Confession 1: Identity Crisis of a Design Student

Being Korean American is just as confusing as being a design student

Michelle Kim
Oct 31, 2018 · 4 min read

The stupidly honest confessions of a near-sighted design student looking to expand her mind and knowledge while chaotically sprinting towards graduation aka adulthood (but really aka the unknown).

How Korean American are you? Are you Korean Korean or more American Korean?

Defining my role as a designer echoes the struggles I’ve had when trying to put myself on a bar of just how “American” I am vs how “Korean”.

I love spicy Korean soups more than I love hot dogs. I crave Korean food on a weekly basis, but I don’t love love kimchi. The Dodgers will always have a soft spot in my heart but it’ll never surpass my dying passion for anything Korean sports related (like how the Korean soccer team beat Germany in the recent World Cup. Woo!). American Thanksgiving is mandatory in my life, but Korean thanksgiving is completely optional.

I have the same conflicts when it comes to who I am as a designer.

Why are you in Illustration? How can you be an Illustration student studying User Experience Design (UX) and Business Strategy? Don’t you just draw all the time?

Even my peers give me weird eyes as if they can smell the weird concoction of kimchi and In-N-Out burgers in my blood every time I have to go through my long spiel of how I ended up in Business and UX while being an Illustration student.

Just today I tried to explain how there are different focuses within Interaction Design and how one Interaction Design student could excel at User Interface Design but be horrible at systems thinking and storyboarding. And this was to a bunch of Transportation design students. And I don’t think they got the message.

This conflict of having to continuously explain the different nuances and specialties in design industries has been prevalent throughout most of my experiences at school. For example, our Illustration department has 5–6 different tracks offered and just because we all can do figure drawing doesn’t guarantee we’ll all be brilliant at high fidelity animation visuals.

The labels we’ve put on ourselves at school has created little walls in our minds that prevent us from seeing the intersections within design that could provide opportunities for higher impact and efficiency.

This made me realize something important.

Even designers don’t know what other designers do and what value they bring.

How much are we hurting ourselves and putting ourselves at a disadvantage by not being open to learning and understanding the different branches of design? If designers don’t value each other, how can people not familiar with design be as receptive? (or is it that non-designers are more open because they know very little already)

My mentor and former Provost at ArtCenter College of Design shared an important reflection last week when I confessed to the struggles I felt as an Illustration student graduating with such a foreign fusion of design. He said, “Your major doesn’t define you Michelle. I was a Fine Arts major who ended up running a College and picking up photography as a profession. Your ability to visualize and map solutions for complex systems and problems is your main strength.”

I still don’t know how Korean I am or how American. In the same light, I don’t know how much of an Illustration designer I am vs UX designer vs Design Strategist.

Maybe this indicates that instead of looking at ourselves as a _____ designer, we should define ourselves based on what value we’re bringing to the table.

What I do know is that I bring clarity to complex problems through the skills I’ve developed in Illustration Design, User Experience Design, and Business Strategy. And as a Korean American, I bring a strange passion for Korean food and a rebellious western mind to social standards and cultural expectations.

At least that’s the hope for now. Let’s see how it goes.

Ps. Yes, my heart is weeping silent tears that Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun Jin may be breaking up with the Dodgers. It was the perfect fusion for my Korean American soul that brought a tinge of peace in my ever-mysterious search towards “Who am I?”

Michelle Kim

Written by

Designer full of questions on design ethics, education, and technology. michellekimcreative.com

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