Art (and early education)
In my earliest days, I was an artist. I loved to draw and recreate objects and the world around me through pencil and paper, obsessing over every deal and striving for life-like representation. The craft and the journey along the way was as meaningful to me as the final outcome. Spending time creating something beautiful and meaningful was extremely rewarding. I started art classes in 7th grade and took as many as I could through the end of grade school, excelling in every single one and often receiving rewards at competitions from local to the state level. Art classes taught me the elements and principals of design, including color, space, rhythm, and more; all the foundational skills necessary for both art and visual design. Though I didn't know it at the time, art education would lay the very foundations for all things design in my future career, including heavily practicing the way I look at something, picking out the details, and both offering and receiving critique. This of course would serve me very well later on in a career centered around UI and visual design
Environmental (architectural) Design
In the latter half of my 3rd year, my experience in an internship at an architecture firm confirmed it for me: this was not the career direction for me. As much as architectural design can be creative, the unfortunate reality is that most jobs in the field are limited to construction documentation. Rarely, and only after years of grueling work do architects get the good jobs that actually involve creative design on a regular basis. And I didn't have the patience. I wanted something more creative now; more founded in visual design. At home, I was experimenting with visual branding and an interactive website for myself built in Flash. I loved it and wished I could do it all the time as my job, but needed to pursue a new degree to make that a reality. So I switched.
While I loved designing spaces, I couldn't ignore the developing passion around the presentation and visual communication of my work. This lead me to change course and attend SCAD to study graphic design where I could be fully immersed in a college created exclusively for creative careers. This is where my art background really played a crucial role in career development, building on design basic principals with more advanced classes and opportunities to refine and build new skills. I enjoyed all angles of graphic design, often leaning more into branding and poster design. But one specific area where I was the most intrigued was interaction design.
Web Design (and startup life)
After college, I quickly got an internship, which turned in to my first professional job. But being unsatisfied with the work and the company, I left to co-found 2 startups where I could explore a creative career path on my own terms and do it while I was young, foolish, and hadn't yet let my spirits be broken by corporate life. Both involved me doing a lot of web design, which I needed a lot more experience with given that SCAD's graphic design program had little training in web in the late 2000's. So I welcomed a much client work as I could get my hands on, as well as internal projects where I could experiment and come up with more of my own ideas.
Out of necessity, I ended up needing to learn web development as well. I initially resisted it pretty hard because code seemed like such a foreign and complicated language that my brain didn't want to absorb. I tried to find web design tools that would allow me to avoid learning and writing code. But no-code tools at the time didn't afford the design freedom they do today. So I eventually and reluctantly began learning basic HTML and CSS. As frustrating as it was to figure out CSS positioning on my own, I eventually worked it out. And ever time I learned 1 more thing, it was exciting and encouraging to learn a few more things. Additionally, I learned to use a CMS called Expression Engine, and later another one called Craft CMS.
Fast forward a few years, the startups I cofounded weren't paying the bills. So I decided to move up to Atlanta, following one of my business partners to a design agency. All that hard work learning to code was apparently enough to land me a job at the same agency as a frontend developer with occasional design work.
Ultimately, development was just a means to an end for me to create experiences I wanted to design. Design was the focal point for me. And during my time at the agency, they had been giving me more design work and hired a UX director, who I began reporting to as a UX designer as I transitioned out of my frontend developer role. This gave me the opportunity to learn best practices, more by-the-book methodologies, and begin to distinguish the different areas of UX, including UI, which was often the focal point for software-oriented design projects compared to marketing websites, which were more focused on visual expression, storytelling
As I worked on more software projects, I fell in love with the process. Where as marketing websites felt so subjective, software felt more structured with clear goals. Each design decision felt like following a decision tree—clear and direct options with more definitive outcomes at each step. If you make a design choice in software UI, it's much easier to determine whether it was successful in achieving the goal, at least for me.
When I moved on from the agency, I was looking for opportunities to dig further into SaaS design and found an opportunity to work with an early stage startup again. Though it was a temporary gig, I was excited work with a small scrappy team with potential but clear goals. I helped them refine and restyle their existing UI while creating the beginnings of standards to help them more easily scale their UI work after I left. I also helped with their marketing site and branding, which I realized I still enjoyed; just didn't need to be my focus.
While at the startup, I found my next long-term job at a local SaaS company who wanted a full-time UI designer and had been searching for months. It turned out to be a perfect fit. And I think they were as excited to hire me as I was to join them. After all, they still had startup energy, but a later stage where customer income was stable and quickly growing.
Similar to the temporary gig with the other SaaS startup, I mostly started out helping clean up their UI and establish standards to help create a more scalable and efficient workflow for the team while improving design quality that users would benefit from. Within my first 2 years, some notable projects included redesigned our icon set, an app-wide style refresh, and our first style guide used by UX designers and frontend engineers.
Years into my UI design role, I learned a new term while attending a meetup. I immediately realized that "design systems" better defined the work I was doing. Going beyond user interface design, design systems work was bringing standards and scalability into the process in a way that I later began to describe as the operationalization of UI design.
Design Systems is the operationalization of UI design.
Today, my focus is on enabling high-quality and scalable, UI, UXD, and front-end engineering through the power design systems. The evidence is in the numbers. When I started, our company was about 35 employees, powered by 1 UX designer, 1 UX content writer, and 1 UI designer (me). Today, we're over 300 employees with 9 UX designers, 4 UX content writers, and only 1 UI designer (2 if you include me, but that's technically not my current role). So at the company as grown nearly 10×, our UI design work has been able to scale with the business while barely need to to hire more employees to do the work. That's the power of design systems, empowering design quality at speed (and scale).
The superpower of Design Systems is enablement of design quality at speed (and scale).
And that's been my creative career journey. Thanks for reading! ✌️