DesignTalk Ep. 56: How to navigate design career transitions

DesignTalk Ep. 56: How to navigate design career transitions


– [Margaret] I’m Margaret
Kelsey and this is the 56th episode of DesignTalks,
a webinar series brought to you by InVision. Today, we hear from Melissa Mandelbaum on how to navigate
transitions in your design career. Let’s listen in. – [Melissa] Hello everyone. My name’s Melissa and I’m
so excited to be here today. So the topic of today’s
talk is how to navigate design career transitions. So with that, let’s dive in. So to kick things off, we’re
gonna talk a little bit about our design careers
and more specifically we’re gonna try to answer the question of what does a modern design
career path look like? So where did we begin
and how did we get to where we are today? And to do that, I’m
gonna share a little bit about my own design journey
and some of the lessons learned along the way. So although I’m currently
a product designer, my design career actually
begins in architecture school, where I studied
architecture and made plans and sections and things of that nature. And at the time, my
professors taught me to think about my design career path
in a pretty specific way. So I learned that to become
a licensed architect, you have to get your undergrad degree, you then have to get your masters, you then do a couple
of years of interning, you take a lot of exams, and then you can become
a licensed architect. So this is what I was
taught to think about my career path. And so the bad side of this
is that it takes many years to complete this path. And there are some pretty
big steps along the way. But the good was that it’s super linear and really direct. So it was pretty easy to figure out how to get from your undergrad
degree all the way to your license. And so just when I started
to wrap my head around this and I was feeling good
about this career path, two pretty big things
happened in the world that really shook things up for me and changed my entire career trajectory. So the year was 2008. I was a junior in architecture school, and the first big thing that
happened in the world was the recession. And so what happened with
the recession in 2008 is the economy really took a dive and a lot of industries fell apart, so it was a pretty difficult time. On a more positive note,
the iPhone was born in 2007 and the App Store launched in 2008. So what did this mean
for me as a designer? Well, thanks to the recession, it became a really difficult time for me to become an architect. Construction industry was largely paused and not a lot of new
buildings were going up. On the flip side, the
iPhone and the new App Store gave way to a lot of new
and exciting opportunities at tech startups. And so as a junior about
to graduate college, I had to make a hard decision. Was I going to pursue
the path of architecture, or was I gonna try something else? And given the state of things, I decided to try the
world of tech startups. And so when I entered the
world of tech startups, I did not enter as a product designer, I didn’t have the hard
skills that you needed to be a product designer. I was an architect by training. What I did have was a lot of soft skills. And so I used those soft
skills and I transitioned into the tech startup
world first as a content and community manager,
I then became a creative strategist and then a product manager. So after a couple of years, I found myself in a place
where I was actually managing a number of makers, so
I was managing designers and developers and I was
managing them in the context of projects, so I made a
lot of (inaudible) charts like this to manage the breakdown of tasks for a project, the
deadlines, the deliverables, things of that nature. And overall, things felt pretty good. I was feeling like my
career was back on track, it was feeling more linear, but just when things started
to feel really stable and I felt really good about where I was, something unexpected happened. At this point it was my
gut that started to feel uncomfortable. Something inside me felt
wrong about this stage of my career. And so I dialed into those feelings and I took a hard look at them and I realized that managing makers was not the same as being the maker. So as an architect, as a designer for most of my life, I was
first and foremost a maker. And somehow managing them
wasn’t the same thing. So that being said, I thought about well what does that mean for my career path? Should I continue on being a manager or should I transition to a maker mode? And I decided that it was time for me to transition back to being a maker, but this time in the tech startup context. So it was time for me
to learn product design. And at the time, because product design was such a new field,
there weren’t that many programs to learn it. And so I turned to my friend Matias Corea who at the time was leading Behance. or leading the design team at Behance. And I said, Matias, I would like to become a product designer, what do you recommend? And he recommended to me he said to me very distinctly, learn from someone you admire. So in essence he was saying, an apprenticeship is really your best bet or it’s a great way to
make the transition. And so, although this was
not the kind of advice my architecture professors
would have given me, I think in architecture
