Design Matters with ZOE MENDELSON

Published on 2019-07-27
Photograph of Zoe Mendelson by Emily Weiland
Photograph of Zoe Mendelson by Emily Weiland


 In 2015, when I was the editor of PRINTmagazine and Debbie Millman was its creative director, we raised the hackles of our corporate overlords when we decided to do an issue on text—a seemingly odd move for a magazine focused on visual culture. But the issue explored the fascinating intersection between the two, and in addition to pieces we had commissioned on the design of braille, text messaging, the history of Lorem ipsumand even a profile of the cue card writer at SNL, Debbie brought another idea to the table: an article on emojis—told on the left-hand page in text, and the opposite page in emoji—by a writer named Zoe Mendelson.

I had some editorial paranoia about how much interest and intrigue there could be to a dialogue about emojis … and I was proven delightfully wrong when this energetic, intensely talented writer filed the piece.

Mendelson hails from Chicago, and as this episode of Design Mattersexplores, early on a viral column she wrote for Fast Company led to her becoming “the emoji girl”—something I would feel guilty having perpetuated in the pages of PRINThad her work around the subject not been so good. Moreover, Mendelson says that today, she has made her peace with that chapter of her life—it culminated in a key project in Mexico City, where she now lives, and it amplified her voice to the world at large. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Wired,Slateand the Huffington Post, among other outlets. 

Throughout her life, she seems to have always rejected casually accepting the status quo. She abhors nihilism. She exudes passion. And that passion is no more apparent than in the project she has been focused on bringing to life for the past couple of years: Pussypedia. It began as an argument, evolved into a Kickstarter, and today is a “free, bilingual encyclopedia of the pussy, made for you to understand. Pussypediaaims to address the lack of quality, accessible information about our bodies on the internet. Pussypediais a community-sourced project: the product of people all over the world working together. It is a platform meant to facilitate our ability to collectively generate high quality, accessible information.”

To explore all of Pussypedia, click here. (And to support or contribute to Pussypedia, click here.)

For the emoji curious, Mendelson’s PRINTarticle of yesteryear is below. And finally, for more from Mendelson, keep an eye on the curious site called Absinthe. We’re brewing up something exciting.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

“Tower of Babble”

Decoding the failed set of vector files we don’t want to admit we use every day.

The BBC recently called emoji the UK’s fastest-growing language. But is emoji a language? Language hinges on a convention of signification, a system of obeyed rules agreed upon by users. Symbols must have a fixed meaning. Emojis are so ambiguous as to render their meanings fluid and subjective.[1] Emoji is a broken set of symbols that, like an organism with a beneficial genetic mutation, has flourished in its failure.

When the original set hit iPhones, their most salient quality was their inexplicable randomness. Emojis intended to provide a collection of one-tap shortcuts for things we commonly text. But a floppy disk? A fried shrimp? How often could even the Japanese text about fried shrimp? The arbitrary nature of the set constituted such an extreme failure that the original task became irrelevant. Their genetic mutation was their arbitrariness. It propelled them from app to global phenomenon by endearing them to us and exploding their repertoire of uses.

Consider the praying hands: easily a high five or, if you please, a plausible vagina. The leaning pineapple could mean pineapple or lean. The face baring teeth and squinting eyes is either a grin or grimace. They can denote literally or connote metaphorically. They can play on homonyms (a bee could mean a bee or the verb be); metonymy (the pen for the “the written word”); or synecdoche (the Statue of Liberty can refer to New York). The problem (and the fun part) is that in a transaction of meaning the receiver must discern which.

This is their paradox: Their arbitrariness is both their greatest asset and shortcoming.

Emoji can do gold-medal representative acrobatics but at the end of the day, they fail at the point of transfer and thus perhaps at communication. But if so, what are we doing when we send each other emojis, if not communicating?

Even where emojis fail at semiotic nuance, they succeed as pragmatic communicative gestures. On the most basic level, no matter how specifically misinterpreted, their very presence serves to communicate a friendly, informal tone.

To grasp at objective clarity while “speaking” emoji, one must err on the side of extremely literal or extremely pictorial. Neither strategy is foolproof. And both require a bit of reverse engineering—a consideration of the emojis available before deciding what is possible to “say.” This counts as a feature similar to language. We often don’t have concepts for phenomena for which we lack words—for example, a German friend once asked me, “What do you call that feeling when you just got out of work and it’s a really nice day outside?”

Sure, you cannot say exactly what you want or whatever you want to say in emoji and assume another person will interpret it with reasonable ease and without losing any intended meaning. But, language, the language we rely on, isn’t entirely reliable, either.

1. Each emoji, surprisingly, does have an original, intended fixed meaning, and in a perhaps misguided, perhaps fascist effort, Unicode plans to tweak them to make their meanings more obvious and standardized.


Zoe Mendelson:  My God, I can't go back to New York. New York is poison. It is horrible. I don't want to live like that. I don't want my professional success to be my number one value. That's crazy. So I just wanted to get away, and Mexico City was the last place I'd been and I was in love with it.

