Behind the scenes at DESIGNATION
I am a graduate of the Ruby cohort, now in the wonderful world of portfolio limbo. My time in DESIGNATION ended almost a month ago, giving me the perfect opportunity to write a (not so) short retrospective on my experience. In this post, I’ll sum up the key points to give you an idea of where I came from (pre-DESIGNATION), and where I am now.
- I was living in DC/MD, working as a professional dancer (contract and freelance), part-time dance instructor, part-time gymnastics coach, part-time English language instructor, part-time private school sub, and part-time office temp. Prior to those things, I had worked for a major government agency, doing federal HR and other related regulatory work. People have always perplexed and fascinated me. Given that I studied and worked in biological and psychiatric research facilities during my undergrad years, I had long been contemplating a Masters HCI program (before opting for the bootcamp route instead).
- I had absolutely ZERO design experience. Though I was a movement artist, my creative skills had never quite translated in the visual sense. Sketching anything felt terrifying, and for years I had gotten by with stick figures and 5-petal flowers. The only Adobe product I had ever used was Acrobat (to PDF documents and make edits to one very specific part of one very specific type of document at my government job). Aside from a few CodeAcademy tutorials, the closest interaction I had with HTML or CSS was when I furiously attempted a ‘Google triage’ to edit my website/blog.
Why I chose to attend DESIGNATION
Although I had been looking at a few masters programs, I chose a design bootcamp because one, I learn and work better in fast-paced, immersive environments, and two, I knew I would not have the patience (or money) to invest in a 2+ year Masters. I chose DESIGNATION over other design bootcamp programs for a couple reasons:
- The potential to become a full-stack designer (UX, UI, FED). Note: the program has changed since my very first interaction — I ended up specializing in UX. Having gone through General Assembly’s entire application process for their full-time UX Immersive back in 2014, I felt that DESIGNATION offered a stronger curriculum — one that would better prepare me for the job market. Compared to other design bootcamps, DESIGNATION also offered the best value, with the lowest cost per week, and solid financing plan options.
- DESIGNATION’s 1871 Chicago location, and proximity to a promising tech and design community. As far as I could tell, Chicago would be a better fit both personally and professionally. I had never actually visited Chicago and knew absolutely no one here prior to moving for the program, but it didn’t seem like such a big risk compared to other major decisions I’ve made in the past.
- Hiring stats. I was looking for something that could boost a new professional career, NOT another academic degree. Doing the program meant 3–6 months of lost income, so I needed to give myself the best chance possible at finding a job as quickly as possible. Compared to other programs I had researched, DESIGNATION showed the most promising statistics for industry-related jobs.
The Application Process & Program Structure
There are many reasons why someone might choose to uproot their life and attend a bootcamp. For me, moving into UX initially seemed like a fairly natural transition. I wasn’t unhappy in my previous field(s), just that something was missing. Deep inside, I had an inexplicable sense of urgency to have a larger, more tangible impact in the world; to find work that served as an extension of my core interests and skills, my creative spirit and my analytical mind, rather than a series of endless compromises.
After signing up for and reading through the informational materials, I scoured the internet for as much information as I could find — stats, alumni profiles, portfolios, DESIGNATION blog posts, staff bios…you get the point. After feeling 75%+ confident in this potential new path, I filled out the online application, and waited for a response (this was back in Sep 2015). Within a day, I had heard from Aaron, co-founder and CEO, wishing me luck in the process (which in retrospect, was both unnerving and comforting). Within two days, I received an email from Will, co-founder and Program Director, to schedule an admissions interview.
I had my interview about a week later, during which Will explained that in order to gain full acceptance into the program, I would have to complete a pre-virtual portfolio for review (they would hold my spot in the (available) cohort of my choice until I passed this stage). Once I finished my Pre-virtual portfolio, I sent it over to the staff. After a few rounds of edits, revisions, and redesigns, I was accepted in the program, and granted access to the Virtual class material.
For me, the weeks looked something like this:
Pre-virtual: 4ish weeks (no guided instruction) + 1–2 weeks of revisions and acceptance into a cohort. Note: After acceptance, I delayed my enrollment for a few months, so my overall timeline ran longer than most.
