Hi there, my name is Vlad, and the following article is about my story about how I become a Product Designer ((UI/UX). I also have some tips in here for those who are starting.
Website: dropletstudios.co – too busy to keep it up to date 🙂
Bio – How did I become a Product Designer?
I want to take a few lines to paint you a picture of me. An image that makes my “success” a bit more robust. I’ve been born in ’89 in a beautiful small town in Romania, on the verge of the communist era, in a lovely lower-middle-class family. One of my early passions was to draw, but because of the generation’s mentality, becoming an artist was not a prolific and lucrative option. As expected, my dad didn’t support my passion because I had to become a lawyer or a doctor in his vision. Respectable jobs, non-the-less, but were not exciting for my colorful brain. On top of this, I did not have school options for what I would like to learn. It was the same for everybody. I was a decent student because I had to, but I’m not too fond of schools today. However, as a naturally curious individual, I always loved education. Unfortunately, I left my drawing passion behind and followed the crowd.
Love on the First Sight
My first encounter with a computer was at the age of 10. It was a 4-8-6 computer with Windows 95 :), in an office where my mother worked. I played Solitaire for the first time in my life, and it was love at first sight. My family did not have the money to buy one for me due to the prices those things had and because we’re not being recognized as professional tools by parents in general. All this was new for them too.
By the age of 12, some of my friends start having computers in their homes. I had to be creative and leverage my relationship with them to get in their house to play with them on their computers. I also convinced my mother to allow me in her office to stay on her computer on the weekends, and I spent all my pocket money on internet cafes. I guess the quote “Where is a will there’s a way” defined my actions. I also created a collection of CDs with software and games in my house without having a device to read them; however, I knew I would have a computer at some point. My family was not happy about this, because they did not understand computers and were afraid of my future.
Time passed, my obsession grew, and at the age of 16, my mum sold an older car she had, Dacia 1310, to buy me a computer -LOVE YOU MUM- It was beautiful—the best computer MSI in the neighborhood! Video games all day long – which was becoming a problem because I was ignoring school. One day, I stumbled upon a piece of software from my CD collection called ASDsee, which allowed you to manipulate images. It was not drawing, but it was creation non-the-less, and I was hooked.
Discovering Web Design | How did I become a Product Designer
At this stage, my parents were divorced, and my mother got an opportunity to leave Romania for the USA. The plan was to join her, at some point, in the future. But not everything we plan follows suit; therefore, I had to continue living with my grandparents. The internet era was taken Romania by storm. An older friend of mine, a web developer, saw my digital creations and told me to create websites. *Web…what?*. So he explained to me that businesses are making these websites for having an online presence. He also mentioned Adobe Photoshop and told me how I could help these people with their business and make some money in the process. *Pfffuuaaawaw* Mind-blowing stuff – so I did.
I start looking on websites with web templates and copying them to learn. Photoshop is not easy for beginners with no proper education, so I was frustrated all the time until I managed to learn it by practice. I was so into it that I found a company through a family friend that allowed me to do an internship in my high school summer holiday. It was a no-pay job, apart from the commuting expenses. I was eager to learn about this web thing, so I accepted, and I learned about CSS & HTML.
I discovered that digital design is about creativity, looks and function. It combines everything I ever wanted in a job.
- You need to create the best solutions for your client
- You need to package your solution in an appealing form
- You need to make your package useful to your users.
After this, I was ready to build a website from scratch.
Yes, I am a Designer now, hmm…
To fast forward the story a bit… I left my town after high school graduation to start my university in Public and Communication Relationships. Why this university? At that time, Romania did not have universities in the digital design area because I could not go to an Art University. I did not exercise my drawing skills, and the acceptance exam was to draw from a live model. Other universities were more expensive, so I jump into this one. All their teachings came from American books, translated in Romanian, and after my first year, being miserable plus paying them for this, I quit.
I took my chance to go against the current, drop the university, and work as a freelance web designer. After all, the web-space was booming, and every business wanted to have a live website. I was mainly creating presentation websites, logos, flyers, and business cards. This was great, but I wanted to solve more significant problems through design and not to focus only on one design artery – visuals. I was depressed by returning to my town. Felt like a step backward, and everybody told me I would be a loser without a degree. I wanted more knowledge and a mindset shift, but I had to leave the country to get it.
A New Beginning
The only language I speak apart from Romanian is English. I guess the English teacher in school was nicer than the French one. I applied to Universities in the UK, which had digital “something” courses. To my surprise, after sharing my portfolio with them, I got accepted almost by everyone I applied to. However, only two of them gave me a free allowance, and the one I chose was Napier University in Edinburgh.
