Finding Growth as a designer from Louisiana

Over the past few years on my career journey, I found myself running into obstacles that spurred many questions without clear answers. I felt lost. It became difficult for me to navigate, without knowing which path to take or how to communicate what I was going through. I didn’t know how to ask for help from those with comparable treks. Looking back on my career now, I would have loved to know someone who came from my background with similar career goals and ambitions. We could have swapped stories… supported each other.

Maybe, this article is a start. I’ll share my story. If you’re brave enough to make it through my ramblings, I hope you find some comfort knowing you’re not the only one that has felt lost.

In order to speak my peace, I’ll have to give you full context into my background and culture. I’ll try to do so succinctly, without boring the shit out of you.

Let’s do a bit of time-traveling.

It’s cool to be a kid with dreams—if you’re allowed them

As a resident of New Orleans, I grew up with art in my heart. Books, drawings, and paintings always captivated me. My mom says, even before I could really talk, I’d sit for hours flipping through books and stopping to look at the photos or illustrations. I always had a love for creative things, but that love grew when I saw what was possible with it. I remember walking through New Orleans seeing artists sell paintings on the streets and in galleries. Musicians were jamming out with impromptu busks, and kids were dancing on the street with tap shoes made from coke cans. When Mardi Gras season came around, floats were hand-made and painted containing riders in matching costumes throwing even more art to the crowds (I’m talking about Muses shoes, Zulu coconuts, and even those plungers from Tucks. All of which are coveted treasures from parades during Mardi Gras season.) It’s hard not to love the arts when you’re from New Orleans.

“She put da gris-gris on ‘em” is a popular New Orleans saying. “Gris-gris” means bad luck, and it’s usually “put on” someone as a voodoo spell for a little revenge.

My parents knew I loved art, and they thought it was great. They just didn’t want me to become a “starving artist,” and I didn’t want that either. “You should be a dentist or a doctor,” they advised. Can you imagine the eye rolls I gave them as a teenager?

I have always loved the idea of pushing my limits. One day, I woke up and decided I would be an Olympic swimmer like Michael Phelps. I was also going to be a pro-basketball player like Michael Jordan, and a master painter like Michelangelo (Becoming a teenage mutant ninja turtle would have been cool, too. Either would suffice). Funny how these role models are male figures named Michael while my middle name is Michelle. Coincidence? My 12-year-old self would think not.

My coaches back then were fantastic. They made me believe I could achieve my goals if I put the work in. In high school, I remember being miserable with swimming because we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to go to practice before school, and the practice would be hell. My coaches were always saying things along these lines: “It’s all about attitude. Never say never.” As a team, We had a funeral for the words “I can’t.” We placed a tombstone right next to the pool we practiced in, and we had a ceremony to lay those words to rest. I remember thinking it was the lamest shit ever, but looking back now, it was actually pretty powerful to learn how to give everything you got, even with lingering doubts. I became a much better swimmer because of those lessons. (I didn’t make it to the Olympics, but I had a good time trying my best)

Lesson #1 — It’s all about attitude.

Dreaming is important. Some kids never learn how to get through obstacles in order to achieve something they want. Even worse, under-privileged kids are sometimes told that they shouldn’t dream. As a former tutor in Louisiana, I’ve witnessed it. It’s like some are taught that they’ve been dealt a hand of cards, and there’s nothing else for them besides that. It’s a learned mentality. They never persevered because they were told not to by their culture or the society they were born into, and I think it’s sad.

Education systems need help, yall

School systems in Lousiana were not the best at the time I was attending high school. Who knows, maybe they’re better now. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, and I guess it was cool in some ways. If anything, it helped me dive deeper into my creativity. I would rather spend my time reading, writing, or drawing than deal with whatever drama the girls had going on at any given moment. Art was an escape. Friends saw me as “creatively talented” (whatever that means), and they would come to me asking for t-shirt designs or anything creative they needed help with. This was also around the time MySpace was a thing, and I began to learn “how to speak computer.”

