About me: Luana, a Brazilian living in Berlin, is currently a Product Designer Manager at Zalando. With more than 18 years of experience with Design, Luana has worked for many multinational companies, including Fjord (Accenture), Motorola (Lenovo), EF English First, and Privalia.
To infinity and beyond
From a poor family in the countryside of Brazil to Principal Product Designer at the leading fashion company in Europe, my career has passed through a broad range of disciplines. All of them shared one thing in common: experience, with no Bachelors or any other kind of degree. And yes, it is possible to not be in a university and still be successful. In this article, I am going to share my journey with you. I will explain the lessons that allowed me to become a self-taught UX Designer by framing them with a simple design thinking process.
Solving problems with design thinking
One of the most famous current design thinking methodologies for solving problems is called “Double Diamond”. The two diamonds represent a process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking) on it. You can also apply the double diamond technique to try to solve your own personal challenges. It’s a fun experiment.
- Discover — Research insights, diverge and discover the problem
- Define — Synthesise by converging on the area to focus upon
- Design — Ideate and diverge again on potential solutions
- Deliver — Converge by Implementing solutions that work
Now let’s explore how I became a self-taught UX designer using the double diamond method to frame it.
1. Discover — From passion to reality
Discover your own problems, passions, limitations, and frame the problem
When I was a child, my father owned tiny comic books and magazines shop. He would read his favorite sci-fi stories to me sitting in our garden, looking at the stars. After he passed away I was more than sure I wanted to be an astronaut — that was my passion at the time. But, not all dreams always come true.
Just less than 30 percent of workers land their dream job or work in some related field, according to a recent LinkedIn survey of about 8,000 professionals.
And this survey was for the US — the land of opportunities. For me, a woman in Brazil of African and indigenous descent — a land where only white middle-class students can be prepared to enroll in free universities — pursuing a dream like being an astronaut can be far from becoming real.
What happened then? Well, school happened. You know, I have always been a dedicated student, even receiving a really good scholarship until… I started being bullied and lost my love for school as an institution. This reality was not mine only. I am pretty sure many of you can identify with this story. I ended up losing motivation and with that, my good grades and my scholarship. But that didn’t manage to kill my dream. When I was fifteen, I took my first job to pay for my preparatory studies for university.
To shorten the story, let me skip ahead and point out that I never was accepted into the university. Working and studying at the same time can be quite challenging if you lose your love for the classroom. When I started to realize my passion would never be fulfilled, I was desolated.
But as Terri Trespicio said on this amazing TED talk:
It turns out that my first job at fifteen was as a developer. My stepfather had a development lab and I used to study coding and make small software for fun. My first project was a stock management tool for a chocolate factory. From that I shifted to web design, making cartoons and anime fan websites for me and my friends as well as creating web pages for local businesses. I taught myself to do all this. By the time I was trying to get into the university for the third time, I was in my twenties and already had a nice job in an advertising agency. I had also moved from the countryside to Sao Paulo — the biggest city in Brazil. I was still unhappy, but all I needed was right in front of me.
I tried to enroll in a private university for a graphic design Bachelors, since I could actually afford it. But, it took only 4 months of classes for me to remember that the classrooms were really not for me. It was at this moment that I realized:
I didn’t actually need to go to college.
2. Design — What now?
Defining the area to focus upon
Consider stopping to search for your passion
I know, this sounds harsh, but yes: think about which things you are already experiencing and that are working in your life. For me, it was my interest in the development and graphic design. I had to put my passion for becoming an astronaut, which had turned into studying astrophysics, aside and accept it was over in order to seize the experience and opportunities which were already available.
To follow a self-taught designer or tech career may be easier than you think
The biggest tech companies in the world no longer require employees to have a college degree, since most of the skills required to work with design can be acquired through open courses, lots of reading, and most importantly, practice.
I was lucky to be introduced to the internet really early on and had information, access to tutorials, and even mentors across the globe only one click away. References on Dribble, articles on Medium, open courses on Youtube or at big learning providers like IDEO or Hyper Island: the Internet has made it possible to learn everything.
3. Develop — More doing, less planning
Work on different potential solutions to your problem
Be a flexible generalist designer
I always struggle to explain to people that I jumped from my career as a developer for web design to that of a graphic designer, then to marketing, and then to web design again, only to finally dive deep into User Experience design. After 7 years as a generalist, I realized that in order to get the experience I wanted, I had to adapt to the market. As a generalist, I was able to identify which careers would take me further, embraced them, and dive deeper into what I wanted.
In order to be able to compete with professionals that have “big education lists” on their CV, you will need to show experience. For that, you need to embrace the many opportunities that are available to you.
