This article is part of a series of 10 interviews with world-class designers. I’ve interviewed Junior to Senior designers from companies such as IDEO, Dropbox, Visa, Airbnb, Toptal, Shopify and others.
“Questions to your younger self” was the format I used because I believe that it’s easier to give advice to my younger self than to someone else. So, in order to make the life of my interviewees easy, they would just have to give recommendations and advice to their younger selves on what it takes to become a world-class designer and what they should avoid to speed up the process.
Without further ado, meet Elaine Chu, Senior Product Designer at Grab, the leading ride-hailing and mobile payments platform in Southeast Asia and read the advice she would give her younger self to become a world-class designer.
Elaine Chu is a designer from Singapore. Before starting her journey as Senior Product Designer at Grab, she was part of the design team for Uber and more.
Guidione: How would you explain design to your younger self with one year of work experience?
Elaine Chu: I think design is a tool to solve a problem. And it’s really important to keep that in mind when you’re designing something. There are a lot of people out there who are going to ask you to do things that look good but are absolutely not necessary. It’s important to stay away from these people because design is a form to serve a function. Design is a tool to solve a problem.
Guidione: How would you explain your UX design process to your younger self?
Elaine Chu: I think for my younger self it came very naturally. I was taught in an environment which was very good at nurturing our self about design because I was taught by a bunch of UX designers. It was easy for us to understand the process of how to solve a problem. I would say to try to focus on the people. You’re trying to do design for them to understand how they would use something, what makes more sense for them. Try to interview them. Try to come out with really rough solutions for them to play around with. This way you can figure out how people are thinking about solving the problem, how they would naturally respond to different things. I think that would be the best way to start. The very beginning.
Guidione: Which mistakes would you tell your younger self to make?
Elaine Chu: Make as many as you can when you are young. I think you can afford to do that. When you are very new in the field it’s very intimidating. For example, when I joined Uber it wasn’t a startup with 2 designers anymore, it was an environment with a very built community. It was a bunch of freaking amazing designers and it had a lot of pressure to make sure that things were perfect. I think that pushed me to do as much as I could. Doing as much as you can means that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But don’t be afraid of that, of being around people that are better than you who are super supportive and can give you the right type of advice. I think you have to make as many mistakes as you can in the very begging because you’ve got to learn a lot in the beginning. As you progress in your career you get used to things, you understand how things work and it becomes easier for you.
Guidione: What would you recommend your younger self to focus on?
Elaine Chu: Figure out in what direction they want to take their design career to excel. There are people who are really really good at creating beautiful things. There are people who are really good at making sure that things work right. And there are people who are really good at making sure that everybody is doing their job. For example, I am not necessarily a UI person. I love to build beautiful things, animations, cool motions graphics, I fix stuff, but it does not really entice me. I am more like a UX person. That’s something that I realize that I want to become. It’s important to try everything, in the beginning, to see how everything is like. And then you have to decide the other skills you need to have and make something that stands out for you and your portfolio.
Guidione: What do you advise your younger self to learn (to get extra skills)?
Elaine Chu: I would suggest my younger self to learn how to code. I would say that it was a good idea not learning before, in the past. I think it’s something I can learn now. I think that the reason I would say that is because the design process is a very creative process. Coding, from what I learned in the past, is not entirely creative. It’s in some way better suited for an engineer’s mindset but I think for designers, coding is not a very creative process. There are certain limitations and constraints. There are rules prohibiting us from creating and I think that learning these two things together may affect the way you create when you’re designing because of the limitations you become aware of. Let me put this as an example. When you work with an engineer, when you create this beautiful delightful animation with some sort of gesture or movement in the application, that takes extra work and sometimes when you have to move fast in a company you have to fight for that delightful animation within an app because that is your design. From an engineering standpoint, it’s not necessary. That is what I mean. Sometimes when you learn both things — coding and design — you start to consider what is the fastest and most possible design and it affects what the end result of your design work might be.
Guidione: Which books would you encourage your younger self to read?
Elaine Chu: I don’t really recommend books. I read a lot of books when I was in college and they get outdated really fast. You really want to keep up and you want to understand what’s happening in the world related to UX Design. So download as many apps you can. You will be able to keep up with the design trends and everything which is happening in the tech world. I don’t think that books can keep up with the speed that technology is taking. I read tech news. Joining a community of designers can help a lot too.
Guidione: Which people would you advise your younger self to follow?
Elaine Chu: There are a lot of human errors in humans. I used to follow a lot of people and I would end up disappointed. I think it’s important to understand what you believe and what you don’t. A lot of my friends are very open to any job they get. They don’t mind working on a job that pays well but is not exciting work. But there are a lot of people who love to do very meaningful work. It’s very important to understand that are the things that you would like to tap into and what are the ones you don’t want to. For me, it’s not about following people, it’s about finding what you believe in.
Guidione: In talking to your younger self, how much of your current success would you attribute to hard work and how much would you attribute to luck?
Elaine Chu: I think it will be 50–50. I think anybody in the community has the responsibility to help somebody younger than us. That is what I think is the first 50%. And I think I was lucky on this. The second side is in the receiving point of view. If I take it or not that is my 50%. I could work hard, but without the right advice I wouldn’t come that far, but if I had the right advice but without hard work, I couldn’t make it either. I would still be where I used to be.
I hope you enjoyed the interview as much I did. See you around.
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