Founded in 2013, Designation offers an immersive bootcamp for aspiring UX and UI designers. Mike Joosse, their new Community Director, tells us about his transition from the design world to Designation, the most important ingredient for a successful UX designer and how Designation prepares students for post-bootcamp careers.
Tell us about your background and what you were doing before Designation.
I come from a design background. I went to design school a long time ago and was a practicing designer for a while. I took a few different turns until I eventually came to Chicago and worked as a Communications Director for a local brand and marketing agency called VSA Partners.
One of my duties was promoting the agency’s digital services. They were long known in print, design, branding and typography, but they had this amazing digital team doing UX, content strategy and front end/back end development. When I got to know them and their passion for wanting to mentor and be involved with educational opportunities, I thought about Designation.
I had friends who were part-time teachers and mentors here. Their name kept coming up, so they were the first people that I talked to while I was at VSA and said, “Our digital team would love to get involved with you guys, how can we do that?” That started the conversation that eventually led me here.
Your role at Designation is Community Director; what does that mean?
It has a few different meanings. We’re still a small startup and our roles are diverse. We cover a lot of ground and that’s very exciting to me because I’ve always been a person who loves having multiple responsibilities. It’s mainly defining and engaging our community. That’s everything from graduates to current students and companies in the communities where we place graduates.
For companies, it means finding ways to bring awareness to all Designation has to offer. How do we get them to understand the great things that Designation graduates can offer them? How can we provide mentorship opportunities for their employees? How can we get them involved in all of the other educational opportunities that are here in Chicago? I also manage external events and partnerships, interfacing with organizations like AIGA Chicago, IXDA Chicago and chiDUXX.
I’ve been working in the design community for a long time, and I love being able to work with so many people to promote a wonderful program that I was a fan of before I came here.
Did it take some time to be convinced of the bootcamp model?
It took about five minutes for me to realize that bootcamps are a pretty amazing recent development. It’s an excellent alternative to traditional design education, especially in the areas of UX and UI, which haven’t been around that long. I’ve seen so many people go through a two- or four-year program or more, just to have a never-ending stream of continuing education where you don’t necessarily reach a goal, you’re just observing knowledge. That can very easily go to waste.
Ultimately, I respect hard work and commitment. When somebody agrees to a really intensive bootcamp experience, I see that as a pretty amazing investment that I want to maximize for them.
Is there a traditional UX/UI design education path? Who are Designation graduates going up against when they’re applying for jobs?
There are a lot of different ways to teach and learn UX, especially here in Chicago. There are some programs that are very conceptual and research-based. Graduates from those programs (which are usually two to four-year programs) are leaning more towards strategist roles where they’re all about planning and big-picture strategy. Graduates from other programs are very task-based and there’s not necessarily much conceptual background.
I see Designation as being in the center. We stress the importance of the concept but also putting in the work. We produce people who have to be strong as designers and as creators.
There are a lot of different opportunities and roles for UX and UI designers. The current scene feels like where design was 20 years ago or maybe earlier, because there are so many different types of people entering the field and there are opportunities for everybody.
When we say UX/UI, we tend to associate those together but in your experience in getting people placed and being on the hiring side of it, is there really such a thing as a UX/UI designer?
I think so, but I think we also see some of our graduates go to work at startups that have five or ten people. At that size, the odds of somebody being multi-faceted like that goes way up. I like encouraging people to follow these opportunities. If they really want to practice both, I say, market yourself to those startups and smaller companies so that you can be more of a generalist.
But I warn them – as these startups get larger, they’re going to hire more people and your job will narrow to be more specialist. We already see so many graduates who want to specialize in one area and we say, that’s great. Keep developing your portfolio along that route, but always maintain the other skills. If you want to practice UI, keep developing your knowledge of UX; learn the basics of coding because that’s going to help you empathize with your team, who will also help you become a more conscientious designer.
What companies are leading the hire of UX/UI designers? Is that a first hire in your experience?
I’m not sure there’s a specific size where that’s really important. I’d like to believe that UX and UI – especially UX – are growing in prominence and urgency for these companies. They’re realizing that they need to hire these people much sooner than they did in the past. I think a UX designer has to be at the beginning of the conversation. He has to be in the room to say, “What do you want this product to achieve? What is it supposed to do and who is supposed to do it?”
