Why I Want to Be A Designer

Udaipur’s City Palace. Photo Credit: India Mike

I recently made what many would consider to be a very “millennial” decision. I decided that I’m going to quit my job to work in tech. That is, I’m going to give up my cushy corporate job and excellent work life balance and three years of experience schmoozing my way into a comfortable position at a very prestigious, global company, and start over. I’m willing to do it because finally, after years of serial interning, rotating through different departments at my company, after-work classes and online courses, self-reflective blog posts and neurotic conversations with my friends ( bless them for putting up with it), I’ve discovered what I actually want to do with my life. And it’s completely unrelated to anything I’ve ever done or learned in college. I want to be a designer.

It all sounds so cliche, and maybe it is. I guess the only cheesier thing I could have done was announce I’m going to a coding bootcamp to become an engineer, or that I’ve decided to start my own business and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. It seems like something people are doing in droves these days. But there is a reason they’re all doing it. To look for something more fulfilling, maybe. To be a part of something more exciting, probably. To change their life, definitely.

I’ve been really unhappy with where I’m at for a long time. I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing ‘what I was meant to do,’ whatever that means. I went to work every Monday morning counting down the hours till Friday night. My work didn’t challenge me. I didn’t feel inspired. I searched around desperately for side projects to fill my time, knowing that I was interested in tech but not sure how I would fit in. I took HTML and CSS classes, played around on Codeacademy, made my own website, decided I was going to be a developer, killed that idea when I really couldn’t see myself sitting in front of a computer writing code all day, felt depressed again.

And then I took a UX class at General Assembly, and everything changed. I took the class because I had heard a lot about UX, and the concept really interested me, though the word ‘design’ scared me to pieces. Since I didn’t go to art school, I was convinced no one would ever take me seriously as a designer. I had stupidly taken IB Film Studies over IB Art even in High School, and I like the F2 filter in VSCOCAM more than the T1! How would I ever compete? I went into the class with all these doubts in my head, but I wanted to see what it was all about. The class changed all the preconceived notions I ever had about design.

I’ve discovered that many people ( including myself) often confuse the idea of ‘design’ with ‘art.’ When we think of design, we think of graphic designers. Fiddling about in Photoshop with pixels. Making moodboards to develop genius color schemes. Splattering the next Jackson Pollock onto blank canvas. Creating something that looks beautiful. And in a way, that is absolutely part of design. But it’s only a small part. What design really is about, I learned, is creating experiences for people. You can design anything. It could be an icon, it could be a website, it could be an app, or it could be a car. But at the end of the day, all of those things have one thing in common. And that is, to be considered well-designed, they have to enhance some aspect of people’s experiences. They have to be useful. Great art is useful when it relaxes people or inspires people to be creative. Websites are useful when they allow people to easily complete a task they want online. Cars are useful when they can complete the task of transporting people from one place to another. And all these things are really useful when they can make these tasks enjoyable and seamless for people.

I really like the ‘people’ aspect of design, because I’ve always been a people person. Being a literature nerd, I love putting myself in other people’s shoes, reading and inventing their stories. I love meeting new people, especially people very different from me, and learning new things from them. I love (creepily, I admit) looking at people on the subway and imagining what brought them there, where they’re going, what their hopes and dreams are. Sitting at desk in my room, leafing through my sketchbook one night, I thought: I know I love people, and I know I love technology… and design- isn’t that what brings people and technology together? Design is what makes technology useful for people.

Suddenly, it all clicked. As a designer, I could really touch people (do not insert dirty joke here). Explore people’s needs and learn how to turn them into solutions that technology can make real. Ultimately, I could use technology to make people’s lives better. The prospect thrilled me to no end. And I discovered that maybe, just maybe, I could be good at it too! My wireframes didn’t suck, according to my classmates. I actually made a high fidelity prototype that didn’t look like it was built by a nine year old in Microsoft Paint. When I read over my personas, those people felt genuine, real. I felt like I finally found something that I really felt passionate about and that I could excel at, ever since I decided against being a full time fiction writer because I wanted to do something that was more NOW. Design, I know, is not just NOW. it’s the future.

Compared to the ease with which the epiphany came to me when it finally did, the decision to actually take the plunge was a much harder one. For months I tossed options around in my head, trying to figure out a way for me to go for the design dream while still ensuring the safety net of my current job. I mapped out alternatives and harshly questioned my own naivety whenever I had the urge to really just wipe the slate clean and start new. Having a traditional Asian family didn’t help, either. And there was always that little nagging voice of doubt in my head asking: what if you fail?

In April I went to India for two weeks, a trip that I had been planning for years and a very welcome one, because it offered me some much needed respite from work and a chance to clear my head and focus on what I needed to do moving forward. I went in determined to come out with some kind of master plan formulated, or at least some sense of clarity. Though I can’t say I achieved the former, I definitely did the latter. It didn’t all come to me like in a Eureka moment, but if I had to identify a pivotal day, it would be six days into my trip on a rooftop in Udaipur, Rajasthan, when I had my palm read by a young, kind-faced palm reader. “You think too much,” he said. “Go with your instinct. The instinct will be right.”

Later that night, drunk on Kingfisher, we settled on the roof to watch the city palace lights come on one by one. In the background I could hear the ringing laughter of young cricket players batting their last inning. I took a deep breath, caught a whiff of chilli and ginger paste, and realized I had never felt that alive, or happy, in a long time. I missed that feeling. And I knew what I had to do to get it back.

The day after I came back from India, I dedicated myself full time to realizing my dream of becoming a UX designer. I am still very much at the beginning of that road, and I have no idea if I will find a fast way forward or if I will crash and burn early, but I really, really believe in this. And that, for now, is enough.