school it was a lot more rooted in design degrees or classes, I think Matias was onto something because product design
was such a new industry, this really was a great recommendation. So after our chat I went home that night and I cold emailed Khoi Vinh,
a designer that I admired in New York City and I
asked for an apprenticeship. I asked to learn product design. Make a long story short, I ended up joining Khoi’s startup, Mixel, and that is where I learned how to become a product designer. I got my foundational hard
skills in product design. After Mixel I then went
onto design loverly, which is another New York City startup. And then I designed Percolate. And during this time, I
was feeling pretty good about my career trajectory, it was starting to feel more linear again, I was making a lot of progress
as a product designer. And just when things started
to feel really stable in New York City, yet again another
unexpected thing happened. And that is that Percolate, which is a New York City based startup or at the time was New York City based was interested in
expanding their design team to California, and they said to me, Hey Melissa, how would
you feel about moving to California and starting
the design team in SF? Although this was definitely
not what I had in the plans, it was not part of my
original career path, it was a very exciting opportunity, and I said yes. So with that I packed
my bags in New York City and I moved to San Francisco
to build Percolate Design. And this is me getting
extremely lucky on my first day in San Francisco with the
bridge with a lot of sun which definitely does not
look that sunny on most days. And so once I was in San Francisco, I had my eyes open to a lot
of new tech opportunities and I was really drawn to
the larger tech startups which was something that I
had never experienced before and I was really intrigued by that. And so last fall, I moved over to DropBox, where I’m currently a product designer. So that’s a pretty quick
recap of my last eight years as a designer. So what did we learn? In the beginning, I said
that I thought my design career was going to be a
linear and direct path, that was what I was taught
in architecture school, and for the first few years of my career, I definitely thought that
was what it was gonna be, but in reality, this is what has happened. I’ve made three massive career transitions that were all very unexpected. So I moved from architecture
to product design, I moved from a number of
small startups to a larger startup, and I moved from New York
City tech to San Francisco tech, so all of that has happened. It was definitely not
what I had in the plans. And along the way I got
really fascinated by these transitions, and more
specifically I was looking at the transition between architecture and product design. And I started to write
down some of my thoughts and I shared them with the world. And what’s interesting is at the time, I didn’t really know too many other people who were making this transition. I didn’t know too many other architects who were becoming product designers. But thanks to these posts, posting them on Medium, I found all of these people. And these are all
architects who have become product designers, and
that was pretty cool, to see other people who were
on the same career path. So what I learned is that it was becoming more and more common
for architects to become product designers. And once I had picked up on this trend, once I had picked up on this finding, I then started to pay attention to just designer transitions in general, thinking about how often
designers were transitioning between mediums, how often
they were transitioning between teams, how often
they were transitioning between companies, and I realized it was happening a lot and it was becoming more and more common throughout the past few years. And so I think at this
point what I’ve learned, I think it’s safe to say
that our design careers include a lot of transitions. This is a part of what it
means to be a modern designer. And so that begs the question of well what does a modern design
career path look like? If it’s not very linear. So Sheryl Sandberg has a great quote where she talks about career paths, and although she’s not a designer, I think this is really
pertinent to design, and it’s really related. And so here she says: So in short what she’s saying
is that it’s not a ladder. There is no direct way to the top. Rather, our career paths are a jungle gym. We’re jumping around the jungle gym, sometimes we’re dangling,
sometimes we’re on the ground, sometimes we’re on the top, sometimes we’re stable, sometimes we’re holding on by one hand, this is a lot more what our
modern career looks like. And so with this metaphor,
what’s interesting to look at is well why are we jumping
around the jungle gym? What is causing us to
jump and move around? And so I think in short it
happens for a lot of reasons, but I’d like to share three
reasons that have fueled some of my transitions. So the first one is timing. And so you never really can predict what’s gonna be happening in the world, but there’s a lot of
factors that will play into your career, so for me as I’d mentioned, I did not plan to
graduate in the recession, but because it happened,
I had to roll with it, and that had changed my career path. The second is interest. At various points in your career, interest will guide you in new directions. So for me for example when
