Natalie is a Chicago based UX Designer/UX Researcher. She likes making all kinds of things but is currently focused on making systems, interfaces, and designs that are human-friendly, clear, and usable. Her previous work as a TEDx Director and a non-profit law clerk taught her how to use empathy to recognize user needs; her time at Designation, a Chicago based UX/UI bootcamp, refined these skills, while also showing her the excitement that comes from defining an idea and watching it come to life. She believes that the process matters as much as the product, that design can make a difference and that a walk through a city can cure any creative ruts. When she's not making things in the digital realm, you can find her getting nerdy in the kitchen, messing around (badly) with (good) oil-paints, or beating her friends and family at vintage lawn games. You can learn more about her on her personal website.
Can you tell us how you went from political science and community outreach to UI/UX design?
I fell into design as a career, that’s really the best way I can say it. Before Designation, I was a law clerk at a non-profit law firm in Los Angeles, CA. We focused on providing legal support to parents, legal guardians, and children who were part of the foster care system. While the work I was doing was super rewarding, I wasn’t really getting my creative urges met and was casually browsing alternative careers in my spare time. I considered a coding bootcamp as an option, but I was still a little unsure as to if coding was for me. Something I loved the aspect of working with and making the frightening legal process more accessible and friendly to my clients and had always been a someone visual person. Those things coupled with my love of analyzing and recrafting content made UX a perfect storm of what I was looking for in a career. When I came across Designation, I did more thorough research as to what UX design actually was, and it just seemed to click with what I was looking for and my existing skills.
What inspired you to attend a Designation?
I wanted a career change! I wasn’t feeling super inspired in my job as a legal assistant and wanted something more creative. It just happened that UX design happened to be a perfect combination of my existing skill sets and strengths.
How did you get started in UI/UX design? Is it something you always wanted to do?
I had a loose idea of what UX/UI design was since I had a friend in college who had decided to go into it, but I had no idea the specifics of what went into UX/UI design until I started seriously doing more research after wanting to do a career change.
There are quite a few bootcamps to choose from - what made you decide to attend Designation over other programs? What were your goals for the program?
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Designation and did a ton of research before deciding that it was the program that I wanted to attend. I’m a massive skeptic, so I extensively read reviews and looked into all the other design bootcamps before settling on Designation. I looked almost too good to be true, hence my thorough detective work.
As for goals and expectations, I knew it was a bootcamp so was expecting hard work and long intense hours. My goals were to soak up as many new skills and knowledge as I could. But I wasn’t expecting to gain the breadth of knowledge or such a diverse, professional skill set and was surprised at how much Designation actually taught me. Designation is an amazingly tailored program that gives you the skills and opportunity to change your life if you want it to. I was also pleasantly surprised as to how well Designation actually prepared me for the professional world - it was a pretty smooth transition from classroom to a professional office. That is to say, there is always going to be a degree of learning the ropes with every new job; but in terms of getting the core design skills down, Designation had me covered and then some.
For you, what were the pros and cons of attending a bootcamp?
The pros - I was able to cram a lot of experience/learning into a shorter amount of time than a graduate school course; the program allows for a flexible schedule (I was able to continue working another job while I was attending the program); you learn a completely new skill set and graduate the program with enough experience to The cons - it’s not a graduate school course and is not yet accredited (this, however, is irrelevant once you get out into the workforce, but definitely something to consider); while the hours are flexible it does require that you put in a lot of hours and a lot of work, so while you can make these up in your own time + shift your workload around, you do need to commit to a certain number of hours to get the most out of the program.
Tell us a bit about your experience and the day-to-day during the course. How were courses structured?
