When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I think early on, probably earlier than 16, 17, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was really into art and drawing, and sketching a lot in my free time, clothes and dresses and things. I had a sense that I wanted to do something in the arts, whether it was something more like fashion design, or something like becoming a painter or a printmaker. I knew I wanted to do something creative, in line with the art that I had grown up doing and was really interested in.
I applied to a bunch of different schools, mostly a lot of California schools, a bunch of UC schools. I applied to [University of Colorado], Boulder, but my parents were definitely encouraging me to stay in-state. I remember really wanting to go to UC Santa Barbara, but this was high school me, and I was into surfing and I wanted to be by the beach. It was more for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with school.
So I got into Boulder, I got into UC Santa Cruz and Irvine and Davis. I did a road trip with my family and went and visited all these schools, and just really liked Santa Cruz. It was that gut feeling, but it was also seeing the campus and talking to people, and your guide has such a big influence on your perception of what a college is like. I just remember leaving feeling excited about that school in particular.
I actually had an opportunity to transfer to Santa Barbara my junior year, but I really loved Santa Cruz. I really enjoyed my teachers, I had built relationships, I was an assistant to one of my teachers, which was such a great experience. I had also transferred halfway through high school, and I thought, “I don’t think I want to do this again.” Having to rebuild everything, pulling out of where you are and replanting somewhere else, having done that in high school it was not something I really wanted to do again in college.
How did you choose your major?
I was undeclared when I first started. I definitely wanted to take art classes, but I wanted to take other classes to see if anything else really stood out to me. I took a lot of music classes because that was something that was interesting to me. I also took an astronomy class, but that was not for me. I took some psychology classes which were interesting, but I felt like I needed to feel really passionate about whatever it was that was going to be my major, and that was art.
When I declared as an art major, I didn’t know what type of art I wanted to do. I wanted to make art with my hands, I wanted to actually do something physical with art. I remember dismissing the computer arts or digital arts programs like, “No, that’s not real art! That doesn’t count.” I wanted to explore and have the opportunity to take a lot of types of classes. Of course, I had pressure from my family and my parents, like “What are you going to do when you graduate with this degree?” And I said, “This is what I’m passionate about, what is exciting to me.” I ultimately did my bachelor’s in fine art, and within that I did more oil painting and printmaking.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I moved back to LA right after graduating and was sort of forced into working for my parents’ business. My dad does sound production, and audio engineering stuff, but he also did DVD production, designing the DVD menu. My dad said, “Why don’t you learn Adobe Creative Suite and create a website?”
I was off in a room doing that on my own, just playing around with things. I would ask my dad if I had questions, but it was more of a self-taught approach. I was also coding this website, using an intro to HTML/CSS book. I was creating the layout of this website and the design in Adobe Creative Suite, and once I had that defined I was coding it. In retrospect, it was a really great project for me to do, to get stuck and try to figure things out.
At the same time, I knew I wanted to leave LA and be in San Francisco. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that was where I wanted to be. Over that summer, I was going up to the Bay, trying to find a place to live. I ended up getting an apartment on Craigslist, and then just started looking for jobs. I was catering, I was working at Trader Joe’s, and then I got this internship at Pixo, which was a small startup where users could make drag and drop websites.
I had a customer care role within the company, basically looking for anything inappropriate, responding to emails, getting on the phone with angry parents, all that stuff. It was a really great team, and there were times when they would ask, “Do you know how to make a banner ad?” Oftentimes I would be asked to do that because I had some experience with Photoshop, so that came in handy. Or we would create these microsites for clients, so High School Musical would have a microsite and we’d need to create graphics and build out this website. I spent a lot of time making branded animated gifs, which was actually super fun. Like for High School Musical, I made one where Zac Efron’s face would spin around. I got really good at those. Kids loved to collect these animated gifs, so they would save them and put them on their websites, and I would start to see them. That was weird and cool.
Eventually we hired a UX designer who was a great mentor to me. I learned so much from her, and she was very encouraging about doing this as a career, which I didn’t even realize was an option. She would teach me her technique for things, and it was a foot in the door. Eventually she left and I took on her role.
