the road to tech: from ballet to ux design

april 4, 2016 
by brooke wingate

I took a course in UX design by accident. I meant to register for a front-end web development class but unwittingly clicked UX design. A few days afterwards, the school called me for an interview. Without mentioning the name of the course we talked fluidly about design principles, anthropology, and my digital experience. By the end the rep confirmed me for my UX Design course. …What? I paused for a moment but quickly returned his confirmation, I figured, why not? Just as that initial user experience conversation came naturally to me, so did the course.

As a ballet dancer, I can say the same. I took my first ballet class as a young adult and despite the inherent unusual nature of the physical art, it came naturally to me. I’m not sure what this says about my innate human stature but, nonetheless, I’m grateful for the expedited progress I’ve made in my ballet skills.

In college I gathered a degree in visual studies, and four years post graduation I still don’t know what it means. I studied dance, film, painting, web design, art history, landscape architecture, sculpture, glassblowing, yeah….glassblowing. Sometimes I think an art degree causes more problems than it solves. I left school exceptionally confused about what to put on my resume, and even more confused about where to send it. At the time, it didn’t sound like any of those subjects would help me save the world. I resolved to bartending, an intermittent job to pay the bills while I danced as often as humanly possible. I kept the bar job for much longer than I intended to, and 4 years later, in a 3am-post-shift exasperated state of ‘OMG this isn’t my life’, I went online and signed up for a class.

It’s sort of a taboo thing, being a UX designer while also calling yourself an ‘artist.’ Thinking versus feeling are two different forms of operation. Sometimes, you have to take the more pleasurable scenic ‘feeling’ route rather than the the two-mile shortcut that ‘thinking’ suggests. It’s taken me a couple years to establish a healthy balance between the two.

For me, design is the intersection between art and functionality; it’s problem solving, done beautifully. I organize fine details and conceptualize big ideas. Everyday, I communicate ideological trends visually, the same way I do when I dance. With consideration of the design principles and art history I studied, I utilize lean and agile methodologies to systematically bring ideas to life. In a ballet too, a dancer systematically brings ideas to life.

I’m a UX designer by choice and a dancer by nature. Like lots of my peers, there was a point in time when I felt incapable of applying the same amount of passion it takes to dance professionally, to a different career. Many dancers may be surprised to find there are other careers with the same qualities; jobs that require the same manners as dance. UX for example, suits my balletic nature handsomely.

Before beginning this epiphanic scientific analysis, I want to disclose the number one thing that separates ballet from UX. Having established the aforementioned ‘happy balance’, I discovered the most gratifying bonus of UX design is utility, something I have yet to identify in dance. As a dancer, I benefit from not having to pay a monthly gym membership. There is no workout as beautiful and torturous as ballet. The audience (lucky for them, perhaps) doesn’t share the same physical pains and gains of the experience. During a ballet, functionality is lost to the audience but achieved by the dancer. With UX, functionality is achieved by all parties.

Despite this minor difference, there are three characteristics of UX designers that mirror those of a ballet dancer.

1.Passion — UX designers live and breath UX. With everything they interact with, a designer is always considering ways the interactions could be improved. It’s a conscious and often subconscious way of life. Likewise ballet dancers live and breathe ballet. They are hyper aware of mannerisms, and consider their craft through each moment of the day, analysing their bodies and physical interactions with the aspiration of improvement.

2.Empathy — UX designers represent people. They are the embodiment of user needs, consistently advocating for the users of each platform they design. Ballet dancers represent people, often placing themselves in the shoes of a wide range of characters all in the same work day. They must be able to think, feel, and move like the character they’ve become and then smoothly transition to the next.

3.Desire to delight an audience — Not only do UX Designers want to create concise and intuitive, interfaces, they also hope to provide a level of delight to the user. A delightful user experience means pleasing colors, meaningful formatting and visual effects. Ballet dancers are most fulfilled when their meaningful interpretation of choreography delights the audience. Emotional involvement is the equivalent of an intuitive interface. A standing ovation is the equivalent of a social share.

The road to your chosen career will look different when you sit at the beginning, compared to looking back upon what actually happened. In the meantime, do what you’re passionate about and the often-surprising connections will follow.

Brooke Wingate, UX designer

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