Designation is a project-based learning course, so you’re taught and learn through a series of projects over the course of the 8-month program. There are three main portions of the program, with the first two being remote and the last one being onsite at the Designation classroom workspace in Chicago. The first remote section basically has you build a product from scratch - so from initial research to wireframes to a high fidelity, interactive prototype in full color. You get to try your hand at both UX and UI during this portion of the program and then are expected to pick a “major” and select if you’d like to focus on UX or UI. The program separates out the “majors” so students can dive more deeply into learning one or another. But you continuously work with cohort-mates in the other major, so you’re not cut off from picking up skills in the alternative major. The next portion of the program, still remote, has you focus on a project specific to your major. During this section, you really learn in more detail the processes and deliverables associated with either UX or UI. The final section is in-person at the Designation classroom and you complete another series of projects with teammates for actually start-up clients.
What was your cohort like?
My cohort was one of my favorite parts of the program - you’re with a very small group of people almost 12-hours a day for six days a week, so by osmosis you get pretty close. I’m lucky that my cohort was an amazingly dedicated and passionate group of people, who also happened to be hilarious + awesome humans. We were all constantly learning from each other just as much as we were learning from projects and instructors. The energy from this group of talented people, who were excited about what we were doing and learning and making, was a uniquely special event to experience and be part of.
What was an average day in the program like?
That’s a difficult question to answer since every day was very different! The most consistent thing about the program was very long, intense hours. Twice a day we would have a standup with our creative director to touch-base and make sure that they knew our project direction. The projects run in a series of three-week sprints, so the rest of the time was filled with working as quickly as possible to fit in user interviews, research, and design. Teams would stay till the wee hours of the morning if you needed to get stuff done - important to note that these late night work sessions were because teams were incredibly dedicated! Nobody was required to stay or work. You got out of the program what you put into it; lots of self-direction and motivation was necessary.
What was most helpful about the environment and teaching style at Designation?
A theme I can say that was a strong and persistent ethos for Designation staff was maintaining a good balance between teaching me and pushing me to figure things out on my own - they knew the right time to give guidance, but also when to poke me in the right direction for some solid solo growth. It’s a warm, learning/teaching environment, but you’re not coddled - don’t expect to be.
What was your cohort like? Did you feel like it was a diverse place to learn? Tell us a bit about the instructors and culture at Designation?
One of my favorite parts during Designation was my cohort. You’re with a very small group of people almost 12-hours a day for six days a week, so you naturally get pretty close to each other. I’m lucky that my cohort was an amazingly dedicated and passionate group of people, who also happened to be hilarious + awesome humans. We were all constantly learning from each other just as much as we were learning from projects and instructors. The energy from this group of talented people, who were excited about what we were doing and learning and making, was a uniquely special event to experience and be part of.
As per the instructors and the culture - Designation is very much an intense learning environment, but also incredibly supportive and fun. We would have creative cooldowns every Friday and have whole cohort re-groups + 5-minute meditation sessions every morning. It’s very much a cohesive culture that you’re apart of, not just a program that you show up for.
You currently work as an Interaction/UX Designer at Vokal? What does this title mean and what does it entail?
Yes, I work as a UX/Interaction Designer for a digital agency in the Chicago downtown loop area. Since we’re a digital agency, we offer a range of work capabilities from consulting, development, branding, and product design/product strategy work. We typically have multiple projects in different capacities going on in the office, so someone’s always working on something cool. In my time working here, I’ve already been on multiple projects in vastly different industry spaces, which is amazing because it’s given me contextualized knowledge of how to design in very different areas.
Since we’re a smaller agency, our team is pretty tight-knit; we have four UX designers and three visual designers that make up the actual design team. Actual day-to-day work usually varies depending on what projects I’m currently working on and the specifics of what we’re building. What’s been more interesting is trying to figure out how to constantly champion the design process on my internal teams and with clients. We treat every project as an opportunity to show the power of design to clients and our own non-design team members, but it’s been a challenge at points.
Did your bootcamp prepare you for the job search, and if so, how?