If you are working with web design and a client asks you to make a printed editorial, consider saying yes, and learn how to make it. This skill will come in handy one day.
What if I want to be a specialist?
Once you have experience in different areas, decide which thing from all those you have tried is the one that you like the most, and then dive deep.
Be a copycat when you need it
When I was a mid-level designer in 2015, I started to struggle to move forward on my career. I knew I was capable and had a lot of experience, but every curriculum I would find on platforms like Linkedin or Behance looked better than mine — they had a good university degree.
As a bit of a stalker ( Yes.. sorry but I am..) I started to look for companies where I would like to work — and at their employees. First, it was just curiosity, until I finally had this EUREKA! moment: all I needed to learn to get into these companies was just right there: their employees’ portfolios and skillsets.
When learning by yourself, you have to analyze other people’s work, their curricula, understand their skill sets, study it all, and recreate it. Find people you admire, understand what they know, and simply learn it. Copy their skills: be a copycat.
Do a heuristic analysis of every website you like, test the apps your family uses the most, create your own version.
Don’t copy their skillset only, but their good UX interactions as well
Yes, designers copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Good interactions have to be kept and users look for consistency. While art benefits from being completely original, design behaviors are used and reused in different projects. Interfaces that are completely new can sometimes actually have a negative impact.
Users hate change, so it’s usually best to stay with a familiar design and evolve it gradually. — Jacob Nielsen (NN group)
Exercise your empathy, the superpower of the biggest designers
Empathy is the cornerstone of any successful design project. While many designer colleagues of mine were able to study anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology at their universities, I had to find other ways to develop my empathy in order to better understand human interactions deeply.
“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Since the beginning of my career, I always have assumed I don’t know everything. Constantly ask questions about how people feel. Observe them. Try to listen more and to talk less.
In order to see the world through other people’s eyes, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do, we have to assume we don’t know anything first, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, exercise compassion, and adopthumility.
“To practice courage, compassion, and the connection is to look at life and the people around us, and say, “I’m all in.” — Brené Brown.
Deliver — Time to focus and iterate
Solutions that work
Be self-taught with pride
When I started to work with teams that had much more design maturity, I constantly felt challenged by their experience, and sometimes felt I had no right to question decisions because of my background. Thanks to mentorship and feedback, my confidence in my knowledge increased.
Once you decide to follow your autodidact path, don’t let anyone contest your legitimacy. Be proud and trust your knowledge. Assume you don’t know things, but have confidence in the fact that you can learn them. Feel confident enough to challenge people even when they have a Master’s degree on the topic you are talking about.
Being an autodidact is to believe, despite what everyone says, that the path your heart chooses is just as good as the one it rejects. — Neta Dror
Prototype and test your career with feedback loops
Stay open-minded and don’t take it personally
When working with digital products, you have to constantly ask for feedback, and work collaboratively. The time when designers could present concepts to clients and launch these without anybody challenging them is gone. Nowadays, data and the voice of customers are what count.
Your career should have the same approach. Try testing different approaches with your stakeholders, your team, and your users.
Practice vulnerability and don’t fear being criticized. Lose your ego and stay open-minded to ideas, no matter where they come from. If you have to shoot down an idea, use data and experience to justify your thinking. Stay polite at all times, even if you feel your client isn’t.
Get mentorship and then give mentorship
As soon as I discovered Linkedin and its power for finding and connecting with professionals I admire, my mind was blown away. Wait, you can actually see people’s careers, the skills they have learned, their portfolio, and how they present themselves? Hell, yeah!
I picked a few people and messaged them with questions about career problems I was trying to solve. Some even gave me feedback and critiques directly.
Get mentorship when you need it, accept you don’t know anything, and ask others for help.
And then, when you get the chance of entering a nice career, mentor others, and accept you have achieved things by your own merit, but also because of the privilege of knowing exactly what to learn and what opportunity to take at the right time.
In a way, even formal education requires defining your own path of learning, embracing the right opportunities, and learning to exercise empathy. At the same time, more and more tech and design careers are becoming available as fewer and fewer people have the opportunity to a good education. The value of being self-taught is to be able to spot and pursue opportunities quicker. Embracing alternative ways to get there is crucial for survival and design is definitely a career that offers this opportunity. In life, there are many different ways to reach goals. For me, overcoming the odds of not being able to follow a good career was defined by embracing my vulnerability and changing my passion, accepting my failure, embracing all opportunities, asking the right questions, and always — always — with positivity. I hope this article inspires others in the same situation I was before to look for ways to find their opportunities. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want to talk about it more.
Recommended readings and videos: