I graduated college with a degree in industrial design at the beginning of 2004. I got my first design (unsurprisingly not in industrial design) job in 2006 designing menu screens for DVDs. It was just a few short years before the financial crisis would hit full-swing. Two years later I was told my department was being shut down. I had four months to find a job.
By this point I had some experience and thought getting another DVD job was possible. It wasn’t. It turns out that there are like, three places in the US that have DVD menu designers. I just happened to end up at one that was on the way out.
I needed an online portfolio to apply for jobs so I bought a book about HTML & CCS and spent a month’s worth of nights and weekends learning how to make a website. I was lucky in a way because this was before Squarespace, or any of those pre-built solutions. Wordpress was kind of an option, but looking at PHP files gave me the sweats. HTML and CSS made sense to me. They are more visual and I could instantly see my progress in the browser. I liked that. I still do. Coding my own website forced me to learn how to actually write HTML and CSS.
A long way around
I was nearly out of a job, but I had a portfolio website that I built by hand, from scratch. And It worked. I found another job—as a print designer.
I was happy to have a job and I threw myself into learning everything I could about designing for print. I learned about prepress, typography, color, and white space. I learned how to deal with clients, and meet deadlines, and work within a budget. I started designing logos, and websites for friends and family. They recommended me to the people they knew that need logos and websites. I started to ask those people for money to make things for them. And they didn’t say no.
Another what next
I’ve had a couple of jobs since then and I’ve become pretty decent at designing things for screens. In a roundabout way I found a career that I love, and I can’t really see myself doing anything in the future that doesn’t involve making things for the web.
I do feel something changing in the way I approach my work though. I started a new position at the beginning of the year that has me doing a lot less day-to-day production design work and instead thinking about higher-level problems. Specifically, how to create more consistent and usable experiences across a disparate set of systems within an organization.
I spend a lot of time supporting other designers and developers that are building/rebuilding these systems. Here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking a lot about:
Designing a reusable system of components that can be applied to all the products across your organization is smart. It saves time and money and creates familiarity for your users. I’m working on one now and here’s what I’ve learned. The code is a formality. Put all your time into documentation and building a community around it.
In working mostly with other designers and developers, I’ve been thinking a lot more about giving and receiving feedback, helping others work through design problems, and helping less experienced designers learn. I get a lot of enjoyment out of this stuff on a personal level, but it’s also important to share what you know. It makes you and, if you do it right, the ones you’re sharing with smarter.
I’m definitely in the middle of some sort of transition in my career and I’m excited. Seems like a good time to take a quick look at how I got here and write it down. Mostly as a reminder to be open to change and the opportunity to move on to what’s next.