by Richard Yang
How I went from 0 design experience to landing a full time job in 12 months
A quarter life crisis
Gather around kids, It was the summer of 2015 in the middle of nowhere. I was interning at an agricultural company as an ergonomics consultant (basically filling out fancy checklists and not applying anything I learned in school).
I remember sitting at my desk opening the Facebook app then closing it for the 8th time thinking, “Oh great, Chad just posted another photo of himself drinking free beer at work #startuplife #technology #imakemoremoneythanyou.”
Seeing my attempts to roll my eyes back even further becoming more and more futile, I left work earlier and started thinking about what I could do to be more like Chad.
Well obviously the best way to get into tech would be to be an “idea person” and find a group of developers to just code the whole thing (self cringe flashback).
In a flash of sudden brilliance (or so I thought at the time), I decided to create an app called “Joinmi”, where you could meet up with friends and strangers.
It’s kind of like Uber for Tinder x SMS, and was bound to be the next Facebook #icanhandletheideaside. I’m not sure what possessed me at the time, but I was damn sure this was a million dollar startup idea (spoilers: it wasn’t).
A terrible startup idea
Turns out my “Uber for X” analogy, and pen sketches on the back of a takeout napkin didn’t communicate my idea that well.
I decided to look for some sort of design tool to accomplish my needs. I ended up using the free trial of Moqups to create a #lit design.
Feeling confident about my wireframes, I spammed every tech person I knew and attempted to pitch my idea. No idea how I’m still friends with most of them.
After getting blocked a few times and a whole lot of persistence, one of my friends decided to help me out(? Jay). He said, “It’s a good idea — but I’d need more than just wireframes. Create some mockups and I’ll see what I can do.
I didn’t know what user interface design was, so the concept of a “mockup” was foreign to me at a time. With a bit of research, I ended up using Sketch, as my tool of choice.
Luckily, I decided to give design a shot instead of trying to find a designer to just do it for me. Once I opened the program for the first time I immediately immersed myself into the world of layers, shapes, colors, and bad typography.
I spent my entire day at work watching tutorials, and reading design articles — averaging 4–6 hours a day. Despite keeping this up until the end of my internship, I didn’t really get that good (see below).
Fast forward to when my internship had ended, and I’d moved back to university. I had put Joinmi on the back burner after I figured out how much work it was, and how bad I was at design.
At this point in life I was a 3rd year university student studying some random major I picked when I was 18 thinking it’d be “passion”. After being given the three career options of “doctor, lawyer, and accountant”, I planned to pursue medicine and fulfil the dream of every Asian parent.
As the semester progressed, although I never paid attention in lectures to begin with, I found myself opening Sketch instead of Steam and reading design articles instead of Reddit.
Soon it was time to look for the next internship. While browsing like the 10 job postings available for my major, I stumbled upon a few UX design jobs that didn’t have a significant requirements.
However, I decided to just go for the “safe” jobs I had applied to in the past, thinking I wasn’t even remotely qualified for a real design job.
About 48 hours before all applications closed, I had my second quarter-life crisis of the week, and decided to just go for it after some convincing from my S/O and friends.
Given that I had less than 48 hours to “go for it”, I decided to create a portfolio as quick as possible. Powered by a concoction of coffee, insomnia, and passion(?), I chose to skip all the lectures for the week and not sleep. Somehow I managed to scrap something together in the nick of time.
Act IV: The big break
After waiting for a few weeks, the clouds parted and the stars aligned, granting me a couple design interviews.
With such a rare chance in hand, I decided to skip all lectures, drop all extracurriculars, and dedicate every waking moment on interview preparations. I think slept 2–4 hours a day for the most part.
During interview prep, I focused on understanding the various disciplines in design, the definition of user experience, and common design principles and tools.
I also paid special attention to every single user interface I interacted with on a daily basis. I focused on understanding their design, and identifying gaps in the user experience.
I was practicing and reading while eating, on the toilet, and in bed until 2AM every night. I tried to absorb as much as humanly possible to increase my chances.
I’m not sure how effective it was, but I would take screenshots of mobile apps, and try to recreate the entire UI from scratch inside Sketch while thinking about their design decisions.
A little bit of obsession is part of the recipe for success.
Of course, I was immediately rejected from most companies once they found out I had like 3 weeks of design experience.
Despite most of my portfolio pieces looking terrible, I managed to land an internship at a reputable software company.
I also somehow managed to pass the technical skills interview, which involved recreating a UI in Photoshop. I’m pretty sure I was Googling how to do things several times during the test.
Feeling like an imposter
After confirming that this wasn’t a dream, I was terrified thinking about how incompetent I’d be on my first day.
I spent the next few months grinding like hell. I started sleeping less, and skipping out on anything non-design related. I figured it was better to whole ass one thing, than to half ass multiple things.
