is an iconic designer, artist, painter, and writer. If you’ve used ever the Uber app … If you’ve ever swiped an email on your iPhone… If you’ve ever deferred an email for some date in the future… If you’ve ever self-published on the open Medium platform … then you have experienced some of her celebrated work. From designing some of our most widely used digital apps as a designer at IDEO and for Mailbox, Medium, and Uber, Elle is currently a noted painter and writer. She speaks to groups around the world, and inspires women globally. She is now at the intersection and hybridization of three domains: creativity, technology, and the feminine. She is working to bring the tools of design, art, storytelling, and technology to awaken the feminine at a global level.
Elle began her design career at IDEO where she worked as a Senior Designer to disrupt markets for Fortune 500 companies and organizations through multi-channel, mass-market holistic solutions. She led IDEO design projects including the World Cup in Brazil and the US Treasury Department, where she stewarded, from the ground up, startup designs for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington D.C., created as a part of President Obama’s Wall Street Reform Act. Reflecting on her IDEO learnings, Elle has said
: “I think back to the different phases of a project at IDEO—it’s not so different from life, really—I’m [now] in the exploratory, divergent phase. The part where you brainstorm a lot and encourage wild ideas and defer judgement. I believe that the longer you can hang with that ambiguity or unknown, the greater the results will be at the end.”
After five years at IDEO, she started hearing about young, exciting teams trying to disrupt existing industries. She wondered how user-centered design might benefit the startups in her own San Francisco backyard. One of them, a small company of about 25 people, was called UberCab. “I was using Uber all the time in San Francisco, even though I hated the design. And then I went to the Crunchies awards ceremony and at a post-ceremony event, where I was in a ball gown, I saw the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, sitting at the bar. I … walked up to him and said, ‘I use Uber all the time and I absolutely hate the app. I think you should bring me in to fix it.’ He replied, ‘Oh, yeah? What are the three things you’d fix about it?’ I said, ‘I’d redo the logo, redo the entire app, and change the rating system.’ I think there was something about being in a dress that empowered me to say such things. And do you know what he said? He said, ‘Be at the Uber office at 9am on Monday.’ I told him I couldn’t do it alone and he said he’d have a team for me. I thought the offer was bogus, but I went to Uber’s office on Monday at 9am, laughing to myself, and Travis led me back to a project room with two other designers—they were from outside of Uber and he had flown them in from New York!” The UBER app Elle designed four years ago is still being used globally, and won numerous awards, including the FastCompany Innovation by Design Awards, where it beat out even the Mars Rover and Tesla.
Soon after, Elle joined a small team of ex-IDEOers who wanted to revolutionize email for the iPhone. Their venture, Mailbox, was an unmitigated success, and it was acquired by Dropbox one month after launch. While she and her team were building Mailbox, she began having a recurring dream about a white room. The room had tall white walls, warehouse windows, and concrete floors. She says that she would visit this room every night in her dreams and be filled with the most unbelievable sense of peace. The morning that Mailbox launched, she had a surreal experience – realizing that while launching this company was one of the highlights of her life, she couldn’t understand what it had to do with the dream of a white room. “I quit two weeks later in search of this white room—literally—and I found it
. It was an apartment for rent in San Francisco. On my first night there I waited for the peace to arrive, but it didn’t. I felt confused and overwhelmed, and so I asked the room ‘Why am I here?’ and, as clear as day, the room replied—‘It’s time to paint.’ I returned to one of my life-long passions (which I had long neglected)—making art as a way of understanding myself and, ultimately, the inner-connection of all things.”
After following her internal calling and having two solo art shows in San Francisco, Elle stepped back and took a larger look at the questions she was asking about her work and her life, and how the two intersected. What did it mean to create meaningful work? To live a meaningful life? What was all of this living ultimately in service of? She collected her questions into an essay titled “The Crossroads of Should and Must”
being what we’re obligated to do; Must
being our heart’s desire, our innermost longing and knowing. Within the first two weeks, the essay was Tweeted to over 5 million people and read by over a quarter of a million readers. The post was then expanded into a full color hardcover book by the same name
(Workman Publishing NY, 2015) and it is now in its fourth printing with over 100,000 copies in print.
