Today we're talking to Thomas Lei, a graduate of UX Academy's Eames Cohort.
Only a few weeks after graduating UX Academy, Thomas landed his dream job at Bleacher Report, one of the leaders among sports reporting websites in the US. In this in-depth interview, he explains how recognizing and leveraging the problem-solving skills from his legal work helped him flex his creative muscles as a UX Designer. Take it away, Thomas!
What made you decide to join UX Academy?
Before transitioning to design, I had been practicing as an IP attorney for 4 years (trademarks, copyrights, branding & licensing) and while I was good at it, it was also sucking the creative soul out of me.
The leap from law to design has been exciting, challenging, and rewarding all at once. When I’m immersed in it, it is without a doubt the best version of me.
What made you choose Designlab over other programs?
As someone changing careers (and law to design was a complete 180), I was looking for a course that would provide all the resources I needed to make that transition possible.
There are a ton of online design immersive/accelerators out there these days. After doing my research, I liked what UX Academy offered, and it seemed like a good fit for me factoring in time and budget as well.
Were there any obstacles that might have prevented you from enrolling in UX Academy?
I think I always knew I'd somehow end up in some kind of creative work. It just took time to build up the confidence to do it (also, I just ran out of excuses).
So, to answer your question: the obstacle was me.
If something is important enough to you, you'll eventually find a way to dedicate the time and energy to making it happen.
What got you interested in UX design?
I've been a closet creative for as long as I can remember.
As a child I was a visual learner; observing the colorful branding of team uniforms in Sports Illustrated and cultivating my LEGO empire. Aside from building structures, my parents fostered creativity by allowing me to draw constantly (notebooks, lunch boxes, under desks, on trees--anything).
In my formative years, I became obsessed with understanding the design of everyday things and wondered how I could personally make them better.
Playing organized baseball, I was fascinated by the nuanced designs of mitts for the needs of each position. As a competitive runner, I found it remarkable how the innovative pattern of my track flats translated into better performance.
In high school I would express myself through digital mediums like MS Paint and then PS, Illustrator, HTML/JS as my fraternity's webmaster later in college.
Did you have any concerns about transitioning into a creative career?
Making the jump from law to design was an extremely humbling yet rewarding decision. I was an esquire by trade, but a creative at heart.
The transition to a career I was passionate about but had little tangible experience in often felt like jumping off a cliff and building the parachute while falling. Fortunately, my background provided a tremendously beneficial skill set that bridged the gap.
As a former attorney, I was required to understand what drove my clients to do what they did. As a UI/UX designer, I use that critical-thinking to be cognizant of my user's feelings, thoughts, and needs.
In both professions, there's a hypothesis to prove, a commitment to research, and a carefully painted story containing facts that support the solution.
What did you think of UX Academy overall? How did it go?
My experience with Designlab was great. The curriculum is geared toward getting you familiar and giving you exposure to everything you'll encounter as a UX Designer from concepts to real hands-on deliverables.
Did you experience any challenges that you hadn’t anticipated? Or were there any pleasant surprises?
Like many UXA students who are changing careers, I didn't have any formalized design training--just an “eye for things”, so to speak. A concern was that I had no prior experience with Sketch and I was learning as I went. I've come to realize that hard skills can be learned and tools come and go. Keeping that raw eye mindful is more important -- the proficiency in tools will come through experience over time.
What was your favorite part of the course experience?
Designlab does a great job of creating a real community on Slack. You interact with other students who are at all skill levels--some who've just started, those that are further along, and alums who've recently completed the course. Students ask all sorts of questions and there's no judgment, just supportive folks with a willingness to help.
I enjoyed the weekly meetings with my cohort to discuss what we've been working on, our progress, as well as the super helpful design crits. There are also dedicated channels for students in different cities. For example, I live in San Francisco, and there's a Bay Area group where we'd arrange occasional meetups at coffee shops/bars to chat, network, and talk design.
What advice would you give to current or future UX Academy students?
If you're reading this, you probably already know that UI/UX design is hot right now. Companies have finally begun to realize that good design equals good business and there's an enormous level of demand for digital designers. I was lucky enough to accept an offer at one of my top choices a few weeks after graduation, when I had convinced myself the entire time that the role was out of my league.
