all these people here, and my No. 1 goal is for attendees to have a positive experience.”

Kevin’s path to 8th Light was also paved by his eagerness to collaborate and learn with others. He helped develop an iPhone application for the first Software Craftsmanship North America conference in 2010, and collaborated with the team for many years before the acquisition. “The company's commitment to continual learning and its team of outstanding engineers and designers has always been a reason why I'm proud to work at 8th Light,” he says.