I was managing makers, I realized that my
interests were more in line with actually being the maker and that pushed me away from management and back to product design or to product design. And lastly growth. So I think for me I
have always been someone who loves a steep growth curve, and at various points in my career, when I felt like my growth
trajectory was slowing down, I have transitioned or
jumped to new opportunities or new adventures to ensure that I’m really growing. And that’s pushed me in new directions. Okay, so now that we have I think established that transitions are a pretty big part of design careers and they happen for a
lot of different reasons, it’s interesting to think about or it’s important to think about well what are the stages of a transition in a more general sense? So there’s a book called Transitions, and it talks about
transitions in a general sense as having three distinct phases. So transitions begin with an ending, they then go through a neutral zone, and then you land in a new beginning. And so thinking about this,
you probably have a pretty good grasp of what the
ending and the new beginning is but you’re probably wondering what that neutral zone is in the middle. So in a brief sense, the
neutral zone is that fuzzy state that when you have left
some part in an adventure, and you’re just beginning
or your transitioning to a new adventure, it’s that gray, uncomfortable, scary
feeling in the middle. That’s the neutral zone. And the question for designers
is that if we are making a lot of transitions in our career, how as designers do we
get from the ending to the new beginning? How do we navigate that neutral zone? In addition, it’s helpful
to think about how teams transition. And so this is what’s
called Tuckman’s Model, and the idea here is that
when teams come together, they go through four key stages. So the first stage is Forming. So when teams come together, they literally get in the same room, you form, you’re aligned on the same team. You then start working together, and because you have maybe
never worked together before, it’s a little bit stormy. You’re not used to each
other’s working styles or patterns or nuances, but after some time
you start to normalize. So you start to align with each other, you start to understand each other, and after you’ve normed for a bit of time, you really begin to build
and that’s when you can start performing. And so although this is about how teams transition and how teams come together, I think this is also
applicable to designers. So as designers, when we
go to a new design medium or we go to a new design team, the first stage is we form, we join that team or we join that medium. But it takes us some time
to figure out how to start performing. So the question is as designers, how do we get from forming
to performing in new design environments? How do we navigate the
storming and norming phases? And so with that I’d like to offer you a framework for how to navigate
design career transitions. This is applicable for many
different types of design career transitions, this is great if you’re
moving between design mediums, if you’re moving between design teams. It has a lot of different use cases. And I’ll say that this is
based on my own personal experience, it’s based on watching others, and it’s really just
humiliation and learning I’ve learned over the last few years. And so what we’re gonna do
is we’re gonna talk about what the five phases
are and then we’re gonna dive into each one specifically. So the first phase of
navigating transitions is: Okay so we have five key phases that we’re going to dig into. Alright, so the first phase
that we’re gonna talk about is absorb. So when you first go
to a new design medium or a new design team or
any new design environment, you’re probably surrounded
by a lot of new. So there’s a new team, there’s new people, there’s a new process. New office. New tools. And all of this new can feel
a little bit overwhelming. It’s maybe a lot. So the best thing to
do in these early days is really just to be a sponge. Keep your eyes open, look
around, talk to people, and just absorb, let it all soak in. And so for me this was
particularly meaningful when I joined the DropBox design team, and this is their lovely faces up here. And why it was so important
for me to start with absorbing, this was my first time
on a team of this size. So I had never worked
with eighty designers. I’d never worked in a team of that scale. In addition it was my first time on a team with so many different
types of design roles. So I had never worked with
so many different types, so the way our team is made up
is we have product designers, we have user researchers, we have UX writers, we have brand designers,
we have illustrators, we have a lot of different
roles on our team, and because this was so new to me, I just had to absorb in those early days. I had to be a sponge
and let it all soak in. And so the takeaway for the first step is that when you transition
to a new design medium or team, you want to begin
by absorbing your new environment and letting it all soak in. Give yourself the benefit of time to just taking it in. And so after some time
you’re gonna feel like you’re gonna start to
make sense of things. Things are gonna start, you’re gonna start making
