Alumni perspectives: Designing beyond Berkeley

Since the Jacobs Institute’s launch in 2015, it has served as a gathering point for Berkeley’s diverse and ever-evolving design community. Students have long been at the center of this community, launching new clubs and initiatives in areas from human-centered methodology to virtual reality in the years leading up to the construction of Jacobs Hall. From the building’s opening, student leaders brought this energy to the space, immediately activating its studios with new ideas in courses, team meetings, hackathons, and more. Now, many of the students who were among the first to walk into Jacobs Hall have graduated, moving into new roles and forming the start of an alumni community that will continue to grow as each new class of Berkeley students connects with the Jacobs Institute and with the campus’ design ecosystem.

We talked to four members of this emergent group of alumni to learn about their design experiences at Berkeley — and how they’re drawing from these experiences as they move into roles beyond campus. The four recent graduates spotlighted here represent a broad swath of design fields and roles: collectively, they work in areas from user research to product design, for startups as well as large companies, and in cities from San Francisco to Detroit and even Amman, Jordan. Here’s what they had to say.

Jessica Chang ’17

Major: Cognitive Science

How were you involved with the Jacobs Institute and Berkeley’s design ecosystem as a student?

As a student, I was heavily involved with Jacobs in my last two years of college (2015–2017). I took a lot of the design classes held at Jacobs — Prototyping & Fabrication, Critical Making, Interactive Device Design, Bioinspired Design, Reimagining Slums, Navigating the Human Path, and Sketching & Visual Communication. I was also the communications designer at Jacobs and was heavily involved with designing templates for new Jacobs events.

What was your favorite design project you worked on while at Berkeley?

My favorite project I worked on was a bluetooth game controller. I had a lot of fun working with microcontrollers and accelerometers, and figuring out how to define heuristics for determining smooth rotations and jolts. I learned that I actually find maintaining messy electronics very fulfilling, even though many find it to be the most tedious process in building hardware. Maybe it’s the fact that I’d spend hours on tangling and untangling and soldering and debugging to finally end up with a tiny object that can do something way beyond its size.

What are you doing now? What does a typical day look like?

I’m currently a product designer at Samsara. We offer a full suite of sensors that monitors various data in fleets (such as in the trucking industry). A typical day starts with organizing the projects I’ll be working on that day, reading my emails, and looking through the resumes of designers I’ll be interviewing that day. After lunch, I have a few hours of heads-down design time, and I’ll schedule meetings with product managers or engineers to talk through my design. Depending on where I am in the design process, I could be showing them rough wireframes, mockups, or walking through use cases. Every day is different and we usually have fun after-work events towards the end of every week.

Were you always interested in going into the design field after graduation?

I knew I wanted to become a designer pretty early on in college. Initially I thought I wanted to be a software engineer, but after my first internship where I was able to design the feature I was working on, I decided that I had a lot more fun thinking about how to optimize the user experience and learning from how people use products. I spent the latter half of college doing various design internships and being exposed to various design roles — tech startups, service, creative agencies, etc.

Any advice for current Berkeley students who are interested in working in design or related fields after graduation?

Find what you’re interested in, whether it’s an industry or a specific part of design. Work on projects; they don’t even have to be associated with big names! Figure out your niche, or don’t if you don’t have one. Take internships at design agencies. Work abroad. Learn how to communicate with people, all kinds of people. I actually think that’s the most important quality of being a designer — being able to really understand people, being open-minded, and putting yourself in places you normally wouldn’t.

Ankita Joshi ’17

Major: Mechanical Engineering

How were you involved with the Jacobs Institute and Berkeley’s design ecosystem as a student?

I had been involved with Jacobs from the very beginning and in a number of different ways! In fact, one of my student organizations, Socially Engaged Engineers, hosted its Social Impact Design-a-thon at Jacobs right when it opened. Since then, I’ve used the space for hosting many more events and student club meetings. Some of my favorite classes — Introduction to Product Design, Reimagining Slums, and Mechatronics — were at Jacobs Hall. I’ve spent entire days in the workshop working on my research, class projects, and personal projects as well! Along with all this, I really miss the speaker events at the Jacobs Institute because they’d invite professionals in the design field who I look up to, and provide the opportunity to actually meet and network with them!

What was your favorite design project you worked on while at Berkeley?

My mechanical engineering capstone project — The Roborrito! It was a robot that automated the burrito manufacturing process to create warm burritos based on customers’ orders. I enjoyed the process of ideating this robot and building it at the machine shop in Etcheverry. Towards the end of the semester, we started working in Jacob Hall’s third-floor kitchen to test the design with food. The capstone expo was also held at Jacobs, and it was a big hit!

What are you doing now? What does a typical day look like?

I am now a Design Release Engineer at General Motors. It is really hard to describe a typical day because my role changes based on what stage of the vehicle development process we are in. Sometimes my day is packed with meetings with different teams, sometimes I am visiting suppliers and plants to troubleshoot issues, and there are times when I at my desk reviewing and making design changes on parts.

Were you always interested in going into the design field after graduation?

Yes — I have always been interested in the intersection of engineering design, design thinking, and social impact. Being engaged with the Jacobs Institute and the mechanical engineering community at Cal has really helped me gain a variety of experiences in these fields and plan my future career.

Any advice for current Berkeley students who are interested in working in design or related fields after graduation?