Curtis Fox:  This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from On this episode, Debbie talks with writer and activist Zoe Mendelson about why she wasn't cut out for government work.

Zoe:  I'm not made to be in an office.

Curtis:  She also talks about the importance of sexual knowledge for women.

Zoe:  We should have at least enough power to have control over our own bodies.

Debbie Millman:  It all started with a Google search. Zoe Mendelson was looking for some very specific sexual information and the rabbit hole she fell into left her more confused than ever. She concluded she didn't know enough about her own body and the internet wasn't helping. So she teamed up with Jackie Jahn and Maria Conejo to create Pussypedia, a free digital encyclopedia dedicated to the vagina.

 Zoe Mendelson is a journalist, researcher, information designer, and content strategist based in Mexico City. She joins me today to talk about the creation of her new site, her writing and research, and why in this day and age so many of us are still so ignorant about our sexuality.

Debbie:  Zoe, welcome to Design Matters.

Zoe:  Thank you Debbie. I'm so happy to be here.

Debbie:  Zoe, I understand that when you were seven years old you got to spend an evening hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut. Tell us about that.

Zoe:  Oh yeah. That was really cool. My mom was photographing and event that was in honor of him. Some ceremony, I don't remember what it was, and she couldn't get a babysitter and she had to take me with. I remember the first thing I told him was, "Hey, you know, my aunt's a manager at Gap and I can get you a discount there."

Debbie:  Did he take you up on it? Did you go Gap shopping together?

Zoe:  He said to the person next to him, "Did you hear that? She said she could get me a discount at The Gap." Actually he hated people and he spent the whole night with me, and I was sitting on his lap and he was telling me really fun stories and he said, "Look at that lady, she plays the violin." And I said, "How do you know?" And he said, "Because she has a Vicky." And I said, "What's a Vicky?" And he said, "It's a hickey, but you get it from a violin." I said, "What's a hickey?" And he said, "Actually, nevermind." Then I had to ask my mom later, "What's a hickey?"

Debbie:  Zoe, you're a fifth generation Chicago native. Your father was a lawyer and your mother, as you mentioned, was a photographer. It seems as if your early life could be segmented into before and after they got divorced categories. Would you say that's correct?

Zoe:  Yeah. They got divorced when I was really young though, but it sort of, everything changed a lot. Yeah.

Debbie:  You were considered a poor kid in the rich neighborhood you first grew up in, and then when your parents divorced, and you moved, you were the rich girl in a poor neighborhood, so to speak.

Zoe:  Yeah.

Debbie:  What was that like for you?

Zoe:  Enlightening. It was the most instructive thing that ever happened, and luckiest I think. I mean I had such a chip on my shoulder about being the poor kid. Like all these girls would have a new winter jacket every winter and say, "Why do you have the same jacket as last year?" We were pretty young, so even kids being like, "You're poor." You know, real creative insult. But "Why do you live in an apartment?" That kind of stuff, and feeling bad for myself about it, because it was a lower status. But then moving and realizing in a lot of ways I was richer than the kids that had more money than me, because my parents were struggling and maybe their parents had decent jobs, but I had so many more resources at my disposal, and that was just very obvious even before I could identify it.

Zoe:  So, I sort of learned about my white privilege, and then I was, because I was white I was the rich white girl. I felt the need to tell everyone my whole life story. Like no, I'm not rich. But it immediately felt stupid because I could tell, even though I was too young to articulate why, that I had more privilege. It was just obvious. It made me very sensitive to those things, and gave me very concrete reasons to have my political beliefs from a really young age. And it made me have a sense of responsibility and I'm grateful for that.

Debbie:  You moved to Uptown Chicago. That neighborhood has the highest concentration of sex offenders, homeless shelters, methadone clinics, and the last single room occupancy building in the city. It's affectionately known, if you can call it that, as the world's largest psychotic hillbilly ghetto jungle.

Zoe:  Well, I don't know if those things are still true about Uptown. They were definitely true when I wrote my college thesis, but that was a while ago now.

Debbie:  Not that long-ago Zoe. You're still in your 20's.

Zoe:  Right, but I don't know. Uptown has been gentrifying a lot. It's different. I don't know. I haven't spent much time there lately, but yeah. It was a crazy radical difference from the almost all white. I mean my suburb that I grew up in, Glen Cove, was so white that I walked up to a black lady when I was like eight and said, "Hey, whose nanny are you?"

Debbie:  What did she say?

Zoe:  She said, "I'm not a nanny. I live three houses down from you." I didn't get it about why what I had done was bad. Then I moved into a neighborhood where we were very much in the minority as white people.

Debbie:  How did that experience impact your beliefs? You mentioned before that it really influenced how you think about the world politically.

Zoe:  Well, I got a real dose of what is reality and being exposed to sort of raw darkness. There's a lot of mentally ill people there and it's not a gang violence problem, it's more homeless people and mentally ill people and a lot of prostitutes, like very visible. Just okay, this is real. This is people's reality. Chicago has freezing cold winters, and having it in my face all the time was a constant reminder that okay, I'm going to walk into my nice, warm house now and all those people are going to stay out here in this freezing icy hell. I don't know. I mean I guess a lot of kids grow up in the city. Maybe that's not such a unique experience, but I felt it.