But that definitely came with work. During the course, I forced myself to network--reaching out and literally talking to anyone that was willing to talk to me about design. I scrubbed my entire contacts list and made an effort to schedule at least one meeting a week (coffee, lunch, dog walk, phone, whatever). It didn't matter if there was an opening at the company, I just wanted to talk shop and get into the practice of discussing design. So don't be afraid to put yourself out there. While there is a high demand for UI/UX designers, keep in mind there's also 2948294 people trying to get in the game as well. Don't let them out-hustle you.
How long after completing UX Academy did you start your new position at Bleacher Report?
I started my first job about three weeks after graduation. My goal as a growing designer was to attach myself to a close-knit team, learn & absorb, and position myself to provide as much impact as possible. I also wanted to be a part of a company that recognizes the value of design, encourages usability testing to inform decisions, and values collaborative exploration.
Joining the dynamic design team at Bleacher Report has given me the opportunity to help shape and evolve their digital product for mobile.
What skills did you develop in UX Academy that are serving you well in the new role?
UXA provided a strong foundation of the entire end-to-end UX process from concept to shipping. I learned core design skills and UI/UX pillars, as well as gained hands-on experience by collaborating with peers and curating polished capstone pieces. They really put you in a good position just in terms of the frame of mind you should have as a designer coming out.
What skills are you hoping to work on moving forward?
The product team at Bleacher Report demands a lot, and I demand even more of myself.
As I continue to grow and learn, I'm looking to become even faster and more proficient with my daily tools. I'd also like to take more risks, e.g. not being afraid to have something look less polished at first, if it means quicker feedback and the time to iterate and create better results. It's one of the scariest things as a young designer--putting something out there with your name on it that you know isn't complete yet, and understanding that the feedback you get (as hard as it may be to initially hear) only helps to improve the work down the road.
Any tips for individuals considering a transition into UX? Is there anything you did that you’d strongly recommend? Anything that you wouldn’t do if you had a chance to do it over again?
- Your portfolio is your bloodline when you're first starting off. I took a long time on mine (probably twice as long as most). In my mind, if something was going to be attached to my name, I wanted it to be the best representation of what I was capable at that moment in time. Studies show it takes at least one year for people not only to learn a new skill but to also hone it.
- I took care in my case studies to really tell a story. People reviewing your portfolio want more than just polished designs, they want to know how you got there. The process, the days filled with creative breakthroughs and tremendous growth, followed by immense self-doubt and loathing. They want to know how you were tested, and how you worked through to overcome it. Because in the real world, that's the case. Every. Single. Day.
- Having semi-decent copy in your portfolio matters. Spend time crafting your text. Weave words together that take the reader on the ups and downs every design endeavor is subject to. Have your personality and voice come through that text. Next to Sketch, the thesaurus was literally my best friend.
- I read. A LOT. Design articles on Muzli to blogs and everything in between. Designlab does a great job of teaching design theory and principles, so I used the majority of my outside time to read articles written by senior level folks who shared no-nonsense advice.
Would you recommend UX Academy?
While I know a good portion of designers are self-taught, Designlab not only provides the structure, it also supplies a support system to help get you through the trenches. The weekly Group Crits and deadlines keep you motivated, and the mentors you're assigned to keep you honest and on pace with your goals.
You landed an awesome role within just a few weeks. Do you have any advice for other UX Academy graduates currently applying for jobs?
- With interviews, don't be afraid to show your personality. UX designers are in the business of observing, analyzing, and understanding people. So they can smell bull a mile away. They can sense when you're saying something only because you think you're supposed to say it. Have certainty of motivation, but also be transparent, honest, adaptable. Share with them what you want to learn and sell those transferable skills from your previous background. Be conscious of your areas of weakness and follow it up with a personal development plan on how you plan to bridge that gap. I think showing interviewers what you want and directing the language goes a long way.
- With the companies you really want to work for, take the time to research the company, role, and culture. Carve out unique messages that align with their environments. Interviewers can tell when you're passionate about the company and whether you really want it.
To this day I'm still in disbelief that someone in the design world actually wanted me. I'm a former attorney with virtually no design experience who quit his job and started a brand new adventure. If I can do it, you for sure damn can.
In the words of Christopher Gardner: "You got a dream, you got to protect it. You want something, go get it. Period."
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