I am what you’d call a nerd. Since young, I dabbled in many different things that did not require physical exertion: reading fiction books, drawing cartoons and eventually writing short stories and fanfics online. I was part of the ‘go-home’ club — a term used to describe students without any extracurricular activities. I relished in my alone time, choosing to command my own little army on Rise of Nations and Age of Empires for hours on end, smiling when I won battles with strangers and sulking when my mother told me it was time to sleep. With that, years passed.
Then, I found myself in a fairly awkward position.
I just graduated from high school with a GCE ‘O’ Levels score of 8. It was way beyond my expectations (considering that I’ve failed constantly from the first year till the last) but it led me to be lost. With a score that high, I was pressured by the school to enter a reputable junior college in the downtown district. My parents, on the other hand, were pretty lax on that, leaving me to choose my own path.
Meanwhile, I was left frustrated at the course choices offered by the various polytechnics. Did I want to do law? Did I want to do something with money? Accountancy is a lucrative field, maybe I should enter that — oh wait, what about banking? There’s this banking and finance course in — no, I think this design course is better. It looks so much more interesting than…and the choices kept going back and forth until I finally decided on something.
With that, I found myself attending Temasek Polytechnic to study Communications & Media Management. From the first semester, I’ve already experienced disappointment from a slew of seemingly unending failures in modules that I extremely disliked. I felt fatigued by inconsistencies, feeling that I failed to understand classes due to my incompatibility with this course. I desired change, yet I hesitated to change my course and apply for another, choosing to stay out of fear of my parents’ disapproval; they were the ones sponsoring my education, after all. I couldn’t bear to make them pay for another semester of studies.
The course was deeply anchored in the broad categories of media and mass communications: from public relations to videography, the course was an overly fast-paced tour of the media industry, dipping our feet into shallow pools for a short moment. The modules moved quickly and it fed into the variables affecting my mental state during the whole process. My learning was not exponentiated, only hindered by my continuous adjustments to new semesters and modules.
Over time, I discovered my dwindling mental state. I was overly harsh on myself, yet the lack of motivation in me did not help. I found myself feeling anxious about the future and worrying over things out of my control. I compared myself constantly to other people, wondering if they were doing something else behind my back. I desired the ‘secrets’ that they had which gave them their considerably high GPAs. My temper became short-fused as I faced more interpersonal problems, leading me to occasionally taking it out on group-mates who refused to cooperate. I had no way of curbing this back then — I felt helpless like a small fish in a huge current, unable to fight back the pressure and only hoping that it will lead me to somewhere where I will be safe.
I was wrong.
Soon, I realised that I was lost — smack in the middle of everything.
Perhaps, I realised it a little too late that whatever I was doing wasn’t going to help me at all. The countless tedious video editing, directing of amateur actors and mulling over scripts of non-existent TV shows weren’t going to bring me to where I want; what I desired was something fast-paced, enough to tire me out yet keep me going on because of my love and passion for it.
The first semester came like a tsunami with subjects more foreign than the names of WWII characters and molecules within plastic — that is, until graphic design came into my life.
How graphic design impacted me
The only thing I knew about photoshop was how it was a verb and not a software.
“Wow, you’re so pretty, it’s as if someone photoshopped your face.”
“Oh God, I look like I’m photoshopped into this picture.”
I never knew how the software worked till I came across this core module, which instilled my first ever period of imposter syndrome.
I thought I was slick. My quick grasp over the tools, keyboard shortcuts and handy tricks with the clipping mask gave me confidence. I searched tutorials online just so I can be ahead of the class. I worked on the class materials an hour beforehand and worked on the module assignment during class sessions instead.
I loved it.
I loved how the software felt so natural to me. The canvas called to me like my bed after school. With each click, hold and drag, I felt at ease.
It was like my own world.
Fast forward a few semesters, I got exposed to motion graphics through Adobe After Effects and magazine production through Adobe InDesign. Due to my curiosity, I even picked up Adobe Illustrator, which I still use till this day. The whole suite of skills led me to be very design-centric, which impacted by other modules as well.
Juxtapose: I was well-versed with creating a logo based on the golden ratio, but I knew nuts about adjusting the exposure on a video camera.
So, I became a freelancer.
I then took up freelance, working with models, companies, and organisations for their advertising — sometimes casual — needs. It was fun, for a while, but it soon got boring. The never-ending checking of bleeds and gutters for the print companies. The constant iterations of projects that I did not care about. The numerous updates to a week-long project that makes it feel like a month-long one — there were just way too many things that I disliked.
It started with one disagreement. A simple, overt display of condescension which gave my imposter syndrome something to feed on for months on end.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing? If I recall, you’re not exactly trained in this, aren’t you?”
I had no design background. My course was not known for having deep design modules. I worked on projects so minuscule it could have been worked on by any student like me. I merely copied off works I found great, tried to manipulate it to the clients’ needs and dubbed myself as a designer due to that effort. They’re not exactly wrong.