Virtual: 6 weeks online, with weekly checkins, design teams and instructor feedback, appx. 20–40 hrs/wk brushing the surface of UX, UI, and FED.
Immersion: 6 weeks, in-person/on-site, appx. 80+ hrs/wk (no joke).
Client/career: 6 weeks, in-person/on-site, appx. 60–70 hrs/wk for program/client things, countless hours spent on my own career materials and portfolio work.
..cue dramatic music
Upon arriving at the Merchandise Mart on the first day, I (like many others who first attempt to navigate that convoluted building) went up the wrong elevator. After three more tries, I finally found the right set of elevators to take me to the 12th floor (it’s the Orleans elevators by the way), and into 1871.
Walking through the doors, I felt a strange sense of wonder. After seeing everyone (from the chest up) via Google Hangout for six weeks, it was peculiar to see their full bodies in real life. Elizabeth, my mentor from the senior cohort (Quartz), took me on a tour of the space. Like many co-working spaces, there’s a palpable energy that fills the 12th floor of 1871, and I was glad to hear that though DESIGNATION had moved up to the 13th floor, we would spend a fair bit of time on both floors each day.
Day 1 introduction activities consisted of free food and coffee, icebreakers (#pancakes), introductions to the Quartzes, staff, instructors, program structure, and curriculum. We received our (new) Immersion design team assignments, and quickly got to work. There were 21 Ruby Cohort members, split into three teams of three, and three teams of four. I was on a three-person team, and like most things in life, that arrangement came with its own set of equally weighted pros and cons. For instance, teams of three may find it harder to divide tasks equally, since you can’t exactly “pair up.” On the other hand, sometimes fewer people meant more efficient decision making, which came in handy for things like setting presentation styles. Point is, no matter the team arrangement and dynamic, it all evens out (more or less) in the end.
Out of the six Immersion weeks, our cohort spent three weeks on UX, and three weeks on UI. At the end of each three-week block, we presented our work to a panel of guest judges. Here’s the rough outline of our classroom schedule for the Immersion weeks.
Week 1: User Research (M-Th), optional Dev workshop (F), full-day UX workshop (S)
Week 2: Synthesis & Strategy (M-Th), optional Dev workshop (F), full-day Axure workshop (S)
Week 3: Interaction Design (M-Th), optional Dev workshop (F), Final UX Presentation (S)
Week 4: Visual Design (M-Th), optional Dev workshop (F), full-day UI workshop 1 (S)
Week 5: Design Refinement (M-Th), Intro to Career Phase (F), full-day UI workshop 2 (S)
Week 6: Presentations (M-Th), Career workshop/Graduation day for the senior cohort (F), Portfolio workday (S)
In between our day-to-day assignments, there were PLENTY of other activities keeping us busy — guest lectures, supplemental workshops, small and large group feedback and critique sessions, mentor/mentee meetings, weekly 1871 happy hours, other networking events, and even the occasional Yoga class (a must for anyone working 80+ hours each week).
After each declaring our specialization around Week 5 of Immersion, our cohort came out with five UX teams, and two UI teams, with three people in each team. For everyone, the entire six weeks of client phase was broken up into two client projects, although individual group scheduling of meetings and presentations largely depended on the client’s availability (and sometimes, physical location). On average, projects for our cohort ranged anywhere between 14 and 18 (working) days. There was always a WHOLE lot of work to be done, and not a lot of time.
In between our client project work, we had career workshops with Mike, weekly guest lectures, a studio tour, and meetings with our mentees (heck yes, after 6 LONG weeks, we shifted roles and became mentors with our own mentees!), and meetings with our newly assigned (and seriously awesome) career mentors.
Going into the career phase, I felt a shift in our cohort dynamic (sh*t got real). In Immersion, petty arguments reached novela-worthy heights in a blink of an eye. In Client phase, there were (on average) more constructive arguments and clearer goals. I for one, greatly appreciated the structure and direction of client phase, feeling that it more closely resembled a working environment (compared to Immersion, which at times, could feel like high school).
