Natalie Parke is a UX designer at Vokal in Chicago. Before joining Designation in the Xenon Cohort and graduating in 2017, she worked as a law clerk in Los Angeles.
Tell us briefly about your job today.
I work for a digital agency in Chicago called Vokal; we offer a range of capabilities from consulting, development, branding, and product design work. We typically have 10–12 projects in different capacities going on in the office, so someone’s always working on something cool. In my time working here, I’ve already been on multiple projects in vastly different industry spaces, which is amazing because they’ve given me contextualized knowledge of how to design in very different areas.
We’re a smaller agency—there’s roughly 40 of us total—so our team is pretty tight-knit; we have four UX designers and three visual designers that make up the actual design team proper. However, for individual client projects, we usually use a fully staffed team with a project manager, product owner, UX designer, visual designer, and a few developers. Everyone has a very different set of skills, so there’s a constant push and pull of learning from and teaching each other.
Actual day-to-day work usually varies depending on what projects I’m currently working on and the specifics of what we’re building. What’s been more interesting is trying to figure out how to constantly champion the design process on my internal teams and with clients. Since our design team is getting revamped as a stronger and more permanent force in a historically developer-heavy office, it’s fair to say we’ve had a few struggles trying to get support behind the design process. But this has also pushed me to figure out ways to get buy-in for the design process and how to make my process work in a lean environment where the first thing that gets cut is design time. We treat every project as an opportunity to show the power of design to clients and our own non-design team members, but it’s been a challenge at points.
What did you do professionally before you started at Designation?
I fell into design as a career—that’s really the best I can say it. I was a law clerk at a non-profit law firm in Downtown LA. We focused on providing legal support to parents, legal guardians, and children who were part of the foster care system. While the work I was doing was super-rewarding, I wasn’t really getting my creative urges met and was casually browsing alternative careers in my spare time. My brother is a developer and I’ve always been interested in tech, so I considered a coding bootcamp as an option. But the idea of being chained to a computer screen with limited people time was not the most appealing to me. I loved the aspect of working with and making the frightening legal process more accessible and friendly to my clients and had always been a somewhat visual person—those, coupled with my love of analyzing and recrafting content, made UX a perfect storm of what I was looking for in a career. When I came across Designation and really did research on UX design, it just seemed to click.
As for expectations, I knew it was immersive, so I expected hard work and long, intense hours. But I wasn’t expecting to gain the breadth of knowledge or such a diverse, professional skill set.
How did you hear about Designation, and why did you decide to attend?
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Designation. I’m a massive skeptic—the equivalent of that one highly suspicious, reclusive upstairs neighbor—so I extensively read reviews and looked into all other design programs before settling on Designation. It looked almost too good to be true, hence my thorough detective work. As for expectations, I knew it was immersive, so I expected hard work and long, intense hours. But I wasn’t expecting to gain the breadth of knowledge or such a diverse, professional skill set. And that’s not even mentioning the additional career support on how to setup a résumé, professional portfolio, network, and interview…plus the introduction of a professional mentor in the design industry who I still keep in contact with. Designation is an amazingly tailored program that gave me the skills and opportunity to change my life. I was also pleasantly surprised as to how well Designation actually prepared me for the professional world—there’s always going to be a degree of learning the ropes with every new job, but in terms of getting the core design skills down, Designation had me covered and then some.
Looking back at your Designation experience, how do you describe its impact?
I hope it’s not too dramatic to say that Designation radically upheaved my life—and I couldn’t be happier. In the year and a half since I started the program, I’ve moved across the country and started working as a professional in an industry that’s the complete opposite of the one in which I was previously employed. Upon entering the program, I had no expectations for where it would take me, but now having gone through and seen how much it’s opened the door to a profession and industry I’m excited about, I can’t imagine my path going any other way.
Cohort mates turned into friends who turned into a design family.
What were your favorite parts of life at Designation?
My cohort and the first client project I worked on.
I was with a small group of people almost 12 hours a day for six days a week, so by osmosis we all got pretty close. I’m lucky that my cohort was an amazingly dedicated and passionate group of people, who also happened to be hilarious and awesome humans. We were all constantly learning from each other just as much as we learned from projects and instructors. The energy from this group of talented people, who were excited about what we did, learned, and made, was a uniquely special event to be part of. Cohort mates turned into friends who turned into a design family.
As for my first client project, it was a B2B mobile and tablet experience for food delivery drivers and restaurant owners. Designation gave me amazing, hands-on projects for startups; I experienced what’s expected of professional design work and that crucial additional layer of client-relationship professionalism before I even graduated. My first project was a great experience because the clients went above and beyond to support our user research. We were able to go on site for contextual inquiries and perform concept/usability testing at several restaurants in Chicago. It was an exceptionally cool experience for a new designer and I credit it as the project with which I fully decided I loved UX work.
For this three week project, my team was tasked with the challenge of improving the existing product for restaurants and building out an internal, driver-side application for Deliveree’s driver fleet.