One of the best parts about Designation specifically is the career support that you receive both during and after the program. The fourth portion of the program is a two week period of time (still on-site) that’s completely dedicated to helping you with everything career-related - so this includes everything from showing you how to write a case study, to designing/setting up a portfolio to how to act in an interview. It’s incredibly helpful and doesn’t end after you graduate and are out looking for jobs. Designation is not just another degree mill - you graduate into a network. I have felt fully supported well after the program ended, and I’m pretty sure that’s not something that any other program or bootcamp can offer.
Tell us a little bit about what you do in your current job. What motivates you in your career?
When I’m not actually designing, involved in research, or creating supporting design deliverables, I’m in meetings and design reviews with internal team members or clients. It’s important that I be able to clearly articulate research findings, explanations behind designs, and design decisions to an audience that may not be as close to the research or designing process as I am. Since my agency works in small teams under tight deadlines - incredibly similar to Designation - communication can make or break a project and impact overall client relations. Since it’s hard to really teach those soft skills, the team based projects and overall “learn-by-doing” course structure of Designation definitely set me up for practicing and refining of soft-skills while I was learning the technical hard skills. My favorite parts of being a professional designer and something that constantly motivates me is being part of an industry that is continuously growing and changing. The nature of my particular job, at an agency, and the industry itself makes it so I’m continuously exposed to new subject matter and industry spaces. It’s my job to continually ask questions, be curious, talk to people, and come up with solutions. It’s like a constant exploration of new ideas and exposure to new things.
What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are?
I’ve had to overcome quite a few challenges; attending a bootcamp is not for people who aren’t incredibly self-motivated. To get the most out of the program, you will probably be putting in between 70-80 hours a week during the 3-month in-person portion of the program. Apart from the program, I had a bit of rough time finding a job after I graduated. The advice I can give for when the job hunt gets rough is to: continue to pursue side projects, go to lots of networking events, and utilize your network as much as you can. Unfortunately part of the job hunt is just luck, so try not to give up when the going gets rough!
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Some kind of general advice + wisdom I can offer for people about to enter a bootcamp, would be to trust yourself and never stop fighting; and by “fighting” I mean, never stop pushing yourself and boundaries. If you are really giving the program (and yourself) everything that you’ve got, I can guarantee that it’s going to be, for whatever reason, extremely hard at times. Team disagreements, pushy clients, all-nighters, frustrating design restrictions, roadblocks to your process - take your pick of potential challenges. But honestly those challenges are all part of polishing you into a designer - trust yourself and stick to your process. I’ve learned that being a designer is not just about putting your head down and making pretty things, it’s about advocating for a larger process. Just like anything in life, if you give it everything you have you will absolutely learn, grow, and became the professional designer you set out to be.
Any advice for recent graduates looking for a job?
The best advice I can give for job hunting is to reach out to and utilize your own network and attend networking events in your area. People like to hire people they know. You’d be surprised how many people in your immediate network can get you some work or connect you with the right people. When you finally make it to the stage where you’ve been given some offers and are deciding where to work, you also want to make sure that you are vetting your potential future employer as much as they are vetting you. Design teams tend to be close-knit and work closely together, so you want to make sure that the actual projects, work environment, and people are things that you’ll be happy working around daily.
And finally, is there anything else you’d like to share?
Just go for it! If you made it to the point where you’re interested or passionate enough to actually make the leap, then what are you waiting for? But to be more specific and tactical, there are a plethora of online design resources and books you can use to bolster your design knowledge if you’re feeling flimsy on the basics or just want to learn more before diving in. I can recommend the InVision blog, and the books “The Design of Everyday Things”, “Don’t Make Me Think”, and “UX Team of One”. If you’re concerned about a lack of experience specifically in visual design (as I was), there are ways you can teach yourself - things, like studying basic graphic design principles, or mapping out your favorite applications’ layouts to become familiar with patterns, will go a long way. But it basically comes down to practice and a learned skill set that you’ll grow with experience. Designation is a “learn by doing” kind of program, so your new skill set will creep up on you faster than you realize.