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Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, famously said, “new beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” For Heather O’Neal, being laid off from her job as a print graphic designer back in 2017 was just that.

After her layoff, Heather decided it was time for a career change, but she wasn’t sure exactly which route to take. So, she consulted a co-worker and friend. “He said that UX design would fit my personality,” Heather recalls. 

She decided to give it a try, and took a Design Thinking course with IBM. While she learned a lot, she also felt like the work being asked of her wasn’t actually showing off her knowledge. “I knew then I needed a school to help me put my design skills together with my strategic side.”

Fans of Heather’s illustration work, as well as her family and friends, were very supportive in her choice to go back to school. They even helped to fund her tuition by subscribing to her Twitch stream channel, and kept her motivated through encouraging words during live art and game streams. “They were the ones to give me a nudge and were there for both the good and bad days,” Heather says. “Without them as my support system, I know I would have given up on this dream.”

Heather O'Neal UX Academy Graduate

Wireframes for Heather’s Discord app design during UX Academy

Enrolling in UX Academy proved to be exactly what Heather needed in order to make her dreams for the next chapter in her career, a reality. She particularly enjoyed the group critiques, and her relationship with her mentor, Matt Farley

“Matt and I hit it off right away,” Heather explains. “What he did that changed my thinking was the very first time I turned in my style tile, he immediately rejected it. He knew I had a design background and he was going to push me to do better, no exceptions.”

For Heather, the most challenging part of the course was learning how to manage her time. “Even though I didn’t have a job, I was still actively looking, and the coursework did take longer than expected at times,” Heather says. “Sometimes I was so busy trying to make something perfect that I would forget what I was designing for, and so to overcome this, I would share my work often with others. This allowed me to be more receptive to feedback and learn what I should really be focused on.”

So what would Heather’s tips for new UX Academy students be?

  • Make a daily schedule for yourself that covers what you need to do, and what you want to get out of your coursework.

  • Sign up for Group Crits, but keep to the same group whenever possible—it really helps build relationships.

  • Notice how your peers present their creative work to the world, and make a plan to take advantage of social media.

  • Look for online networking opportunities if physical meetups are not available.

  • Always show your work to others—I was lucky to have a close set of friends and fans who were willing to look at my work via social media.

  • Review the goals you made at the start UX Academy to stay motivated and remember why you’re doing this—and be ready to add new goals or revise others.

And the biggest piece of advice Heather would share with incoming students? “Be willing to learn something new. For example, I decided to try a different UX/UI program for each project. This way I could get a feel for the strengths and weaknesses for each piece of software, but also gain the experience in each tool. I also learned to combine the software I already knew with the new tools that I was learning.”

Heather O'Neal UX Academy Graduate

The finished UI for Heather’s Discord app design

Like Matt, Cory Burnett—Heather’s career coach at Designlab—didn’t cut her any slack either. “He made sure that I cleaned up my portfolio and incorporated my illustration side. He also convinced me to be more open to different job positions—freelance or full-time, and expand my portfolio beyond the Designlab projects.” 

That’s when Heather discovered the Adobe XD Daily Challenges, which changed everything. With these challenges, Heather was able to network with other creatives, receive feedback from peers, and participate in Adobe’s live-stream portfolio review.

After graduating from UX Academy, Heather was offered a job with Zimmerman Advertising only three days after her interview. They offered her both a senior role, and the salary she had requested, so the choice was simple. 

“Things are going great at Zimmerman. The world of advertising is a very fast paced industry, but I enjoy having the opportunity to team up with different people from multiple departments, and I love the challenge of figuring out solutions for multiple projects simultaneously. There’s never a dull day.”

During her time at Zimmerman so far, Heather has had the opportunity to work on websites and pitches for some big name brands such as AutoNation, Jiffy Lube, Kays, Walk On’s, Sam’s Club, and McDonald’s.

Heather O'Neal UX Academy Graduate

A screen from Team Up, another of Heather’s UX Academy capstone projects

She is enjoying spending her days conceptualizing new ideas, building personas, researching markets, iterating on solutions, learning new techniques, and educating staff and clients about the UX process along the way.

Being laid off ended up being the best thing for Heather, and that painful ending has opened the door to a new and fulfilling chapter.

Check out Heather’s portfolio here!

author avatar

Alexa Harrison

Designlab

Content Writer

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