Q+A: Digital Product Designer

Alan Li on pursuing a creative career, thriving as an introvert, and freelancing during COVID-19.

~ 8 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Alan Li, a digital product designer in a live, fireside Q&A.

Alan is a digital product designer with an unconventional path. Formally trained in finance, at one point, Alan dreamed of working on Wall Street. He currently splits his time working here at Sokanu while consulting and building things for niche fashion and lifestyle companies around the world.

Alan learned everything he knows about design from reading things online and practicing them on his own time. He identifies with being an introvert, INTP, a Visionary (on Sokanu’s CareerExplorer) and a Gemini. He’s motivated by personal growth, money (he says half jokingly), and most importantly, serving communities.

The CareerExplorer Discord community was able to ask Alan about pursuing a creative career, freelancing during COVID-19, thriving as an introvert, and anything else they wanted to know.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Background & Career Path

You formally trained in finance. How hard was it to make the decision to change from that to what you’re doing now?

Good question! It was honestly pretty hard at the time… I grew up in an immigrant household and to tell your parents you don’t want to pursue the “Asian-American Dream” is hard. I was stressed about it because there was a lack of certainty that I didn’t have if I just pursued investment banking or corporate finance.

I think it’s always important to take risks and that was just one of many that I’ve taken. I think it’s prepared me for my life now where I have to make decisions and be my own boss and I’m sure there are many more to come. But for people who are in the “Should I quit my job and pursue my passion?” boat, my biggest takeaway is to just take calculated risks. Think about the worst possible scenario and think to yourself, “Would it even be that bad?” I think regret is the worst feeling in the world, so just do it!

You studied something different from what you’ve ended up doing with your career. How do you think having that different educational background has affected your career?

I think it gave me an edge in tech actually. I think it helped make my story more compelling and interesting to potential employers and clients (and on dates, lol). But I did spend a lot of my evenings learning design and doing practice projects. I made a lot of sacrifices with sleep and my social life, but I think it paid off.

How challenging was it to be self taught in your career? Do you think that it would greatly benefit someone interested in your industry to receive formal training and have a design degree?

I think education (whether that’s a bootcamp or degree from college) is always a benefit. But I think it comes down to cost/timing, and that’s a decision you’d have to make for yourself based on your circumstances. Being self-taught is definitely challenging but if you’re a focused learner and understand the ways you learn best, it’s actually a very viable path. Before my first job, I pretty much just learned by building things and reading a lot… but it’s not a path I’d recommend for everyone.

Career Choice

Why do you design?

Good question! I design because I want to make communities and provide useful tools for people to propel their lives forward, whether that’s with CareerExplorer, fashion, or finance.

A little bit about me: I grew up in a straight and homogeneous suburb, and didn’t have many friends in high school. So I spent a lot of time on the internet, seeking my people on early social networking platforms (I was a heavy user of LOOKBOOK.nu, Neopets, and Twitter in my early days). So now, I like to build things for people to seek out their people or discover things they don’t know about themselves. Obviously this is quite idealistic, and I do spend a lot of time doing other design-things outside the scope of this lofty mission.

Working Tips for Staying Organized

As a consultant, how do you organize your hours and divide up your day to manage all of the companies you work with?

I think it’s important to create time to focus. I split out my weekdays and dedicate one whole day to maximum two clients at a time. That way I can focus on the important things. It becomes very overwhelming when you have to manage more than that! It’s hard to produce good work when your mind is spread across so many different areas.

But specifically, I like to chunk out my day hour-by-hour. I use the Calendar app on Mac! Sometimes my friends think I’m strange because I even send calendar invites for dinners.

How to Manage the Workplace as an Introvert

You identify as being an introvert. Do you find this a challenge when networking or finding clients as a freelance creative?

It takes a lot of practice. I think for me, it was just trying to push myself outside my comfort zone. If you do that enough, your comfort zone starts to expand! For me, it’s all about repetition. Make it a habit to reach out to people, pitch, or step up to things that make you feel uncomfortable. And when you do that enough, you start to feel more comfortable about what made you feel uncomfortable in the past.

It also helps to be unapologetically yourself and true to your personality. I find that this is the best vehicle to overcome social situations as an introvert. When you pledge to be yourself, you just ignore the social norms or expectations coming from other people.

How would you go about creating and maintaining a connection with everyone in your career, especially when your circle of connections is going to keep expanding?

Social media is your friend! I have a lot of my clients on Instagram. I don’t post that much, but when I do it’s usually a selfie. I think you just have to remind your network that you exist. And when an opportunity comes along, you’re subconsciously on their radar because they saw that selfie you took at the beach last weekend (lol).

If you want a more professional way to go about it, I think activity on LinkedIn is very helpful. I think participating in communities is important. Commenting, liking, or even posting is helpful. It gets your name out there and takes up space on other people’s feeds!

Resources and Advice for Designers

I would like a better understanding of the industry and want to build a portfolio, but I’m not sure what my best options are. Would bootcamps/certification programs be a good idea?

Some avenues for learning are:

  • Read the core UX design books (Design for everyday things, etc)
  • Sign up for Medium and read what people post on UX design to stay current
  • Pick up a side project from an NGO

Here is a breakdown of the more structured learning processes:

  • Low cost and timing: Sign up for an online video course OR self-teach yourself through side projects. This is less structured, but you can tailor what you learn to your interests and schedule.
  • Expensive but efficient: Sign up for a bootcamp to get a more guided approach. This allows you to be structured and have peers who you can co-learn with.

Do you have a favourite set of resources for learning the principles of design?

I love reading articles on Medium. Because UX design is such a new industry, there are lots of nuances and it’s always progressing. I like to understand things from people’s lived experiences and their own testimonies. It also allows me to form my own perspective because it’s presented in such a subjective way. I also found books were really helpful. This is a good UX reading list.

I’m interested in UX design, but I am currently a communications major. I’m not enrolled in a design school so how important is it to have a deeper understanding in areas of design such as typography, vector graphics, and color studies?

For UX, learning those things are important, but it’s definitely learnable on your own if you have an aesthetic eye for it. If you don’t want to transfer programs, I would just learn about those things independently from school.

I remember doing tutorials and watching videos while I was in college and it was super helpful! Personally, if you don’t feel like adding more years of school and you want to save money, I would just take an online course and/or work on side projects. Broadly speaking, if you could acquire the same skills as your peers, I think the narrative is much more compelling to recruiters if you’re “self-taught”.

How were you able to build a portfolio on your own?

My first portfolio was all “fake” projects that I made up briefs for. Like redesigning an app or a product idea I had. I just made assumptions and started designing flows and the interface. I think employers really grabbed onto it because it showed the passion and dedication I had for design.

On the technical side, I learned to code as well (I was doing it since I had a computer). But you could also use website builders like: Squarespace, Semplice (on Wordpress), or Format. I would actually recommend the website builder route to save your time! You do not have to learn to code to be a designer. I have many UX designer friends who are very good at their jobs who don’t code.

Find weekly Live Q&A’s in the CareerExplorer Discord Community.

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