Something to note about my high school: One of the final projects we were required to complete for graduation was a “Wedding Scrapbook.” I kid you not. We had to put together a mood board for our weddings… as 17 or 18-year-olds… including a wedding dress, a groom, and all the bells and whistles. I mean, to be fair, most young girls daydream about weddings and shit. I really wasn’t one of them. As I mentioned, I was kind of a tomboy. I was too busy trying to “be better than the boys” in sports like swimming and basketball.

This project is a small peek into the culture I’m from. Although I have very strong women in my family and I was taught to be tough, it seemed almost frowned upon, in my societal bubble, for a woman to have ambition outside of finding a husband, settling down, and having kids. Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this. It’s a path that many want to take for their own reasons, personally and spiritually. We all have our own journeys, and what a beautiful thing that is.

For me, this cultural and societal pressure was unfortunate because I dreamed of more.

For college, I stayed in Louisiana. It was really the only choice in my mind, mainly because no one really leaves and there’s a state scholarship awarded to residents. I went to Louisiana State University. Even then, living an hour away from New Orleans was too far from my friends and family that stayed.

Don’t get me wrong. College was fun as hell. Though, at first, it was extremely sleepless. I once stayed awake for a full 52 hours to finish a final project for architecture (aka “architorture”). This was my major for 2 years until it became clear it wasn’t the path for me (sidenote: late nights and exacto knives are a dangerous combo).

After architecture, I took many different courses, exploring my interests that were annoyingly endless, and I studied design. I remember a lot of classes at LSU very fondly. I learned valuable lessons from my professors. I wanted to figure out how to combine all of my interests into a career that I knew I would love, but I had no clue how I would do that.

2013. My first career fair somewhere in Texas.

At the end of my college studies, I knew I loved books, I loved art and I was really into tech. In my mind, these were the 3 career paths before me. I had no idea where to go from there.

Lesson #2 — Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you while you’re in school. Don’t stick your head in a book thinking you’ll emerge with the magic needed to suddenly have a design career.

Whoa, I’m a designer who gets paid with actual money?

I began working as an “official designer” 2 years into college (right after I figured out “architorture” wasn’t for me). I told myself, “Hey, I’ve been designing t-shirts for a few years already since high school, might as well do it in college, too.” My first paid position was with LSU as a graphic designer, and I created promo videos and posters that were shown around campus. I loved tinkering with different design tools to learn what I enjoyed spending hours doing. I was experimenting with the state of flow, and I was getting paid for it! No more “work for exposure” bullshit.

Still in school and figuring shit out, I was disappointed by the design career paths that seemed to lay before me. The professors who were educating me brought to my attention a handful of professions: graphic art, design for advertising, design for branding, motion graphics, type design, industrial design, and web design. Only one web design class was in the curriculum. I’m surprised that it existed, too, since my professors were mostly old school. UI design was briefly mentioned as a specialty of web design, and there was nothing about UX design or what we now call product design. These terms I only learned from co-workers at my first internship with a software development agency.

One of my favorite professors recommended that I apply for an internship because he could tell I enjoyed tinkering with websites and HTML/CSS. It seemed like an amazing opportunity. I’d be around seasoned designers and engineers. They taught me so much about what I could be capable of, though I was still young and I had some learning to do about the workplace. I don’t think I would be where I am today without their support.

My time ended at this first gig after I asked for a raise. I was tasked with designing one of their most profitable products, and although I was very scared to ask for more compensation, I was told that I had to if I ever wanted to receive it. Their response was “letting me go because of budget cuts,” and it was heartbreaking. I felt like a completely worthless failure.

Looking back now, 10/10 would recommend getting fired from your first job in your career. It takes the fear of failure out of you. It shows you that you can get by without the “stability” that these companies promise you with health insurance and other benefits. You learn that you can rely on yourself for your next paycheck if you so choose. Powerful shit. I think that’s why I never hesitated to keep experimenting with what I wanted for my career. If you fail once and survive, failing again and again gets easier. You come to the realization that it’s the only way to get closer to where you’re meant to be.

Lesson #3 — You can and should rely on yourself. You don’t need the “stability” that any employer might promise you.

Let’s be real though. At the time, I was deeply depressed.