Debbie:  As you were growing up you had some interesting jobs. I know you worked in several restaurants, but were a terrible hostess because you would have to stand still a lot and you're not someone who likes to stand still. You were also a tutor and one of your chubby, little pre-pubescent rabble rousers, as you put it, was none other than Chance the Rapper. Is it true that you were the person that introduced him to Wu Tang Clan?

Zoe:  No. This is more accurately, we ran into each other one day when we were both on our way to some, the same event, and I had the Wu Tang Clan handbook in my purse. Which was like a fake Louis Vuitton, which I would never touch with a ten foot pole now, but I felt very glamorous with it. And he was with some of his friends and they were listening to Wu Tang Clan, and I pulled the book out of my bag and they were all like, "Oh she's so cool." And I was like, "Yeah, Wu Tang Clan is really important." And I started sort of lecturing them, because I had been reading it about their philosophy and whatever. So that was more, that's the story.

Debbie:  But were you also his nanny?

Zoe:  No, I wasn't his nanny. I was his tutor.

Debbie:  Oh, his tutor.

Zoe:  I was his tutor because I had gotten in a big fight with my Spanish teacher, because I was trying to organize a protest against some standardized test they were making us learn to the test. So they took me out of the class and they needed me to be in and have a minimum number of instruction minutes during the day. So they gave me this 45 minute period where I was going to tutor Chance. We were already homies.

Zoe:  I had walked up to him the first week of school and just thought he was really adorable. I said, "Hey nice muscle shirt." And he said, "Thanks. It's going to look really good on me when I get some muscles." I said, "Come to the freshman retreat. Here's a flyer. It's going to be really fun." I was organizing it, and then when I was walking away he said to his friend, "Imma wife shorty." I was like, turn around like, "Dude, don't be disrespectful." But yeah, we've been super close friends ever since and I love him so much and he's such a good person.

Debbie:  At that point in your life you had already started writing. In fact, by the time you were 14 years old, you had submitted a piece to an anthology edited by the writer Amy Goldwasser, titled Red, the Next Generation of American Writers, Teenage Girls on What Fires Up Their World Today. You submitted an essay titled Places of Worship and it was accepted. Talk about how you heard about the anthology, what made you decide to write the piece that you did. It was evident even at 14 you were becoming a political activist. And then how that inclusion influenced the direction of your life.

Zoe:  I got an email, it was just a forwarded to a forwarded to a forwarded, and I had wanted to be a writer. So my mom was proud of my school essays and would show them to her friends. So one of her friends got that email and sent it to me and I sent in the essay. Amy says, "Oh that opens so many doors for me." I'm like, "No, you opened so many doors for me, Amy." She helped me publish later in the L.A. Times an op-ed I wrote about how the college financial aid system needed an overhaul, and later during college, in the Huffington Post, and later, and actually has never stopped trying to open doors for me when and where she can. I'm so grateful for that.

Zoe:  It doesn't matter if you're a great writer. You don't actually, I mean people say, "Oh I want to be a writer, how do you do that?" And I'm like, "You just have to know someone." It's not a meritocracy. It's really not. It's a totally unfair rigged system and I was really lucky.

Debbie:  You attended Barnard College of Columbia University at New York City and got a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Studies. Why not writing? What was the reason that you decided to choose Urban Studies?

Zoe:  I was fascinated by the place I grew up. Uptown is the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago. It's got Vietnamese immigrants, Mexican immigrants, African immigrants from a few different countries. It's got this gorgeous old architecture that's just in a state of disrepair that it fascinated me. Because there's this history that's like, "Hey, I'm here. Don't you want to know about me?" You have these big, beautiful, old, fancy buildings with SRO's inside of them, and I'm like, "What happened here?"

Zoe:  I had taken a class at Depaul during high school called Comparative Urbanism, with this brilliant professor Winifred Curran, and she blew my mind teaching me about cities. We learned about Istanbul and Mexico City and Paris and destruction and growth. And I just really fell in love with cities, and I think it's fascinating that cities are something that humans have made since the beginning of humans. And why do we conglomerate ourselves? It's just this weird natural phenomenon of all these strange, simple reasons like we need to be close together so we can pass objects back and forth so that we can trade and build shelters. I just have been fascinated by cities forever. I figured I could write about cities, and that's what I wanted to do, and that's what I did for a long time.

Debbie:  By your senior year of college you were writing your thesis, taking a full course load, and working as the market manager for local farmers markets. You've said this about that time in your life, you were terrified of graduating, and because you didn't want to face the fear, you didn't want to stop moving. That's something I can really relate to. Why were you so scared?

