How to switch your career to product design
Learn from 6 Dropbox designers with different backgrounds
There’s no single path to product design. Our motley crew here at Dropbox includes a former architect, an event planner, a customer experience analyst, and more. As a writer-turned-designer myself, I’m fascinated by the diversity in thinking on our team.
How did others who started in different disciplines change careers? How does their past work influence their current design thinking? A few of my coworkers shared stories about their early side projects, first mentors, and big breakthroughs.
While each story is different, a few common insights emerged from their caffeinated tangents and tips. Here’s the lowdown from a few of us who made the switch and landed here at Dropbox.
Think purpose over job title
For Tomaz Nedeljko, a product designer who used to be an engineer, a drive to build has always been his guiding force.
“I was very much into products, more so than design or engineering. Design and engineering are just a means,” he explains. Tomaz’s lifelong creative spark has been his desire to “make things that make life easier.” Though a formal role as a product designer was never his direct goal, it’s what ended up suiting his interests best.
Melissa Mandelbaum is a product designer who studied architecture in college. After graduating, she worked at startups as a creative strategist and project manager. While these jobs were fun, “something felt wrong.” An architect at heart, she missed being a maker. Like Tomaz, her desire to create ignited her transition to product design.
Many Dropbox design researchers discovered a fondness for connecting with people and their stories along their journeys. In her past life as an event planner, Jane Davis became fascinated by learning about the day-to-day existence of strangers, with whom she’d have conversations at fundraising parties.
“I find those [mundane] bits of people’s lives interesting. I care what your commute is like,” she says, smiling.
Ali Fradin, who started as a team coordinator, lights up recalling some of her first experiences conducting user interviews.
“I remember loving talking with users. [I was] always surprised by people’s experiences, their quirks, the edge cases,” she says. “It’s really deeply personal.”
Design careers can take on many flavors: product designer, design researcher, UX architect, experience whisperer. It’s helpful to understand your motivations and stay purpose-driven when exploring a career change.
Prepare to hustle
These career changers have had to make big bets. Some put their lives on hold to focus on new pursuits, while others took on side projects to help with the transition.
In her former job as a Dropbox customer experience analyst, Neby Teklu volunteered to collect user insights for a help center redesign. Her efforts kicked off a strong relationship with the fledgling design research team. In her spare time, she read UX blogs and learned common industry buzzwords.
“It was really helpful for me to be able to speak the same language as the researchers,” she says.
Her guiding mantra? “Act now, learn as you go — it’s kind of Dropbox’s style.”
Ali Fradin started as a coordinator for the Dropbox design team. Though she had no prior research experience, curiosity led her to seek out projects in this space whenever possible, while still focusing on her day-to-day work.
“I joked that I was moonlighting. I had a day job as a team coordinator admin and a night job as a researcher.” The on-the-side stuff helped her discover a true passion for research. Ali kept clear lines of communication with her managers and the research team about her interest. Over time, her hard work earned her a full-time spot on the research team.
When Melissa switched to product design, she took an internship. Unlike Neby and Ali, she gave up a full-time job to do it. She sent a cold email to a designer she admired and asked if he’d be willing to mentor her.
“I knew I had to take a step back before I could move forward. Taking an internship at age 25 was a bit weird, but it was entirely worth it because the job was exciting and felt like a real fit. I was invigorated by the work and learning so much.” That time was crucial for developing Melissa’s design instincts and helped her decide to pursue product design as a career.
Her advice to anyone seeking a transition? Put yourself out there, because more often than not, people do want to help. “It’s all about the people,” she says. “Never underestimate the power of a cold email.”
Thinking back on my own journey from writer to designer, the piece of advice I remember the most is the one I ultimately chose to ignore. A great designer told me her company wouldn’t hire designers who didn’t have great taste. I walked away from the conversation a little baffled — how could I know if I had good taste? Was taste something I could learn? This didn’t seem actionable or acknowledge the work required to build a design craft. I opted to think of design as an ever-evolving practice and found inspiration in these wise words from Ira Glass:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there’s this gap. For the first couple years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you’re just starting out or you’re still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Know that your experience is relevant
“These backgrounds don’t take away from being a designer — they enhance it,” Tomaz says. All of us career changers seem to agree that embracing our unique skills and previous experiences is powerful.
Tomaz’s engineering background helps him take a systematic approach in his design work. Like coding, he thinks of design as a “process of figuring out what the most essential components of a system are, figuring out a way to assemble them, and then removing everything else.”
Jane’s work as an event planner balanced fundraising goals with personal interactions. This combination prepared her for her role as a researcher.
“Reconciling that you want to get $50K out of a potential donor, and at the same time honestly caring about these strangers you’re interacting with for just a few minutes — this is a frame of reference that helps me connect with the people I interview as a researcher. I can’t keep my researcher’s empathy all the time. I need to discard it and take the key information needed to build products that hopefully improve the lives of lots of people.”
Melissa’s background in architecture created a foundation of thinking and problem-solving that she continues to build on.
“Architecture is a methodical, step-by-step process. It’s a great framework to solve design problems,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll design in the future — maybe it’ll be apps, maybe something else. But learning to design is about learning problem-solving and applying those skills to whatever you’re looking at.”
“I feel like I’m a constant student as a design researcher,” Ali says, discussing how her liberal arts education shaped her approach to design research. “You’re taking huge bits of qualitative data and analyzing and synthesizing it. The thing that helped me the most was learning how to ask a really good question.”
Neby’s secret sauce is the practical work experience she gained on Dropbox’s customer experience team. “The biggest advantage was that I had already talked to so many Dropbox users. And I knew a lot about the product inside and out,” she says.
As a former writer, I get excited about the intersection between design and writing. Incorporating writing into my design process is a great way to organize my thinking. Being able to communicate the right message, tone, and story with words through an interface is a critical skill. Over time, words like designer or writer have become less relevant in the broader context of my work. Whether I use visuals, words, or code, they’re all tools in the service of making useful things for people.
Design is a multidisciplinary practice, and it’s possible to find connections to the work from a host of other trades. For many who’ve made the switch, discovering these connections is one of the most rewarding parts of the transition — even if things weren’t so clear in the beginning.