Hey Jess! First, let's talk about your journey. How did you get into design? When did you know you were meant to be creative?
I majored in Journalism at University and became interested in graphic design at the end of my college career. My interests always came back to communications of some sort, and I'm very grateful to have made a career out it. I knew I wanted to pursue design after I graduated college, but I couldn't have predicted the paths and what form that would take. After I graduated, I was more of a graphic designer. I primarily designed logos and print materials. I was laid off from my first job and ended up waiting tables for over four years. During that time, I slowly made my way into digital design, reluctantly at first. I think I was a purest and saw digital design as a lesser form. And let's be honest - things on the Internet looked pretty bad back then! I took advantage of my hospitality network and designed and developed (in Dreamweaver!) a lot of Websites for restaurants.
I eventually moved to New York City, where I got my first break in a big advertising agency. I worked there for about a year, and it was a lot of grunt work. I wanted to focus more on technology, software, and how people interacted with these things. I made a move to a boutique design and development firm where I designed online applications and software. I loved it, but I still had a lot to learn and a long way to go in terms of being what I consider a good designer. After that, I worked at a company designing custom, front-end trading applications. It was an environment of really talented people and I learned a lot during this time. The startup scene was starting to come alive then, and I started moonlighting for startups. I loved this work and thoroughly enjoyed running freelance projects, and I eventually left my job to do this full-time.
I have a hard time saying or accepting that I'm creative. When I look at all the work out there, I think there is still so much room for me to expand. I'm probably just a bit hard on myself too, but I've always considered the work I do to be very pragmatic and logistical. Of course, it needs to look good also, but I'm first and foremost a systems thinker, an information architect, and an organizer.
What is your favorite design discipline, and why? How can young designers find out their own?
If you're going to design anything, it needs to work well for people using it. Usability - if we can call that a discipline - would be my pick. Usability is the backbone of everything we do as designers, and it's an excellent discipline for young designers as it doesn't require years to master. By learning the proper techniques and best practices, young designers can create substantial value for a business or company by focusing on usability. For example, if you can learn how to do proper usability testing with low-fidelity designs, you can test ideas and bring back those learnings to any project. It doesn't matter how good something looks. If it doesn't work for the user the design doesn't work. Usability is a natural stepping stone into the broader discipline of digital design.
I've recently become more interested in marketing or growth design, and those disciplines don't get enough attention! Designing something well for different audiences and conversion is tough and requires constant iteration. It also forces you to look at your design decisions as assumptions until the data tells you what is actually going on.
You have to find something that you like doing otherwise work will feel like a drag.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
There are different ways to approach answering this question. One is more simplistic. You could say it makes sense to look at all the disciplines in the broader category of digital design and better understand how they build on one another. How do they scaffold? For example, maybe you're a digital product designer that does a bit of everything. You can design an app starting with a piece of paper and the idea. You can also do the usability testing, information architecture, and visual design.
As you can see, there are a lot of disciplines in digital product design, which you must master, and some make sense to master first. That takes time, and one doesn't arrive there overnight. From that perspective, you could say it makes sense to learn particular disciplines in a specific sequence, in a sort of step-by-step approach.
Then there's the personal element. By this, I mean understanding - with you being you - what areas can you personally excel? What do you find exciting and given that, how do those attributes fit into hiring roles in companies? What is the market demand for those skills in your geographic location?
Something young designers can do is to look at different hiring roles to understand the skills they need to acquire that job. In a general sense, many design roles these days boil down to some version of a product designer, Web designer or Marketing Designer, which all require the right amount of experience. Jobs at a company like Google can be more niche like Interaction Designer, User Experience Researcher, Visual Designer, and UX Writer. It's not possible to get a job at Google with less than 4-5 years of experience for many of these positions. It does give you an idea of the different facets of design, which may help you figure out where to focus.
You have to find something that you like doing otherwise work will feel like a drag. If you can find something that interests you and that you're good at, bingo!
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
I think a process is essential for seasoned designers and those who are learning, but there are nuances in the purpose of process and what the desired outcome of using one might be.
When you're learning, a process helps by giving you a structure for doing and learning. As a seasoned designer, a process helps you to be efficient and organized with how you do your work, get the best results as well as work with others.
As one of my best college professors said, "you have to learn the rules before you can break them." I didn't appreciate this enough at the time as all I wanted to do was break the rules! She was and is right, though.
My creative process depends on the task at hand. I mainly do digital product design, and I have a process for that, but if I'm doing a Web design project, I have a different method for that. The procedures for each may be custom-tailored depending on the specific project and its state. For example, if I am designing an app from scratch, I have a full creative process that I use. If I'm redesigning an application, I will pull out parts from the whole process that make sense for the redesign project.
As a starting point, I focus on the problems that the application needs to solve for its users and the goals of the business. Business goals and user goals usually diverge, and being aware and informed of both is essential. I want to understand what users need to accomplish, the different tasks they need to complete, and how they might flow through various processes.
I have some collaboration exercises I use to get on the same page with potential aesthetic approaches and to also pull in ideas from different parts or people in the business.