Zoe:  I'm so flabbergasted that I have no idea where you found all this stuff. There's a little bit of a correction. So I was working, I was selling mushrooms at the farmers market. I was also selling greens, I was also occasionally selling jam, and then after college I started working as a manager. Actually at the very end of college I started training for that position. But I was also babysitting, I was also working as a hostess. Also, it wasn't just that I worked in seven restaurants. That's what it says on my website. The truth is I got fired from seven restaurants.

Debbie:  Because of the not standing still thing?

Zoe:  Yeah because of attitude and not standing still. Yeah, just ... Oh my God. Anyway, yeah I didn't want to stop moving, because I had committed this huge error, which was to build my identity on this sort of thing I was hiding behind like a victim narrative. Like I have to work this much, I'm poor. You know it was weird. I got to Barnard and it was all these super rich girls, and I was like, "I'm not you."

Zoe:  I had been really acutely aware of my privilege in high school. I went to a high school where 60% of the students were below the poverty line, including me. I had a free lunch star on my ID, although I had a much higher quality of life, I think, than most of my friends that also had free lunch stars. But then I got to Barnard and I was like, "I'm not you guys." I was really disgusted with them. So I worked all through college. I worked myself sick all the time. I was constantly on antibiotics, because I was literally sick all the time.

Debbie:  What do you think you were running from?

Zoe:  Not being enough. Because if you're a victim, then it doesn't matter. You can't fail. It's not your fault if you fail.

Debbie:  Why were you trying so hard?

Zoe:  Trying so hard?

Debbie:  To not fail.

Zoe:  Because I felt a sense of responsibility. I don't know. I have no idea. That's a great question. Who knows? My parents did not pressure me ever. Anything I did, they were like, "That's amazing!"

Debbie:  So, it was all self-inflicted.

Zoe:  Yeah. I have no idea.

Debbie:  You were forced to stop when you were in a car accident. You drove into a wall.

Zoe:  Oh yes, I did. I drove into a wall from a full stop. Oh my God, my boss already despised me. The day before I crashed her car, I had actually lost $1,200 worth of EBT chips, which is like a-

Debbie:  I know what they are. Yes.

Zoe:  Yeah, so she was already infuriated with me, and I was driving her car, and she was in the passenger seat, and we were on Broadway on the 120-somethings where there's a wall dividing Broadway, where the train is. From a red light, it turned green and instead of just going, I turned the steering wheel, I yanked the steering wheel to the right and just smashed the car into the wall. I got out of the car shaking, and she's like, "God, you're not going to break me!" I was like, "Oh I didn't realize we were at that point."

Debbie:  My God.

Zoe:  And I went to go get in the passenger side, she's like, "What are you doing? You're driving us back."

Debbie:  So, you didn't total the car?

Zoe:  I didn't total the car and I was like, "You're crazy. I'm done with this job. You don't care about me. This is crazy. I need to stop. This is insane." Then I got fired.

Debbie:  Well you said it was at this time you realized a huge asset. You could reach a terrible point and fail and be resilient. I think that's almost worth any experience, to have that realization. How did you come to the realization? How did you find that so quickly?

Zoe:  It wasn't quickly. It wasn't in that moment. I was sort of just in that moment like, "I can't do this anymore, because I can't do anything." I was so tired I was leaving my purse places. I couldn't have conversations, and I went to California, and I stayed in my grandparent's house for a few weeks. Then I moved back to New York, I got a nannying job, I started slowly adding things in. I got an internship, I got a column at Untapped Cities. I remember before I got the column I went to the Municipal Arts Society conference, which I'd been to in college in a time when I felt still capable and hopeful for my life, and that day at the conference was one of the worst days of my life. I was like, "I don't belong here. I don't belong anywhere." I pitched this maps column on Untapped Cities and they took it. I was like, "Wait, I am part of this world. This was all a narrative in my own head. This had no basis in reality, and I'm making things I'm proud of again, and the narrative is just not ever as true as you think it is.

Debbie:  Isn't that the case.

Zoe:  Yeah.

Debbie:  So, from what I read, you started your career working in government. You worked at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation, and Development at the Council on the environment of New York City. You also worked for Chicago Senator Dick Durbin and the office of State Representative Sarah Feigenholtz in Chicago. What were the biggest things you learned working in government?

Zoe:  So, the Council on the Environment of New York City is the organization that runs the farmers markets. That's who fired me. Then I went to go work for the Department of Housing Preservation, and Development after that. I learned working in government that I don't want to work in government. At Senator Dick Durbin's office, I was often assigned to the phones and I was like this is the broken point of the system and it's the first point of contact. Why do you have interns answering the phones? This is really representative government. These people are calling to tell us what they think, and you have these kids who don't care sitting here. There's no real system for making sure we're taking down people's requests or comments or opinions. They're really just trying to protect themselves from those things, like it's being deflected, and I was like this is not okay.

Zoe:  Then I was assigned to do research for the DREAM Act. So I was reading all these letters from people in immigrant detention centers, and this is back in 2011, and they were disturbing. They were incredibly disturbing letters, and I was supposed to be pulling data from them. In the files there would be the letter that had been sent back, which was just like, "We can't do anything for you, but here's some numbers for some lawyers." And I was like, "Oh my God. This is not okay and this is not an institution that is moving quickly enough for me to want to be a part of. But also, I mean it's not one blanket experience.

