For the early part of my career, I was an architect and urban designer. I spent years studying and practicing architecture across the United States, Europe, and Asia. To me, there was no problem architecture couldn’t solve; whether it be social, economic, or environmental. And while I initially enjoyed the ambition and rigor architecture provided, I found myself increasingly unfulfilled as projects were shelved and scope was reduced to bathroom remodels. I was craving a creative career where I could realize more ambitious ideas and apply real learnings from human behavior; not just conjecture. I felt like that kind of career required more speed and iteration of ideas, which were naturally throttled in the architecture profession. I wasn’t learning as much or quickly as I could or wanted to.
As I started questioning my career path, I grew more and more inspired by my wife. She was a product manager at the time, and she came home every day excited about the types of problems she was solving. Listening to her talk, I felt like she was describing the exact environment that I had always expected in architecture. When I learned about the role of product designer, I knew it was something I had to pursue. I quit my job and enrolled in a product design bootcamp. It took about five months from start to finish to learn and build a body of work, and to get my first full-time job as a UX designer.
I quickly knew I’d made the right decision. I felt more inspired and passionate than I had in years. I’ve come to believe that it’s important for designers with different backgrounds to work in product design. If more diverse design backgrounds transition into software, our digital products will become even more interesting and culturally relevant.
Today, I think of product designers as digital architects. From the design process and team dynamic to the users-first mentality, there are a lot of similarities between the two fields. Here are five things I learned as an architect that has ultimately made me a better product designer, along with five pieces of advice for anyone looking to make a similar career transition.
How to observe and understand how people interact with their environment
As an architect, you’re trained to shape the world, drawing on thousands of years of design discourse. Giving form to culture calls on all the senses and requires you to study and understand how people interact with the world around them. With software, we also have the opportunity to shape our world, but through a different medium. Instead of a drawing set of plans and sections, we create wireframes and prototypes. This process still requires you to understand the problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for and why, and what success looks like.
How to advocate for a client (or user)
In architecture, your job is to bring your client’s vision to life. You serve as their advocate, ensuring their best interests are met, along with the building’s occupants. I found this is just as important in the world of product design. The only difference is that our “client” is the person using the product. We ensure their best interests are front and center in every design decision we make. In both roles, this requires empathy and really listening to your client or the user. Deeply understanding their behaviors, wants, and needs will unlock ideas and inspiration you could never think of otherwise.
Collaboration is key to innovation
When I was an architect, I collaborated with contractors and engineers. Navigating those relationships required ingenuity and thick skin. You have to be comfortable that you don’t know everything and rely on the expertise of others, while still challenging everyone to do their best creative work. As a product designer, it’s very similar. I work closely with developers and product managers, and working collaboratively is still essential to getting things done. We still push innovation, defend design decisions, and try new things—even when they might be uncomfortable.
How to scale ideas and solutions
Considering the complexities of scale is inherent to design. No matter the discipline, it’s important to define a design language that scales. Architectural design intent ranges from the small detail of a doorknob to the city block. Product design intent ranges from the edge of a button to a suite of products. And in both fields, context matters. But in product design, the context becomes weighted more on when, why, and where someone would use your product rather than adjacent buildings or climates (for now).
How can you gauge success without measurable goals? Something I struggled with in the architecture profession is that the main goal is to appease the client, but other metrics are at the building owner’s discretion and therefore we weren’t held accountable to them. This made it challenging to learn how to improve from previous projects. In product design, we have clear, measurable goals in the form of key performance indicators that we track. We can measure improvement each time, striving to always do better and learn from the past.
No matter your background before you got into product design, we can always grow from prior experiences. While a career in architecture ultimately wasn’t the right path for me, it provided many foundational experiences and lessons that have improved my approach to product design.
5 tips for making a career transition to product design
Are you looking to make a similar career transition or interested in working in product design? Here are some tips to help you navigate a new professional journey.
1. Read as much as you can
I try to read as much as possible. Subscribe to newsletters, scour blogs, even grab a book! Reading will help you learn more about the basics and pick up on current topics the industry is grappling with. Some of my favorite resources include:
2. Find a community and people that will help you learn
Though attending in-person meetups is tricky right now with social distancing guidelines in place, there are online communities and courses to help you learn the most important skills you need to make a change. For example, Architechie, a community I co-founded with my co-worker Leona Hu-Hudelson and her husband Blake Hudelson, hosts workshops, panels, and networking events for architects to learn more about different career paths and explore opportunities.
Finding a mentor is another wonderful way to learn. Once you start to get a sense of people you admire and work that interests you, just reach out to them! I’m constantly surprised by how close-knit and approachable our design community really is.
3. Lean on your support system during moments of doubt
Challenges are always present when you’re growing, so I start to worry when I’m not constantly solving problems. At the beginning of my career transition, my main challenge revolved around identity. For architects and other passionate professionals, the work becomes your identity. By bucking the trend, later on, I dismissed a huge part of my life—including friends and sacrifices I’d made to become an architect. I wondered, after spending 10 years devoted to a profession and craft, was it smart to give it all up?
Luckily, my passion for product design—along with the support of friends and family—helped me overcome my doubt. If you’re experiencing similar feelings of worry, fear, or frustration, reach out to the people who are cheering you on. Talking about what you’re going through with someone who believes in you will remind you that you’re on the right track.
4. Keep your eye open for opportunities along the way
Thinking about finding a job in a new industry or less familiar role can feel stressful or overwhelming. I found that looking for opportunities throughout the process led me to feel excited instead of anxious, and it gave me a good pulse on product design roles at different organizations. To track all of the companies I found interesting, I created a spreadsheet. I filled in details I cared about and started to weigh the pros and cons and rank them, all in the service of finding patterns. A few themes bubbled to the top—including real estate. Looking back, I can clearly see how this exercise led me to my current role at Opendoor.
No matter where you are in your career transition, I suggest keeping your eyes open for opportunities. Noticing what type of work piques your interest will guide you along the way, and putting together a list of companies you’re interested in will come in handy.
5. Commit to your new career and don’t look back
Early in my career transition, I learned that while people were interested in my background, they weren’t hiring me for that. I removed all architecture work from my portfolio and it helped maintain focus and build trust.
If you feel stuck straddling two industries or while balancing your former career with a new path, commit to seeing your vision for the future through. Trusting your gut and putting in your best effort will help you continue moving forward to accomplish your goal.