sense and connecting the dots in your head. And that is when you’re going
to move into the next phase which is called digest. And a helpful way to begin digesting is basically compare your old environment to your new design environment and look for the similarities. The similarities are a great way to start because they’re comforting
and stabilizing, they make sense to you. So for me, this was a
particularly meaningful step, when I transitioned from
architecture to product design. And so here is an example
of a diagram that I made early in that transition when
I was trying to figure out what about buildings is the
same as it is in products? So what are the parallels and
what are the similarities? And what I’m exploring here
is the idea that floors in a building are actually
very similar to screens or tabs in an app. Just as the primary circulation
between the floors in a building such as stairs or elevators is actually very similar to
primary circulation in apps such as tabs. And so by making this diagram
early in this transition, it was really, it made a lot of sense to me and it made it easier for me
to jump between the mediums, because I could see the
things that made sense and the parallels between the two. In addition during this phase, I was thinking about process, so I was thinking about
what about the architecture design process is similar to
the product design process? And I realized that sections and plans for architecture are actually very similar to wireframes in product design. So this is the stage of the design process where it’s not about the visual colors or the visual textures
but it’s really about understanding the user experience, so it’s laying out the
core parts of the design and how the user moves between them. So again, finding this connection, super stabilizing, very comforting, in these early days of my transition. So the first takeaway for digest is you want to begin by
comparing your old design environment to your new design environment and recognizing the
similarities between them. And really what this is gonna do for you is it’s gonna allow you to anchor on them for stability in your
new design environment. It’s gonna make you feel
good about the transition. So although the
similarities are really key, it’s also really important
to look for the differences for a very different reason. So again where our similarities are about stabilization and comfort, you want to digest and
look for the differences between your old environment
and your new environment so that you can see the
gaps in your experience, so that you can be
aware of the things that are different and the
things that you want to dig into and learn more about. And so for me, this was
an important exercise again early in my architecture
to product design days because I was trying to figure out well what do I need to learn, what are the areas that
are my weaknesses, or the gaps in my experience? And so this diagram was
exploring how in architecture, the process for making
buildings is basically you have a defined start, you have a number of steps in the middle, and then you have a defined end, you’re not going to iterate on buildings, but maybe you will, but it will just be a very expensive iteration. It’s pretty rare. Product design, on the other
hand, have a very defined start but they don’t really end, right, product designs are
never really quite done. And so for me this was a
really important realization, so drawing this diagram and
recognizing the differences here, it was very clear
to me that when I moved to product design I needed to learn more about this idea of designing things that are never really quite done, so I needed to learn about
these iterative cycles, why do they iterate, why are products never really done, that was something that I knew early on would be an area of weakness, and I needed to learn more about. And so the takeaway for
this part of the digest phase is similar to the similarities, we have to look at the differences, but again for the
slightly different reason of recognizing your gaps and then tagging them or flagging them as things that you want
to learn more about. Okay, so once you have
absorbed your new environment, you have digested, so you have found a lot of similarities
and a lot of differences, you’re now ready to do research. So you want to take those gaps and you want to take those fuzzier areas, and learn more. Dig in and learn more
about the fuzzier parts of your new design environment. And so for me, this was a
particularly meaningful step, when I joined the Dropbox design team. So as I have mentioned,
this is my first time on a team of this scale, this size. In addition, it was my
first time on a team with so many different roles. So I didn’t quite
understand how things worked at face value. And this is also true of, you can be on a small team
and you might not understand, so for me it was just an
opportunity that I knew that I needed to dig in and learn more. So what I did is I designed
a small research project to learn more about my team. And so I asked around
and I gathered the names of fourteen people at
DropBox across Engineering, Product, and Design, with
the goal of interviewing each of them and learning
more about how Dropbox design works. And so in those interviews, I was focused on asking each person three key questions. So the first question was: Second I wanted to know: And third, I wanted to know: And so doing these interviews, asking these questions, digging into this with all of these people
