A very common question I am asked in my Instagram DMs is how did you get started in Design? This is a common natural curiosity from early-stage designers who want to understand if there are any applicable lessons they can apply to their own career path.
And actually, this is not just early-stage designers – we all do this to some extent – we look around at those around us and think to ourselves, if I understood the path they took to their success, I could replicate it too!
Unfortunately, it’s never that easy to duplicate a career path. But what I do like about answering this question is that it can give a bit of an insight into some of the mistakes, risks that paid off, and learnings that I had along the way.
So, in this post, I’ll walk through some of the key step in my journey that took me from zero design experience, through to flourishing as a practicing designer, to now, as a manager supporting a team of designers.
I hope that this is an interesting look at how I have navigated my way through my career so far and might be a useful peek into some of my decision-making processes along the way that could be valuable for you.
My Design Journey
🎓A BSc in Psychology
My design journey began all the way back when I decided that I wanted to study Psychology at University. I was always incredibly interested in people, understanding their behaviours, needs and motivations, and I thought that Psychology would give me a toolkit to assess and understand why people do the things that they do.
While I didn’t consciously see this at the time as a step in my design journey, its clear to me now that my background rooted in this mindset is a keenly valuable skill I have and use all the time.
👩🎓An MSc in Organisational Psychology
After I completed my undergraduate degree, I had an excellent grounding in a wide variety of areas of Psychology, but I didn’t feel any closer to understanding how I could make a career out of it.
At the same time, I had, through my student years, developed and grew my interest in graphic design. So, I thought I should see if there was a way to merge my two interests.
I came across Organisational Psychology as a Master’s degree, which had one exciting module titled Human / Computer Interaction. I decided to take a leap into this area and do my master’s so I can find out more about this exciting area that seemed to marry psychology and design into the perfect cocktail.
👩🏫 A first UX Design Internship
Toward the end of my Master’s, I started thinking seriously about making Human / Computer Interaction, or User Experience Design as I began to realise it was being more widely known, into my career of choice.
I knew getting some hands-on experience was critical but I had no idea where to start. I knew nobody who worked in design, so I started to shortlist exciting, fresh tech companies based in London that either seemed to have user experience designers already on their staff or that seemed like they’d be open to taking a chance on an untested but eager student.
From this shortlist, I approached tens and tens of companies with my CV and an explanation of how I thought I could help them as a UX intern*. My first actual break came when the Lead user experience designer at moo.com, an incredibly good guy called Jamie, interviewed me along with another member of the product team, and gave me a chance to join their small UX team for a few weeks.
I was ecstatic and threw myself into soaking up every element of the experience that I could. My main role was to help Jamie in analysing some ethnographic research that they had just conducted in America, drawing out insights from the research videos and constructing a mental model of the business card buying lifecycle.
I can’t stress how eye-opening this experience was, and I learned so much from Jamie and seeing how he approached his work. This was it – I was hooked and knew that this was the career for me.
* I was an unpaid intern (although Moo did cover my travel expenses every day) and I must point out that I was very privileged to be able to do this. At the time, I was lucky enough to be living at home with my parents while I had been a student and when I was interning, and years of working random jobs while a student had given me some cash buffer. Nowadays, being paid as an intern is increasingly more common but interning still often remains an elusive privilege for those who can afford it. This needs to change.
🤗 A chance from nowhere
After the incredible experience at Moo, I was happy to have at least one project for this mythical “portfolio” I knew I needed to apply for real design jobs. But I knew I needed more to stand any chance of making it.
So, I went back to my trusty company shortlist, and this time, armed with my experience from Moo, started to offer things like free usability evaluations to companies in the hope of being noticed.
Finally, one company emailed me back. They were a games studio called Mind Candy who made a successful children’s game called Moshi Monsters, and they were interested in a usability evaluation. Not only that but they were happy to pay me a small sum for my efforts! This was my first paid gig!
I worked remotely for about two weeks in between my studies to construct this detailed usability evaluation. I wanted them to be blown away by the effort, level of detail and insight in the report, so I really went above and beyond to deliver. I even downloaded png’s of their game characters to pepper in the report to make it feel personalised and in keeping with the fun vibe I had gotten from their website and communications.
They loved it so much that the CEO asked if I could come in and present some of my key findings to the product team. Can you say nerve-wracking! 😅 This was my first time public speaking in my career, and I’m pleased to say that it went so well, that a few weeks later, it resulted in a job offer to be Mind Candy’s very first user experience designer!