Zoe:  The Department of Housing Preservation and Development was doing this really deep, long-term study about subsidized housing and health and wellbeing, and I really admired what they were doing. I was also really angry that we had to prove that. I was like, "You have to do a ten year gazillion dollar study to prove that having decent housing is going to improve people's health and wellbeing? I felt that same sense of desperation like can we all move on and take that as an assumption, please, and just put this gazillion dollars toward trying to figure out how to make that happen?

Zoe:  I also learned that I am not made to be in an office. Fluorescent lights make me narcoleptic and just get super anxious. I felt like a feral Mowgli thing.

Debbie:  You now describe your career as follows: You research, think, talk, and write about cities, emojis, tech, language, data, maps, pussies, and other semi-related topics. You write that your work might very widely, but it's all a protracted temper tantrum against your generation's nihilist streak. What do you mean by that?

Zoe:  I think nihilism is the devil, and I think millennials have simultaneously adopted this vomitorias culture of performative wokeness and utter nihilism. I got kicked out of, not kicked out, but in trouble in multiple classes in college for sort of aggressively, not attacking my classmates, but accusing them of not caring. I got pulled aside to have a talking to, and I had two professors say, "You're alienating your classmates." And I was like, "They're alienating themselves." It's like what we were reading was fiction or something.

Zoe:  I remember my best friend from high school, her little brother went to prison. He shot someone and killed them our senior year of high school and went to prison. He was 16. He was tried as an adult. They were in a fight and that guy was trying to kill him, and he killed that guy with his own, with that guy's own gun. I love Sam and that experience really changed me in holding sort of multiple truths, because he killed someone. Sam's trial, he was tried as an adult because of these racist zero tolerance policies in Illinois, and he got 45 years, no option of parole. And Gillian, my dear, dear, dear friend called me to tell me the verdict, and my heart just shattered for her, just her whole family and Sam.

Zoe:  It's just the injustice and the unfairness and the darkness and all of it. Then I had to go back to class and we were talking about this idiotic book called Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh, who I think is so wildly irresponsible and it was this stupid book about his experience going and hanging out with these gang leaders. The cover is him wearing a leather jacket with his leg up on something, looking really badass, and the subtitle is A Sociologist Takes to the Streets.

Debbie:  Oh God.

Zoe:  Yeah, oh God. So we went back to class to discuss that book and I was already infuriated that the book had been assigned, and he's like, "What did you learn from this book?" And this girl raises her hand and she's like, "Gangs aren't that bad." And I was like, "Exactly. That's exactly what this book is saying. This is not okay." And I just lost it. I was like, "No, this is the worst book ever. I can't believe you assigned this book. The girl was like, "What makes you an authority on gangs?" And I don't want to say I'm, like I'm not going to turn my best friend's tragedy into my authenticity chip, and I don't need to answer you, and I was like, "This isn't fiction. These people are poor because you're rich. This is a simple equation. You can't treat this like it's not important to you personally." I always just felt more emotionally invested in what we were learning.

Zoe:  I remember another time a professor saying something like, we were talking about how do you incentivize people to invest in poor urban areas, and she said something like, "Who has stake in Camden?" And everyone was just not even paying attention in class. I banged my fists on the table and said, "You all have stake in Camden! You have stake in Camden, you have stake in Camden. It's right over there! It's not even that far away!" This isn't fiction and I just felt so frustrated at the way that people feel like these realities we were reading about were adjacent to their lives rather than part of their own lives and their own stories.

Debbie:  How do you define "performative wokeness"?

Zoe:  Performative wokeness is like when really privileged people, who aren't coming from a place of personal hurt or feelings of exclusion, are going around trying to show everybody how woke they are by calling things out or just casually mentioning these good things they did or times that they stood up for people, so that they can get these fake woke tokens and credit for being woke. And it's really disgusting, and it's the opposite of wokeness.

Debbie:  How do you feel about your generation today? Do you still feel like they have this nihilistic streak?

Zoe:  Yeah. I mean we were raised on Vice Magazine, which was super racist and I would be like, "This is racist." And they would be like, "Whatever. No it's not." Now the guy who founded Vice is like literally leading alt right groups, one of the guys that founded Vice. Yeah, it was just this post modernism that's so sad, because critical theory is great. We really needed it, it did a lot of good, but then if you use it to deconstruct everything and there's no truth with a capital T, you can't have progress, because you can't say these are my morals. So we have this sort of rupture where we don't understand that you can't actually just Instagram your super fancy vacation and then be Instagramming call out culture-y stuff. That's incoherent. Your personal choices need to be aligned with your values, not what you post.

Debbie:  In reaction to the election of Donald Trump you helped create Cool You Voted, which is an interactive op-ed against nihilism that you helped create for the Association of Young Americans. Can you describe what you did and why?

Zoe:  You know I really blame us for Trump being elected.

