Early Days, and Lightbulbs
So, a bit of backstory. I got my degree in graphic design from Jacksonville State University. Jumped straight into three internships in a row at Disney. And from there I spent about ten years as a graphic designer.
Early on, I was thrilled to get into graphic design. I was excited to make things, hopefully pretty things. But it really went downhill from there.
You know that feeling in your gut when something you used to love doing becomes a chore? That’s what happened for me. I just did not enjoy graphic design anymore. Which sucked, considering I’d spent all that time and money on a career I no longer wanted.
I thought about going back to school, getting a master’s degree, maybe looking for other work. You know, the “normal” path people take when they decide to switch things up.
About three months into a master’s program, I had my lightbulb moment:
I was paying thousands of dollars and committing a huge chunk of time to something I didn’t want to be doing. Again. Ten thousand dollars worth of stress and boredom. Yep. I’m the guy who wasted 10K on the road to figuring out what I wanted. (Still paying for it, by the way.)
I wasn’t sure where to turn. Typing “what can ex-graphic designers do” into Google gave me my next lightbulb moment, because “user experience design” was a top result. And there were interesting connections between my strengths and what UX design work required.
For example: when I was a graphic designer, if you asked me for a flyer I’d ask you why you needed that flyer. Not to be a smartass, but to see if there was another angle that might be more effective. Because if a flyer was the best choice, great! But I wasn’t going to just blindly follow along if there was a better way.
That kind of pushback isn’t appreciated in graphic design, but guess what: UX design is all about asking questions. Bingo! A job that would let me ask all the damn questions I want.
Another aspect of user experience design that excited me? Not just feel like an impersonal tool in someone else’s toolbox.
See, in graphic design, you spend a lot of time becoming an expert in color theory, typography, and so much more… and then you have to sit there while clients without that knowledge tell you they don’t like that color red, or their daughter wants a playful font like Comic Sans to lighten things up. And no, you’re not allowed to literally facepalm in those moments.
So it always felt disempowering, to have all these skills yet have people sit and tell me exactly where to click and how to execute the changes they wanted. Like I was more of a computer mouse than a skilled professional.
I was almost ready to move on.
A few years later, my wife was the one who helped me pull the trigger. I really have to give her credit: she gave me the encouragement I needed to move forward and choose UX design as my new career path.
I did some research and signed up for a bootcamp called Springboard. It combined training, mentorship, and real-world experience (and it didn’t hurt that it was cheaper than some other options!). All cool stuff, all things I could update my resume and LinkedIn with right away.
My wife gave me the okay to quit my job and get started. But I was still doing freelance graphic design on the side. Ironically, that experience confirmed how much I hated the work I was doing. “Torture” is the first word that comes to mind!
But when you’re making pretty good money (at that point about $7,000 in two weeks), it’s tempting to keep going. So I kept taking contract jobs, despite the fact that I was full-on freakin’ miserable.
All the while, I was doing my UX bootcamp, plus going to networking meetups in Atlanta. At one of those meetups I met a guy who works for Salesforce. I told him about these graphic design jobs that I hated, and what I wanted to be doing. What he said next really stopped me in my tracks:
“There are hundreds of unqualified people applying all the time for the jobs you want. What is stopping you from applying to these jobs?”
This question resonated with me so deeply. I knew he was right: there are so many people out there trying to get into jobs they probably don’t belong in. I knew I had to give myself a chance.
Taking the Next Step
So I did it, even though I was still only about three months into UX bootcamp at the time. I applied for a UX job at one of the places I had been doing contract design. I had left there on good terms, and thought what the heck, might as well try!
And they called me back. It seemed kind of insane that I was already getting a job interview this fast, but I was not about to complain.
Long story short, one week later I got the job on a brand-new UX team. Me, the guy who hadn’t even completed my Springboard bootcamp.
Quitting When it Counts
So at this point I was super green, and I asked a lot of questions, doing my best to constantly level up. I worked during the day and then came home and did Springboard. Then I got to the point where I realized that wasn’t even necessary for me anymore.
Sure, it had cost five grand, but was it really worth getting a certificate that literally nobody cared about, for a job I already had?
This might not be the popular thing to say, but sometimes finishing things isn’t as important as knowing when to quit. I’m not against UX bootcamp programs, but just so you know: you don’t need a certificate hanging on your wall to start applying for work you’re interested in. If you have the knowledge and capability to get started, that’s enough.
From Zero to Portfolio
Fun fact: I had nothing in my UX portfolio when I was starting out. Zero. Zip. Nada.
So over the course of three or four days, I created a random UX design-type application for jujitsu. I’m a 2-strip blue belt in jujitsu (holla!), so it felt natural to create an app that motivates people to keep up with their training. Even though it was to fill out my portfolio, I still tied the project in with something I love.
Other than that, all I could add was some research I’d done for a bootcamp project, not even any wireframes or mock-ups, just research.
That’s why I recommend you start adding to your portfolio as you go. Even if you’re just uploading pieces of bootcamp projects. If you wait until you’re “qualified,” someone like me who threw together a basic portfolio in a few days is still a few steps ahead of you. Food for thought!
Another important thing to understand is that people with a design background are going to have an edge in UX. If you already have a lot of the knowledge in place (typography, color theory, composition, all that good stuff), then you’re already part-way there. So just be aware that your previous experience does factor in.
Where I’m At Now?
I was able to take the knowledge and soft skills and confidence I gained at that first UX job and leverage them to get an even better job. Like a mentor once told me: your first job is not going to be your last job.
Right now I work at a cool company with a team of twelve UX designers. It’s a place where I’m learning every day. And I keep challenging myself, because I want to think on an even higher level than just making pretty things. Who knows, I might even work towards being a UX strategist someday.
While I do earn more now, for me it’s not entirely about the money. Being on a team that values you, in an environment with open communication – don’t forget to place a value on those things.
As to what else I’m working on these days… I’m reading a lot. Learning as much as I can from podcasts. Making videos (have you checked out Ugly Unicorns channel on YouTube yet?). Looking for ways to help people like you by sharing what I’ve learned. All the good stuff.
Wrapping Up With Some Do’s and Don’ts
Time to close out with a few key takeaways! Here we go:
DO get started on your portfolio. Like, yesterday.
DO leverage the design knowledge and skills you already have.
DO learn as much as you can about UX.
DON’T wait for a piece of paper or certification to validate your skills.
DON’T listen to anyone who tells you to put off applying for jobs.
DON’T be shy: put yourself out there!