Am I a designer yet? Four lessons I learned in my first year out of college as a designer
My beginnings with design really began by way of what I perceived to be survival. I was a haphazard computer science major who still needed to declare and was embarrassed by my inability to excel in a burgeoning field. To that extent, I was neither very talented nor was I particularly passionate about software engineering; but being in an environment of high-achieving students perpetuated a growing sense of desperation and need to project an image of successful, marketable competence. As a result, I found myself enrolled in CS 160: User Interface Design and Development.
In this course, I explored the intersection of technology and human factors — and I absolutely loved it. While I had no prior background in design, I threw myself into the challenges that would ultimately occupy my final year of college. I worked passionately and frantically, as I strived to learn as much as I could and to prepare for life after graduation. Fortunately, the fruits of my labor manifested into a product design internship (which would later lead to a full-time role) at Evernote.
From day one, I endured intense insecurities of never feeling like I was meeting the expectations of those I was designing for, as well as those of the industry. Even when I became a full-time designer, these insecurities didn’t subside. Instead, they reified into a heightened sense of urgency and anxiety. I was certain that I must to do well at all costs, and that I couldn’t. Still, I continued to pour myself into the craft I’d fallen in love with. And with the support of those around me, I grew.
With that, I write both to reflect on my personal experiences, as well as to describe four lessons I’ve learned in my first year out of college as a designer. These lessons have helped me grow and feel more confident; perhaps they may help you as well.
1. Seek out opportunities
When I first started interning at Evernote, I made an effort to ask for as much work as possible. This was my way of finding opportunities to grow. Of course, this didn’t mean that more projects rushed into my lap; I still needed to demonstrate that I could take on more (both in terms of quantity and difficulty). However, as I refined my skills incrementally over time, my requests were answered. For example, I had the privilege of working on our global in-app messaging system. This was a large-scale project because we were navigating through high technical intricacies, as well as building a foundational system around a product that historically did not support consistent, effective messaging experiences.
Taking the initiative to ask for such opportunities led to a higher rate and quality of growth. I was working on substantial challenges that would allow me to gather more nuanced, detailed perspectives when designing, as well as feel more equipped to solve problems that came my way.
2. Ask for feedback
The design community is blessed with a plethora of online resources that help inform our processes and influence our decision making. However, there’s no substitute for direct feedback. Whether it’s from design partners, product managers, or engineers, those you work closest with have clarity and specificity around how you work and what you produce.
As an example, I actively sought out feedback from the engineer I collaborated with for Evernote’s global in-app messaging system. I asked whether my design process aligned well with his implementation process and how I could improve the quality of my work. In doing so, I learned how to communicate decisions made from iteration to iteration in order to facilitate implementation. Additionally, I developed a stronger understanding of how my designs would manifest in actual code.
Naturally, feedback can be daunting, as it forces us to acknowledge that we have areas to improve. However, identifying those areas is the foundation to growth. Additionally, feedback isn’t solely about what you can do better. We are often able to identify areas in which we already excel, which is useful as we start to plot out our career paths.
3. Be vulnerable
Writing this post was not particularly easy for a couple reasons. Firstly, it was difficult to distill such an extensive part of my life into four primary lessons. Secondly, this post required me to reflect upon the emotional turbulence I felt throughout my pursuit of design — let’s just say there was a lot of crying, and maybe one or two panic attacks.
Still, I find relief in conveying my story to others. In our acknowledgment of the obstacles we endure, we are better prepared to overcome them. That is, by allowing ourselves to open up, we are able to communicate honestly with others regarding where we are and where we still need to grow. This allows us to develop stronger relationships and engage in richer dialogues. Thus, we learn more from others when we are no longer afraid to admit that we are vulnerable.
4. Be kind to yourself
If you’re anything like me, you view your struggles as shortcomings or the result of incompetence. You scrutinize the mistakes you make, and you obsess over trying to be perfect. I want to fully acknowledge that those feelings are valid. In fact, we wouldn’t be designers if we weren’t intensely critical of ourselves and our work. However, we must always remember we are own worst critics. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn, and remember that design is an ongoing journey.
And if you still find yourself asking, “Am I a designer yet?” — as I’ve often asked myself — know that you always were.
A special thank you to everyone who provided me with the opportunity to learn and grow as a designer, including Jesse Day, Nate Fortin, Kara Hodecker, Sasha Oshchepkova, Sarah Jang, Quang Do, and Evernote’s product design, growth, and business teams.