From “The worst designer I’ve worked with” to “Hiring you is the best decision we’ve made” — A reflection of my design journey
Yes, the title sounds very much like a clickbait, however, these are real words people have used to describe me, 10 years apart. This is a story of my journey of becoming and growing as a designer. While it’s as much of a self-reflection, I hope it could be encouraging for people who are considering entering the design/UX field or feel discouraged to continue at the moment.
An Outsider to Design
I have learned painting and drawing for quite some time when I was a kid, but I had to face a choice of either art or academic path in high school. In China, many kids who are determined to pursue an artist path will quit high school classes and focus on finessing their art skills to get into the few top art schools. However, I had not bad grades in high school, and my parents were worried about not being able to make money as an artist, so they convinced me to quit learning art but focusing on my academic study. (how stereotypical!) And thus, I went to a comprehensive university in Shanghai, majoring in English. Ironically, the university was famous for its architecture and design, and the design school was just by the foreign language school. Everyday I went to class, I saw other design kids carrying sketch boards, paints, 3d models, I was jealous, and always wondered: what if that were me!
In my junior year, I had a chance to go to Belgium to study for half a year. It was not until then I realized I had no passion for English or the French language, but I was obsessed with all the art museums and galleries in Europe. After I came back from the study trip, I told my mom I wanted to pursue an art/design future and wanted to get into an art graduate school. I somehow found the chairman’s contact from the design school in my university, and went with some of my paintings and showed him. “Well, to enter design graduate program you have to learn way more than just painting”, after seeing my work he said, “you need to know the history of design, basic disciplines, the trends, the tools to do design, etc”. Ok, that sounded like a lot to learn, and I didn’t know where to start. (This was 2009, and we had a lot fewer resources online)
At this time, my mom told me one of her colleagues’ daughter was a graphic designer, so maybe she can give me some suggestions. I was super excited to meet her, but later realized it was such a scam my parents had set up. The designer lady told me not to become a designer at all: “it’s low pay and a lot of work, and even now you like design and art, once it’s become your profession you will hate it…” Maybe she was speaking the truth to her with a good intention, but I have to disagree after being a designer for 10 years — I still love design & art, if not more than 10 years ago.
Learning design on my own
Determined to become a design student, I started with learning design history from The Arts & Crafts Movement to Bauhaus, from color theory to typography, and started doodling with Adobe — all in my spare time during college. There was one night, I put up a lot of my hand-drawn posters on the wall of the English classroom, so it didn’t look so empty. I did this without telling anyone, and the next day everyone was amazed by the new posters.
And then I graduated with my English bachelor's degree, and again, because of my not bad grades, the university granted me a special free ride to post-graduate study in Language education. I was reluctant to go, but one more time, my parents were strongly against my pursuing art and pressured me into my first grad school — Chinese language teaching to English speakers. I did it for three years and never forgot to keep practicing design on the side. I started skipping my language classes and learning design almost took all my day time. In my 2nd year in grad school, I finally found an internship as a designer.
My first design gig
I applied to many places, but no company wanted to hire me even as an intern, because of my background. And this magazine company that offered me the internship turned out to be, they thought I applied for an English translation internship. After translating architect’s interviews (that’s an architecture & urban planning mag) for a month, I had to talk to the editor-in-chief that I would want to do design instead of translation and that was when she realized I had applied for a design internship. And during that time the company happened to fire the only designer they had, so my boss said ok you can give it a try, and later they hired a new creative director to lead the design.
Of course, I never did real design (industry level) before, so most of the time I had no idea what I was doing until the new creative director came. I still remember the first thing he asked me: “Do you know what RGB stands for? What CMYK stands for? What’s the difference between RGB and CMYK?” I was ashamed. I didn’t know. After working with me for a week, he told me: “You are the worst designer I have ever worked with. You don’t know anything about designing a magazine, you don’t even know some basic knowledge of design.” Feeling extremely devastated, I asked him: “I am willing to learn. Can you teach me?” And that’s how I started my fast learning path with my first design mentor. Sometimes I would design a feature story for 6 hours, and he would scan for less than 1 minute and say “Nope. Try again.” Sometimes I worked till 3 am on press day, and still got “No”. Yes, he was super harsh on me, and sometimes felt he was just a jerk, but he told me, any designers he had trained got good careers because of the real good foundation he had laid out for them. And whenever I worked late, he would work late with me, never once left office earlier than me.
