How Did I Get Here - Claudio Vallejo

Claudio Vallejo

Claudio is a Mexican product designer living in New York building digital business products for Managed by Q. Previously he freelanced for three years as a multi-disciplinary designer and prior to that he studied business in college. I recently got an opportunity to chat with him and learned about his journey, how he discovered design, and some of the things that happened which led to his first job as a product designer.

You studied business and entrepreneurship in college, where did design come into this and how did you fall in love with it?

I discovered design during my last year in college as part of an accelerator program where I co-founded a company with two other students. Growing up I spent many afternoons drawing my favorite superheros and cartoon characters, which led to designing posters and presentations during high school. When I joined the program, I was very interested in designing the company’s logo and marketing materials based on my past love for drawing. I can clearly remember the excitement I felt while designing the company’s logo—I spent hours playing around with typographies and doing online research about new tools and techniques. This experience led me to enroll in a design class during my last semester to learn more about design. What made that class so special was that my professor and I became very close friends. She became my first design mentor. We often spent hours after class chatting about ways of expanding class projects or talking about design trends and cool things to work on. Taking that course increased my interest and love for design, which led me to search for graphic design jobs after graduation.

As someone who didn’t actually study design how did you make sure you were able to get some great opportunities? No doubt it was a long journey?

I struggled to find job opportunities early in my career—it took me a year and a half to find my first full time job as a junior web designer. During that first year and a half I used freelancing and entrepreneurship to learn about different areas of design and build a portfolio of work. When I started I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, which was stressful and scary. I was following the excitement I felt every time I had an opportunity to design. As I started to work on new projects I also started to learn that not every project turns out exactly how I envisioned—sometimes the client asked for changes I didn’t agree with, sometimes I didn’t have enough time to deliver something better. I realized there’s a very wide gap between the designs we envision and the designs we deliver—and only with a lot of time and practice can we bridge that gap.

I think any opportunity is a great opportunity if you’re starting out and don’t know what to do or where to go. I used freelancing and entrepreneurship because I just couldn’t find a job. But that’s what worked for me. I’d like to be clear that I received economic support from my family through my three years of freelancing—I wasn’t able to make a living from my work. I’m very lucky my father was supportive of my interest in design and his confidence in me was a big motivation to keep on working and to find what I was looking for. But if you don’t receive economic support from your family, or doing freelancing or entrepreneurship is not your thing, that’s ok. There are design opportunities everywhere. If you have a job I’m pretty sure your business needs emails, posters, a website, or presentations. Ask around, I’m sure there is at least someone from the company that will give you something to work on. If you’re in school search for the school’s art department and meet the art professors—I’m sure they could let you in one of their classes, or share book names and class projects for you to work on your own. Go to the different school clubs and groups, they need posters and advertisements for events they host. If none of these ideas work for you, ask friends if they know someone who needs a logo or whatever you’d like to work on—you’d be surprised how often people create new businesses or host events that need some design work. And if none of these ideas work create your own project, knock on business doors, look on social media for opportunities. Get out there and find opportunities. I’m confident you’ll find something sooner than you expect.

What was the most interesting or useful thing you learned during your journey to landing your current job?

1) Be patient

It took me three years to find the job I have. It took three years of practice, learning, meeting people, rejections, failures, stressful moments, and exciting moments… I’d like to clarify that the job I have is not the job to have. The job to have is whatever job you’re interested in finding. And if you don’t have a job you’re aiming for, that’s ok! Something funny is that every time I found a new area of design—animation, interaction design, web design, programming, etc.—I was like “I’ve found it! I want to be a { new design area person }!”. What I wanted to be changed all the time. Along those three years I was confident that the new area I discovered was the area I was interested in. And it’s funny that now that I’m doing product design—which requires a little bit of all those disciplines I loved not so long ago—I still think “I’ve found it!”. Haha, but most likely my interest will evolve and mature and I’ll be doing something different in the near future. Who knows. Just be patient and let your interests guide you.

2) Do your best in things you don’t like

This is probably one of the things I struggle with the most. But it’s very valuable. If you’re able to give your best on things you don’t really like, when you get the chance to do something you do you’ll find an enormous amount of inspiration and energy you weren’t aware existed within you. For example, throughout my years in college I was doing my best in subjects I thought I loved. There were some subjects which I didn’t really love, but nonetheless I gave my best effort. And then I found design. And I realized how effortless designing felt compared to working on math homework or studying for a finance test. Maybe that’s one way you can discover what you like—by working hard on what you don’t. And also, just to clarify, now that I’m working on what I really like, it’s very hard to be interested in doing things I don’t like. Interest is very powerful. I’ve learned that some of the things we struggle with are related to the interest we have in doing them.

3) Meet people in your area of interest

I spent the first year and a half working on my design skills without actually engaging with other designers. I never reached out on social media or looked for design events. If you haven’t gone to a design event, I highly encourage you to attend one. My first design event was a bad experience as I didn’t connect with anyone. But I knew that was ok. That event just didn’t work out for me. And then, about a year later, I learned about an event through Twitter hosted by one of my favorite designers, Dann Petty. I was living in Mexico at the time and made the 5 hour drive to Austin, TX and it was the best decision I could have made. Prior to making the drive, I was questioning whether the drive was worth it, as there were no more tickets left and I had to get a Visa permit to cross to the US. This is embarrassing, but I was also considering not going because I was scared of not having a good enough portfolio and also because I had three big pimples on my face. Haha it’s embarrassing to say this, but I’m sharing this because it’s very easy to come up with stupid reasons for why you shouldn’t go to an event. And it just so happened that saying yes to this event—despite the fear, and pimples, and 5 hour drive—that changed my future. I had an amazing time meeting designers and developers from the Austin area, I met the design team at Funsize, and then I had a chance to hang out with Dann after the event, where I was invited to Epicurrence. Through Epicurrence I met JT White, the Creative Director at Managed by Q, and now I’m in New York. A lot of things happened from meeting Dann to actually finding my job, but I would have never found this job if I wouldn’t have gone to Austin that morning.