💼 My first design role – Junior User Experience Designer
It would have been an easy fairytale to say that I accepted the Mind Candy job offer and sailed away into the sunset. However, it wasn’t that simple.
While I was so very thankful that Mind Candy had wanted to take the chance on me, as a fresh designer with exactly zero real experience, I was worried about my first role being in a company where there were no other designers, and no practise or process set up around it. I thought that what I needed was an environment where there were already other established designers, processes that I could lean on and learn from.
Thankfully, at the same time as doing the Mind Candy work, I had also been talking to another company who had responded to one of my cold emails – JustGiving. JustGiving were UK’s premier fundraising platform and I knew they had a team of user experience designers there who, like at Moo, could hopefully give me a great grounding as a new designer.
The Senior UX Designer at JustGiving, a fantastic person called Will, as well as one of their product managers, another brilliant guy called Jamie, brought me in to interview. I could speak about both my Moo and Mind Candy work, as well as some of my relevant academic grounding from my Master’s, and was able to persuade them that I would be valuable to intern with Will for a month.
The month was very educational and I was able to work on one of Jamie’s projects to redesign the interface that Charities used to administrate key tasks on the JustGiving platform, under Will’s stewardship. This was the first project I got to do where I was also interfacing with a broader product team – engineers, copywriters, business experts. It was exhilarating and I loved every single second.
At the end of the month, and just after the Mind Candy job offer had also come through, JustGiving offered me a permanent role as a Junior User Experience Designer. The fact that the UX practise and team were much more mature and established was exactly what I wanted and needed. I accepted with gratitude and thus my real career as a designer got started!
💪 Began freelancing
After a year and a half at JustGiving, I had felt relatively comfortable that I had built up a great grounding in my UX design practise, under the careful mentorship of the design team there. But I wanted to push myself more and grow, and so I decided that I should spread my wings and explore how design worked elsewhere.
For the next few years I freelanced across different startups, established businesses and agencies across London. I loved this period of my career because I felt like it was a steep learning curve where I was able to take the best of the practices, processes and people everywhere I went and apply to it myself and grow. I also quickly was able to develop some of the softer skills that have proved invaluable – pitching myself and my ideas, negotiating, building rapport quickly, influencing stakeholders.
I was also fortunate enough during this period to try develop a couple of my own ideas with a developer friend of mine. They all failed miserably, but again, learned so much about myself and what not to do in the process of building products.
💼 Back in-house as a senior designer at the BBC
After freelancing for a few years, I made the decision to explore returning to an in-house role. At this point, I felt like I was a good, all-rounder designer but as a freelancer, I had less exposure to two crucial areas that I knew I’d need to help develop my career: 1) Being able to see projects fully through from inception all the way to delivery and next round of development, truly owning and being invested in the long term success of what I was building, and 2) Helping others grow and develop, which was not usually available to me as a freelancer.
Using a recruiter this time, I was able to interview for a senior design role at the BBC, which at the time felt super daunting. I was in awe of the BBC’s reputation as developing strong designers in both user experience and visual design, and nervous at the breadth of impact I would be able to have working at such a cultural institution.
Working at the BBC as a senior designer was exactly what I wanted. I had the opportunity to manage mid-weight and junior designers as part of this role, as well as deeply invest in my product area with my cross-functional team. It was also very educational to work in such a large and complex organisation, and truly honed my stakeholder management skills there.
🎖 Promotion to Creative Director
After some time at the BBC, the opportunity came up to apply for a promotion to Creative Director. In this role I would be leading my own UX and Design team for BBC Weather, where I would set the design vision for Weather, develop strategy, guide the work of the design team and work with senior stakeholders across the Weather org.
My first inclination when hearing that this role was open was to laugh. There was no way I was ready for that or good enough. My brain told me 1000 different reasons why it would be laughable and embarrassing for me to apply. How dare I even consider it.
I thank the universe every day for having strong mentors in my life at that time to help bring me down to earth and encourage me to apply. Particular shout-out to Carol, an incredible woman who supported recruitment for the BBC Design team at that time who told me in no uncertain terms that this was something I should give a try to.
Getting the role was simultaneously the most excited and scared I have ever been in my entire life. I did the job for a few years, where I oversaw the biggest redesign and rollout of a new Weather system across both digital and TV platforms, and brought BBC Weather into the modern age. I’m exceptionally proud of the work that my team and I were able to produce.
