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Newbie Design Student Tips From The Tip Of The Iceberg

Hey there, design reader!

Here we are again, four weeks in and counting. If you’re new to this series, I’m a part-time student at Designlab’s UX Academy, Weingart cohort, and this is the fourth installment in my weekly chronicle of my experience in the program.

While this last month has felt like a bullet train speeding through a college level design degree on hyperdrive, with just four weeks under our belts we here in the Weingart cohort are still only on the cusp.

For those of us in the part-time track, the first week was all about design fundamentals, the next an introduction to UX, and last week, the research ramp up. We’ve now completed our first round of competitive analysis and empathy research—for many of us, this meant running our first set of user interviews, surveys, and debriefing with a quick round of research synthesis before delving into the real meat of the data we’ve amassed thus far this week.

The full-timers, however, are already knee-deep in high fidelity prototypes for the first major project of Phase 1, iterating new versions probably as I type this. Here I was feeling rather like a sprinter who just realized they were only ten feet into a marathon (for which they are ill prepared!). Meanwhile, my fellow Weingartians on the full-time track are plowing through the same program that I’m attempting to keep pace with, but in literal doubletime.

This time I decided to save on White Out and invest in Post-its for a flexible schedule that can be reshuffled as needed.

This just goes to show you that, while the program is admittedly rigorous (by pretty much all accounts), it’s also highly student-driven. The process will be, by nature, slightly different for everyone.

And then there are the universal truths.

The Xu Wei cohort—welcome!

A few days ago, us newly seasoned Weingartians were tasked to welcome the March cohort, Xu Wei—who joined the UX Academy journey just last week—and offer any tips and insights from a few weeks in the future. What followed was an outpouring of pointers and tricks from people at various stages in their projects and different tracks within the program.

What became immediately clear was that, whether the student was a part- or full-timer, working a side hustle or regular 9-to-5, whether they were working on a tool for time travel booking or insurance bundling, there are some parts of the blitz learning process we can all relate to.

At the suggestion of another UXA alumn, I started laying out my homework next to my other weekly tasks in Trello, which helped me visualize the scope of the week and distill the curriculum down to an outline ahead of time, so nothing came as a surprise.

If you’ve been following along with these posts, then you already know all about the newest personal big bad boss I have to beat in order to level up—time management. As one UXAer put it on Slack, besting that beast and progressing through the course can feel very much like “drinking from a firehouse,” especially at the beginning.

And she’s not wrong.

For those of you jumping into UX design and UX Academy for the first time, welcome! Get ready for an amazing/fun/challenging/totally wild ride. My first takeaway: don’t sweat the small stuff, because oh, what a difference four short weeks will make!

My first empathy map, based on the customer persona I created for my Phase 1 project feels (and looks) a lot like a cumulative, color-coded catch-all for all topics covered in the course thus far.

6 tips from the tip of the iceberg

Remember that firehose I mentioned before? It’s time to put on that parka, because you’re about to get drenched. Luckily, you have a life preserver—insider info from your fellow Weingart counterparts, that will help you as you navigate down this new, high-speed highway of learning:

1. Don’t be afraid to read ahead. As someone who is very focused on getting the full picture, I was hesitant to break form and skip around within the curriculum—at least for the first couple of weeks—to my own detriment. Of course, it’s beneficial to do the work in the order it’s presented (there’s a process for a reason, of course), but giving yourself a little sneak peek will help you mentally, emotionally and pragmatically prepare for what is just on the horizon. Scope out what’s coming at you next as you set your schedule for now—this will help you stay on track, get your brain in the right headspace and your idea wheels turning ahead of time.

2. Make a schedule and try to stick to it (but don’t panic if it goes wrong): Whether you are doing the program full-time (good on you!) or part-time, I’m betting you, like me, also have bills to pay. And that usually means some sort of job to do outside of the program, so do yourself a favor and take this time seriously. It is your time, after all. Everyone gets behind now and again, but remember not to let your panic and guilt surrounding this hold you back even more—learning how to redirect that fight or flight instinct is half the battle: the very real struggle to stay focused and on track in UX Academy is one of the more valuable lessons the program offers.