The owner of that company was one of the many voices back then (imagined and real) that told me “you’re not worthy” or “you can’t make it” as a designer. That fear of being a “starving artist” hovered over me. It didn’t help that 1) I was still in a culture that didn’t truly value women in the workplace. 2) I was the only one in my family that didn’t listen to my parents’ advice of becoming a doctor or dentist. Was I going to be the only one in my family to struggle? 3) I had no mentors to look to. I just had my experiences and some online communities (Excuse me while I thank the Lord for Slack).

I felt an immense sense of insecurity, but I also reminded myself of the things I learned from childhood. The things my coaches taught me. Never say “I can’t.” Attitude is everything. Work hard, and see your vision through.

I wanted to prove to my former employer that I was worth the compensation I asked for and so much more. I wanted to prove to my family that it’s okay to pursue a career outside of medicine. And I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

Freelance, with a sprinkle of hustle on the side

This is a self-portrait of my first time riding the subway in New York on my own.

Like thousands of other dreamers, I moved to New York City with a big ambition to prove myself. My first real opportunity was with Nickelodeon. I interviewed at the Viacom office in Times Square during Christmas time. I remember it vividly because my mom and sisters were with me exploring the city. They walked me to the Viacom office amidst the blinding lights that Times Square has to offer, and they waited anxiously at Connolly’s, our favorite Irish pub, while I interviewed. The interview went well, and for a very short time, I freelanced with them.

After this job with Nickelodeon, I felt that I wanted to get into the start-up world to see if it fit me, and I used AngelList and LinkedIn to apply to jobs. Through this, a couple of co-founders reached out to me to help them flesh out an idea they had for an app. Their idea was to create a map-sharing platform for explorers. They hired me as a creative director and eventually as a co-founder. This is still one of my favorite working experiences, and I remember it with a smile. We built something dope. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a solid content strategy or a sustainable business model. So, our idea was shelved after attempts at partnerships with companies like Conde Nast and AirBnB.

I found myself in a pickle. I could barely afford the rent for my mouse-infested apartment, which was double what I had paid before in Louisiana (even with 2 roommates).

This is a self-portrait of me in my first apartment in New York City where I encountered house centipedes for the first time in my life.

I interviewed like it was my job, and I got rejected so many times. The few yes’s were freelance gigs that hired me because my rate was closer to the Louisiana tier rather than the New York tier. I worked with many different types of companies — agencies, non-profits, startups, and huge corporations.

Thinking back to some of those first interviews, I can’t help but cringe. I was so obviously out of place in an industry that already has so many barriers to entry. I didn’t hear back from many places I applied to. It seemed like no one took me seriously, and honestly, I don’t blame them. I still didn’t know how to build a narrative around my work and my career.

I have a multitude of horror stories from working with clients. Many stories include the classic refusal to pay for design services, which taught me to be meticulous in drafting up contracts. Then, there was this one guy that wanted me to commit fraud in order to win a high-paying contract that would help him retire. Sketchy, to say the least, but I managed to get away from it. That experience and many others taught me that I didn’t have to be intimidated by the “big companies.” It was surprising to find out they don’t really know what they’re doing. Not many companies do.

Lesson #4 — No one really knows what they’re doing.

Suffice it to say, it was rough out there. I hustled every month to be able to afford rent, living off rice and beans in a neighborhood that some people credited with being “tough.” I made it my home though.

While freelancing, I was writing and illustrating a graphic novel because I simply have too many interests. I was 10 chapters deep with an outline for how the entire story should flow when I decided it was time for me to slow down. I was working too much, and my 20s were going by too fast. I knew I would burn out if I continued trying to do everything at once.

Hi, it’s me again. Somewhere on the west side of Manhattan during a night out.

After applying to a few roles, I was beyond excited to have my first in-house design position with a fin-tech startup company as a Creative Technologist. Originally hired as a freelancer, I convinced my team to hire me full-time in this weird hybrid role. I was mainly focused on design systems and building micro-interactions for components, and I was so ecstatic. Before I accepted this role, I remember sitting down with my manager at the time. He explained to me what I had been missing. In his eyes, I had many different skills, but I needed to build a narrative around the skills I wanted to be known for. Essentially, he told me a career track as a hybrid designer (with design and engineering skills) isn’t defined, and therefore, isn’t something I should be shooting for.