Debbie:  That's so interesting. I blame my generation, not yours. We all, I guess we're all blaming ourselves, which is probably something we should be doing.

Zoe:  Yeah, I mean I think a part of our nihilism is being like, "Democracy doesn't work", "Citizens united, so it's over", and I'm like, "No, no, no, no. Hold on. Let's talk about some simple logic." Right? They get all this money and then they use it on their campaigns, but we vote for free. So what are you talking about? Done. We need to be holding them accountable by voting.

Zoe:  There's so many more elections than the ones that we pay attention to. We still have this power to vote and get these people out if they're not doing the things that we want, and we're not even going to do that. So anyway, I was just trying to explain the logic about you need to be keeping your elected officials accountable. You need to be telling them what you want. You need to make them uncomfortable and think that people are really paying attention to them and watching what they're doing, and trying to get people to just be more civically engaged. I got so much hate mail after that.

Debbie:  Why?

Zoe:  It was the least successful project I've ever done. People were infuriated. I think a lot of it was just that Trump had just been elected and everyone was freaking out. I proposed that it was our own fault and that was not very popular.

Debbie:  How are you feeling about your generation now, in relation to the upcoming election? Do you think that there will be a ground swell?

Zoe:  No.

Debbie:  I am constantly incredulous that there are not more people in the street.

Zoe:  I think there will be, you know, performative wokeness, not always entirely performative. Like all the voting sticker Instagram posts, like great, that's great. Go vote, show everyone you voted, fantastic. I hope so. I'm not that optimistic. I mean all my work tries to inspire hope, but I don't actually have that much.

Debbie:  Oh Zoe, that's depressing. In addition to the L.A. Times and Wired and Red, your writing has been featured in publications including Slate, Print Magazine, Next City, Hyper Allergic, Huffington Post, Untapped Cities, The Date Report,, and Fast Company, and your emoji storytelling column in Fast Company went viral, but it was a column that you never intended to write and which nearly branded you as the emoji girl for life. In fact, I was a little bit nervous to even bring it up. I thought maybe it would feel too lighthearted.

Zoe:  I think the emojis, I was embarrassed about the emojis in the beginning of emojis. I was like, "Wait, wait, this is a joke that got totally out of control. How did this happen? Now I'm Emoji Girl." I didn't really understand why it was happening at the time and felt like my career was taking this uncontrollable detour, and I was having all these big doors open to me through emojis. I was actually earning a living off of emoji consulting. For years it was supporting me. That felt like this absurd thing that was happening to me, but in the end I realized that it made utter and total sense because it's information design. It's symbolic communication. It's visual communication, and I was, I actually secretly loved doing it and felt guilty about that.

Zoe:  But I no longer feel embarrassed about the emoji stuff, because I realized in the culmination of it, and the last emoji thing I did, which was to design this contest for Mexico City to have an official pack of emojis, that there was this profound thing about comparing the different sets that people submitted. There was 100, there's 99 I think, emoji packs submitted and it was amazing to see how there were these common focal points of the city and the culture there that everyone included. Like there's these wooden crates called Oacales that you see in the markets, but Mexico City is like made of Oacales so they're everywhere, and it's just this strange anomaly, but that's such a present part of everyone's consciousness. Also the differences, like people from the outer parts of Mexico City included the bike cabs, which you only see in poorer neighborhoods. So there's sort of something really human about symbols. I realized it integrated perfectly into everything that I had done and loved and wanted to do in the future, and it was okay that it opened all those doors for me, and I don't regret that at all.

Debbie:  Zoe, I know that you're living in Mexico City now. Tell me why you moved there.

Zoe:  In a very strange turn of events. I was living in New York, working like seven days a week, and trying to write, and very stressed out. My dad married a flight attendant and he said, "Hey Zoe, I just married Win. Now you can fly for free until you're 24." And I was 23 1/2 and I was like, "Okay, are you positive, because I'm going to quit all my jobs right now and get a credit card and leave." So that's what I did. I quit all my jobs, I left town, I traveled. And when I was traveling I was having this weird experience where I was not connecting with people. I was like, "This is weird. People like me and I can't make any friends. What's going on?" It's because I was being so New York. I was meeting everyone and being like, "And I have a column at Fast Company, and I'm a writer and I'm professional, and these are my professional accomplishments. Nice to meet you." And people were like, "Okay..." And that's so normal here, that's so normal in New York and it took me like all five months to realize that.

Zoe:  Also, it took me five months to stop being anxious about how I was going to slip backwards in my professional advancement that I had made, to actually be able to enjoy the trip. When I finally realized all that, I was like, "Oh my God, I can't go back to New York. New York is poison. This is horrible. I don't want to live like that. I don't want my professional success to be my number one value. That's crazy." So I just wanted to get away, and Mexico City was the last place I had been, and I was in love with it. It was also practical, because it's pretty close and it's very cheap.

