Dalton Mitchell works as an IT Manager, but struggled with the more aesthetic side of design. Without quitting his job or taking on the financial burden of full-time bootcamps, Dalton decided to join Designlab, a part-time, mentor-driven, online learning platform. Having completed the Design 101 course, Dalton tells us about finding a career path that he loves and how Designlab helped him develop his skills while fitting his learning style, schedule, and price range.
What were you up to before you decided to take the Design 101 Designlab course?
I graduated in 2002 with an Associate degree. I took one semester in website design in a general computer technology program. I love coding and building websites and connecting over the web. The aesthetic and design aspects of coding were really difficult for me, though. I liked print design, but it was difficult for me to translate that into something that I could actually produce on the web- I really needed the foundations in web design.
Did you work full-time while you took the Designlab course?
Yes. I work as a developer and the “IT guy” at a very small plant that builds steel framing for construction buildings. The company has an intranet application for all employees, which started as a PHP app, so I came in to build that. After the Designlab class, because I now have more design skills and front end skills, I’m trying to focus on the interface and UX of the intranet.
Where are you currently based?
I live in the Sacramento area.
Why did you decide on an online program? Did you ever consider doing an in-person bootcamp in San Francisco?
Price was a really big factor. For a couple of years I tried to freelance on my own. It was a good learning experience but financially it really put me in a hole and that made it more difficult to afford a bootcamp.
Designlab was a nice alternative because I got project-based and mentored learning, but they were really nice with me and even let me pay weekly.
Was there an application process at Designlab?
When I did Designlab, it was still pretty new. I was skeptical because money was tight so I wanted to make sure it was going to be worth my while. Designlab has a couple of simple projects before signing up. I did those and I got familiar with their whole interface before signing up. It was really what I was looking for.
How did you get matched with a mentor?
At that time, Designlab had you fill out a small profile, then they assigned you with someone. My case was a little bit unique because my mentor got a really good job and his schedule got kind of hectic. We had some issues getting our schedules to connect, so they matched me with another mentor, Hope.
Who was Hope and what was she like as a mentor?
Hope had just left her design job at Visa and she now works at a startup in San Francisco called Quettra.
She realized that I had some experience and I had some big gaps. She started with some basic feedback but she realized that I had a lot of specific questions.
I wanted to see what it was like to work as a designer and I wanted to learn the the day-to-day workflow as much as I could in 4 weeks. I wanted a little more critical feedback because I wanted to prove myself, so she was really good about pointing out things I didn’t think about. She understood really quickly what I was looking for and tailored her feedback to that.
How did you and Hope communicate during mentor sessions?
At the time, I had a really old laptop and I’m in a rural area so Wi-Fi can be spotty sometimes. Google Hangouts ended up working best for us. She was willing to work with me.
How many times do you meet with your mentor during the 4 weeks?
You end up meeting once a week, usually for about an hour.
How do you work through the Designlab curriculum?
Designlab gives us a curriculum and I worked through the curriculum on my own. Hope and I did communicate throughout the week. I would send her emails as I was working on things to just ask questions, get some feedback and get direction on what I was doing.
Then in the hour long session we would discuss any real glaring questions I had. She would also leave feedback through the Designlab platform as I submitted projects.
Did you ever interact with other students in the program?
The Designlab interface is set up like a little social network where you can comment on other students’ submissions. Seeing what everybody else is working on is motivating.
I liked that we learned from our mentors but also learned from seeing everyone else’s work and other mentors’ feedback. I would spend a couple of hours every week going through to see what everyone else was working on and the feedback they got. It wasn’t the same type of communication we would experience sitting in the same room, but we still got a chance to interact with other students.
Can you tell us about one of the projects that you worked on at Designlab?
The first week, you start off with a really simple project building a landing/marketing page for a fictional product through Designlab’s platform. That platform is a stripped-down, web-based version of a program like Sketch or Photoshop; but it’s built in the web.
I chose a fictional application. Some other people chose projects that they wanted to make in the future.
We spent the rest of the course defining the brand and thinking about color choices, layout, our mission statement and how to reflect the mission statement in the landing page. We took each steps incrementally so you really see the process that leads to a final design. The final project is to actually mock up that landing page using everything you’ve learned.
Since your skill set was in back-end development, this seems very complementary.
It was perfect for me because I had some experience using Photoshop and Illustrator, but I didn't have those fundamentals that you might pick up in art or design school. I could make buttons all day long and they would still not look right because I did not understand hierarchy or how to use white space effectively. When you pick it up on your own, it’s easy to skip those fundamentals.
How many hours a week were spent on Designlab?
I would probably read for at least an hour every day. Towards the end of the week I would start getting into the software and start building things.
What did you create for your final project?
I made a landing page for a fictional Windows phone app because it was new. I had a sample phone asset so I built a mockup of the application to use as the phone image.
We were told that if we really want to be a designer, we should think about the details. I thought through what the app would look like on the actual phone, then mocked it up so I could have screenshots. I spent probably 10 hours throughout the week working on that- I did a little bit more because I really wanted my final project to be something I was proud of.
How have you been able to incorporate your Designlab skills into your fulltime job now?
I do mostly development at my job, but a couple of weeks ago I got to spend a whole week doing design work. A lot of what I learned at Designlab was design thinking and that helped my development style. Now I’m able to plan out my ideas on the whiteboard first, even if I’m just working with data. It makes my code cleaner and made me more focused.
I knew I wanted to start on the design career path, but I didn’t really know where to start. I didn’t know where to apply for jobs, how my skills would be evaluated, and what to improve on. Now I know what areas I need to work on, what areas I’m comfortable showing potential employers, and what kinds of jobs I actually want to work in.
Are you now ready to start applying for designer jobs?
I’m getting there. I reached out to a designer I really like from a podcast called Design Details, which is done by Bryn Jackson and Brian Lovin. I met with Brian, showed him some of the apps that I’d been working on at work, got some feedback on where I am, where I need to be, and some motivation to keep going. He encouraged me to do more side projects, which I have done. It’s important to have live projects that you can show employers. Side projects also reveal how much hard work design really takes. I understand that now, but I’ve also learned that I’ve got what it takes and I don’t need to be afraid of it and back down.
Would you take another class with Designlab?
Yes, I’m currently taking their Branding & Identity Design course. One of the things that’s helped me get better at design is finding constraints. Branding is something I’m passionate about because you have to find a company’s identity; you really have to take a whole company and all of their stakeholders, their history and competition and consider all of it. I know it’s difficult but I really like that challenge. I’m comfortable with my design skills now overall but I’d like to find something that I can specialize in.
Good luck on the new design career path!
From talking with mentors at Designlab and the designers I’ve reached out to, I understand that I need to be patient and focus and that there are tons of positions out there. I just need to wait for the right opportunity.
Before I took the course and started to pursue this in a serious way, I thought I would just be making things pretty and making logos. Now I know where I want to be and I know the position I’m going to be happy in. I’m going to find a position that I love and until then I’ll keep learning.