Design is a very broad term — it covers art, business strategy, social impact, engineering, architecture, research, and more! So spend time to explore these fields, and figure out what design means to you and why you want to practice that sort of design.

Adam Mansour ’17

Major: Anthropology

How were you involved with the Jacobs Institute and Berkeley’s design ecosystem as a student?

My deepest involvement in the design ecosystem at Berkeley was through Berkeley Innovation, a club that focuses on human-centered design and meets at Jacobs Hall. The opportunity to work with companies and other students on design challenges outside of a classroom was invaluable, especially when paired with learnings in the design classes offered at Berkeley as well.

What was your favorite design project you worked on while at Berkeley?

My favorite design project at Berkeley was one for Needfinding (UGBA 190T). With the prompt to understand stress culture at Berkeley, my team focused on addressing the stress that stems from procrastination guilt. While projects around student life often tend toward navel-gazing, the opportunity to explore and test solutions for a problem so many of our peers faced was a refreshing experience.

What are you doing now? What does a typical day look like?

Since graduating, I’ve been working as a UX researcher at Google, primarily on a recruiting app called Hire. Most of my day is spent working with a great team of designers and product managers to better understand our users’ needs through interviews, usability and concept testing, and usage analytics.

Were you always interested in going into the design field after graduation?

I’d known I was interested in product design long before going to Berkeley, but hadn’t been exposed to design research as a field until my freshman year. As I became more immersed in both design and anthropology, the overlaps in how the two study people pointed to a clear career path. To me, design research was the perfect intersection of my interests: a way to exercise the critical lens of anthropology within the generative environment of product development.

Any advice for current Berkeley students who are interested in working in design or related fields after graduation?

A question I hear often is how someone with little-to-no design experience can catch a break. One of Berkeley’s greatest strengths is the diversity of perspectives it hosts. Exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives can help you identify the challenges people outside your bubbles face and the types problems you find most engaging. Working on projects in those spaces not only yields compelling stories to tell when looking for a design job, but can shed light on how you can leverage design thinking in any field you pursue.

Julia Solano ’16

Major: Engineering + Architecture (self-designed)

How were you involved with the Jacobs Institute and Berkeley’s design ecosystem as a student?

As a student, I was on the advisory committee for the Jacobs Institute and helped craft the Maker Pass. I was really involved in different design clubs on campus — I was partnership chair for Berkeley Innovation and helped create and manage the SHED with Design Engineering Collaborative. I also was a member of Virtual Reality @ Berkeley and was pretty involved in the startup ecosystem. I created my own major to study Design through Engineering and Architecture, so I got to experience design from both the College of Environmental Design and College of Engineering perspectives.

What was your favorite design project you worked on while at Berkeley?

I really enjoyed building an energy-generating rocking chair through the Interactive Seating Design class and making a maple seed-inspired airdrop device through Bioinspired Design! I also have a love/hate relationship with many of my architecture studios.

What are you doing now? What does a typical day look like?

I’m co-founding a humanitarian startup focused on youth engagement and community development. We’re in the process of launching a video social media app for social good, called Dandi, in the Middle East. I’m currently based in Amman, Jordan, and I do everything design and then some — user research and testing, UX and UI design, branding, marketing, and growth. There is no such thing as a typical day — I often bounce between visiting high schools around Jordan, designing UI in Figma, communicating with team members in Singapore and San Francisco, and collaborating with copywriters, producers, and community leaders in cafes. All while eating lots and lots of hummus and shawerma.

Were you always interested in going into the design field after graduation?

When I first applied to Cal I didn’t know what design was. I knew I liked physics, wanted to be creative, and didn’t want to starve. Halfway through, I realized I really liked making things tangible — whether through building mobile apps, haptic jewelry, solar charging centers, museum exhibits, or chairs. I’m really thankful I had the opportunity to experience designing in different contexts before graduating: I worked on a finance startup while studying abroad in Tallinn, Estonia; as a UX/Design Thinking intern at a large tech company in the East Bay; and as a graphic and UX design intern at a production and design agency in San Francisco. I apply skills and lessons from each of those roles in my work today.

What got me really interested in designing for social good was working with an NGO called Saha Global to implement a solar charging center in a rural village two hours outside of Tamale, Ghana. It was that experience that opened my eyes to the power of community input in design. It amazed me how something done in as little as three months could bring a sustainable business and renewable energy to 600 people in a community.

Any advice for current Berkeley students who are interested in working in design or related fields after graduation?

Follow what you’re curious about — the stuff that isn’t due but still distracts you from your problem sets at 2am. Join clubs, befriend people who see the world differently from you, and work on side projects with them. Try everything and be bold. I dabbled in entrepreneurship, VR design, fashion design, UX/UI design, built tables, taught poetry — almost entirely outside of classes. Each experience shaped the way I saw the world and approached problem solving. Being a student is one of the few times where people don’t actually expect you to know what you’re doing (I’m not sure anyone ever really figures this out, but you’re at least expected to get better at pretending). Make the most of this.

At the end of the day, as a designer — digital or physical — you’re building for people. Talk to them, invite them into your design process, and solve real problems that matter.

The design world is evolving so quickly that there is no “right” way into it. As long as your work is authentic to you, useful and desirable to whoever you’re designing for, and you can present it in a portfolio, you should be golden.

Go bears!

Learn more about the Jacobs Institute’s design ecosystem here.

Edited by Laura Mitchell

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