4) Learn about how the best designers think

Follow your favorite designers and design teams on social media. Learn about how they approach their work and how they think. Absorb as much as you can about their process. How they approach design is what enables them to create such amazing work. I’ve found YouTube videos and design podcasts like Design Details and High Res Podcast to be the some of the most valuable sources of design knowledge out there. If you’re into product design, I’m pretty sure your favorite designer has been featured in one of these podcasts or has a video on YouTube. Listen to how they talk. Write down your favorite learnings or insights about how they think and then go to your projects and incorporate those learnings. Figure out how you can change your current process to imitate their process. Also, some of the best design resources are found on Medium. Companies like Buzzfeed, Etsy, Dropbox, and Airbnb have a design publication where they share their learnings, processes, and even design role docs.

If you were starting your design journey all over again, what would you do different?

I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think my journey is perfect, haha, but I firmly believe every experience I’ve lived through, every person I’ve met, and every decision I’ve made has led to where I am today. I’m far from being the person I want to become, but I’m happy with who I am. I say this because I believe it’s important to trust ourselves and do what we feel is right, even though it may be totally wrong. When starting out I often found myself paralyzed for not knowing what to do. I also found myself doing things I didn’t enjoy. But I think that is all part of the process of discovering what you like. Sometimes a tiny spark is all it takes to lead you on a path that will result in discovering something you’re truly passionate about. Follow that little spark. I think that’s what’s important. It’s not always sustainable, it’s not always easy, but I think the mistakes made while following that spark is what will lead you to finding your biggest passions.

What are you most excited about for the future?

I’m most excited about the opportunity of working at Q. It’s the first time I’ll be working with a team of designers, developers, and product managers to build a digital product for a growing user base. I’m very excited for the challenges I’ll face while at Q because there is so much to learn on a wide variety of areas that are not typically associated with design—like communication and research and collaboration. I’m excited to see where this path leads me and how the product impacts the lives of people.

Favorite designers?

There are a lot of designers I admire. Some of my favorite designers are people who’ve had a big impact in my journey through their friendship, their work, or both—Brian Lovin and Bryn Jackson, Dann Petty, Gabriel Valdivia, Jared Erondu, Daniel Burka, Elle Luna, Caylee Betts, Jon Gold, Katie Dill, Greyson MacAlpine, and Ramon Gilabert, to name a few.

Favorite websites?

Medium, Dropbox, Framer, and Airbnb.

Favorite fonts?

Roboto, Lato, and Merriweather.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given? Or what’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone trying to land that first design job?

If you’re applying for a product design job, make sure to have a website or a digital portfolio—that’s the first thing companies look at. Also, if you’re looking for a product design job, make sure you have a detailed explanation of your design process. If you don’t have projects you can write about, find a new project and document your thinking and process. Read through the Medium publications I shared to learn about how the best companies approach their process. If you’re interested in finding good examples of product design portfolios, check out this list curated by Brian Lovin.

Another important key of finding a job is in how well you execute the design exercise the company may send you. Use that exercise as an opportunity to show your design skills and also to show your design process. When I applied for the product design job at Q, they sent over a design exercise and gave me a week to work on it. They were expecting 5 hours of work and a PDF of the final work. I worked 40+ hours and developed a website with a detailed process and a summarized outcome. I think companies are looking for individuals that want to work and are interested in giving their best. Also, this wasn’t my first design exercise I worked on. Prior to applying to Q I had worked on a couple of design exercises and they didn’t work out. But after those companies said no, I asked them what I did wrong and what I could improve on. One of the companies told me I didn’t focus on user needs, which is why I decided to conduct a survey for the Q exercise. You have to practice and be aware of what areas you can improve on to deliver better work in future opportunities. I recently found a Medium article with a list of sample design exercises if you’re interested in practicing with real examples.

My last piece of advice is to follow your path. Throughout the years I’ve heard a lot of opinions and thoughts about how I should do things or how much I should be working. Trust yourself. Do what feels right for you. Haha, just a warning that trusting your gut will lead to making pretty stupid mistakes. But hey, they’re your mistakes. Own your mistakes. I think one of the biggest struggles I continue to face has to do with juggling all the voices and thoughts of other people and what I should do and what is right for me. I think you know what is right for you. Commit to that inner voice, which I’ve found usually goes contrary to common belief and practices. Every one of your favorite designers found what they love through very different paths and under very different circumstances. Your circumstances and constraints are ideal to find your path. Follow it. 

You won’t regret it.

If you’re looking for a product design opportunity, Managed by Q are hiring a new Product Designer to join their team in New York. They are looking for designers who want to build the future of their marketplace platform while working in a collaborative, multidisciplinary environment. For more details visit this link or personally reach out to Claudio at cvallejo@managedbyq.com.

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