Becoming a Designer in the Real World – Things I Wish I’d Known


In late March, I was kindly asked by a student IxDA chapter to speak to their class. I toyed with what to talk to them about. Just five short years ago, I was in a similar seat that they are in now—graduating from art school.

I decided that instead of talking to them about specific UX practices, I would talk to them about things I didn’t do very well in the last five years. Things I’d go back and help my 22 year old self get better at. Then, I talked to them about some things I’m focusing on now in my day to day work.


Things I’d mentor my former self on:

  1. Humility. I know I had an attitude at my first couple of jobs, and I still work on keeping my humility in check. No one likes a one-upper, and I had to learn that on my own. I wasn’t the worst of them, but I’m sure I did some things that drove my first couple of bosses batty. It was dumb. I believe that I’ve grown more humble, because I’ve started to realize just how very, very little I know. I came to realize that knowing your place in the totem pole is really important, know matter how “talented” you are.
  2. Patience. Your first job isn’t your last job. It’s a career (maybe even a calling?). Take what you can from each person you work with, and learn from it. Building on humility—even if you don’t love your boss or supervisor, there is something to be learned from them. Be patient when the second or third job comes around, and resist the temptation to take the first offer that comes at you. Be intentional about who and where you work with.
  3. Following trendy trends. I was really guilty of this. I learned how to apply Photoshop pattern overlays when textures and skeumorphism were big on the web. I did this everywhere at my first job designing for the web. Now I look back and just laugh.
  4. Overcommitting. I think most twenty-something creatives get overly involved. Getting involved in projects and organizations is an incredible way to expand your network, make friends, and get noticed. However, think carefully about which projects to get involved in. Early on, I would get requests from people all the time—a friend of a friend’s boyfriend asking me to partner on their startup and design their materials for free or for like 8 cents, or an a conference organizer with too much on their plate asking me to take on their programming. It can seem exciting when people approach you, but you can’t do it all, and your work will suffer if you try to. There’s nothing more valuable than focus and hard work on a few decided tasks. When your personal relationships start to suffer because you’re overstressed, and you can’t focus on any one thing, you’ll know you’ve overcommitted and it’s time to scale back.
  5. Using placeholders too often. Too much Lorem Ipsum or Greek text is careless. Somewhere in design school someone told me it was okay to use placeholder text in print work, which is different from product design for the web or other devices. Avoid using placeholders when there is either 1. sample data or information you could use or 2. you could be writing content that makes more sense than “sin dolar.” Lorem ipsum in a button for product design is just silly, you should know what that button should do enough to write a rough draft bit of content. I’ve seen clients get confused too many times because placeholder text or data that doesn’t make sense.
  6. Know when it’s time to stop, & leave gracefully. If you’re involved with something—a project, a job, or an organization that you are unhappy with—don’t be afraid to let it go. Just be graceful in your exit. I’m not suggesting that you up and quit your job without notice and storm out, or to all out stop responding to emails regarding a side project. That’s where the “gracefully” part come in.


Things I’m working on now:

  1. Listening. Ask your boss or colleagues questions, and then remember to listen. Ask them to go to grab a beer. Buy them their beer. Work relationships can be fulfilling, and I’m working on making the time. Talk to the programmers you work with, go to happy hour with them. Remember, they are the ones that will be making your designs come to life.
  2. Focus. There’s 10 million social media avenues, so many awesome blogs, texts, phone calls, exercise, social life, and on top of that, there is work. 40–45+ hours of it. One of the biggest things I’m working on right now is clearing away distractions so I can be better at a few things, instead of involved in many things.
  3. Reading. I’m working on reading on my own, when it’s not “required.” As many books and resources that I can apply to my work. Articles, books, and essays on product design, brand, and design thinking.
  4. Pushing my boundaries. Side projects are essential to me feeling creatively satisfied. However, being over committed and having a full time job doesn’t lend itself to side work. Right now, I’m working on paving out more time for my side projects and self-learning like the 100DayProject.
  5. Supporting GR. I plan a monthly breakfast lecture series for creatives. I also am working on reserving extra time to attend other events like those from AIGA, IxDA, Ladies that UX, and TEDxGrand Rapids.

I didn’t know then, in 2010, that I would focus my design work on design for the web, mobile and embedded. It took awhile to get there. Now, sitting happily at my desk at Atomic, I am challenged daily and am solving problems I didn’t think I’d be solving five years ago. Five years is enough time to get your career started, but happily, I still don’t know what’s next.