My Path to Becoming a Product Designer

Alyssa Murray
Feb 12, 2015 · 6 min read

I recently did an interview with the UC Davis Design Department about my experience from discovering design in college five years ago to getting a job exactly where I want to be right now. I wanted to share some of my insights here on Medium.

Describe yourself in three words.

Positive. Honest. Brave.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Sonoma and have been living in San Francisco since I graduated from UC Davis in 2012.

When did you begin your interest in Design?

Growing up, I loved acting in plays. One time, I played Kate, a proper Irish schoolteacher and the oldest of five sisters, another time I played Nance, a rebel with a gnarly Cockney accent on board a ship to a prison in Australia, and at American Conservatory Theater, I acted as a fretful Southern mother in the dramatic production of Laura Dennis. I played all of these roles before I was 18, and I got a thrill out of captivating my audience and moving them to crack up or bite their nails.

I started college at UC Irvine and took tons of different classes during my freshman year — photography, drawing, painting, psychology, writing, etc. I landed a summer internship at Teen Vogue in New York, where I discovered design. I transferred to UC Davis to study Design and it was the best decision. Like theater, design allows me to craft meaningful interactive experiences, using the browser as the stage for storytelling.

Where do you work now? And what past work experiences got you to where you are now?

I work at Highfive, a startup based in Redwood City. Previously, I worked as a designer at Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and a digital design agency called Propane Studio.

After graduating from UC Davis, I moved to San Francisco and started applying for (hundreds of) jobs. At that time, my portfolio had mainly college work and I didn’t get many responses from companies, so I decided to spend a few months doing freelance projects for several clients to develop my body of work. I designed brands and responsive websites that I coded in HTML/CSS and gained valuable experience, which put me in a solid position to join a company. Since graduating, I’ve gained knowledge and expertise in UI design for web and mobile, visual design, user experience, user testing and copywriting. I still enjoy doing side projects when I can.

What do you do in your job? Your title is Product Designer. What does that mean?

As a product designer, I work on many different things, from user experience and visual design for web and mobile to usability testing and research. I work closely with other designers as well as the engineering, customer success and sales teams to ensure that we are thinking holistically about how our work contributes to achieving company goals. Products that are easy to use are often the hardest to build, and I’m lucky to be working with an incredible team of people to solve big challenges.

Differences between Highfive and other video chats? What got you into Highfive?

The Highfive mission is to transform the way people communicate at work. We believe that every conversation should be face to face. And in order for that to be possible, video needs to be available in every conference room, on every device, and available to every employee. I joined Highfive for the opportunity to make an impactful product and work with a fun and collaborative team that has strong leadership and values design. We’re building a product that is simple and delightful to use.

Some key differences between Highfive and other video conferencing systems:

1. Single device: Our sleek all-in-one device includes HD video, high fidelity audio and screen sharing for every conference room, laptop, tablet and phone. Connect a Highfive to your TV, power, and the internet and you’re ready to Highfive. No remote control, no tabletop microphone speakerphone, etc.

2. Beam a call to and from a TV: Because we have no remote control, a user can move a call to a TV and then move it back to their laptop or phone without interrupting your call (like when you are getting kicked out of your conference room and you are not done with your call).

3. Designed specifically for the conference room: Our hardware offers a camera with a field of view optimized for small and mid-sized rooms. It includes acoustics that are designed to pick people up from up to 30 feet away without any cables or table top connectors. Many video conferencing systems are really expensive and cost thousands of dollars to install, and involve lots of cables, dongles, and hassles. We priced Highfive so low that you can afford to put it anywhere.

Inspirations

Why are you interested in design?

Design fundamentally changes the way we experience the world, from the way we interact with objects to social and organizational structures. With the convergence of creativity and technological innovation particularly in the Bay Area right now, it’s a big exciting moment for design and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

How would you describe your design style?

That’s a tough one! I try not to stick to any one particular visual style, but rather push myself to constantly evolve.

Who are your design heroes? Or who inspires you?

Dieter Rams, Cap Watkins, Jessica Hische, Tim Boelaars, my design team that I get to work with every day at Highfive… I could go on and on, there are so many designers making stellar work right now.

What do you do to get inspired?

I think once you start viewing the world through a “design lens,” you can never go back. Have you taken a typography class? Do you know what kerning is? You’re ruined forever!

But really, I think inspiration can come from pretty much anywhere. There’s so much to do in San Francisco and I love to explore, go on walks, try new restaurants, and watch live music. Traveling is always inspiring. I’ve recently started doing SoulCycle and it really pumps me up.

On a daily basis, I read lots of articles and blogs. I’ll also note that my caffeine intake has significantly increased since joining a startup, as my design team often likes to have meetings at coffee shops to chat and compare notes about the latest nerdy new app we downloaded over the weekend. ;)

As An Alumni

What organizations were you involved on campus? Job experiences, internships, volunteer. Which one did you enjoy the most?

I interned with UC Davis Athletics and the California Lighting and Technology Center, and did a project with some Landscape Architecture students. I loved working at Creative Media and collaborating with other students.

Most memorable UC Davis experience?

The Design summer study abroad program in the UK was amazing. I learned so much, visited tons of beautiful places, met some of my best friends and my boyfriend of 3 years on the trip.

What would you tell your past college self that you wish you knew then, that you know now?

Don’t expect your first job out of college to be a perfect fit at your dream company. As long as you’re learning, growing and surrounding yourself with great people, that’s what matters. In the last 2 years I’ve freelanced, worked at a design agency, a corporate travel company, and now a startup (all totally different experiences) and each has helped me to define my interests, strengths, desires, and shape the career I want.

Tips for future design students?

Once you’ve discovered design and learned the basic design principles, there is so much you can do with your skills. Explore lots of disciplines — print, branding, web design, signage, fashion, motion graphics. Once I took a web design class during my senior year, I realized what I wanted to pursue. I’d also recommend attending design events and talks as much as you can in SF and Silicon Valley to network and get insights from people in the industry. Above all, have fun with design!

If some of this resonates with you and you’d like to grab coffee or a drink and have a chat, let me know!

    Alyssa Murray

    Written by

    Product Designer living in San Francisco.