I was hurt. Doubt. Suspicion. Forcibly lowering my rates due to my ‘inexperience’. My portfolio had no use when it came to negotiating solely because I was unconfident. I kept reminding myself that because I lacked a degree or formal training, I couldn’t call myself a ‘designer’. Hell, I shouldn’t even charge people for design projects, right? I’m not even a designer!
I was naïve.
Then, it continued with one failed project. Afraid of hassle, I avoided contracts altogether, therefore not securing my payment for any would-be wasted efforts — which came back to bite me. A whole set of logos, designed over a few weeks with iterations almost every other day, for a small organisation, got thrown into the reject pile.
Then, more projects started to fail. Print banners got rejected by marketing teams, and ultimately the project got dropped altogether. Designs started to turn out worse than before, which led them to hire other ‘professional’ designers for their assignment. I started to sign contracts, but they were useless. I earned less. My luck dwindled.
Soon, I had a project drought.
I had no money and nothing to name. I had no contacts. The number of important connections I had was pitiful.
All I had was my Macbook which I paid with money I loaned from my father, my Behance portfolio and a thirst for something more fulfilling.
So I quit.
Well, you can’t exactly quit being a nameless freelancer, but I rejected any work coming towards me. No more 10x25m matte finish print banners, no more square logo designs based on weird corporate colors. None of that — just me, armed with a diploma I find as useful as sandpaper after a dump, mostly because my GPA was left in shambles.
It was a lonely March: I ended a six-month-long Final Year Project that went down the sewers and a basically a semester of disappointment and boredom. I was at home, wondering what I could do with this generic skillset of mine. While I was busy mulling over what I could do with my time, I updated my Behance and collected all my projects. I summarised them on my LinkedIn and started connecting with random people in the same field that I was in.
I still had nothing to do.
Under the influence of my passionate full-stack developer friend, I signed up for Udemy courses and started solving coding challenges on Kata and Codewars continuously. I had no idea why I was doing it, but I somehow felt that I wanted to do it for a living in the future.
Yet, I constantly reminded myself that I couldn’t study anything programming-related in a reputable university.
This was the disappointing part. I had to debate between following my friend’s path of taking a three-month Full-Stack Development course that guaranteed a developer job after graduation or to enter a private university and take an overwhelmingly expensive two-year BSc(Hons).
“It’s alright,” I told myself, “Everything will work out in the end. I’m just going to study all these, and then try and apply to reputable universities with some kind of kickass portfolio!”
A quick search on Glassdoor and Indeed gave me a load of results that seemed to scream “Let’s do this!” every time. Manipulation of user interfaces? Researching of users? Constant iterations? Working together with both the designer and developer side?
This was my calling — or so I thought.
I had no idea how complex UI/UX — to be specific, I had no idea both fields were so deep and comprehensive. Both of them were needy girlfriends demanding equal parts attention and effort. Yet, combining together into one occupation ruined me: I had no experience in either one of them. Despite so, I applied for internships and jobs to various companies, not knowing what they did. I’m well aware of how insincere this approach is, but I felt that I had no choice: I was a nameless freelancer and now I’m entering a field where I’m even more non-existent (not sure if the English works here, but I hope you get what I mean).
Which begs the question, how did I even land a UI/UX job in the first place?
Disclaimer: I did not aim for any big companies. Sure, I could have applied to Atlassian, but I’m sure I’d be nothing but a fly to them. I did not want to be part of the ‘pile’ — I wanted to stand out, somehow. This led me to apply for startups and even startups that hadn’t existed yet (e.g. founders who want to develop an app, offering equity and salary to a designer once the project is completed).
Why did I choose UI/UX?
I may not be quick at picking up programming languages, but it reinforced my understanding of how designing interfaces work. Instead of creating banners after banners, posters after posters, I was more intrigued by how things online are decided to look the way they are.
Though there is a dichotomous relationship between programming and designing (to a certain degree), UI design is sort of a marriage between those two disciplines. With the UX part considered, the skill of researching opened up, coming together in polygamy with UI design. Somehow, that felt natural to me. I like programming, yet also like designing. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way for me to use all those skills together in one occupation?
How did I get the job?
#1 — Actually working on something UI/UX-related before
In my school, every student had to take up a cross-disciplinary subject that may or may not be related to their diploma. After two years of choosing subjects that barely changed my life at all, I decided to leave the last selection to fate. I avoided bidding for any course and simply left the selection to the whatever computer was working on this.
Fast forward half a year, I completed the Entrepreneurship and Business Startup module, leading me to create and propose a business idea in the travel industry. I was responsible for the app screens, user testing, research, and overall design.
Within a few weeks, I came up with what I will know as ‘hi-fi’ prototypes. Using knowledge I have on mobile apps and Adobe Illustrator, the project was completed without a hitch. After graduation, I quickly uploaded this onto Behance, collecting them into a presentation of simple user interfaces.
Unbeknownst to me, I was actually working on the UI/UX part of the project. Conducting surveys and focus interviews were part of user testing. Creating an assets and branding kit was part of the UI documentation. Adhering to corporate colors and branding was part of the UI design.