Zoe:  So, I came back to New York and I asked to have meetings with every adult that had ever patted me on the head, and I said, "I need to move away. Can you send me any work? Can you give me any work? I can do X, Y, Z." And I got one contract. My friend and mentor, Michael Yap, who also is the designer, the web designer for Pussypedia and someone who has taught me so much, he got this project, and he hired me on, and he paid me way more than he needed to pay me. And I took that money and I ran. To my surprise, after that I was like, "Oh I got another gig. I got another gig. Okay." So I kept subletting my apartment in New York until my lease was up, and then I came back to New York and I just told my friends to come over and said, "Take anything you want." Then I took the rest to Housing Works and I went back to Mexico and I just prayed and hoped and hoped that I wouldn't have to move back, and I didn't.

Debbie:  Let's talk about one of your most recent projects, something that I referenced in my intro that is extraordinary. You've created a website called Pussypedia. Zoe, what is Pussypedia?

Zoe:  Pussypedia is a free bilingual inclusive encyclopedia of the pussy, written to be easy to understand, but also with as reliable information as we could possible provide.

Debbie:  You began this project many years ago. It was ignited by a Kickstarter campaign, and I was wondering if you would read the original letter of intent?

Zoe:  Sure. It says, "Hi, I'm Zoe Mendelson. Once I googled whether or not all women can squirt. I didn't find anything conclusive on the subject, but I did stumble across a medical journal article about the clit orgasm and the g spot orgasm and how they're not two separate things. They activate each other in one perfectly integrated system, and I was like, "What?" And I was also absolutely sure that every single person with a pussy that I know would want to know this information.

Zoe:  But as I read, the article referred to different parts of my body and I couldn't imagine what they were or where they were, and I also didn't know what they do. It occurred to me that I didn't know very much about my pussy. A lot of other people don't know either. Medical science has only recently taken an interest in female anatomy beyond reproduction. Up until recently, the clitoris was not even mentioned in medical textbooks, and outside of medical science people with pussies in western civilization have been denied access to information about their bodies for centuries for cultural, religious, and patriarchal reasons. While learning about pussies is our right, poor quality and inaccessible information is a dangerous injustice, and shame about vaginas should be a thing of the past. So we want to make Pussypedia."

Debbie:  And you did.

Zoe:  And we did.

Debbie:  And you did.

Zoe:  We did that.

Debbie:  You launched this last month. How is it going?

Zoe:  It's going so well. I mean it turns out people are really interested in pussies.

Debbie:  You think? You think?

Zoe:  It's been going really well. We have 75,000 views as of yesterday, visitors. 95,000 sessions. So a lot of people are coming back to the site. And no hate mail yet, which blows my mind. Somebody asked me early on, like during the Kickstarter, "What's your plan to deal with negative feedback?" And I was like, "I don't have one. I'm pretty sure everyone wants to know more about pussies," and I think I was right. I mean we didn't have a ton of press, but those numbers are crazy. That means people are really sharing it and that makes me so happy. I'm so happy.

Debbie:  You state that Pussypedia, as you mentioned, is a free bilingual encyclopedia of the pussy, made for you to understand. But you asterisk the word pussy. Why?

Zoe:  We propose using the word pussy instead of vagina. Vagina means, it comes from the word, the Latin word for sword holder. So we basically call our pussies that thing you put a penis in, which I don't believe that my body exists as an object of service to the penis. That just bothers me. I also think it's overly focused on the vagina when there's all these other parts. There's the uterus, there's the clitoris, there's the vulva, there's the bladder, and they're all part of a system. We don't have a word for that whole system, and that really bothers me. What if we didn't have a word for leg and it was just foot, knee, shin, thigh. Would we think of a leg as a unit? We have a unit that's a system of parts, and we don't even think of it, there's no concept for that. I think that needs to change. There's no reason when you see the reproductive system as a kid in an anatomy textbook that the clitoris should be taken out. It's a huge organ. And we also, in our definition of pussy, include maybe some testes, because people can have a lot of different combinations of parts. So it's a genderless concept that we propose as well.

Debbie:  Pussypedia is a community source project. Over 200 people from three continents contributed. How did you find the contributors?

Zoe:  Well, I mean only a small percentage are people I found. The rest of them are people that found us, and we just put out calls on social media, and people got in touch and said, "Yeah, I want to help." Actually, that gave me a lot of hope. I don't have a lot of hope about the future of this democracy, but I do have a higher opinion of human beings than I did when I started this project, honestly. Because people came through just in enormous ways. And because we were extremely serious about making sure that this is good quality information, which meant a very limited number of acceptable sources. So everything, it was like okay, for rates and occurrences you can check these websites, these medical journals, and people were extremely patient with me and willing to really go through this process of checking every study's funding. Where did the funding for this study come from? Is this a conflict of interest that we can accept or not? And people who were not professional writers or researchers were willing to give me so much of their time to do this together, because they also wanted the final product to exist. And that was just such a beautiful thing that kept me going through so much exhaustion.

Debbie:  Most of the articles were written on a volunteer basis. The exception was the articles on trans, non-binary, intersex, and disability portals that you have. How important was it to you to include those portals?

Zoe:  There was no option. Period.