His advice made sense in light of his experiences, but I felt that I should take it with a grain of salt. He couldn’t have been more right about building a narrative though, and I’m deeply thankful to him for teaching me this. It’s something every designer should keep in mind when presenting their work and themselves.

Finding Growth in the dirty truth

Eventually, I moved on from the Creative Technologist role because I wanted to continue growing my skillset. Plus, I wanted to work with a larger team. I believed I could have more impact as a designer that way. So, I applied for a new position at a fin-tech company, and I got the job. They told me they wanted me to work on the Growth team because I had experience coding, and they felt that this could help the team move more quickly. Growth was new to me as a designer. At that point, I read a few articles describing growth design, and its impact. I was excited to get started.

We managed to run multiple effective experiments, and I was able to immediately recognize the impact that design could have on the well-being of users and the company’s business goals. It also became apparent that growth was high-stakes, for start-up companies and humanity in general. Designing experiences that could potentially save people a large amount of grief was so rewarding to me. It was cool to speak directly to users who were grateful for the experiences I helped build. I was solving their problems while reaching business goals, and when things lined up that way, it was incredible.

This is when I fell in love with Growth design, and it’s the design niche I’ve decided to remain in for the past few years.

However, there was a dirty truth that should have been more clear to me earlier in my career. All the companies I had been working with over the years were using design in attempts to reach business goals that directly affected users’ lives. Some were doing it ethically, while others, not so much. I should have seen it before, but I was too busy trying to gain experience and grow my skill set.

Lesson #5 — Don’t move fast and break things. Design mindfully and ethically.

Too many start-ups value designers’ output velocity over their professional ability to design better experiences. It’s easy for them to forget the reason they launch their company in the first place because they become too focused on getting their next round of funding rather than solving their customers' problems. This results in a core product that might provide value to users, but ultimately, it neglects user needs and nurtured experiences in favor of “new and exciting features.”I finally understood. The company you choose to work for matters much more than ever. Especially if you are designing experiences to help them grow.

Conclusion

On my journey, I’ve found growth in more ways than one. I unknowingly conducted a series of experiments that helped me to learn where I fit. I was continuously learning, and I hope to keep it that way.

Loving creativity is a great place to start as a designer, but there’s so much more to it. You need grit. You need to be willing to fail in the pursuit of improvement. Most importantly, you need to be strong-willed enough to say “no” when someone asks you to design something that’s unethical or harmful to users.

I’ve shared my story with a few people, some of which have told me, “You’re kind of an underdog story.” I don’t really see myself that way though.

If you have an interest in tech, you’re drawn to cities like San Fransisco, Los Angeles or New York because they hold the clout for opportunity and innovation. Unfortunately, you move only to realize that there is required assimilation of tech and regional culture in order for you to be considered for positions at all. It takes a lot to even be considered an underdog. Many people refuse to leave Louisiana to live in these cities exactly because of the seemingly elitist attitude. We come from humble backgrounds. We love our home. We’re kind to each other and welcoming. Why leave that to be shunned? I did so because I had something to prove. But how many designers decided not to persevere because of elitist cultures?

I’ve felt looked down upon because I’m from Louisiana. I’ve had people look at me weird when I say I’m from there as if they expect me to suddenly talk like Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy. Asking me sarcastically, “Do you hunt gators?” To which I would reply, “Yes, I do” while their eyes widened in horror. My roots were something I felt I needed to hide. I used to think it was a weakness holding me back from professionalism or growth. Now, I see my roots for what they truly are: my biggest strength.

I love you, Louisiana.

“I Love you Lousiana” print from the Defend New Orleans (DNO) store.

Follow me for more stories, adventures, and thoughts.

These are the places I don’t mind being found — linktr.ee/becmk

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Nola-born Storyteller. Designer. Adventurer. https://linktr.ee/becmk

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Rebecca Michelle

Rebecca Michelle

Nola-born Storyteller. Designer. Adventurer. https://linktr.ee/becmk

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