The first departure from my country to a new one – I was in shock with the differences for one year. It wasn’t easy, and I was not prepared for this. Compared with Romania, the UK is in a different price bracket, and my family support was redundant. I had to do all kinds of jobs (washing dishes, mystery shopper, club security, photo editing, etc.) to pay my bills, and I couldn’t find much freelance work either.
Being a first-year student in a completely different system and language, I failed most of my first-year projects. Washing dishes and failing exams, I mean “come on.” I was in agony because, in my head, I was a failure. I passed all my technical tasks, but not the documentation. You see, educational systems are different in the UK compared with my home country. For example, in my home country, I learned to do essays. I learned to put my perspective on other people’s work. At Napier, they wanted me to create study reports, which I never did in my life. The good news about all this is that I liked my university. It was about photography, HCI, digital design, CGI, 3D animation, video editing, Java coding, prototyping, etc., and I was spending hours and hours in the university lab. After my adjustments to the new system, I managed to move forward. Again the education part kept me on the right track, not so much the society at that time. I say this because if you came to the UK as a Romanian/Bulgarian in 2011, you were not legally allowed to work (*Government Yellow/Blue Card was required). Everyone was scared that in 2012 when the borders will be open for work to those countries, they will invade the UK. – BBC BS. People were a bit scared because of this.
I felt it and was nasty, but “Hey – I said to myself, I am the “intruder” after all, so… suck it up and move on”. Although the situation was not great, I met some fantastic people who helped me change my life perspective. At this stage, I am 24. My mother managed to come from the USA to my Digital & Computing Science Honour Graduation for a couple of days. We see each other in flesh and bones again after eight years. Without her efforts to help in the beginning, I would not be in the UK right now.
Tip: About Schools
Any institution, through its education system, is just laying down a foundation for you. Real learning starts when you finish the courses. It is your responsibility to continue developing and sharping your skills further, and it is a continuous process. My big mistake was that I wanted to utilize all my knowledge accumulated. I was sick of being poor, and I was afraid. This resulted in spreading myself too thin to cover more ground because, in my mind, I had more chances to find some work in my studying field. Businesses will see you as an undecided entry-level worker and are not happy to hire you. My advice is to learn about the T strategy- Go deep faster than you go wider. Specialise in something as early as possible and expand in areas that are symbiotic to each other.
My First Job in the UK
It is time to put all my ducks in the row and find a proper job. I need more than £400 per month if I want to take myself seriously. After graduation from university, I start applying every day to every job that suits my skill sets. The initial problem was that nobody gave me a job due to “lack of UK work experience” in digital design, and I stop sending my CVs through the job postings. I changed my strategy, and I start emailing design companies directly without knowing if they hire me or not. This approach allowed me to speak directly with the managers, showcase my skills, and explain how I can help their business before the potential job went on the market. This approach got my first job in Edinburgh at a small web design company as a Web Designer. Once I got in, I updated my CV and LinkedIn profile. After you build some experience, you will understand that getting a new job is about being patient, networking, and finding the right people. You know that it “takes two to tango.” It is essential to get in a position where respect is vital for both sides.
Tip: Failing is more important than winning.
Fear is the big one and will never go away. Learn how to manage it; that’s what courage means. Courage will enable you to move forward and allows you to fail. Failing is the most powerful way to learn because it works like a catalyst that pushes you to educate yourself further. My main problem in finding a job was not my skill sets but my confidence. I did not believe I am good enough for the UK’s market.
*Vlad, if you do not believe in yourself, why do you expect some stranger to do it for you? *. After switching to this mindset, I went confident to an interview, and a couple of hours later, I got the job. Another perspective that changed my mindset was *Vlad is not about you and how great you are. It is about how you can solve someone else problems*. Understanding your client’s pain points will give you the chance to show them how you can help. Mindset is more important than skills and resources!
Moving to the Big City
I was two months into my job in Edinburgh, but a company called MPC (Moving Picture Company) emailed me on my birthday, saying that they would like to interview me. I have forgotten that three months earlier, I sent them my CV. This company was special to me because we studied it and its process as a Napier student. This was my moment to get a job in my dream company for a UI/UX Designer position.
The interview went well, I completed a challenge they prepared for me, and I nailed it. I was shocked to see that a large company like MPC/Technicolor would offer me a job where most minor studios didn’t. I had one problem. I had to move to London, and I had no money to do so. I’ve become creative, and I told MPC that I have one month notice period from my current job, which was not true :). Then I asked a friend of mine if he could give me a space to crush for two weeks until I managed to find myself a room to move into. He was kind enough to help me, and I will appreciate him for the rest of my life.
I spent five years with MPC, and even though I wanted to become a CGI artist, I realized that I am a designer more than anything else. I stop pushing my other passions as professional careers and focus on design. Product Design processes were something new for big corporations in industries that were not in the digital consumer space. By concentrating on my design career, sharpening my skills, and learning new things, I took the responsibility to become the Head of Design in the software department. It was quite a journey for me to achieve what I wanted, and that is to use design in solving more significant problems. I was now working on complex systems, product dependencies, and design methodologies to execute business strategies better.
Climbing the Ladder
If your focus is to grow within the company, ask about the company goals and ensure that those goals create this opportunity for you. Develop your skills in time to be sure you are prepared for the climb. Communicate your desire to grow and stick with your personal goal. I see a lot of companies promoting people in positions that are not suitable for them. This hurts the business and the person because he might not like it or is not prepared enough.
Let me give you an example. At some point, in MPC, I was promoted as a Product Manager without being prepared for it. I was happy at first, but it was no fun later on. I was good at creating a report with our contractors and other colleagues. They assumed I would be a good Product Manager, so they gave me the responsibility to oversee a large product.
I wanted to manage my creative team and create design solutions for our products, not control and organize one big product, deadlines, and the stakeholders involved. I realized at that time that was not the growth I wanted. I stepped down, and someone more prepared stepped in. It hurt my ego a little bit, but the team as a whole was more important than my feelings.
My contract came to an end with MPC, and I had to move on. I opened my own company, called DropleStudios.co and I start some consulting gigs for Sapient. I assisted them with some digital financial projects for some of the largest companies in the UK. Some of the projects were design concepts and others deliverables for product implementation.
Sometimes I forget why I do what I do, but the following event filled my spirit with joy. Apparently, the core team worked on this project for six months, and the Product Manager did not receive what he was asking for. It was a communication and product design issue somewhere, and he was afraid he would lose the pitch to his clients. Our team took over the project. We did not have the time to rebuild a product, but we told him that he could have a functional high fidelity prototype ready for his South Arabia presentation. After one month of intensive work on a project, the Product Manager came to us with watery eyes and thanked us from the bottom of his heart. The prototype made a good impression, and the client decided to develop the project with Sapient.
During this time, Brexit, IR35, and covid were changing the market landscape. I was with no job for five months, and an excellent opportunity for me to join VIOOH emerged. VIOOH is a company in the out-of-home advertising industry with a need for product design. I never worked in the industry, which for me made things more exciting to accept the offer. I joined them as a Principal Product Designer to grow the product department, implement design methodologies, improve its existing products and create new products.
I hope my story will inspire some of you who are just starting. Some personal challenges I avoided for staying on a career topic. However, I am happy and grateful for how my mindset developed and who I become over these years by facing my fears.
Tip: Just getting started?
If I would start from scratch again or I would hire someone in my team, I would pay attention to the following:
- Educate your mindset.
◦ Do not be a task taker, be a creator! Sitting in a chair waiting for a manager to tell you what you have to do all the time is not going to get you far. As a designer, you need to initiate change, challenge the product and find creative solutions to improve the product/business. If the situation does not allow it, change it.
- Learn and practice the soft skills.
◦ Learn to communicate with questions. Soft skills are a must if you do UX design, however being a good communicator, in general, will give you an advantage at work, networking, personal relationship, etc.
- Do not be a perfectionist, and keep your work for yourself.
◦ You will never be perfect because “perfection” is in the eye of the beholder. Usually, this obsession with creating “perfect” work before exposure comes from fear of failing or being ridiculed; therefore, your confidence will be affected. Share what you can do now and let others follow your progress and story.
- Learn your craft.
◦ Be technically prepared. Learn well the software you use, design methodologies, colour, composition, fonts, etc. This will make you fast and efficient on your deliverables. Also, learn about a good design (UX) with high visual standards (UI) and develop your style.
- Stay hungry.
◦ Never get in the trap that after some years of experience, you will know everything. Stay humble and improve continuously. This game does not have a finish line, so remember, stay industry-relevant.
- How was your University time?
◦ Schools are essential for one reason. They will help you build a foundation and show you what you can continue learning after graduation. The moment you understand that they will never teach you everything you have to know to be the perfect human, your journey begins. I never thought I would be able to study abroad, and despite my social challenge, I met lovely people and learned a lot from them.
- Why did you choose a career in this field?