After working in the magazine company for almost two years (while doing my grad school), I felt I got all knowledge from this job and decided to get some formal training in design.
Study at SAIC
I got another opportunity to teach Chinese in San Diego, CA in my last year of grad school. I utilized it not because I wanted to become a teacher in the future but to check out famous art schools in the US and prepare for applications. In my teaching internship, I had taken TOFEL twice, GMAT once, prepped my portfolio, and applied many art schools such as SAIC, MICA, SVA, Pratt, Calarts, etc, while juggling through my grad thesis on language education.
I didn’t tell my parents until I applied to multiple schools, and as my parents were still on the fence about me pursuing art, they saw how persistent I was, and my mom finally said: “If you can get in any of the top 10 art schools in the US, I’ll let you go.”
That’s where the miracle happened— I was admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, top 2 in the US at the time. (top 1 is Yale in case you are wondering). And my parents kept their promise, so I started my 8years life in Chicago.
Study at SAIC was intense but probably my happiest time. I felt so free to express myself: I made installations, videos, letterpress, sculptures, even papers from tree branches. I finally became the cool art kid I always wanted to be. One side note, SAIC is an amazing school where grad students are given absolute freedom to learn whatever they want. I even earned more credits than needed to graduate, because I was just so interested in all courses (to the extent my family refused to pay extra classes for me and asked me to pay by myself and I did with my trivial savings :))
Good times always pass fast. In May 2015, after the thesis exhibition, everyone was facing a dilemma: to become an artist or to find a job. Some classmates got leads from galleries right away, and signed contracts to become an artist; some were still producing art, hoping to get noticed by art critics or galleries. As for me, my family supported my undergrad and both grad schools, and I didn’t want to be a burden to them after graduation, and thus left me one path to go: find a job.
Man, I wish somebody had told me how hard it was to find a job in the US. As ignorant as I was, I thought top art schools and a graduate degree almost promised me a good job (well, it’s the case in China). I spent months trying to land an internship in design, not to mention I had previous working experiences. But all the art stuff I did in school just can’t get me any leads. I had to build my portfolio with all the magazine work I did back in China. Ultimately, I got a job as an art director in a startup, managing 4 junior designers. Unfortunately, the startup ran out of business in over a year’s time, and I lost my job.
As a foreigner, losing a job is devastating as we only have 60 days to get the next job otherwise we will be deported. I applied to more than 400 companies, and got less than 5 interviews, and eventually 1 offer. But after the company learned I needed visa sponsorship, they retracted the offer. I was disappointed but never lost hope. I convinced the company that retracted the offer to finally agreed on getting me the work visa. And thus I was able to stay in the US.
This company was also a media/magazine company, and I got the job as a Sr. editorial designer. We had 7 designers working for different magazine brands, and as the only senior, I was responsible for their flagship brand. I worked hard but didn’t feel fulfilled, since I was too familiar with magazine design. I was exposed to design thinking methodology accidentally (my roommate majored in design methodology, design thinking back in 2014 and that picked my interest) and started exploring a broader design field that I might be interested in.
Same method as when I first started learning design— in my day time I did editorial design, after work I was learning design methodology and digital design or web design (UED was not widely used at the time). Finally, an opportunity came that changed my career path.
Becoming a user experience designer
In late 2017, the magazine company wanted to start digital transformation — building a better online platform for editorial content beyond print magazines. They wanted to start with the flagship brand to gain the most impact, which is the brand I was responsible for. And among all designers at the time, I was the only one that knew some knowledge of web/digital design, so I was assigned to be the sole designer on this year-long project.