Debbie:  Good. Pussypedia contains a 3D interactive model of the whole pussy system. It's made by Biodigital, so you can see what you're talking about and get a spatial understanding of the area, which is extraordinary. I've spent quite a lot of time on Pussypedia.

Zoe:  Isn't that so cool?

Debbie:  It is absolutely extraordinary. What made you decide to do that 3D interactive model, and how did you get it done?

Zoe:  What happened was I was, okay I was arguing with my ex-boyfriend about whether or not everyone can squirt. The answer is you can't answer that question, because you can't really prove the negative cases. So it's sort of unanswerable, but I was reading about how squirting works and I was trying to understand where the bladder is in relation to the vagina and clitoris and I couldn't from the words I was reading. So I started trying to look at diagrams, but 2D diagrams of 3D things, it's really hard for me to understand spatial relationships from that. So I started looking for a 3D model and I couldn't find one. And I was like, "Oh, we need this. I need this, so everyone else needs it for sure." So I started asking around and a friend of mine connected me to BioDigital Human who already had it and they let us use theirs.

Debbie:  Oh wonderful.

Zoe:  Yeah.

Debbie:  I'd like to quote something you wrote on this site in the hopes that you can answer the question that you indeed pose. You say, "Talcum powder increases risk of ovarian cancer. Women who douche once per week or more experience bacterial vaginosis more often than women who do not douche, and yet both talcum powder and douches are sold on the shelves of most pharmacies." You ask the question, "How is this possible?" I want to ask that question too. What have you found in your research and in doing this work? How is it possible?

Zoe:  Nobody cares about making sure that we're okay. This is capitalism. I mean Coca Cola is poison, nobody cares. That's not how our society is set up. Our safety is not a fueling factor in any decisions being made at high levels.

Debbie:  Do you feel that this information that you're providing people is power?

Zoe:  Knowledge is power. I hope to give people a way to make more informed decisions. We should have at least enough power to have control over our own bodies. But I also hope that through normalizing, I mean a lot of what Pussypedia is trying to do is normalize these parts and take down these ancient taboos that are just absurd, because they cause us to cede our power. So knowledge is power. Being able to say, "I'm not going to buy talc because it's carcinogenic," but also when you don't live with deep shame, you assert your needs and desires. If you don't think it's wrong for you to be having sex, and you're already feeling guilty, so deeply guilty that you don't even understand. And we don't even understand what's going on, I think. I would have had way less sex. Personally, I would have had way less sex if I didn't already feel bad about wanting it, I think, or just knowing how to say no. Asserting my own wants and being like, "No. No thanks" or "Yes you have to use a fucking condom." Oh excuse me.

Debbie:  You can curse. It's okay.

Zoe:  Yeah. I think not feeling shamed, I hope will lead to people saying, "No, I don't want that." "You're doing it wrong." "To the left." "Use a condom." Or "Hey, excuse me, I haven't cum yet. Wake up."

Debbie:  Is it true that in your research you found that most people who have vulvas and vaginas couldn't draw them?

Zoe:  No, not vulvas and vaginas, but the clitoris. Most people, the vast majority of people have no idea what a clitoris looks like. They think it's just the little button on the outside. It looks like a sort of skinny cleft penguin.

Debbie:  I was going to say, now that I've seen the entire 3D model, it looks a little bit like a bird.

Zoe:  Yeah, a bird.

Debbie:  It's so interesting. Zoe, if people are interested in contributing or getting involved, how can they volunteer?

Zoe:  Going to the contribute page on and there's different ways that people can be involved. The simplest way is just to suggest resources that we can include in the resource portal. There's a form for you to send them to us. You can write articles, you can edit, you can fact check, or also you can just give us money, which is what we really need the most and makes all the rest of the things way easier.

Debbie:  So, to go to and then go to the contribute section?

Zoe:  Yeah. There's also donate at the top, donate at the bottom, donate everywhere. You'll find it.

Debbie:  Wonderful. Zoe, I have one last question for you. I understand that you list one of your skills as sword fighting. Really?

Zoe:  I think the only kind of sword fighting I've ever actually done is like, no that was just me hating LinkedIn. I hate LinkedIn. LinkedIn and resumes, if people ask me for a resume I'm like, "Give me your address, I'll mail it to you on a floppy disc." What are you talking about? I cannot fit my career onto these things. I cannot explain myself in this sort of format that we're used to using for explaining ourselves. So I just hate LinkedIn and I don't know how to fit my career into it, and they're like, "What skills do you have?" And I think I was like, "I don't know, sword fighting."

Debbie:  Collecting acorns, that was a good one too.

Zoe:  Yes. At times I feel like a squirrel. It's just my instinct to just-

Debbie:  Fly in the face of authority.

Zoe:  Yeah, I guess.

Debbie:  Which is what I love most about you. Zoe Mendelson, thank you so much for giving me faith in the next generation of makers and creators, and thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.

Zoe:  Thank you Debbie. Thank you so much for having me.

Debbie:  To learn more about Zoe Mendelson and her work, you can go to or This is the fifteenth year I have been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening, and remember we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.