◦ As a kid, I wanted to be an artist. Then, I became more censored and analytical due to the society mindset back then. When I discovered digital design was magic, and it ticked all the boxes for me:
- It is a creative activity.
- I have to solve problems for other people because the design needs to be functional and usable.
- It involves visuals and graphics.
- It is an activity that you are in control of all time.
- I was spending time on a computer.
- What was your first job or nuggets from jobs you had that helped you get to where you are today?
◦ In the beginning, I was obsessed with the artistic part of the design. I became a good visual web designer, basically. When I was freelancing in Romania, companies wanted to work with me because my visual skills attracted their clients. To this day, I try to leverage visuals as much as possible.
◦ Product Design is a bit more complex nowadays and is not a one-person show like ten years ago. If I had to start my design journey today, I would jump on easy projects, and I would cover the whole process. I would go wider to explore, and I will go deeper when I am ready to specialize. Any designer should experience at least once the entire process of Research > Ideation > Prototyping > Implementation.
- How did you prepare for the interview?
◦ Interview preparations will depend on your level of experience. In the design industry, I found out that many companies are asking you to give a test. Unless you are just starting, I do not recommend doing it. It is a lot to talk about why you should not, but basically, it is a game of power, respect, positioning, and trust. That being said, no matter the experience, we always have some common points. I pay attention to the following:
- I learn about the company.
- I Research the people who will interview me. They love to hear that I know something about them.
- I do my best to be professional and confident, but more importantly, I try not to alternate my personality. Everybody needs to be comfortable with each other, and only the “truth will set you free.” ▪ I always try to think like a consultant. I ask questions, and I do my best to understand them and their needs.
- I keep my vocabulary simple, and I do not overuse design jargon. ▪ I use my portfolio to highlight similar use cases. I do not display only my success but my failures as well. Failure = experience.
- I make sure I am comfortable with their monetary offer and conditions.
- Can you provide some book recommendations?
- “This is Service Design – Doing”
- The 48 Laws of Power
- Hooked by Nir Eyal
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanhneman
- Start with Why by Simon Sinek
- Never split the difference by Chris Voss
- Sprint by Jake Knapp
- The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns
- Brand Gap
- The Decision Book
- Things are changing very fast in the industry; how do you keep yourself updated. Please list techniques or newsletters, podcasts, events, etc.
◦ It is nice to stay informed about the industry in general. It is a lot of information out there that can make you a self-thought designer. To utilize the information out there, “I learned how to learn” to cut through the noise and save time. What worked for me over the years is learning by doing. When I work on something, I research multiple options to achieve whatever is that I want to achieve, and in the process, I discover new things. As they say, “All Roads Lead to Rome,” this stands true in design. It will never be only one way. My categories of interest when it comes to design are mindset, tools, and methodologies.
◦ The industry is fast. However, not every change is a significant change and should not be adopted without questioning it. If something works for a product, it doesn’t mean it will work for every product.
◦ I am aware of trends, and I like to check them out from time to time. I avoid them in busy times because I tend to have the desire to adopt what I see liking. Those risks are not always wise, primarily when you work with complex design systems. When I am in a situation like this, I will create a side design to explore that trend. It is my cold shower :).
◦ My preference for media consumption is medium, youtube. Rarely podcasts. I design books when I know I need to explore a subject more thoroughly, and I use events mainly for networking.
- Any advice about CVs?
◦ CVs are tools for screening. Someone needs to make a fast decision if he wants to talk with you or not.
- Keep them simple, clean, and easy to read.
- Your first sentences need to show how you can help others with your experience and skills, followed by your achievements of using them.
- Please keep it in a maximum of two pages.
- Advice for someone looking for a job?
- Network as much as possible and have intelligent conversations with people.
- Create a routine of sending applications daily.
- Email companies and tell them what you do.
- Most of your encounters will fail, and it is normal. Never give up because your time will come if you are persistent.
- Why do you think you were selected among other candidates?
◦ Sometimes it was about my skills, another time for my personality and attitude. Nowadays, I believe it is the whole package that I can bring with me: mindset, experience, creativity, and understanding of their perspective.
- Lessons from jobs that you couldn’t get.
- Language barrier. I am referring to language as jargon. They said “their users,” and I said “my clients.” In the Product Design world, “Users” and “Clients” and totally two different categories of people.
- Web Interview: Vaping during the interview. 🙂
- I was telling them too much too early.
- Low confidence.
- Tag a few friends/colleagues whose stories you would like to see them share their story.
- Ben Anyasodo
- Hannes Robier
- Martina Mitz
Also read How I Got My Job as a Senior UX and Product Designer