Why your unconventional design resume gives you an advantage
by Terri Lee
The design industry is a fairly accessible place to build your career. By this, I mean you don’t have to go to art school to become a successful designer.
My introduction to design began with reading many DESK articles about UX design and finally enrolling in a four-month UX bootcamp.
I think about design bootcamps the same way I think about online dating. When dating apps first came out, some found it embarrassing to admit they used those apps. There was a stigma around “resorting” to online dating. Likewise, I used to be embarrassed about the fact that I was a graduate of a UX bootcamp – maybe because it exposed the fact that I didn’t “start” my career until my mid-20s. But these days, everyone seems to be a graduate of an accelerated program, and online dating seems to be the most common way young adults meet.
I now realize how valuable it is to embrace your background in our industry. In fact, I believe those who first worked outside of design have their own unique advantages over art school graduates.
Your non-design work experience is relevant
A friend of mine worked in the service industry for a decade before switching over to design. In interviews, he used to skip over that period because he thought it was irrelevant, but soon came to realize that it was exactly that experience that set him apart from other candidates.
His time as a server gave him the important skill of conversing with people and making them feel comfortable. In design, 80% of the work is presenting and persuading, and the other 20% is the actual pixel pushing. This soft skill he cultivated over 10 years working in the restaurant suddenly became something he would highlight during his interviews, instead of skipping over.
I have a similar story: Before design, I worked in customer support. It’s not a glamorous job; every day I had to talk with customers and hear why they’re feeling frustrated, confused or angry with a product or service. As a product designer, I’m an advocate for the user, and my time as a support specialist, albeit unknowingly, helped prepare me for this career. I use the communication skills I picked up in customer support every day in my design career when working with teammates, collaborating with product partners and presenting to stakeholders.
Even when I got my first design internship with House of van Schneider, I spent a portion of my time working as part of Semplice’s support team, which helped me learn the product quickly while interacting on a daily basis with our users.
We all pick up soft skills in our jobs like time management, critical thinking and the ability to collaborate. These skills are transferable from job to job, and we should view them as the hidden gems that have the potential to differentiate us from others.
Leverage your interests as inspiration
As designers, we’re called to be creative with our solutions, and one way we can do this is by drawing from our personal interests and hobbies — even if those experiences don’t seem immediately relevant to the task at hand.
For example, if you like to collect sneakers as a hobby, that online sneaker shop you browse every day might have an excellent purchase flow that inspires a design solution for your current project. Or you might get inspiration from a particular sneaker colorway when deciding on a color palette for that brand guideline.
It takes practice to recognize and remember these details, interactions and patterns as inspiration, but those ideas are the ones that bring real value to projects. In my experience, creativity stems from taking an idea or piece of knowledge and repurposing it in a new way, almost like recycling an idea.
Your personal perspective is valuable
I saw a tweet today that read, “If you’re only hiring people who think like you, you’re creating an army of robots.” It’s important, especially during these times, to have diversity in your workplace. One reason why a diverse team is more effective is it brings more unique perspectives to the table.
I’ll take an example from a past project of mine where my team was designing a product page for a car model. We were discussing what content to highlight and were going around in circles about what was more important – the number of seats, the in-car technology, the color options?
My teammate made the point that when he was looking for a new car, the first thing he checked for was how much cargo space the car had and if it’d be able to fit his children’s strollers. This colleague was one of few on our design team who actually fit the target demographic we were designing for, and his perspective allowed us to design for a common use case we hadn’t considered. Ultimately, his perspective led to a better experience for our user.
Thankfully accessibility considerations are becoming more of the norm, but it’s still easy for us to prioritize visual aesthetics over visual impairments. Several of my colleagues have some degree of color blindness, and while there are plug-ins and other tools we can use to check accessibility, it’s always useful to get their eyes on a design.
We would be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring or diminishing the different experiences and circumstances that brought us to where we are today. The more we embrace our backgrounds, the better designers we can be, and the more inclusive we can make our industry.