How a seemingly coincidental series of events lead me to find a career I love.
Everyone’s story is unique and different when it comes to how they became a UX designer, partly because UX designers come from almost any background or discipline. Some people dream of it and study hard to become one; other people just happen to find the profession by accident.
The story of how I found UX really starts when I finished undergrad. I was young, ambitious, and rather naive. I graduated with a double degree in Fine Arts and Advertising. Even with those degrees, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. But, I was sure that I wanted to live in another country because it was something I had always dreamed about. With that in mind, I decided to move to France. I figured that once I was there, I would start a new life for myself and find my career.
At the time, I didn’t speak a word of French, but I had the fearlessness of a young 20-something. Before the big move, my (older) friends marveled at my decision and told me I was brave. I didn’t understand their reactions though because all I could see was opportunity and adventure. I would eventually come to realize why they talked about bravery, but not until I was settled in Paris and too prideful to come home without proving that I could make a life for myself in another country.
The first year in France flew by and before I knew it my visa to “study French” was quickly expiring. I wanted to figure out how to stay longer and the easiest way was by renewing my student visa. I began searching for masters programs. I thought why not, because after all, you can get a free education in France! I scoured the web for programs that looked interesting in a wide range of fields. I found three that piqued my interest; one in industrial design, another in jewelry design, and the third in digital creation. The third program was the most intriguing to me, but also the most abstract with French words I had never heard of before like, “création numériques”, “systèmes immersifs”, “crossmédias,” etc. I wasn’t totally sure what I would learn, but I knew that it had something to do with innovative technology and design, so I decided to pursue it.
The classes were held at a French university and taught all in French. My limits were pushed during the application process as I applied to the program in the same way as any other French resident. I needed to write a 5 page essay on why I was enrolling in the program and then interview in front of a panel of professors, in French. Somehow, I managed to win them over and before I knew it, I was attending classes that ranged from graphic design, coding for websites and video games, to interactive documentary theory classes. We were graded on group projects, which allowed us work with classmates that had wide ranging skill-sets, coming from either a design, development, or communications background. By the end of the two years, I completed a diverse set of projects, but was still unsure of the kind of job I wanted, even though I knew I wanted to continue doing creative digital projects.
During those 3 years in France, while studying, I explored a variety of career paths. At different points during my time abroad I could be found working as an artist assistant, a graphic designer, a writer for a blog, working in the communications department of the International Chamber of Commerce, and even flipping vegan burgers in Le Marais! None of those jobs stuck though. I never felt passionate about the work I was doing. Even though I liked what I was studying, I still hadn’t truly found UX. I hadn’t quite wrapped my head around the differences between UI, UX, graphic design, art direction, and all the other variations of digital creative work.
At the end of my masters program I was lucky enough to find an internship in the digital department of a global advertising agency in Paris, OgilvyOne. I was told that I would have opportunities to work on a wide range of digital projects from interactive campaigns, to immersive experiences, mobile apps, web-design, and everything in between. I was sold. I loved the idea of continuing to work on a variety of types of digital projects.
Keep searching for jobs you feel passionate about; the ones you like thinking about and the ones you enjoy doing. Once you find one, try to find more that are similar and eventually you can find yourself in a career that you love.
On the first day of my internship I found myself sitting at a desk in a large open office space. The room was brightly lit with shiny white surfaces and lots of natural light. I looked around my new environment and realized I was the youngest person in the department. I then noticed I was just one of three females. To make me feel even more out of place, I then realized that I was the only foreigner, with French as my second language. I was intimidated, to say the least.
My new boss sat in a quadrant across the room with two other men around his same age. The three of them looked like they had known each other for many years. They were constantly telling inside jokes that flew right above my head. It was an obvious clique that I would never be accepted into. Next to them, were two other interns, French guys, a little older than me. They were students from a much more prestigious school (at least from their perspective). As they sized me up, I could feel my insecurities bubbling inside. The office manager, a woman who smiled all the time, sat near me. Her proximity and warmth made me feel a little more welcome. There were a handful of other people, busily working who didn’t pay me much mind. I was excited and curious to figure out who I would fit in with and what kinds of projects I would get involved in. At the same time I was unbelievably nervous because I didn’t want to screw anything up.
But screw up was exactly what happened for the first couple weeks! It was my first agency job and I didn’t know the rules. My masters program had taught me how to write code and do some scrappy design work, but I soon realized that my unorganized and messy photoshop layers were not going to cut it. I learned quickly from my mistakes. I didn’t like playing into my coworkers’ stereotypes of being just another stupid American and started paying very close attention to how other people were doing things.
Being the outsider is never easy. The feeling of isolation that results is intense, but can also be a source of strength. It can lead to defining moments of life-changing realization. Lean into it because it’s only when we move out of our comfort zones that we truly learn and grow.
My first projects at the agency were small banner ads and some print brochures. I was mostly flexing my graphic design skills while everyone was sizing me up, trying to figure out what to do with me. I wasn’t particularly happy or excited about the work and even felt that the internship was over-sold to me as an innovative department working on interactive and immersive digital projects. The caveat however was that there were interesting projects happening, but those projects were given to more senior people.
Then something happened and I caught my first big break. It was August, almost everyone was on vacation, and I finally got a shot at an exciting project. The client was a well-known French tennis company with an IoT tennis racket, designed to help track performance. The project was to design the UI for their second mobile app, to be paired with their new IoT device. The new app was targeted towards a younger audience and needed a different look and feel. I was paired with a creative director who gave me the freedom and autonomy to explore a variety of ideas and directions. He was open-minded and never overly critical, even if what I brought to him wasn’t the best work.
In truth, he was the first person in my professional life to really believe in me. Because of his confidence, I worked even harder to make sure I would never disappoint him. With his guidance, we created a graphic identity for a mobile app that would be used around the world. The work I did on that particular project helped prove my value to everyone in our department. People were beginning to realize that I was a capable designer. From that point on came many more interesting projects.
This was my defining moment and how I came to fall in love with UX. With this single project, I realized I enjoyed designing mobile apps and software more than any of the other projects I had ever worked on. It was at this moment I decided to make it my mission to constantly pursue software design, which has led me into a career I love and am grateful to have found. I often think of this particular creative director and how I don’t know where I would be today if he hadn’t given me the confidence and opportunity I needed to find my path. From my personal experience, my advice to anyone new to the design world is to seek out people who have faith in you and keep them in your corner. They will guide and provide opportunities that would have otherwise never been possible.