across engineering, product, and design, it allowed me very quickly
to learn a lot of things about Dropbox design. Areas that were super
fuzzy going into these interviews became much clearer. The other cool thing
was that I was able to document the findings and
I was able to share them with the team, so it was great to be able to say, hey, here are some things that are working really well for our team, and then here are some
opportunities for improvement. And as a new employee, I
think that’s a great artifact to hand over to your new team. And so the takeaway in the research phase is really dig in and ask
questions about your new design environment, so do those interviews, learn more. And the bonus here is
if you can document the findings and share them with the team, I think that’s a great
artifact to share with them as a new employee. Okay, so once you have made
it through the research phase, in general you’re probably
feeling pretty good about your new design environment. You have a pretty good
understanding of how it works, how it feels, you’re feeling more stable, now’s the time that you
can begin to respond. So you can, in other words, join the conversation. In other words, that looks like, you can raise your hand and
you can offer some opinions. And so a great way to
begin the conversation or to join the conversation
is to think about all the things you’ve learned during that research phase and to
look at the opportunities and ask yourself do you have a solution to any of those opportunities, can you offer something
that you’ve done in the past to your new team. And so for me this was
something that I did at Dropbox design. So we looked at the
opportunities that we found in the research and this
one was one that was bubbled up, and we framed it in a how might we format. So we noticed that the opportunity was: This was not something that
we weren’t doing today. That was something that
we think about a lot, but it was something that
people were very interested in improving and looking
for new methods to make better on the team. And so, why this was so important to me, why it was so key was
because it was actually an opportunity that I had a
potential recommendation for. I had done something in my past experience that helped us balance long and
short term product thinking, and it was something that
I thought could be relevant to the Dropbox design team. And what that was was something called: And this was a framework
that I’d used at Percolate. And basically the idea here is that at the beginning of a project, in sort of the problem definition phase, you decide whether or not the
project is a vision project, so is it something that is more blue sky, is it longer term, is it a longer timeline, or is it a version project, so is it the next incremental release, is it the next iteration? Sometimes you might decide
that it’s a version project, but you want to spend
some time in the beginning doing some vision explorations. But what this did at
Percolate was it gave us a common framework to talk
about the long and short term product thinking, and by queuing this up
early in the project and talking about it with
engineering, product, and design, we were able
to ensure that we had space and time and a roadmap
for the proper stages. And so since this was
really successful in my past and I’d recognized a real
opportunity at Dropbox design, I came back to the Dropbox design team and said hey, we have this opportunity, we are looking to improve how
we balance long and short- term product thinking, I have a framework that might be useful. And to make a long story short, the team was very excited about this, and over the past few months, we started adopting it. And so it’s starting to
work its way into our early problem-definition phases. And for me, I think that’s been very cool as a relatively new employee to say I’ve joined a new design team, I’ve researched, I’ve learned about it, I’ve found an opportunity for improvement, I’ve made a recommendation
for improvement, and now I’m starting to see it adopted. And similar to a designer
shipping something in their early days, I think this
is the kind of validation that you need in a new design environment to feel like you belong, to
feel like you’re comfortable and to really feel good
about where you are on your new team. And so the key thing here
in the respond phase, and responding can come
in many different forms, but I’d recommend thinking
about the research or the things you’ve
learned about your team. Seeing if there’s an
opportunity for improvement, and seeing if you have a solution that you can share based on
your past experience. If you do have a solution, go for it. It’s a great way to help your new team. Okay, so once you have made it, you’ve absorbed all the things, you’ve digested, you’ve
done the similarities, you’ve done the differences, you have research, so
you’ve dug into the things that don’t make sense, you’ve started to join the conversation, you’re feeling pretty good
about your design transition. You’re probably feeling
more at home in your new design environment. But while this recent
experience is still fresh in your head, the last
thing that you should do is take the time to reflect. So what that is is think