I think I circled around the block like 10 times before working up the courage to go into the office on my first day. Despite all the hard work I put in, I still didn’t feel qualified for the job.
At first, I didn’t have too much complicated work to do — most of it was simple UI tweaks. However, the feeling of not making a huge impact at work struck a chord with me.
This motivated me to work harder, going above and beyond each project. Despite all this, I was having doubts about breaking into the design field.
It sounded insane on paper, giving up years of studying to pursue something I knew nothing about. At this point, it wasn’t about getting free beer at work, or making it rain — I just wanted to design things.
Meanwhile on the parental side, my parents saw this as an hobby, and that I’d still go onto become a doctor as planned.
I ended up making a deal with them where I’d focus on design for an entire year, and if I didn’t have any meaningful results by the end of it, I’d quit.
I lived my entire life without understanding what it meant to be passionate about something. I had always assumed that passion was some inherently magical fuel that successful people were just born with.
I thought I was “passionate” about what I was studying. I believed that as a average person, the extent of passion involved having a mild interest during lectures, and reading the occasional scientific journal.
After being immersed in design for several months, I found out that I had been wrong all this time. Passion must be discovered. Passion is when you give up sleep, skip meals, forgo a social life — just to fit a few more design hours into the day.
There were countless nights, where I’d get a flash of inspiration, open up Sketch, and then within a blink of an eye hear my morning alarm.
If you’re curious, this is roughly what I did for over a year:
- read 10 design articles a day
- create at least 1 new user interface screen a day
- go to 1 hackathon every weekend (give or take a few)
- design at least 10 hours each day
- take on every possible design opportunity available (not matter what it is)
Some of the things I did that I felt were most useful include:
- downloading Sketch UI kits (starting with native iOS & Android) to re-create from scratch
- re-creating mockups inside Sketch from popular app screenshots
- critiquing commonly used apps like Yelp, Uber, Facebook, and coming up with alternative design solutions for specific problems and/or personas
- examining design case studies like user onboard
- the 100 Day UI Challenge (ended up doing this several times)
I also went through several online courses. Some of these are paid, but I had a lot of spare money once I stopped going out:
- Udacity’s product design course by Google
- Design + Code by Meng To
- Coursera’s Interaction Design Immersive
- Interaction Design Foundation Design Courses
I found hackathons to be particularly valuable for new designers. You learn how to prioritize, work with a multi-disciplinary team, and try new ideas.
Protip: when passing along specs to developers, do not shout them across the room like I did — use Invision Inspect, Zeplin, or other similar tools out there.
I don’t think there was an exact moment I could pinpoint, but over the course of several months I got better and better. I was making much more impact at work, and producing solid work.
This led to me getting assigned a large and challenging project that was probably too advanced for me at the time. In the face of uncertainty, this was what I needed to push myself and become a better designer.
It’s rare to be one hundred percent prepared for opportunities in life anyways. So I buckled down and kept refining the solution over and over again through multiple rounds of testing and review. Each Sketch file got so large that I had to create new ones to avoid lag. I wanted to make sure I made every possible mistake before the design made it to production.
It wasn’t a simple task at all. I remember the first time design presentation I gave involved a lot of awkward sweating and stuttering.
After the internship ended, I transitioned into part-time contract work while going to school. I had five classes that semester, but went to none of them.
One thing I did notice was that I could no longer focus in class. Sitting through 10 minutes of lecture was like pulling teeth.
However, I did end up clocking about 20–40 of contract work each week. I was certain that I wanted to become a designer, and nothing else.
After the contract was up, my biggest concern was whether or not I would be able to secure a full-time job upon graduation. Kind of jumped the gun a little, but I ended up applying to around 100 jobs over the next weekend.
Interviewing at tech companies is arduous, most involves several rounds and a take hold design challenge. I ended up treating them as practice, as I was met with almost all rejections.
One thing I did that helped motivate me was to print out all the rejections I received, and nail them to a wall as a reminder to work harder (inspired by Stephen King’s philosophy in “On Writing”).
“The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”- Stephen King
Sometimes it ends up being a numbers game, and you have to create your own luck. After over 80 rejections, I managed to land a great job, had some VISA issues, and ended up having to look for jobs again, rinse and repeat until I ended up at my current company.
Two years later (after editing and republishing this article), I’m almost a year in my new job and can confidently say Joinmi is absolutely a terrible idea, but I’m glad it brought me to where I am today.
As a side hustle since then I’ve started orgamiUI (follow on Instagram @origamiuishop and @richard.ux). I goal of origamiUI is to help new designers develop the UI and visual design skills needed to land their first job.
I plan to package educational UI kits with a structured breakdown of each source file to help new designers learn the platform and tool specific nuances of design.
This is still a bit of a work in progress — so feel free to email me ([email protected]) with feedback and suggestions on how I can improve these educational kits.