photo: rebecca li

Turning Creativity and Passion into a Career as a Product Designer

Elegant Tools Feature Series: Rebecca Li

A Facebook Ads Team designer fondly recalls Geocities and notebook doodles while advocating for lifelong learning and finding mentors from across disciplines

Name: Rebecca Li
Job: Product Designer, Facebook Ads Team
Joined Facebook: April 2016
 
Describe yourself in 10 words or less.
Designer, wife (newly minted), sister, puppy enthusiast.
 
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love to travel. It is nearly the only way I can force myself to unplug from work and technology. My husband and I try to visit at least one new country every year. Aside from traveling, I also love painting and calligraphy. I grew up doing traditional Chinese painting on rice paper and ink calligraphy. I only do watercolor and modern calligraphy now because I don’t have a proper studio to do large paintings. 
 
What is the last book you read?
Ready Player One. It gave me a deeper understanding of the potential of VR and its ability to transform human experiences and consumption of content. Really fascinating. 
 
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
There’s a quote that really resonates with why I pursued a career in design. Jessica Hische, an illustrator and type designer, said: “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”
 
When I look back on a lot of my school notebooks, they were always filled with doodles. As I got older, I began growing an interest in coding websites and animated experiences. I started designing random sites to showcase things from my hobbies to my friends. I would spend endless hours working on these sites rather than doing homework, which got me in a lot of trouble. 
 
As an extracurricular, I was also on my high school’s yearbook team, where we would meticulously design layouts. Ultimately, this taught my parents that my interests weren’t in books but in creativity, and they ended up enrolling me in a variety of art courses to foster my passions.
 
Did you study design in college?
Yes. I started with graphic design, thinking I would pursue a career in print design. However, as I started applying for internships, I developed an interest in web and mobile design. That’s when I began transitioning into product design. I realized that I liked being able to quantify what I was doing. Product design, for me, is the combination of technology, business, and design — all of which can be quantifiable and provide tangible results. This leads to learning, which for me is essential.

But the foundation I built in studying graphic design has contributed to my ability to craft meaningful products. It has proven to be a crucial part of my product design career and has pushed me to be an advocate for design craft and quality.
 
What is your first memory specific to web design?
Geocities! This really shows my age, but it was hands down the best, best web hosting platform ever. In all seriousness, Geocities was probably the first time I had a platform to “design” and express myself on the internet. Geocities was not, by any means, the definition of well designed, nor did it provide tools that helped create the most elegant websites. But it did what was expected, and it allowed people to express themselves on a platform that the world could discover — anywhere, anytime.
 
Is a career in product design what you envisioned it to be?
It is, primarily because every single day has been a learning experience. I never want to stop learning. The majority of knowledge I’ve gathered about design process, development, and design methodology have come from being proactive about learning. And the most important things I’ve learned have been outside of school while exploring and working in the industry.
 
Do you have any mentors?
Yes, and I know for sure that I could not have gotten to where I am today without them. I’m very lucky in that some of them even work with me now at Facebook! I also consider my dad and my husband my mentors — they both provide me with insightful and objective advice. 
 
Is seeking out mentors something you recommend to others?
Absolutely. Specifically, my recommendation is to find mentors from all different kinds of disciplines. I once had a mentor who was a mindfulness coach, and she ended up becoming one of my greatest career advisors. I’ve also had mentors who were business people, scientists, and, of course, designers. It’s important to have a variety of perspectives when it comes to your career, because it teaches you to think more broadly about the world.
 
How do you incorporate strategy and measurement into your creative process?
For me, the two have often worked hand-in-hand when identifying opportunities or problems. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg — without a strategic approach, I probably wouldn’t be able to figure out the proper metrics to measure success, and without effective ways of measurement, my strategy might fall flat.

What are some of the products or product features you’re most proud to have designed?
I work on Facebook Ads products, and almost all the products I’ve worked on have taught me so much about business, product thinking, strategy, revenue, advertising, marketing…and the list goes on. I’m particularly proud of my contributions to improvements to ad duplication products and ad creation features. 
 
What has been your biggest professional challenge?
Continuing to learn and push the edges of my craft and my work as a designer. When I was in college, majoring in design didn’t include courses in human-computer interaction, cognitive science, product strategy, or even coding. Throughout college, I made it a point to find internships or part-time jobs that could teach me the things my major didn’t offer. 
 
My first internship of many was at Avid Technology, where they make video editing software. I worked on designing their software interfaces as well as video templates. I often attribute this experience with transforming me from a graphic designer to a product designer because it helped me switch my focus to user experience and technology. 
 
Since then, I’ve made it a point to find jobs that offer new skills. I have had to find a lot of my education along the way, but I think the benefit of this experience is that I’ve been able to apply these lessons to real products and companies. 
 
Do you have any words of advice for those starting their careers in product design, at Facebook or otherwise?
Yes, and this advice comes directly from experience: Never hesitate to ask questions. The one thing I regret about my first few jobs is not asking more questions. Looking back, doing so would’ve helped me build more user empathy as well as stronger professional relationships.

Young designers, especially those fresh out of school, are sometimes timid or fearful of consequences that might stem from asking for things, or asking questions or permission. I frequently tell designers, “The least they can say is no, and that at least gives you a constraint to work with. And chances are, someone else in the room has the exact same question.”

My second piece of advice is to stay humble. I always tell new designers this, because the design industry is really hot right now. The demand can make it feel as though there are endless career opportunities and competitive salaries. Confidence in your skills can grow fairly quickly — but this confidence often masks the right thing to do. Never assume your way is 100 percent the right way, and/or that the user will always understand your designs. You should never want to be the smartest person in the room anyway. Where’s the fun in that?