We had tons of layoffs over my time there, and by the end we had a very small team and I was reporting to the head of User Experience. He was really helpful to me as well. I entered into it from more of a visual background, and he helped me understand that we need to lay out this website in a way that’s going to make sense to the user. I was moving things around how I thought they looked best, not necessarily what the user would find easiest to navigate. I had always started with visuals and color and font, and I started to understand the difference between the two things. What is the step-by-step experience the user needs to take? Then you apply the visual stuff later.
After that I had been in touch with a recruiter and I interviewed at a variety of different places. I got this job at MEVIO, which was basically a platform for audio and video podcasters to host their content. I was the only designer and there was a product guy who’d been with the company a long time and I thought I would be working with him, but he left within three months of me joining. So it was me working with a bunch of engineers, and I didn’t have that mentorship, and I wasn’t learning any more about designing. I was just doing what I thought was the right thing to do in this company that was very poorly run, very disorganized. This was also when the recession hit, so I had no way of getting out. I do think I learned a bit in terms of how to work with engineering, but I also wasn’t working on proper design process. I was just guessing, going off of what I had learned prior.
One of the engineers I worked with at MEVIO was friends with a recruiter at Modcloth, and asked if I was interested. So I went over to ModCloth, and that was where I really learned the most. There was an actual team of UX designers and researchers and I was reporting to the head of UX who had tons of experience. Understanding that a proper design process involves research and putting your design in front of all kinds of people and getting feedback was so important, and not something that was part of my process before that. I was just going off of what I assumed to be the easiest approach based on looking at lots of other sites and talking to people on the team. But we were never ever ever testing things to see if customers actually understood what we were doing.
I started as an entry-level UX designer and then moved up to senior and then eventually was a lead designer. It was such a great brand to be a part of; we were hyper-aware of our customer at ModCloth, and everyone was just so passionate about what they were doing and how it impacted people.
I was there for four and a half years, and they had layoffs that I was a part of. That’s how things ended. It was such a weird way to get laid off, because the company just couldn’t afford to keep the team at that time, so they were very helpful in getting you your next job. As soon as that news broke in Silicon Valley, everybody was reaching out to me. It was the best way that could have happened.
So I had a couple months off, and I was interviewing a ton, and I eventually took the Good Eggs job, which also ended in layoffs six or seven months later. It was quick. But that one was really great because a lot of the design team had come from IDEO, which is very well known for their design practice and process, very human-centered and making sure they’re advocating for the user and spending a lot more time in the research phase, which oftentimes is the first thing that gets cut.
By then, my boss at ModCloth had moved over to Trulia and had heard about the layoffs. At that point, I had decided I was going to travel. She said, “Before you go, why don’t you come in and chat with the team?” I hadn’t considered any other jobs at that point, but I really liked working with her so I went in for an interview and it went well. They offered me the job before I went on my vacation, and they were very okay with me being gone for two months before I started, which was the best possible way that could have played out.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Now that I’ve had so much time between now and college, I realize it’s okay to not know what you want to do going into college, and you might end up doing something that’s completely unrelated to what you thought you were going to do initially. To me, there is some connection to what I had always wanted to do, but it’s only one portion of what I do now.
I think I was always really scared about what am I going to do after college, feeling this pressure from my parents. “How are you going to make a living, how are you going to survive? You can’t do this as an artist.” I remember what I wanted was to make art and to supplement it with something else that would allow me to support myself. I think UX is kind of a combination. I really like the field. I think it’s served me well, and it does, to me, relate to what I was doing in college. There is a creative aspect to it, but there’s a lot of problem solving and collaboration. I feel like I’m able to express myself artistically, even though it’s a different type of expression from what I was doing in college. And I feel rewarded by that, I get so much joy out of that aspect of it.
I think it’s important not to fall under that pressure to decide right now. And yes, you can make a decision right now, but you’ll probably change and evolve so much over time and that’s totally okay. And you can always go back to school and you can always learn something, no matter where you’re at in your life. So what you say you’re going to do in college doesn’t mean you need to stick to that forever.