Oct 8, 2021

What I Learned As A Nomadic Designer

Luisa Castillo
eXperience Design Architect

Reflections and lessons from abroad

This year, I stepped into the role of a UX Design Lead at UXReactor — a UX Design Consulting firm with offices in San Francisco, India, and (soon!) Colombia.

Originally trained as a Graphic Designer, reaching this point in my career has been an interesting journey for me. I’ve tested myself in different roles, skillsets, and cultural contexts, learning valuable lessons along the way, before I found my way to UX Design.

The start of my journey…

I graduated from Jorge Tadeo Lozano University, one of the best Design universities in Colombia, as a Graphic Designer. During that time, many of the designers I looked up to were American and European, so I decided to spend the next two years traveling and freelancing across Europe to learn more about design from a different perspective.

The Europe Chapter

My first step led me to Brașov, România where I was asked to create the visual identity for a photography studio. This was one of my first big projects, and I ended up working close to 14 hours a day for the first three months. Yet, in the end, I was not satisfied with my work. It didn’t create the impact I was expecting and didn’t fully capture Romanian culture.

Romanian Landscape and Architecture

This led me to my first biggest lesson: Be mindful about setting yourself up for success.

→ Start by understanding your Audience

In the beginning, I was spending a lot of time looking for inspiration to create “cool” designs. What I was not doing was spending time to understand how everyday Romanians connected to different iconography and colors. Not surprisingly, my first proposed designs failed.

This taught me that as a designer, my definition of “cool” was irrelevant. What was more important was developing empathy to understand how my audience would perceive and resonate with the end product.

→ Don’t jump into the task without an outcome in mind

Given that this was my first big project, I wanted to make a good impression. So I jumped directly into the job and started designing even though I did not have a clear goal in terms of what I wanted to achieve and the plan to achieve it. As a result, I worked 14 hours a day.

This taught me that doing anything without a clear understanding of the final outcome is a waste of time. What was more important was to first spend time understanding the goal of the project and creating a clear plan and timeline for achieving it.

The India Chapter

After two years of freelancing, I joined UXReactor as a Visual Designer and traveled to Hyderabad, India. Changing my path to visual design helped me not only to master my design skills but also to feel more connected to design.

UXReactor Team

While in Hyderabad, I was mentored by a senior visual designer while working on a network security project. I struggled with many things: understanding this complex domain, mastering new tools, improving my design skills... but the most challenging of all was learning how to collaborate with people from vastly different backgrounds from myself.

As an ex-freelance graphic designer, I was used to working alone and with very few limitations and constraints. At UXReactor, I was expected to work in sync with a team that had different educational, cultural, and professional backgrounds. However, over time I realized that these differences bring in varying perspectives on how to solve a problem, and the best designs actually come from collaborating with your team and clients.

I eventually had the chance to mentor new hires who also wanted to learn Visual Design. I was very motivated to teach all that I learned, but I was ignorant of the difference between teaching and mentoring, I ended up struggling to keep the new hires motivated.

It was here that I learned my next big lesson: it isn’t only INDIVIDUAL knowledge, it is also MENTORSHIP and COLLABORATION that build strong design teams.

Ideation Session With the Client. Jul 2019

→ Understand people’s motivations and problems first

Being the first time I was mentoring people, I spent most of the time trying to teach all that I knew. As a result, I ended up overwhelming my mentees with too much feedback. What I did not realize was that I need to understand their struggles and help them build confidence first, so they can overcome feedback and feel motivated enough to keep moving forward.

This taught me that as a mentor I still needed my “designer” hat on to understand people’s motivations and problems first to mentor other designers more effectively.

→ Learn to collaborate with people from different backgrounds

At the beginning of my Visual Design career, I faced a lot of frustration when communicating with the engineering leads — What I did not realize is that learning to collaborate with them was more important than pushing for the implementation to look exactly as the designed screens.

I soon realized that as a designer, doing my work without communicating with the people involved wasn’t efficient. What is more efficient is collaborating with them in putting together the ideas to enhance the final product.

Design Team. Sept 2020

Back Home Again

Now back in Colombia, as UX Design Lead, I realized that my professional growth has increased exponentially over the last years. Reflecting back on my journey has motivated me to take on this new challenge with a fresh mind, and this is why my last lesson is:

→ Take the time to look back and learn from your wins and mistakes

I have realized over this time, that making time to reflect on the good and bad of anything you do allows you to take those learnings into account for the next projects, challenges, or individual tasks with a more thoughtful mindset.

Everyone’s journey is different, but I hope these lessons will help you look into your everyday challenges and learnings as part of the adventure that will shape your vision as a designer.

Keep your mind open to learn from the people around you!

About the Author
As an eXperience Design Architect, Luisa leads client projects where the team designs end-to-end experiences that delight users, while applying UX methods to uncover opportunities for innovation.

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