about all the things that happened in your transition, think about how it felt at every stage, think about the major things that happened along the way. And either privately and or publicly jot down the thoughts. Put them on paper. So this is really important
for two key reasons. The first is that you
want to get these ideas out of your head. They’re taking up room in your head. And by putting them on paper, you’re freeing up space
to focus on performing in your new design environment. In addition, it’s a great way to clarify the experience and save it for later. So by putting them on paper, it really forces you to
think through the ideas, think through the journey, and you know in the future
you can look back on it and that’s a great thing to have. At various points in my
career when I felt like these thoughts were
clear and they might be useful to other people, I’ve shared them with the world on Medium. And I would urge you to do the same thing if you have points where your journey is maybe particularly
relevant to other people, and the reason I’ve done
this is because I’ve learned so much about all the
designers who’ve blogged about their journeys. It’s been a key way for
me to navigate my own design career, and my
hope is that by sharing my own design journey, I’m helping others in
their design journeys. It’s like a way of helping
the entire design community move forward. So hopefully these are
helpful and they’re useful. And so the key takeaway
again in the reflection phase is privately and or publicly, take the time at the end
of your design transition to reflect on your design journey. It’s a really powerful
way to document, clarify, and share your design experiences. Okay, so that’s the five
stages of the framework. In addition I want to
offer two other pieces of advice. So transitions I know I laid out like hey you can do these five stages
and you’ll be totally fine in every transition, the reality is that as that
framework is happening, it’s probably pretty difficult. Transitions are emotionally
and physically wearing. So, during this phase,
as a friendly reminder, take care of yourself. Your physical and emotional
health are going to need to be in really good
shape to have a successful transition. And so for me, I’m a swimmer. No matter what city I’m
in or what I’m doing I make time to jump in the
pool and go for a swim. It’s very important. In addition, I make time to
cook or eat healthy foods, so you may be working late hours, you may be a little bit overwhelmed, but make sure that you’re
being a healthy person and getting the nutrients you need. And lastly, never underestimate
the power of sleep. During transitions, you’re
going to be processing a lot and thinking a lot about
all that’s happening. And then maybe that you’re
gonna be sleeping more than you normally do. And so just make sure you have the time, make sure you get into bed early, make sure that you can
reboot before the next day. The other piece is give it time. Design transitions, I’ve learned, are not something that happened overnight. You really do have to go
through those five phases, and sometimes it takes a day, sometimes it takes a week, sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it takes multiple years. All design transitions or
all design career transitions are very different. But give yourself the benefit of time and let it run its course. I promise, it will all work out okay. Alright, so, as we close down the talk, I would like to leave you
with two key takeaways about design career transitions. So the first is that
our design careers will include many transitions. Whether you’ve already transitioned a lot or you may transition more in the future, know that it’s becoming
more and more common for designers to move between mediums, between teams, between projects. This is a very normal part
of being a designer today. And last but certainly not least, the next time you find
yourself in a design career transition, I’d like
you to remember and think about this framework. So when you enter your new design medium or your new design team, start by absorbing, so enter the new environment, open your eyes, listen, take it all in, be a sponge. After some time, begin
digesting, so compare your old design environment to your
new design environment, look for the similarities, anchor on those for stability and comfort
in the transition, then look for the differences,
use those as signals of things that you need
to learn more about. Then move into research, so learn more, dig in,
and try to understand the things that are fuzzy
or maybe unclear to you. Respond, so think about
how you can join the conversation. A great way is to look at the research and see if there are any opportunities that you have a solution to
from your past experience. And last but not least,
take the time to reflect. So privately and or publicly reflect on your experience,
get it out of your head, write it on paper, you will definitely thank yourself later for doing it. – [Margaret] So that is
all the time we have today, Melissa thank you so much
for coming and sharing your knowledge, and a
big thank you to anyone who attended today. I hope you have a great rest of your day, and keep designing awesome things. – [Melissa] Great, thanks
Margaret, bye everyone.

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