Melissa Manak is a graduate of the Sapphire Cohort. Prior to joining DESIGNATION she worked in education and technology, helping Chicago Public Schools’ central office.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melissa was the first deaf student to ever attend DESIGNATION, which is referenced in her answers throughout.
Where do you work, and what’s your job title?
I work for Convo, which specializes in high-quality video relay service (VRS) to the deaf/deafblind/hard of hearing community. I’m the UI/UX designer on a team of two and my supervisor is the lead product designer.
My role changes daily, thanks to different needs from the development team and customers. Our base is diverse in terms of technology, so I work within all platforms, including Android and Windows; that was a huge learning curve for me. I design platform interfaces but also create user flows for applications. That includes everything for designing for 3D and touchscreen experiences to paint-coding assets for developers to animation work to convey what we hope to achieve.
Tell us briefly about the job.
What I love about it is the ability to test my knowledge of accessibility and design for not just the deaf but also the deafblind community. Design is often viewed as a visual medium, so trying to incorporate usability for people with visual impairment was a new challenge. I was worried during my employment search that I would never find my dream job, which would allow me to work at a company within the deaf community with a great culture. Feeling comfortable with who I am was my number-one goal during my interview process. The position at Convo was a perfect fit.
What did you do professionally before you started at DESIGNATION?
I bounced between careers in education and technology. My last position was at Chicago Public Schools’ central office as Education Technology Fellow. The role evolved from working within the edtech space to digital design and development when my supervisor realized how fast I was designing on the district’s internal intranet. That was the starting point for my journey in digital design.
How did you hear about DESIGNATION? And why did you decide to attend?
I started reaching out to design and coding schools. A few months before I attended, I bumped into Igor Milovanovic, an alum from both my undergrad program and DESIGNATION. He did a good job discussing the DESIGNATION experience. They offered accommodations with my hearing loss and I needed to help them address any accessibility issues; that was a win-win situation for me.
How would you describe your DESIGNATION experience?
It was unique compared to other cohorts, as DESIGNATION made every effort to make sure I was involved with my cohort, from the Virtual Phase to the Client Phase. Virtual was a challenge due to using technology for group projects, so I asked to work with a team with people local to Chicago. That helped me make some amazing friendships with people who sat with me at Starbucks late nights to rally one another. We still occasionally do this to work on our portfolios.
I benefited greatly from the structured learning style of the Immersion Phase, and had an amazing guest instructor who knew sign language and made my experience even more stimulating. Andrew went above and beyond, making sure I kept up with everyone in the cohort. I had another ally in Aaron, who communicated with me weekly. And working with Mike was beneficial during the program and after, because his feedback helped my portfolio stand out among my peers. I got past 30 interviews—a successful feat for anyone, but especially a deaf person.
I don’t miss the long days and nights, as I was double-working my eyes reading lips and utilizing the computer. But after six months of amazing training and creating everlasting friendships that beat my time in grad school, I’d do it all over again, tired eyes and all.
DESIGNATION helped me make some amazing friendships with people who sat with me on late nights to rally each other.
How did you stand out from the competition in applying for, interviewing for, or getting this job?
Because my background was accessibility planning, I decided to further learn how to be a better designer for people with disabilities, especially through research. I explained my desire to incorporate accessibility in their design processes, and their answers made or broke my interest in continuing to interview there. When I created my wishlist for companies I wanted to work at, I felt empowered to ask. As a result, I found a great company that not only believes in accessibility but acts on it, since 90% of Convo’s employees are deaf.
What’s your favorite thing about being a professional designer now?
The ability to allow myself to be creative. I enjoy practicing the full design process, collaborating with my team, and learning from Convo’s users. It also helps that the company encourages continuous learning.
What advice can you give to someone trying to start in the design industry?
Find your niche, and keep fine-tuning your skills to match that niche. I never stop learning, even being done with DESIGNATION. Go to conferences, meetups, and AIGA events. I go to Chi Hack Night and participate in projects to expand my portfolio. I also currently work with a team of deaf and deafblind designer and developers in Chicago called CD2BIT to create websites and experiences for the local deaf community.
What did you find was the most useful skill, tool, or experience from your time in the program?
Working in teams. I had to learn to work with people who had different perspectives from me and trust the process. Learning to understand my teammates was a difficult experience for me, but I came out of it more compassionate and empathetic for other points of view. My Convo team is remote, and to make sure everyone’s on the same page, virtual meetings are necessary to feel the pulse of projects.
At the beginning at DESIGNATION, I had impostor syndrome. Every designer has it. Keep asking questions, no matter how dumb they sound. And with the vast network of DESIGNATION alumni, talking with other designers and learning how they approached problems helped a lot. Be willing to explore and feel foolish, because that’s how you really learn.