Career Stage 1: Baby Designer
Time in stage: 2.5 years / Experience Level: Low / Employer: Mitchell International
My career technically started in April of 2011, four months before I graduated from the UC San Diego Cognitive Science department. I landed a design internship at a small enterprise software company in San Diego called Mitchell International. I faked it all the way through the interview process and was probably hired mostly on potential.
I was super green to say the least. My education was mostly theoretical, very academic, and not at all hands on. I had a good foundation and knew the terminology, but I had to learn how to actually design on the job. I like to, endearingly, call people in this stage “baby designers”.
I was keenly aware of my lack of real skill, and thus this stage of my career was marked by learning and living by the “kaizen” philosophy of continuous improvement. I was ravenous for information. I read every design book I could get my hands on. I attended every conference. And I studiously applied the learnings from each to my work.
When it came to design tools, I would start with one, slowly become comfortable, and then move on to learning the next. Mitchell was a bit old school, so my setup was a desktop Windows machine (*current self swoons over the implications on work-life balance*). I didn’t know it at the time but this was limiting for a designer. The tools available to me were Omnigraffle (for wireframes) and Photoshop and Illustrator (and others in the Adobe suite).
Having somehow graduated with no hands-on design experience, using the Adobe suite was like coming into contact with an alien life form. Mitchell was also severely lacking in front-end engineers. This would lead to things not getting built as designed. My lack of front-end understanding meant I couldn’t push back or find a compromise with engineers.
Understanding my shortcoming in this area, and still being quite “kaizen”, I enrolled in several UC San Diego Extensions courses including web development and visual design. While at the end of these courses I still wasn’t a great visual designer, I at least could confidently navigate the tools. And on the engineering front, I even started putting together prototypes and production ready code, and pushing back on engineers when they would flat out say something wasn’t possible (because they couldn’t do it).
And then there was my boss. I was lucky enough at Mitchell to have an outstanding manager who to this day I consider a friend and mentor. Having someone at this stage of your career who you look up to and aspire to be is invaluable. It makes all the intangible, tangible and the theoretical, concrete. “Oh, that’s how I should facilitate a critique”, or “oh, that’s how I should approach that type of problem”. It was also a unique situation that led to our close relationship: he started as my colleague (albeit a few years my senior) and then became my manager. To this day, his uncommonly natural management style is what still makes me consider going into a design manager role.
But your mentor doesn’t have to be your boss, or even someone you work with or even know personally. The point is finding someone who you want to aspire to be and mimicking them relentlessly. Eventually it won’t be mimicking, it will just be how you conduct yourself.
Despite coming in to Mitchell with almost no design skills, in my first two and a half years I learned enough to be dangerous and graduated to, what I thought at the time, was the big leagues: Intuit.
Make the most out of your time in school: While in school, get as much hands-on design practice as possible. This was a real handicap for me. Luckily since my time at UCSD, they have really stepped up the curriculum and hired world-renowned professors focused more on industry than academia.
Think “kaizen”: In the first couple years, read every design book you can and attend every conference you can reasonably afford (or your employer will pay for). The knowledge, terminology, and connections will be invaluable and will compound moving forward. If nothing else, this will help you “fake it til’ you make it”. Many people have written entire articles about the best design books, so I will not repeat that here.
Broaden your skillsets: It’s easiest when you naturally find a gap in your skills or in the skills of your team. It helps your team immediately move forward, and will definitely help you down the line. There are plenty of online courses and certification programs, or university extension programs like I took. Look into your company’s education reimbursement program to see what they will cover.
Find a mentor: This person doesn’t have to be your manager or even someone you work with. Just find someone you aspire to be and mimic them relentlessly.