What’s the staff like at Designation?
I can honestly stand behind saying that the staff at Designation are all pretty kick-ass humans and positively impacted my growth as a designer in various important ways. A strong and persistent ethos for staff was maintaining a good balance between teaching me and pushing me to figure things out on my own—they knew the right time to give guidance, but also when to poke me in the right direction for some solid solo growth. It’s a warm, learning/teaching environment, but I wasn’t coddled.
Mike Joosse was definitely the greatest continued support and ally after Designation ended—he’s an invaluable, knowledgeable support system and has always taken time to respond to questions or give advice both during my job-seeking period and well into my first few months at Vokal. Designation isn’t just another degree mill; I graduated into a network. I’ve felt fully supported well after the program ended, and I’m pretty sure that’s not something any other program or bootcamp can offer.
Designation isn’t just another degree mill; I graduated into a network. I’ve felt fully supported well after the program ended, and I’m pretty sure that’s not something any other program or bootcamp can offer.
What advice or recommendations do you have for people considering applying to Designation, or for those already in the program?
Trust yourself and never stop pushing yourself and boundaries. If you’re really giving the program—and yourself—everything you’ve got, I can guarantee that it’s going to be, for whatever reason, extremely hard at times. Team disagreements, pushy clients, all-nighters, frustrating design restrictions, roadblocks to the process—take your pick of potential challenges. But honestly, those challenges are all part of polishing you into a designer—trust yourself and stick to your process. I’ve learned that being a designer isn’t just about putting my head down and making pretty things; it’s about advocating for a larger process. And trust the program! Just like anything in life, if you give it everything you have you’ll absolutely learn, grow, and became the professional designer you set out to be.
What were the most useful skills, tools, or experiences at Designation that have been the most useful for you in your job?
Apart from specific know-how about design tools, design deliverables/methods, and various software programs, Designation did a really good job of exposing me to the necessary people skills that are also so essential to being a good designer. When I’m not actually designing, involved in research, or creating supporting design deliverables, I’m in meetings and design reviews with internal team members or clients. It’s important that I be able to clearly articulate research findings and design decisions to an audience that may not be as close to the research or process as I am. Since my agency works in small teams under tight deadlines—incredibly similar to Designation—communication can make or break a project and impact overall client relations. Since it’s hard to really teach those soft skills, the team-based projects and overall “learn-by-doing” course structure of Designation definitely set me up for practicing and refining of soft skills while I was learning the technical hard skills.
What are your favorite parts of being a professional designer today?
Being part of an industry that is continuously growing and changing. The nature of my particular job and the industry itself makes it so I’m continuously exposed to new subject matter and industry spaces. It’s my job to continually ask questions, be curious, talk to people, and come up with solutions. It’s like a constant exploration of new ideas and exposure to new things.
What’s a piece of knowledge, skill, tool, or something cool you learned at work recently?
I built a working relationship with developers. Developers are an essential ally, so I sought them out as a resource early. They’re the other half of the team actually building a product, along with visual design and UX, so it’s been super-important for me to learn the language developers speak so I can design good user-centric experiences that are also technically feasible. It’s also just good to know how the sausage gets made, so to speak—I needed to practice those empathy skills and expand my boundaries by learning what it takes for other crucial team members to do their job. Designers are in the unique position to be stewards of a cohesive process across the entire team for the sake of the product—that’s a pretty cool position to be in!
What’s next for you, professionally speaking?
Professionally, I ultimately strive towards becoming a product designer—I’d like to work on growing a product in its entirety. The process of going from initial discovery to final high-fidelity prototype meshes really well with my own goal of always pushing boundaries and trying to continuously absorb more. It’s also rewarding to watch a product grow and participate in continual iterations and improvements, as opposed to shipping a single design. I’m in no hurry though, there’s still so much for me to explore. I also have a lofty goal to eventually own a bakery or a small letterpress card/print shop—I like the intimate maker’s touch that comes with anything created from scratch.
Trust Designation, trust yourself, put in the work and you can make a new career and life for yourself, I promise!
What advice do you have for people looking to get their start in the design field?
Just go for it! If you made it to the point where you’re interested or passionate enough to actually make the leap, then what are you waiting for? If you’re concerned about your lack of experience in design, I had no experience in design and I “made it, ma!”.
But to be more specific and tactical, there are a plethora of online design resources and books you can use to bolster your design knowledge if you’re feeling flimsy on the basics or just want to learn more before diving in. I can recommend the InVision blog and the basic UX toolkit books of The Design of Everyday Things and Don’t Make Me Think. If you’re concerned about a lack of experience specifically in visual design (as I was), there are ways you can teach yourself—study basic graphic design principles or map out your favorite apps’ layouts to become familiar with patterns.
But it basically comes down to practice and a learned skill set that you’ll grow with experience. Designation is a “learn by doing” kind of program, so your new skill set will creep up on you faster than you realize. Trust Designation, trust yourself, put in the work and you can make a new career and life for yourself, I promise!