When thoughtful, conscientious designers get in at the beginning of a process, they can make a big difference. We constantly teach our students – and it’s probably a universally accepted truth at this point – that the problem is not always what the client believes it to be. It’s what you, the researcher and designer who’s looking at this from a bird's-eye perspective see it is. It could be an entirely different problem, so you have to solve that problem instead. The sooner that they realize that the sooner they can make an impact on the process.
Is UX/UI design a career that someone can transition into? Do you have to have a design background in order to transition into UX/UI?
When you’re looking at things like composition and form and structure, having a design background definitely helps. But I think bigger than that, the best students and graduates are the ones who are interested in tackling a problem from a new perspective. They’re ones that value empathy, understanding what someone else’s need might be and how they can do something about that.
We’ve accepted students who work in data science, social work and education. These are people who never opened up Axure or Sketch before. But they come with a fundamental understanding of what UX achieves and what UI achieves and what you can accomplish as a designer at a very basic level. Those are people that have the best opportunity because it’s harder to teach somebody empathy or teamwork or discerning what the client is saying. And if you’ve had experience doing that before, to me, that’s more valuable than a design or coding background.
As the Community Director, you’re connecting students with the professional design world. You mentioned meeting with students to understand their needs and goals. When does that process start at Designation? Are you meeting with students once a week throughout the course?
Our program is 12 weeks and about five or six weeks in is when I pair students with a professional mentor who’s in their area—a UX designer, UI designer or somebody who’s a mixture of those. The one-on-one relationships that I build with the students really start after that mentorship assignment.
We start bringing in guest speakers to talk about their experiences on specific topics like how to build a case study or tips on interviewing. Sometimes it’s very big picture like “here’s what life is like at this startup” or “Here’s what it’s like to work as a UX designer with 50 other UX designers around you.” We also start doing some studio tours and weekly workshops on best practices for finding a job and building a portfolio.
It means a lot of one-on-one work with students. I sit down with them at the halfway point (week six) and start asking about what they’d like to do. Sometimes those ideas are fully formed; other times they’re very general and it takes an ability to discern what they’re actually looking for. When they say things like, “I want a mentor” or “I’d like to be able to keep learning while I’m there” then I can say, “You might be looking for an in-house team environment or a larger product design company where they have that structure built in.” My dad is a guidance counselor and I think he passed on a lot of that curiosity and desire to help students – with their portfolios and personal brands and make introductions with companies they want to work for.
As you are connecting with companies, the biggest question that I get is who actually hires bootcamp graduates?
It seems like twice a week, I send an email to another company just to introduce Designation. We find that they respond very well to these students committing a lot of their lives to shift their career. They're very passionate and excited about how they’re coming out of this program, and they’re very skilled.
We tell them about how unique the Designation curriculum is. So when they do meet our students, they’re impressed with the way they talk about their work and the experiences they’ve had. They’re quantifying those unique things about Designation that put them above graduates from other programs, bootcamps or otherwise.
One by one, we’re reaching more companies and more people who are saying, “Man, there’s something special about designers who’ve come out of bootcamps in general, and Designation specifically. Maybe we need to look at using bootcamps like Designation to source our employees.” I think they realize that when you’re used to working 11, 12 hours a day/70 hours a week for a sustained period of time, you can do anything as a professional. You can learn things very fast because you’re used to that pace.
Since arriving at Designation, what have you noticed that you need to add to this hiring process and how have you iterated on it?
I’ve built my career in the last six or seven years since I stopped being a designer around helping people. That propelled me in a really interesting direction based on doing what I could to help people get to this other stage of their career.
When I came to Designation, I realized this was a perfect opportunity where there were a bunch of students every six weeks saying, “I’m not entirely sure where I’m going. I know that I want to get there and I know that I’m going to be a good UX/UI designer when I get there. What can you tell me about what I can do from here?” Being able to be in that conversation is such an honor and a huge responsibility for me that I take very seriously.
Setting aside time to build a relationship with every student and saying, “Your success is my success” is my priority. And when students go out there and find a job, it’s the greatest feeling that I could have.