It's never too late to start

Starting a new career can be nerve wracking; I know because I've done it. A new perspective can help— here's my story.

At the ripe old age of 25, I found myself in foundational undergraduate design classes with a bunch of fresh-eyed 18 year olds.

Nachiket Kumar
June 29, 2020

I already had a Bachelors in Science (with a biology major) and almost 3 years of work in a research lab under my belt when I started my design journey. While I thoroughly enjoyed my classes and practicing design, for many years I wondered what I had lost in terms of time by starting design school so late?

Today I realize that this comparison is futile but for a long time I wondered if I was ever going to catch up with my much younger peers. By the time I actually started my first design job, it had been more than 6 years since I originally graduated college with my biology degree. I had spent over 6 years in a research lab with almost nothing to show for it besides my name on a few publications! No one really cared about that in the design industry, did they?

There were many days of despair and questioning whether I had made the right choice as I sat twiddling my thumbs at my first not-very-challenging-or-interesting design job at a branding agency.

If you find yourself in a similar position to where I was a few years ago, I hope my story can give you some encouragement. Here are some pointers.

Embrace your uniqueness

Even though I was conscious of being significantly older than most of my peers, I embraced it. I was married, working a full-time job and going to school. I never shied away from this reality, and stood out (in a good way) in the eyes of my peers and professors. This would come into play later.

Understand that in design, exposure to a wide variety of experiences is a big plus. We don’t design only for people like us, in fact it is just the opposite. What I lacked in youth, I made up for in maturity and life experience. Your unique experience are valuable and you must learn how to make them work for you.

Leverage your background

The fact that you have real world experience in what might at first glance seem completely unrelated to design can be a good thing. In my case, one of my first jobs involved working on the UI design for a diabetes management application.

I was able to tie my background (an understanding of biology) and that of my wife (a medical professional) into my design ability and stand out as the obvious choice for the job.

In fact, I was introduced to the company by one of my professors who remembered my background in biology (remember the uniqueness part above?) and felt I would be a natural fit for the position.

Be prepared to suck

Not only are you starting late, but just like all other beginners, you too will suck (in hindsight and in comparison to other seasoned pros of course). Embrace the suck and know it is completely natural. In fact one of my favorite quotes in this context comes from Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good.

He continues— “It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

There is no short cut other than just doing the work. Much of it is not glamorous and often you will have trouble realizing the value (if only to yourself) of what you’re doing till much later.

Never forget your ‘why’

Knowing that the day to day life of a designer is not glamorous, thrilling or amazing, you had better be very clear about why you want to be a designer. Many days are spent in meetings, reviewing work for teammates, some administrative tasks and some design work. Progress is often slow and can sometimes feel like 3 steps forward and 2 steps back.

In my case, I love problem solving and see UI design as a complex puzzle with constantly changing pieces. My experience and background has given me the ability to think critically and analytically and come up with solutions that are aesthetically pleasing and functional. I love the bursts of creativity, getting time to explore various solutions and working with engineers to deliver a product of value.

As long as you keep your why at the forefront of your mind, a late start is but a minor bump in your journey in the long run.

In conclusion

It’s only in the last couple of years that I have come around to thinking that actually, it was not such a bad thing to have entered this journey the way I did. I never have trouble differentiating myself from the pack and with the power of hindsight, I can appreciate how my experience has helped me as a designer.

As a late starter, you too can catch up by:

  • Embracing your uniqueness
  • Leveraging your background
  • Being prepared to suck, and
  • Never forgetting your why

If any of this resonated with you, please hit me up and I’d be happy to chat some more. This goes doubly so if you happen to belong to an under-represented minority in tech.

Written By

Nachiket Kumar

Nachi is an Atlanta based product designer, dad to 2 kids and an aspiring farmer who's enthusiastic about the intersection of technology and food. At Gatsby, he's working on the user experience and interface of Cloud.

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