Just by simply creating app screens for a school project, I’ve already gathered the first-hand experience in UI/UX.
#2 — Reading up UXPin’s E-books
Nothing says ‘helpful’ more than UXPin’s generous collection of E-books, written by professionals from UXPin. Without any idea of UI/UX actually is, I devoured these resources like a starving animal. I jotted down information, plowed through book after book, pdfs after pdfs.
There were many relevant topics: from the ultimate guide to prototyping to even crafting your first user testing question, I had loads of information that I had to digest and make sense of quickly. With each book, I felt more confident about my skills — though I still dare not call myself a UI/UX designer, I can at least say that it is what I do and I know what I’m doing.
#3— Learning to Code online
Remember that I said I took up web design and programming language courses on Udemy? Turns out, those were greatly beneficial in the end. Never had I found myself questioning whether this design is actually possible.
I looked at things differently. Every column I created were reflected in my head as a CSS flexbox/CSS grid. Every product card I designed were reflected as HTML divs with CSS manipulation. I began thinking of the frameworks that I could use to help save time developing a certain part (e.g. using D3.js to create graphs for analytics).
Yet, way before I began paying for worthwhile courses, I blasted through free coding platforms such as SoloLearn, CodeAcademy, and FreeCodeCamp (you can even find them here on Medium!). I solve their challenges, moved on and learned new things from their easy to pick up tutorials. The sequential, exponentially difficult tutorials gave me something to work on and think about as I solved my design problems.
As a UI/UX designer, you might not have to code at all. Yet, simply understanding whether your design is practical or not already tells a lot of about you: you value the time of others. No point bickering and debating over features that are unattainable when you can already prevent that by understanding the front-end portion.
This gave me so much value. I was even more of a hybrid designer. Soon, I found myself developing small portions of the website that I designed, editing instead on Atom rather than Adobe Illustrator or Balsamiq. Being capable in doing development work can even help cut cost for the startup, whilst raising your own value when it comes to the salary. Though not impossible, it is still rare to find someone as a UI/UX developer.
#4 —Keeping a set of principles that are considered valuable to potential employers
I know this sounds like nonsense, but one of my principles is to be lazy.
Somehow, this resonated well. The essence of laziness is to be restful — yet, to make this a principle that’s actually valuable, I framed it this way: “To be lazy is to find the fastest method to give the best quality.”
That may seem like a bastardisation of Bill Gate’s famous quote (or maybe, Frank Gilbreth Sr. or Clarence Bleicher), but the point still stands. I believe in creating my own “4-hour work week”. I enforce discipline when required, produced results when necessary and kept myself well-rested so as to go full throttle whenever required. I was less of a hard worker, but more of a smart worker.
Granted, not all employers may like to hear that. It depends greatly on the company that you’re applying to. Yet, even so, I identified and gave myself a brand: the smart and hardworking designer. I gave myself a brand image that my employers can identify quickly and separate from the rest, rather than being generic like before.
Putting them Altogether
The thirst for knowledge and something worthwhile led me to scramble for stability in a field that demanded constant iterations, retrospectives and work to be done. Even though, till this day, the imposter syndrome in me still lives on, I fight against it by adding my own unique flair to every design I come across.
It is due to that thirst that I became a designer that’s constantly improving — and it is a thirst born from an epiphany. A buzzword became a word I deal with on a regular basis and even became my job — what more could I ask for but more big, meaningful projects to work on?
I may not have achieved increased happiness, but at this very moment, I still feel that I have done the right thing by leaving my previous field behind. Even if I felt that I have studied the wrong course, I believe that it was due to the course that I found myself doing UI/UX. Though a simplistic view, I have no other explanation for it became this way — perhaps, it was that one time where I created something on Photoshop that led me to this job.
To conclude, this is only the beginning.
I didn’t realise how far I’ve come until I looked back on the calendar.
It feels like there is an overwhelming amount of information to learn still as a UI/UX developer. Learning never stops in a developer’s world — to extend an olive branch, it never stops in any industry as well. Yet, while I’m constantly challenged by the unknown, I never step down but use that to my advantage itself. I break the challenge down into bite sizes and find myself improving every single day.
I’m still in the process of applying for a university — specifically, a Bachelor’s degree in Computing Science at the University of Glasgow — and I am currently working remotely as a UI/UX Designer @ spaceSense, an ecosystem-cum-platform fulfilling commercial real estate needs. I work closely with the founder and stakeholders, designing the platform and constructing the UX of the platform. I am surrounded by knowledgeable, welcoming people, joining them each week for client meetings with C-suite executives, directors, and managers from different companies, ranging from startups to MNCs. The opportunities have been great, and I never find myself bored again.
Let’s link up! I’m currently also working as a founder of my own startup which I’m launching in Q3 2019. If you’re the social media kind of person, you could always drop me a follow on my Instagram (watch out for my nonsensical posts) or connect with me on my LinkedIn if you prefer it that way!
I’m also keen on devouring more advice and tips on how to navigate the UI/UX world too! So hit me with what you’ve got if you got any.
Happy designing! :D