But after those long years working on this huge endeavour, I was ready for a new challenge. I felt entirely too comfortable in the role, and wanted to push myself out of this comfort zone. At the same time, some of the BBC’s cultural norms had started weighing heavily on me – namely the very hierarchical system and the slowness of delivery.
I wanted to find a role where I could experience the converse – somewhere where there was more bottoms-up empowerment and where moving at speed was important.
🤗 Managing a design team at Facebook
I had been approached by a recruiter at Facebook for a role managing a design team in the London office and, thinking about some of the things I wanted out of my next role, this sounded perfect. One interview process later, and I accepted the role! This is where I am today, and where I have progressed from managing a handful of folks to a sizeable design team including both individual contributors and managers.
I’m incredibly grateful to have had amazing opportunities in my time there so far to learn and grow as a people manager and as a leader. The people management practise at Facebook is, I believe, truly world class and has deepened my love for helping others grow. In terms of leadership, I’m learning each and every day how to develop as a product and design leader, and being surrounded by thoughtful, passionate, conscientious leaders has really shown me what it means to show up in your leadership.
I’m excited to see what comes next, but this is my journey so far!
Reflecting on my career path so far has been a very interesting exercise – seeing the choices I made, what was important to me at various steps, and how things worked out. Looking back, here are some key things that jumped out at me:
Putting yourself out there is key, demonstrating your value is the golden key
Especially in my early stage career, the opportunities I got were primarily from putting myself out there and doing it over and over until I had a response. So, getting yourself out there in front of people is fundamental, as nobody is waiting for you to call.
But putting yourself out there is only half the battle – when you show up, you best come correct. Make it super easy for the people you are contacting to see your value and what you can do for them. Connect the dots in their mind, be very explicit and clear about what you’re offering and what they’ll receive.
For bonus points, you can even tease some of it. Some things I did in the early days were speculative 2 page taster usability evaluations as part of my cold email. There’s no question this takes effort, but if there are specific companies/people that you’d go above and beyond to impress, it’s always worth thinking about what moves you could make to really get you noticed.
At the start, go where you can be supported and learn
The real making of me as a designer was at JustGiving, at my first in-house role. Why? They had a mature UX team with senior UX designers who were able to mentor me as a junior designer and give me space to grow and learn. This is something I just wouldn’t have got at Mind Candy at that time.
I firmly believe that at the very start of your career, if you’re able, prioritise roles where you get that supportive environment over most other variables. This is the point in your career where being a sponge will serve you incredibly well, and you can only be a sponge in an environment where there’s lots of things to pick up!
Try everything once
It’s really tempting to stay in your comfort zone – if you’ve always worked in agencies, or always freelanced, it can be difficult to want to break out of what you know.
One of the best pieces of advice was given to me early in my career by a colleague, who told me “try everything once and then see what you like“. Freelancing vs being in house at a startup vs being in-house at a large company vs working at an agency – each experience is so different and gives you the opportunity to learn different skill sets.
This is why I often recommend trying different environments so that you can learn a wider variety of skills and have a more diverse set of experiences, and as a bonus, you get to see where you truly thrive and come alive.
Be intentional about your career
At each stage of my career, being really crisp on what I wanted to achieve next helped propel me to chasing the right opportunities.
Taking time to assess where you want to go in your career and mapping this to skills or experiences you need to gain or improve, what support you need to be successful, or what feedback you need to get will enable you to move more efficiently and with purpose, instead of lingering in jobs that aren’t fulfilling you or don’t ladder up to your eventual goal.
Believe in yourself, and lean in when others say they believe in you too
There’s been many points in my career when I didn’t think I was good enough for the next thing. This is because I primarily have believed that I need to be perfect for that next thing, and that everyone else who is already doing it is perfect, so I better be able to match up.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve got better (but not *perfect*) at realising what a fallacy this is, and its made it a bit easier to reach out and stretch for that next opportunity. Believing that I have much what of it takes is a constant battle but one that I make time to fight for myself.
The other thing that makes the fight a lot easier, is to lean on others in your circle who can help shout your demons down, or just generally give you that no-nonsense advice that we all need sometimes. Invest in finding relationships with people who can play this role for you.
I hope this look at my career so far has been illuminating and I’d love to hear from you with your career journeys. Please feel free to add links to your stories in the comments!