Due to I was the only one that knew UX design in the company, I had a lot of challenges from peers, stakeholders and leadership. I still remember when I first started, the VP of creative requested: “we need to wrap up this project in three months, and you need to get all design assets ready for developers”. “But that’s not the right process,” I argued, “We should start from the customers and learn what their pain points and needs are, and then start thinking about the solution.” I ultimately convinced the VP we need to follow a good UX process, but he was still very skeptical: “ I understand the process you shared, but I am not sure how we can do it. E.g how can we do user research? what does it look like? …” Well, I was not confident enough to carry out a clear roadmap, but fortunately I found this book: Validating Product Ideas: Through Lean User Research. I used a lot of lean methodologies from the book to make sure we get enough user data to validate some assumptions we had, but still move quickly. And I also ran my first design sprint with all stakeholders, although we had to customize it from 5 days to 5 hours. The new platform was a success, and we have seen a 44% increase in page views. Besides all the traffic increase, I was very happy that everyone enjoyed the process. When one colleague — a customer support manager left the company, she thanked me: “All of the activities we did for this project make me feel my work is worth something”.
The digital platform development project got my foot into the door of UX, and I wanted a full-time job in UX in a more mature org, so I switched my job again, after working for almost two years in-house. Lucky enough, I got a UX designer job in a marketing agency, leading a team of two UX designers. I worked with PMs, clients, strategy team, and dev team on every project. When I first heard strategy team, I was very curious. I did not have any background in strategy whatsoever, but I believe a good product needs a good product strategy. So I knocked on the VP of strategy’s door and asked him what his department was about. Gradually, I started 1–1 with him every month, and he looped me in several projects where I worked with strategists (as a designer). Thanks to him and his team, I learnt more analytical skills in business opportunity analysis, market research, hosted innovation workshops with clients, and learned UX was not everything, but just one pillar among other functions that make a product successful.
Everything couldn’t go better until COVID hit us badly in 2020.
Laid off during pandemic
On the last day of March 2020, I got a call from the VP of Creative, that I was laid off. Later I learned, my direct manager was also laid off, and the company furloughed 1/3 employees. The sudden bad news really hit me as I wasn’t ready for finding a new job, and my portfolio was from three years ago. Apart from losing income, again I was facing deportation in 60 days.
Maybe I was just rebellious, I couldn’t accept the reality easily. After one week’s depression, I started looking for a new job. I spent 2 weeks making a new portfolio— I lost access to Adobe, so I borrowed my friend’s account, and I didn’t have time to make a brand new website, so I built a new site using XD, just faking it. In two weeks’ time, I applied for 40 jobs, spent 14hrs every day working on my portfolio, but never heard back from my applications.
One day someone on LinkedIn reached out to me and wanted to have an informal chat. I was thrilled although I had no idea about the company. Soon I learned the company was a subsidiary of Amazon. Excited and anxious, I chatted with the hiring manager (later my boss) and then went through a phone interview and a 7hr onsite interview, including a whiteboard design challenge.
In the meantime, another big global agency contacted me. I applied to the agency three times in the past, and never got an interview opportunity. So I went through the interviews with the agency this time and got the offer from both Amazon and the agency.
In one month’s time, my emotion went through a roller coaster ride, but I had to make a decision. The agency job was in Chicago, and offered me a more senior title, while Amazon needed me to move to Seattle, which meant I had to leave all of my friends and go to a place where I know no one. Well, when I came to the US I also didn’t know anyone, isn’t it?
Working at Amazon
I finally accepted the offer from Amazon, and I have to admit, it was challenging to onboard virtually, and move from Chicago to Seattle during the pandemic. It was my cat’s first flight experience as well, and he puked and pooped on the plane, poor kitty. But once got through all the initial chaos, I was excited about all new projects, new team setup, and all the smart people surrounded me.
After working for almost one year there, I think I can say, I made the right decision. When exposed to smart people, I learn how they approach things, solve design challenges, and persuade others with data, and apply them in my own work and design philosophy. And I am lucky enough to have a lot of support outside of my org (as I am the solo designer on the team). In this year’s performance review, I got exceeds, and the Sr. PM on the team told me “Hiring you is the best decision our org has made (this year)”.
Looking back at my journey, from an English major to a UX designer, it is certainly a winding one, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who changed their career path got there much faster and more successfully than I did. However, I never regretted the path I took and am proud that I never quit becoming a designer. There is still a lot to learn, and Amazon might not be my final destination either, but to work as a designer, to think as a designer, to solve problems as a designer is the best thing that ever happens to me. :)