When I was little, I always got so excited about learning — until I got to the actual learning part of learning. In third grade, when I had to memorize the geographical location of all 50 states, I took great pleasure in unrolling a large poster of the United States, using a pencil to point out each state, and speaking to an imaginary audience about the name of that state and what was special about it. But when it came time to take the test, I was lost and ended up failing.
In fourth grade I planted some grass in a cup and placed it on my desk. I was so excited — maybe I’d be an archaeologist! (I thought that’s what archaeologists did). When aphids appeared on my leaves of grass, I was even more thrilled. Maybe I’d be a paleontologist! Yet, my interest in watching how aphids crawled over the grass was more about what I would say about them if I were on a television show dedicated to my personal knowledge of aphids. That excited me. Aphids did not. I got rid of the aphids as soon as I imagined them escaping the cup of grass and crawling up my nose. Playing make-believe and pretending was always more fun than actually doing anything.
That’s kind of how I found user experience design.
I was in my fourth and final year at the University of Maryland. I had changed my degree from theater to economics to ease my parents’ worries, and signed up for a few fun courses out of utter boredom. One was Multimedia Design and the other was Astronomy. When I began to struggle in Astronomy (which was early) I decided to make my final project for Multimedia Design an interactive astronomy guide. It was brilliant! I would learn about astronomy by creating an astronomy teaching tool. I ended up getting an A in Multimedia Design. And a D in Astronomy.
But I had fallen in love. With Photoshop. And HTML. Being on the computer didn’t feel like work to me. Finally I’d found something I actually liked learning.
After graduation I got a job as a receptionist at a small graphic design studio. I figured I could work my way up from answering phones to Senior Designer. About a month after I started, I approached the owners about making such a leap. “You don’t even have a design degree!” they laughed, and I sulked back to my post at the phones. This job was horrible. I hated answering phones, I hated ordering office supplies and I hated…okay that’s all I did. Sometimes they’d let me cut up print outs and paste them to a piece of cardboard to present to clients. One time I wasn’t paying attention and I sliced about 2 mm of my index finger off. I was so mortified they’d find out, or see blood all over their glossies, that all I did was apply pressure and run to the bathroom. I wasn’t getting anywhere in this job.
But one day I sat behind the front desk reading a design magazine, and in the very back was an ad for a graduate program in digital design. They called it Information Design and Technology in those days (insert hardy old person’s laugh here). It was at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Something clicked. I knew that’s where I was going to go. Even after looking closer and seeing that the application deadline had already passed, I was undeterred. I was applying anyway. And I was getting in.
I immediately sent in my application and didn’t even wait for an acceptance letter to quit my job. I booked a ticket to Atlanta to meet the professors. I lined up a summer job interview at MindSpring. My parents thought I was crazy. Looking back, I guess I sort of was. I’ve always felt unsure of exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I have these rare moments of total clarity where everything is perfectly clear. This was one of those moments. I walked around Atlanta even though Atlanta isn’t a walking city at all and I had no idea where I was most of the time. I met the professors and told them I’d already gotten the summer job at MindSpring, which I hadn’t. I went to my job interview at MindSpring and told them I had already been accepted to the program at Georgia Tech, which I also hadn’t. It didn’t matter though. Thankfully, both my acceptance letter and job offer came through and a month later my parents were driving me and all my stuff down to Atlanta for good.
Two years later I graduated with my Masters of Science in Information Design and Technology, and the rest is sort of history.