Elle then decided that she wanted to encourage people to reclaim their creativity, their time, and their ability to be creators. Drawing upon an annual class at Yale by the legendary designer Michael Beirut, called “The 100 Day Project”, where students do one design action repeatedly for 100 days and share their projects on the last day, Elle decided that she wanted to do this 100 Day Project as a virtual movement
, so she gathered some friends on Instagram and she launched the annual 100 Day Project in 2013. She just concluded their third year, and the project has expanded into over 65 countries with over 50,000 people participating. As the project has been described: "The great surrender is the process; showing up day after day is the goal. For the 100 Day Project
, it’s not about fetishizing finished products—it’s about the process."
As the 100 Day Project was sweeping the internet and globe, large brands began reaching out to her with lucrative offers. She was baffled, as she had created a bottom up, community-driven project. Should she take on the corporate sponsorship? Should she sell the idea to a big museum in New York? It was tricky. It heralded for her Chief Seattle’s question… “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” Ultimately, she declined the offers because she felt deeply and intuitively that a project based on global creativity is an entity that cannot be owned.
Following time working with women in India and Indonesia, as well as her book tour, Elle began meeting women everywhere who felt disconnected from their MUST. She began to wonder why women, in particular, were showing up in droves to her talks and resonating with the message of Shoulds and Musts? She came to realize that women—through social, emotional, and cultural conditioning—have come to understand the nature of Should
far too well and for far too long. She is now focusing on using her energies and talents to awaken the feminine spirit. Among other emerging endeavors, she is co-facilitating Aphrodite Emerges
As Elle has said: “Taking the leap is the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself. It’s funny to go give talks because I don’t have any answers, only questions. But I feel like, if we can encourage people to do this heart-led, soul-led work, then it will be unbelievable.” Elle believes that “everyone has a gift to give. And I believe that the whole world is waiting for us to give that gift to them. What if we could empower everyone to operate out of that place, instead of out of job titles or money or security, even? Imagine a world where everyone gives their truest, most authentic gifts.”
Join us for a conversation with this remarkable artist, designer, writer, and spirit!
Five Questions with Elle Luna
What Makes You Come Alive?
Dreams. They are incredible, aren't they? Where do our dreams originate? How do we get the dreams we do? It's choiceless...I'd like to share a dream with you. It takes place in a dark forest on a chilly night. There is a lost traveler in the forest, and in the distance there is a cabin. Relieved at the site of this cabin, the traveler walks towards it. As though expecting the traveler's arrival, the door swings open. And there, standing on the threshold with gentle, welcoming eyes, is a beautiful old woman with marvelous white, wild hair. She greets and welcomes the traveler warmly. Inside is a small cabin with one room. A golden fire crackles. A circle of women, about three-dozen of them, seem to hover above the floorboards. The women wear long white gowns that flow gently, softly, like angels wings. The traveler's guide is the elder and the leader, and as they complete the circle she turns to the traveler, and she says, "It is time to come live with us now." And all at once, the women begin to sing.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
For much of my life, I never took much notice of my dreams. Probably because I was so busy. (And I enjoyed being busy.) But then, perhaps after my thirtieth birthday, my dreams started to become stronger, more vivid. Of the dreams I was having, one was recurring. It was a dream about a white room. It had concrete floors, tall white walls, warehouse windows, and a mattress on the floor. And in this dream, I would sit on the floor and be filled with the most awe-inspiring sense of peace and calm. One day, my friend Susie asked the question that turned my life inside out. She said, "Have you ever thought about looking for your dream in real life?" At first, I refused to consider it, but eventually, I began to wonder... Was there greater intelligence to this dream? Was I having it for a reason? Curious to find out, I began to search for the white room from my dreams. And one day, I found it...
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
Once, I became very, very ill. The kind of ill where you can hardly walk, can hardly think straight for days at a time. It was dreadful. I was in a strange state of delirium, and I called my mother who lived far away. "Mom," I said, "I'm not doing so well." She was at a friend's birthday party. But upon hearing my voice -- mom always knows -- she left the party, traveled a great distance, and came to help me. I woke up to my mother there by my side. She drew me a warm bath and sat there, hand-ladling cups of warm water over me. I'll never forget it.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
To hear Mary Oliver read her poetry live
One-line Message for the World?
Everyday, we get to choose -- Should or Must?