Hi Donald! Can you explain your current career position?
My current role is in environmental design. At this moment in my career, I am hoping to deepen my design leadership abilities. So, it is less about what we are designing and whom we are designing for, and more about empowering the creative around me to go beyond conventional thoughts and deliver something spectacular. I would still like to land back in a design practice, but this might take time because it is tied to relationships and my network.
So, let’s go back in time a little. You received a degree in Mechanical Engineering and then worked as a Mechanical Hardware Engineer at Delphi. Now you’re in the field of Industrial Design. How and when did you decide to pivot industries?
The pivot really started when I made a plan to pull together a portfolio. Prior to pursuing design, I had only heard of the term ‘portfolio’ from my friends who had decided to attend art school for undergrad. A few of them had gone to Parsons, Art Institute, and RISD to study a discipline in the fine arts.
At this time in my career, I did not understand how to bridge my engineering experience in hardware development with industrial design. Furthermore, I did not know how wide industrial design could be as a field, or how technical it could be for those pursuing it.
But, I was curious – curious about product design and the emerging digital interfaces that were showing up on phones and other consumer electronics. So, for me, the pivot came when I decided to pull together a ‘kitchen sink’ of all my activities in order to produce a portfolio. It was really a kitchen sink; random illustrations, paintings, mechanical engineering patents, side build projects, and some early iconography work to show my digital graphic capabilities. I was not sure how to put it together, but I looked for resources online and bought books on Amazon that talked about how to present creative work. Later, I submitted these portfolios to graduate design programs for feedback.
During this transition period, trying to understand a new industry, did you lean on anyone or anything to advance your new career path?
Through my career evolution, I depended on my interactions with other accomplished alumni to help me understand my own journey. In my graduate program, I relied on a couple of designers who had recently graduated and were working as professional designers. They helped me to understand how to leverage my professional experience along with the new skills and understanding I was gaining in the program.
I also leaned on organizations such as the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) to provide me with resources such as portfolio reviews and sketch nights. These meet-ups became opportunities to meet people who had started in one career field and then shifted into becoming full-time designers. This effort to connect with people also revealed to me agencies and other types of creative groups full of designers with diverse backgrounds.
Let’s talk about some career milestones! What are some notable moments in your career, so far?
There have been many notable moments. A few stand out more than others, including being offered an acceptance letter to three different graduate-level design programs. Even though this was an academic moment, it was a notable moment. I also think it has been incredible to receive offer letters from agencies such as IDEO and frog. I think it says a lot about the chance that really smart people are willing to take on me. In the end, some of my most notable moments were when my immediate creative peers validated my efforts. That always feels great.
What is one element in your job as a Product Designer that you feel is overlooked but is oh-so vital?
I think that the element that gets the most overlooked as a product designer is listening. I think that as a product designer, it is easy to rely on one aspect of communication – the talking part. I have met many product designers who enjoy hearing themselves talk or don’t talk at all and lose focus by distracting themselves with their own solutions. I am guilty of being a poor listener to clients, internal stakeholders, my creative team, and also to the people who we are designing products for in the first place.
Listening – especially active listening – is such a huge part of creating experiences that people remember positively and also it helps us really address latent needs. I now understand that a sign of a mature design staff member is their ability to thoroughly and actively listen. It is the first move before acting with intention.
Being in a creative field can be very challenging and really test confidence. Have you ever wavered in your creative confidence? How do you overcome it?
I have wavered in creative confidence many times over the years. Sometimes, in between opportunities, and also on big jobs for clients, I have experienced the “imposter syndrome.” I can feel my heart beat very fast and I question whether I really have the abilities and the skills to deliver spectacular results. Sometimes, this has happened because I am the only person in the room who looks remotely like me – that is to say, the only minority.
To get over the creative confidence gaps, I rely on my short-term memory loss and also my ability to archive my wins and victories. Part of staying confident is remembering my identity and what I have accomplished in other tough moments. I leverage my short-term memory loss to tune out the negative thoughts about my performance and any actual failures become the immediate fuel to help me propel into searching my creative archives. My creative archives are very important. When I access these archives, I think about a challenging design project I overcame or a moment when a big audience recognized my work as ‘great’. This helps me regain my mental footing and then act with creative confidence.
How would you define success?
Success is more of a moving target than a destination. Actually, it can be a lot of moving targets. Our targets represent our goals and objectives we want to accomplish. As we accomplish those things, we experience a feeling of success. Success involves action, that is to say, it is kinetic, and requires a daily responsibility of anyone hoping to achieve something. I personally believe that success happens everyday we refuse to accept a life of mediocrity and aspire to live to our maximum potential in all of our endeavors.
Let’s give back. What advice would you give to any designers who are just starting out in their career?
Don’t jump around. But, learn when to pivot. As a young designer, I wanted to move up very quickly in terms of influence and responsibility. For me, this meant, guiding teams and having more interactions with the client. However, after a few years of pivoting in an effort to go after more visible roles, I learned that my eagerness had stunted my development. I grew broadly, but lacked the depth required to be emotionally resilient and mentally collaborative within a studio environment.
Over the past few years, I have learned that many designers just starting out face a similar challenge. I see these new designers entering the workforce with a big desire to take on so much so quickly. My advice would be to stay within a role until they have worked themselves into a place where they really need to go somewhere else to continue learning and growing. I call this “working your way out of the four corners.” In other words, be patient where planted, and then work every “corner” of that role in that environment – in terms of design responsibilities, business acumen, interpersonal relationships, and creative process. Then, only after working those four corners and learning as much as possible, find another opportunity.