Jacky Lee on being a rookie and maintaining a healthy balance of work

Femke van Schoonhoven
The Creatives Series
6 min readMar 15, 2017


Senior Product Designer Jacky Lee — Interview by Femke

From Auckland New Zealand, Jacky Lee jumped ship from Architecture to Product Design. He’s now at Koordinates making Earth’s data more accessible.

You studied architecture but now work as a senior product designer — how did you make the shift?

For me it felt inevitable. I’ve always had a huge passion in technology. As soon as I came across an opportunity to join a startup as a product designer, I gave it my best shot — even if it meant I had to throw myself into the deep end and learn on the job. However, the transition didn’t come straight after architecture school.

I worked as an architectural graduate for 18 months before I made the transition. I wasn’t happy about the corporate environment I was in. Fortunately I was moonlighting as a freelance graphic designer and used that as an outlet for doing what I really enjoyed.

Through freelancing, I learnt the basics of web development, and used that skill to build myself a site. The initial intent of the site merely for me to experiment and treated it as a hobby, but the passion grew as I kept tinkering.

A few months later, that became the main piece of work that I took with me to my first interview with Vend.

To this day, I am still extremely grateful for the opportunity they gave me despite my lack of prior work experience!

I saw that you’re currently learning hand lettering and documenting a bit of your journey on Instagram. What draws you to hand lettering?

I used to do a lot of traditional art sketching and painting, but digital design took over most of my work in recent years. I began to miss not having an undo button and shut myself off for hours at a time to just enjoy the process of creating something with analogue tools. This inspired me to pick up a humble brush and start learning how to craft words with letters.

Like most crafts, it’s easy to over simplify the process until we start doing it ourselves.

I’m constantly blown away by artists in the lettering community. They make it look so effortlessly, but I’m sure each confident stroke came from years of relentless practice. I started an instagram account to document my journey of learning this new skill.

You’ve done a lot for the local design community in Auckland including organising the local Dribbble meetup there. What’s your favourite part about being so involved in the design community?

Great things happen when you put like-minded people in the same room. This is certainly the case with Dribbble meetups. My favourite part is seeing people come together to geek out on their passions! Each meetup includes 3 speakers with a wide range of topics.

We’ve had gif makers, prototypers, surfboard designers, designers & entrepreneurs sharing their experience with everyone.

I believe great design comes in all shapes and sizes, and cross-pollination should be encouraged.

I think meetups are a great way for that to happen organically, without imposing a need for attendees to ‘network’ if they don’t want to. You could be a total introvert and still walk away with something valuable from the speakers.

You seem to dabble a bit in code as well from time to time. How would you recommend a designer get started with learning how to code?

This seems to be a hot topic as of late. To clarify first, I don’t think coding is a criteria for designers, but it wouldn’t hurt to understand the building blocks for what you’re designing.

Product designers learning about code is like architects understanding the materials they’re designing with; You don’t need to be an expert in concrete, steel & timber, You just need to know enough to take advantage of it when designing.

With that in mind, a great way to start learning how to code is to build yourself a web portfolio. Treat it like a design project. The best thing about the brief is that it can be as simple or as complex as you wish. It doesn’t need to change the world, it just needs to make you better. Since you’re creating something for yourself, it will motivate you to invest in your time and craft something you’re proud of.

Everyone learns a bit differently, I learn best through making. The most memorable lessons that stuck with me were the hours of googling solutions to make something work. Each obstacle will progressively get harder and harder, but the reward of understanding how something works makes it all worth it.

How do you balance side and freelance projects with a full time job?

For side & passion projects, I think when you’re passionate about something, you would find excuses to do it regardless of how busy you are. I find passion projects very useful for developing skills outside of my full time job, so I make an effort whenever I have some down time.

As for freelance work, I think a good way to keep a healthy balance is knowing when to say no.

Avoid overcommitting and spreading yourself too thin. Be respectful of priorities and communicate with your full time job about your other commitments. There’s nothing wrong with having two jobs so building the trust between each other goes a long way.

What advice would you have for someone who’s thinking about making a shift into design, but isn’t feeling confident enough to make the jump?

Changing career path is always intimidating. The fear of the unknown can make us settle for the predictable. But if your lack of confidence comes from thinking it’s too late to start from scratch and learn a dozen design tools to be hireable, then fret not!

As long as you stay curious about design and keep questioning everything in sight, you’re on the right track.

Keep a rookie mentality. Because everyone’s a rookie. This is especially true in the ever-changing environment of software product design. Theories and guidelines is a great starting point, but sometimes they go out the window as soon as you observe quietly your users navigate around something you designed.

Lastly, get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Since there are no textbook answers for a lot of the problems you’ll come across, it is common to feel stuck sometimes.

Knowing where to look for answers, either by testing designs or asking for help, will open up new perspectives and change the way you solve a problem.

You can find Jacky on his website, Twitter, Instagram and Dribbble.

What is The Creative Series?

The Creative Series is a publication run by Femke that highlights the under-deserved creatives of our industry. If you’re interested in being featured or want to submit someone, please reach out to Femke on Twitter.

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About the interviewer

Hi I’m Femke — a designer, writer and podcaster who overlaps between a day job, freelancing and side projects. I love to help other creatives be the best version of themselves. I’d love to get to know you more, say hi on Twitter 👋



Femke van Schoonhoven
The Creatives Series

Kiwi in Canada, Product designer at Uber, Podcasting at @DesignLifeFM, Videos about design: https://t.co/Dh2EpDr6jT?amp=1