If it's a Web design project, I want to understand what the competitor's sites look like and how they position themselves. Messaging is critical, so I want to know how we should be communicating to the different audiences and if there are any conversion goals.
For the actual design process though, it's honestly just a lot of trial and error, and it doesn't feel like it's working until it does! I do a lot of internal exploration and iteration. Much of this work, the client or team doesn't see and usually includes me banging my head against the wall trying to get to the point of breakthrough!
When I have the chance to collaborate with other designers, I always walk away feeling like a better designer.
How do you get inspired?
I spend a lot of time looking at outstanding design work and trying to understand what makes it so good. It's an exercise that benefits young designers and something that I still do today. It's like reverse engineering a design or layout for learning and understanding.
I get inspired from interacting and working with other designers. Sadly, I don't have many opportunities to do this as I am the only designer on a small product team. However, when I do have the chance to collaborate with other designers, I always walk away feeling like a better designer.
A lot of digital design is starting to look the same. Websites like Dribbble are a great source of inspiration; it takes effort to browse work through the lens of what is different and works well.
What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
The first thing I'd look at when hiring a designer is their problem-solving skills. I want to understand how they think, and precisely how they approach solving a particular problem. I also want to know how open to other ideas the designer is. How willing and able are they able to abandon or iterate on their solution when new information arises, or flaws introduced. Hint: being too precious about or hanging on too tightly to your ideas about can be a hindrance to designing better solutions.
I don't think it makes sense to extract the problem-solving skills that go into creating exceptional design solutions from the design execution. For example, if you're primarily interested in visual design, that's OK, but I still want to know that you can critically think about a problem.
Young designers would benefit from studying excellent case studies to understand better how to present a problem and walk through communicating the solution.
The first thing I'd look at when hiring a designer is their problem-solving skills.
What is the most important thing to know about design, in your opinion?
I will defer to Mike Monteiro's definition of design, "Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints."
The context in many areas is so crucial to present and communicate work successfully. There are always constraints when we design, and limitations can be technical, time and effort related, business motivated, and more. The restrictions move your designs into specific directions, and it's helpful to illuminate these paths for the rest of your team.
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it essential to go to design school or not?
Anything is possible! Rule number one, don't get too frustrated. I have a box of all the rejection letters I received when trying to get my first design job. J.K. Rowling got rejected by 12 publishers before being accepted by one. Your persistence is vital, but so is your ability to continue improving in the meantime. Becoming a good designer is a lifelong process, and the more time you can put into this in the beginning, the better your chances are of carving out a career for yourself.
My advice is to apply everywhere! Get good at presenting work and interviewing. I don't advocate doing free work. However, as a young designer, helping a friend with their app idea and or doing a side project are great ways to practice.
I can't say that it's essential to go to design school because I didn't! I will say though that education of some kind is necessary. If you have the self-discipline to self-educate, go for it. In this scenario, mentorship at some point will be important you need feedback from someone with experience.
Bootcamps get a lot of flack these days, but they are a great way to learn skills quickly. What happens after the Bootcamp is over is up to the individual. Bootcamps are great for dipping your toes in the water, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Students must work hard post-Bootcamp to learn more and improve their skills. Time passes quickly. If you want something in life, you have to make it a priority and focus on it.
Set your standard for the type of work you want to be doing.
Do you have any tips/tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
Do your best to learn from others; it's almost shocking how quickly you can learn when you're around people who are a bit better than you. You can level up fast in these types of environments. Consider this when applying for jobs.
Set your bar. One of the best things I've done to become a better designer is to set my standard for the type of work I want to be doing. I went through a phase in my career when I wasn't happy with my work. I looked around, and gathered some examples of the type of work I wanted to be doing. I referenced these examples frequently and monitored my work while consistently pushing myself to do better. In practice, this means that I iterated A LOT. I might work on a design that had ten drafts or iterations. I just kept pushing myself.
Get mentorship! Finding a mentor is simple advice to give but can be hard to do in real life. Generally, people that make good mentors may not have time to mentor. Don't let this stop you from reaching out to people.
Prototype! Prototyping is much easier than it used to be, Figma and Adobe XD include this feature out of the box. When you prototype your design, you expose gaps in your thinking. How a user flows through an app is as vital as the design itself. Design is much more impressive if you can click through it as if it's a real thing.
Do you have any favorite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
Yes, Steve Krug's books are great. He breaks down usability in an easy to understand way. Both Rocket Surgery Made Easy and Don't Make Me Think will help introduce young creatives to essential principles of information design.
To wrap up, do you have a favorite quote? How is it relative to your creative career?
"If you want a billion dollars, help a billion people."
by Peter Diamandis.
It's easy to read a quote like this and think it's all about the money, but it's not; it's about adding value to the world and peoples' personal lives. I love how it ties into business, and I think the best business is not just one that makes money, but one that does so through helping others.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
Yes! I'd love for the readers to check out UI Goodies. UI Goodies is a personal project of mine. It started as a directory of resources and now includes Guides, which help identify which resources to use for particular use cases, within a category, e.g., Accessibility. There is now also a blog which includes an excellent post for young designers: "The best design resources for new designers." I've got some great writers coming on board so please subscribe to the newsletter or follow me on Twitter for updates!