Interview with Nora Benson, Designation Alum and Designer at UnCollege

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Nora Benson is a graduate of the Diamond cohort. An engineering student at the University if Illinois with an interest in design, she took time off from her bachelor’s degree to participate in Designation, and capped it off with an internship at UnCollege in San Francisco.


Where are you now working, and what is your job title?
I’m a graphic design and marketing apprentice at UnCollege, a company that organizes a gap year program for young adults who are interested in self-directing their education.

Tell us a little bit about your new job!
I’m working with a small company out of a co-working space called Galvanize in San Francisco doing a lot of different graphic design stuff-everything from blog banners and graphics for the website to Facebook ads and student handbooks.

How would you describe the Designation experience?
Intense. You’re basically living in the Designation building and thinking about design all day every day. You’re spending more time with your classmates and instructors than your significant others/family/friends. You’re cramming a ton of learning into a short amount of time, which can get overwhelming, but having awesome classmates and instructors (and the occasional karaoke night at Weeds) there by your side the whole way makes it weirdly enjoyable.

“Everyone brings their own backstories and viewpoints to the program, which means you end up learning a lot from each other.”

What was the most interesting or useful thing you learned during the cohort?
Learning to play Settlers of Catan! But on a more serious note, probably how to put together a decent portfolio and talk about my work.

What are the people at Designation like (including staff, instructor and fellow students)?
Very unique and awesome. Our cohort had people coming from a huge range of backgrounds-from Angie, who had a music background and has been working as a wedding DJ around Chicago before Designation, to John, who had more of a business background and flew in all the way from Ireland to complete the program, and a whole bunch of other interesting people in between. Everyone brings their own backstories and viewpoints to the program, which means you end up learning a lot from each other. You also all made the same choice to go through this crazy bootcamp program, so you end up bonding, even with the people you’re totally different from.

The staff and instructors all have their own areas of expertise and are there to help you succeed, even after the program is done. Its great to have them around as a resource throughout your learning process and then to be able to go back to them and other alumni once you’re working in the industry and say, “I’m having this problem, what should I do?”, because there’s bound to be someone who has been there before. It really feels like you’re a part of this great big Designation family.

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What were you doing before you came to Designation?
I was studying General Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

How did you hear about Designation, and why did you decide to come?
I heard about Designation way back when Kevin first thought of the idea and was posting flyers for his design classes in Chicago up around the University of Illinois campus. I had been following the program for a while and kept saying I was interested in learning digital design, but I was convinced I would teach myself eventually. After spending the summer struggling to teach myself enough about web design to create a site for the crepe shop I was working for in London, I decided to just go for it.

“Being able to walk around the room after a long day and think about how far everyone has come kept me encouraged and motivated…”

How did Designation help prepare you for your new role?
Before Designation I had had an interest in design, but nothing to prove that I was actually hirable. Doing this program forced me to put in the time and actually start doing significant projects-which helped me build the skills I needed and put together a portfolio of work. All the assignments we were given during the program, particularly during the final portion where we were working with actual clients on their sites, prepared me for what it was like to justify my design decisions and get feedback in the real world.

What was your favorite part of the Designation experience?
The people really made the experience what it was. I definitely would not have learned nearly as much or enjoyed Designation as much as I did without them. Being able to walk around the room after a long day and think about how far everyone else had come since we started kept me encouraged and motivated throughout the program. It’s also really exciting to catch up with classmates now that the program is over and hear about the awesome job they landed and the cool stuff they get to work on.

What advice would you give to someone who was trying to break into the industry?
Practice, practice, practice! It could be a weekend hackathon, a bootcamp program, or just a side project you come up with on your own, but find something that will motivate you to refine your skills or learn something new and get to work. Putting in the time is the only way you’re going to get better.

Also try to find a community of people to learn with. Attend events design events—1871 has a weekly email they send out with a ton of them if you’re in Chicago—and follow people whose work you admire online, heck even email them and ask them to coffee! Having people to encourage you when you’re feeling unmotivated or a mentor to turn to when you’re stuck is invaluable.

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