3. Tap your community. For me, this meant leaning into the UXA Slack channels—I went to the cohort channel for project collaboration and comraderie, the research channel for insight into how to run my own research (and for UXA karma points for helping other students with theirs!), and the general channel for higher level design topics and inspiration. Outside of UX, my community of friends and loved ones have followed along, asking questions, and kept me in the black—in coffee, food, and positive energy—when I’d be plugging away so hard I’d forget to stop for sustenance breaks. These are your amazing, wonderful, superstar support systems: appreciate them.

4. If you have to drink from a firehose, fill up a canteen for later. The sheer volume of information flying at you at any point in the beginning of the program can be overwhelming, and I suspect this rapid pace isn’t likely to let up. In the beginning, especially, you will find yourself scrambling to try to soak it all up—watch every video, read the supplementary stories, do the bonus lessons and extra credit assignments—there will come a time when you let this insatiable voracity get the best of you. Being wary of potential detours as you navigate this road and travel deeper and deeper into UX land will become increasingly important.

5. Watch out for rabbit holes, Alice! One week I spent an entire afternoon on a typography tangent, mining resources and downloading literally all of the free custom fonts I could find—it was fun, but it was also an entirely superfluous endeavor not directly related to any of my actual coursework. I let myself get distracted and caught up in the desire to digest everything around me all at once, losing four prime hours of work time in the process. Don’t be like me: Remember to prioritize. That insatiable desire won’t be going anywhere—it’s as persistent as they come. Whatever you can’t do now, you can always come back to later. Keep a running list of things to revisit later in whatever way works best for you—for me, it’s categorized Chrome bookmarks: Research, Synthesis, Wireframing, Prototyping, etc.

6. Do yourself a favor and invest in Post-its in bulk. UX designers may just be solely responsible for keeping the colorful sticky note industry alive. It might sound silly, but screen fatigue is real—and sometimes the tactile nature of working in a non-digital medium can take your design process from the conceptual to the tangible (and give your eyes a much needed break!), especially when you’re learning. Give yourself a chance to figure out what tools work best for you—and save yourself the pain of a late night Stapes run—and get a fat stack in all the colors you can now. Even if you end up preferring digital ideation as your full-fledged UX designer future self, as a student sticky notes will definitely not go to waste, and could help turn you into a design ninja.

Post-its here, Post-its there—seriously, Post-its everywhere. You’ll dream in Post-its...

The Weingart Cohort, a (four-week) retrospective

With the pace of the course only accelerating and a new cohort just kicked off, I’d like to take this opportunity carve out a little space to talk about the larger Weingart community.

Wolfgang Weingart: 2013 AIGA Medalist

Named after famed German graphic designer and typographer, Wolfgang Weingart, we are a group of 34 men and women entering the world of UX design by way of an array of diverse backgrounds and professions. Many of us were in related fields—tech, marketing, graphic design—and the jump to UX seemed like a natural one. A few of us come from backgrounds in architecture (full disclosure: this has been one of my top three dream jobs since childhood, right after “famous writer” and right before “OBGYN”—a strange combination, I know. We’ll get to delving into my psyche, dreams and motivations further at a later date, I’m sure).

We also have an industrial designer in our midst, a few developers, and a visual effects designer who has worked on some really big Hollywood flicks. (I don’t want to give anything away too easily, but to shed just a little light: “Alohamora!” And remember, it’s flick and swish!)

For me, walking this path these last four weeks has felt so right, I find myself wondering why it took me so long to get here. Later in this series, we’re going to hear a bit from some of my fellow Weingartians about how the course has fared for them so far, and what excites, drives, motivates, fascinates, exhilarates and just plain gets them fired up about the world of UX.

Thanks for reading! Check back next week for more reflections as we delve into week five of UX Academy.

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