Becoming a Designer – My Career Journey

by JAMIE UMAK May 17, 2019

Mint green notebook with pencil, paper clips, and vase of white tulips.

Every designer has a different career journey that’s taken them to where they are today. Today on the blog I thought it would be fun to go back in time and share my experience in becoming a designer.

Whether it’s a professional meet-up, gathering, or other social event, one of the first questions I’m usually asked is, “What do you do?” which is inevitably followed by “How did you become a designer?”

Becoming a Designer

In the early 2000s, personal computers were starting to arrive in homes and along with them brought access to the Internet.

Every day after school I would get on the family computer, an HP Pavillion, to get online, check my email, and sign into AOL Instant Messenger to see if my friends were on yet.

At the time, getting online was a conscious act and experience of its own. Long gone but never forgotten is the sound of a dial-up modem.

First, as a proper courtesy you had to make sure no one was on the phone or expecting a call. Then, you had to “dial-up” through your telephone line. While this generally took a few minutes, there was an air of excitement knowing an entire world was waiting to be discovered.

Design as a Prospective Career

Teachers Make a Difference

Around this time I was a high school student thinking about potential career paths.

Without a doubt, teachers are so important in our society and have the power to positively impact their students. I was lucky to have two teachers who were influential in getting me to start a career in design.

In high school I followed the Business trajectory for my education. I enrolled in Business Economics and it was there that my teacher suggested I enroll in his Web Design class that was just added to the curriculum. It was a new course but it sounded very interesting, so I took it as an elective.

When class started I was one of only 4 students—and the only young lady 👩🏻‍💻. The small group meant we could learn and help each other along the way. I learned how to build web pages using Claris Home Page, create simple graphics and animations, and how to organize files for publishing. It was also my first introduction to HTML, CSS, and FTP.

Since the concept of web design was so new, our teacher was also discovering the power of the web along with us. Each day was about learning and getting to publish online. I was fascinated with the idea that anyone in the world could see my web pages in an instant.

The following year my teacher added Web Design II to the curriculum and urged me to sign up for it as well. Of course, I did!

The first website I ever created as a student when I was just becoming a designer.

Early 2000s goodness. Repeating backgrounds, iframes, Times New Roman, and trendy buttons with mouse arrows. 😂 It may not look like much, but this is the very first website I ever created around 2000. At the time, much of the web looked like this, since dial-up connections could only handle so much!

Some of the first graphics I ever made as a student.

In class we created several web graphics. Pictured above are some of the first illustrations I ever made. At the time you could only do so much, considering monitors were limited in color range.

Web Design Meets Art

Combining Two Interests

While I was learning how to build websites I was also taking traditional Art classes with drawing, painting, and pottery. One term was dedicated solely to Digital Art. I really enjoyed every assignment, creating composites out of scans and photographs that I’d taken with a digital camera. One day my Art teacher, who saw how much fun I was having, said to me, “You know, there are careers in this!”

I thought, what if I could do both?

I then decided to pursue a career in design with a focus on websites.

Getting Started

First Ever Portfolio Review

When I finally decided where I wanted to go to college, I first had to assemble a portfolio and give a presentation to an advisor as part of the acceptance process.

The advisor was an accomplished designer who had been working in the industry for decades. Needless to say, I was quite nervous!

In my portfolio I included the websites and digital art I had created, along with a few pieces I made on my own, like CD sleeves for music mixes I made for my friends.

Artwork for CD sleeves I made for friends.

CD sleeves I created and printed for those early 2000s music mixes. 😉

As a quiet student, this was the first time I ever presented my work to anyone outside of school or family. I was nervous, but I remember being excited to show him my work. The advisor asked me questions about my projects and career goals. I’ll never forget the kind feedback he gave, which got me further excited to study and work in the industry. When I toured the school I knew it was where I belonged.

Then came the waiting game.

As the weeks went by I secretly told myself I could pursue my fallback plan to become a personal trainer or nutritionist if it didn’t work out.

I really, really wanted to be a designer.

Time passed but finally one day the mail came with my official acceptance letter. I was beaming with joy! I didn’t need my backup plan after all. Getting my first laptop, an Apple iBook, along with new books and software (hello, Photoshop 7.0!), was thrilling. I felt right at home and was ready to begin learning even more.

Career Breakthroughs

Getting Real World Experience

I worked upwards of full-time the entire duration of college. After graduation, I was working but began freelancing and volunteering to get experience so I could position myself to find full-time employment in the industry.

I was willing to do whatever it took—even if it meant working into the early hours of the morning after a full shift at my day job. Many nights were spent doing just that.

I made my own business cards and networked as much as I could while keeping in touch with fellow classmates. On my lunch breaks I would read software books or sketch ideas to try them later. For the most part I designed and built websites. I even taught front-end web development to people who wanted to learn.

I’ll never forget the people who took a chance on me back then by giving me the opportunity to design for them. These early experiences were invaluable, and helped direct me to where I wanted to be.

I persevered and never gave up. It was very tough but well worth it. After nearly 2 years of freelancing I finally achieved my goal of working full-time for an interactive design firm. Success! 🙌

A Continuous Journey

As of the date of this post, I’ve been a designer for 15 years. Since beginning my career, so much has changed in design.

In the early days of the web, design was mostly focused on how it looked. Over time, website standards have evolved for the better and there is so much more to what makes a design successful beyond how it looks on a screen.

That’s what I really love.

I love solving problems in new ways and thinking beyond the pixels. I enjoy the continuous self-improvement and learning that comes with it. A design is successful not only by appearance but largely in how it works. It’s immensely satisfying to deeply understand users so we can design the best possible experience for them. This maturation of thought has driven me into user experience (UX) design and has brought me to where I am today.

A lot of people deciding on a career wonder if they should become a designer and what traits make a designer successful. Stay tuned for a future post where I will share thoughts on that.

Live a creative life

Endless Gratitude

I have to say, I am truly grateful with where my career journey has taken me.

Over the past 15 years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of complex and interesting projects for companies, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and individuals.

I’ve worked alongside other talented designers and professionals who are passionate about their careers. My work has graced me with the opportunity to meet and work with people all over the world. Every day I wake up knowing I have a chance to make an impact through design. I’ve also made a point to pay it forward by volunteering my talents to help others. All days are very different and exciting. Simply put, it’s more than I ever dreamed. I love what I do.

Cheers to the next 15 years and beyond! 🥂

What is your design story?

Tell me, what is your story in design? Are you interested in becoming a designer? Let me know what you’re up to by tweeting me at @jamieumak.

Image Credits: Photos featured in this post are from Pixels & Design and Michelle Buchanan Photography.