Advice to future DESIGNATION students (or anyone looking to do a design bootcamp)
- Self-care is an absolute must. In DESIGNATION you spend most of your waking (and sleeping) life in very close quarters with no fresh air, natural light, sitting in front of a computer. As a result, your overall health, in some way, shape, or form, can and will most likely decline, especially during Immersion. I was extremely sick (to the point of not being able to sleep, speak, breathe, and hear (then later, see) properly) for a few weeks towards the end of Immersion, and missed some crucial workshops. Thankfully my amazing cohort-mates Google hangouted me in, dictated my slack messages, and recorded all of the sessions I missed. If you need specifics, here they are: GO OUTSIDE EVERYDAY. SEE THE SUN. WALK ALONG THE RIVER. DRINK MORE WATER. REMEMBER TO EAT REAL FOOD. Seems like common sense, but these things are just as easily forgotten.
- Impostor syndrome may plague you, but don’t let it paralyze you. Keep learning, doing your work, until the feeling recedes. For me, a switch took place around the first week of client phase, when I realized that I actually knew what I was talking about. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world, and made me entirely grateful for all the preparation given in the preceding phases (especially Immersion).
- Be very sure of your “personal why.” Despite some overlap in terminology (i.e. students, graduation, diploma), DESIGNATION IS NOT another academic program. I suggest making damn sure you know why you’re taking on such an intense program BEFORE you actually do it. Priming (especially within contextual parameters) has a very real effect on the way that we receive and interpret life experiences. Having some professional work experience under your belt prior to entering DESIGNATION will allow you to absorb the material and adapt to ever-changing project and team dynamics more quickly. Know what you want to get out of the program, translate them into goals, and reevaluate and revise as you go.
- Talk to some alumni (i.e. more than one) before you start, and stay connected to these people as you progress. If you’re around Chicago, I highly recommend you visit 1871/DESIGNATION in person, and maybe sit-in or shadow the current cohort for a few hours. This will give you a first-person perspective on what your day-to-day will look like, and help you manage expectations when you begin. Feel free to reach out if you ever want to meet in person (or virtually if you’re not around)!
- Nothing is perfect — remember to keep your expectations in check. Like any person, project, or organization, DESIGNATION has its individual strengths and flaws. No matter what happens, always focus on 1. why you are choosing to do so in the first place, 2. what you want to gain at the end, and 3. how you plan on using what you learned in your short time in the bootcamp. Journal (or vlog privately) every few days to make sure you’re capturing key insights into your own design process and personal behavior.
DESIGNATION was an incredible experience. My cohort was wonderfully diverse, and collectively presented an outstanding range of skills and backgrounds. Never did I think I could become so close with 20 other people so quickly. I mean… these are people who, having seen the makeup-free, sleep-deprived, burned out version of me, still cared for and supported me every single day. There was such a rare sense of compassion and camaraderie, I always felt like someone had my back. Although as one friend puts it, “all of our weird sides came out eventually.” Second, DESIGNATION instructors and staff are amazing, hard-working, and talented people. It’s clear that this job is not a 9-to-5 for them (in fact, it’s actually not since most of their hours are way longer than 9-to-5), and that they truly believe in the work they’re doing. At any given time, you’ll see the program evolving as a direct result of staff-led responses to student feedback. Yes, there’s an inherent difficulty in striking the right balance between timing and execution. But the candid willingness to improve and openness towards constructive dialogue is, in my opinion, some of DESIGNATION’s greatest strengths.
Professionally, I feel like DESIGNATION gave me skills I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Though I’ve always had a fascination with the human body, brain, and behavior, I was always unsure of how to best translate these interests into (paid) work. Not only do I now have the skills I need to start a career in this field, I have a very real picture of the short- and long-term possibilities of how these skills can be used and applied.
So where am I now? Well… portfolio limbo is one way to describe it. Another is perhaps, in the best place I’ve been in a long time. Potential uncertainties don’t scare me, because the pieces are starting to come together in a wonderfully unexpected way.
The way I see it, I have absolutely nothing to lose, and still so much to gain.