From Graphic Designer to UX Designer: Dale McRae on Making the Career Transition
Dale McRae started out in the print industry, eventually transitioning into digital design and UX. Since then, he has worked at agencies including Tribal DDB, Usability Matters, and as an in-house designer at Varagesale, and the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. McRae shares his journey into UX and advice for people transitioning.
Tell me a bit about your journey into the field of User Experience Design?
I always loved to draw and loved computers, so studying Graphic Communications seemed like a good fit. After that, I got a job at a small newspaper in Alberta where I focused on the prepress side. When that folded, I ended up in a similar job at an indie publication in Vancouver. That also eventually folded. I was noticing a pattern in the print industry of people losing their jobs and having to reinvent themselves.
At that point, I decided to go back to school and do a Senior Management Certificate in New Media. It was there that I discovered what UX was through classes in Human Computer Interaction and Information Architecture. It was a revelation. Learning that I could combine my creative soul with my interest in psychology I felt like; “Oh my god I need to do this, this is it.” So in those classes, I did a lot of extra studies and research.
From there, how did you get your first job in UX?
A friend of mine was working at Tribal Worldwide in Vancouver, and he introduced me to the in-house Information Architect (IA). I wanted to blow them away in my interview, so I brought an overly-engineered paper prototype! I ended up getting hired as an intern, then I became the in-house IA, and then I worked in the Toronto office as the first in house user experience designer.
What did you learn in that job?
There was definitely a steep learning curve. All of a sudden you’re this junior guy in these huge meeting rooms presenting wireframes! The thing I had to learn right away was presentation skills. Being able to explain design decisions and credibly present my work. I also learned a lot about how to design by having to give documentation to a creative team I was doing a lot of UI work, which meant it was crucial to have an understanding of the brands we were working with. This also meant thinking about how the digital interfaces and products we were making fit into a broader brand strategy.
It was a bit tough for a little while. When the lead IA moved on it was hard not to have someone around to show me the ropes and give me feedback. I learned a lot about tenacity and grit – pushing yourself through. I learned how to get yelled at once in awhile and how to take it and move on!
How did you support your own learning and leveling up?
I kept in touch with my mentor quite a bit, so there was quite a bit of that support on the side. I also found ways to go to events. For example, the Vancouver Film School has a good UX program. I went to see some speakers talk there and learned about storytelling. So much of the film skills involved in piecing a good story together and thinking visually are really helpful in UX.
What are some of the things you have learned on your career path since then?
Going to NY to work with the NYC Department of IT and Telecommunications was interesting in many ways. It really opened my eyes to where our discipline can take us – I worked on a project to bring free wi-fi to the largest public housing complex in North America.
I learned about how to cater communication to the person you are speaking to. When you go to work for a government as a designer, people don’t necessarily know what you do. You’ve got to understand what they wanna hear and how they wanna hear it. It affects the way you practice because I think you can go a lot deeper in an in-house role. At the same time, you have a lot more stakeholders, so you have to really get good at communication. You can go deeper in the work but it takes longer which can be frustrating.
This summer, I learned how important it is to be really clear on who you are as a designer and how you like to practice. Spend the time to get the core of what you wanna offer and then go forward to deliver it. That’s going to allow you to live it. This year, after 7 years of doing this, I’m finally able to say ‘this is the value I can bring.’ It’s amazing what happens when you really understand what your value is.
What advice would you give to designers who aspire to work in UX?
Don’t ever listen to someone that says UX is only about wireframes. Make sure that you understand UX enough to find the areas you are passionate about. I had to touch a bunch of different things to find what I loved and then go forward with it. UX is in a place where people can understand the different aspects – strategy, design, and research.
It’s also important to be strategic about your past experiences and knowledge – use them to your advantage! I met someone who was totally unaware that their degree in anthropology was really relevant to a career in UX. Understanding people and designing for them is the foundation of what we do!
How can designers level up their UX knowledge and skills?
For learning the hard skills and tools, there are lots of great resources online like Lynda.com, or taking part-time or boot camp style courses. My take on more formal learning is to master the basics to get started. Make sure to get in front of a whiteboard, mess around, and start to develop your own style. It’s crucial to be able to talk about a flow, an end-to-end experience, and sketch fluidly.
Medium is a fantastic resource with lots of user generated content – especially if you are trying to find the right title for yourself. There’s a lot of companies that have internal ways of referring to UX work. Understand what other people are referring to in regards to UX practices – what is the common language out there and how you can use that to define yourself.
It’s also important to attend meetups and get involved with the community. There is so much collective knowledge in the UX community to tap into. When you go to meetups and learn new ways of design thinking, see if you can apply those ways in your organization. Don’t ever be afraid to kick down doors and bring in new knowledge! As Mule Design says, we need to be designers with backbone!