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Freelance product design consultant: How I got my job and where I'm going

What education and training are required to become a product designer? Mikaila talks about her journey from architecture school to her current role as a freelance product designer.

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Video transcript

My mother was really instrumental in my love of design, and love of creating. She was an art teacher when I was younger, and then she became a first grade teacher. And so she was always doing creative projects with my brother and I over the Summers, or on the weekends. And I think that for me, she always allowed me to pursue that creative gene, as opposed to trying to get me to go into something a little more structured. I ended up doing my Undergraduate studies in architecture. It was a great combination of both hands-on skills, so creating physical products, as well as digital design, and then higher level thinking, and math and science. So it had everything that I was interested in, all in one package. And I got to learn how to solve problems creatively. Every semester we would do a different brief, so science labs, aquariums, markets, houses, just different types of spaces. When I was in graduate school studying my Masters in architecture, I met a woman in a class who was starting a company in education, and she needed a designer, so I decided to work with her. And then I really liked the company, I really like the idea, and I really liked the work that I was doing in web and mobile design. And I decided to drop out of my Masters and pursue working at a startup full time. I got to learn how to start a company, I taught myself to code, I learned how to manage an engineering team. So I got a lot of different skills out of that experience. And I really liked small scale companies, early stage companies, and the fast pace of them, and the crazy off-the-rails experience of them. And that's when I started working as a product designer. And then from there, I worked for a healthcare company. I worked for a few other education companies as a consultant, and then I most recently have been working for Kuvee, a smart wine bottle company, as their product design consultant. Because of the state of tech companies right now, I think I'm pretty lucky in that there isn't a certification board or a degree that I have to specifically pursue in order to get my position. It's mostly about a past track record of success, and a good portfolio, and networking well. So networking, not in the traditional sense of showing up to a room and trying to talk to strangers, but more so in having a good relationship with the client, and then allowing that client to speak on your behalf for other clients. In that way, your clients are some of your best marketers, as well as your portfolio speaking for itself, in terms of what you're able to do. My portfolio consists of web design and mobile design, so it's mock-ups showing the work that I produced, and then how a user would interact with that work. And then its also a lot of text on why I made the decisions I made, in the interfaces that I designed. So what conversations with consumers and users drew me to those conclusions, and caused me to make the design decisions that I made. I think that carries over from architecture. I was trained that it's really important to have a reason behind every decision you make, not to just make it because it looks good. 'Cuz usually that ends up creating a pretty terrible experience, for the most part. I've been very lucky in that Boston's startup space is pretty insular, and it's very positive. Normally, if you have a good experience with one person, they'll spread the word to other people. And so for me, it's mostly just about past experience, and getting to know people over time. I've been here for about seven years now, and so I do feel like I have a very strong network. Mostly it's just about asking around if anyone in my network knows anyone else who's looking for a designer. I got the job at Kuvee through word of mouth. Someone who I had worked with very closely for a few years recommended me to them. She knew that they were looking for a product designer, and said, "You'll love Mikaila. "You'll love working with her. "She and I had had a great relationship." And so I came highly recommended. Growth opportunities for a product design consultant could consist of hiring other designers, and creating your own consulting group. In order to start your own consulting group you have to be pretty serious about what kinds of projects you're willing to take on. Being a consulting group that focuses on early stage companies, I think is very exciting, and is definitely a prospect I'm interested in. It's also nice because then you get the feedback of other designers on your work day-to-day, as opposed to just working by yourself. Another career path for a product design consultant is to be hired full time by the company you're consulting with. That's exciting if you really love the product, and you love the team, and it works out pretty well for everyone because you have good history with the product and the design. Being hired full time can also give you more stability, so you're able to predict a little bit better what your income month by month is going to be, if you're going to have a position. It also provides you with insurance that you don't have to pay for yourself. So that can be a good opportunity for a lot of people. My goals for now are, I'd like to grow a team of designers. I think that being a good manager also means being a good teacher. And I find that really exciting. I would also like to teach product design at some point. There are a lot of entrepreneurial programs at various grad schools, and I think that's an exciting prospect, to be able to teach young minds how to start a company, what it means to listen to your consumer, why that's so critical when you are starting your product. I've also taught high school previously. It's really exciting because the students are super enthusiastic. I normally ask them to criticize an app that they really enjoy using, and they get very excited about that prospect. And then also to criticize an app that they don't enjoy using, and to think about why that experience isn't as good as it could be, and what could make it better. They have a lot of opinions, and they can get really, a little ruthless. (laughs) But it always turns out to be a good learning moment for them. I also think the prospect of starting my own company again is something that I'd pursue. I really enjoyed scaling an idea from the very beginning all the way up to a physical product that people could use. And I'd love to go through that process on my own again. Generally if people are interested in getting involved in product design, I tell them just to try projects, to accept projects. If someone is taking a first chance on you, you might wanna' charge a little bit less than you normally would if you start getting your skills up to a good level. But never do a job for free, because your skills are valuable, and you should always know that, and you should always pursue that. That's some good advice that someone gave to me early on, and I think it helps you feel like the work you're doing has value. Because it is really enjoyable, and sometimes you feel so lucky to be pursuing design, if you really love it, you wanna' make sure that you're recognizing that it is your job. And that you should be charging for it. When you're just starting out another good thing to do is look at someone else's design work you think is great, and try and pick it apart, and understand the different layers of it. Figure out why it's really good. Figure out if you can emulate it in some way, and try to take on that skill set. I think that also if you're interested in just meeting someone for coffee, it always helps to tweet at a company and see if any of their designers will meet with you and just give you advice. And it could end up landing you a job. It's really important to put your work up on sites. So on your own website, or on a site like Dribble or Behance, where designers are sharing their work. Because then you can get feedback from other designers. And I know a lot of designers tweet their designs, just to make sure that they're getting visibility, and that they're getting feedback from other people. I think it's never helpful to design in a silo, and just to keep everything to yourself. And it ensures that, it could also help build your network out, because you'll be well-known for a certain style, or for producing good work.