Imagine you’re shopping online at your favorite retailer (yeah, not hard for us to picture either). As familiar with the site as your favorite pair of jeans – purchased there last season, obviously – you deftly click your way to the perfect date night outfit. Flying through the checkout process you contemplate which shoes you’ll wear, if your hair should be curled and if that plum lip stain will compete with the color of your new top. You’ve considered everything long before you hit “Submit Order.”
But did you even take a minute to consider how you got there? As senior XD visual designer at Slalom, the getting there of websites falls to Leah King. It’s her job to craft perfect user experiences with a combination of graphic design, wireframing, persona mapping and organization. It’s a not so simple process that ideally leads to online nirvana. “…The most important and subtle designs are the ones [people] just experience and are happy,” says Leah. “If that happens, I’ve done my job right.”
How did you get into design and development? Did you always know this is where you would end up?
I have always been exposed to creativity from an early age. My grandmother was a painter and my grandfather was a photographer. Every time she’d finish a painting, he’d build her a frame. They each had their own studio space and I’d spend summers at their home bouncing between both. She’d teach me to draw & paint. He’d take me in search of abandoned electronics in dumpsters and we’d go back to his and rebuild radios, lamps and toys. I wanted to go to design school and my parents didn’t support that choice, so I had to focus on business for junior college. Time passed and I was working at Stanford University. In my role there I was helping redesign the department website. I was able to take art classes, development classes and adobe creative suite courses. I found out that I could enroll in college and have a large part of it covered as staff, as long as the university degree tied to my job function. Since I was coding the site and designing, I got approved to attend the Academy of Art…parents couldn’t say no! I was really lucky to be able to pivot my career direction into a design degree. I knew I wanted to end up as a designer, but I wasn’t sure if I could make it happen. But, thanks to Stanford, I was able to follow my career path in the direction I wanted to go in.
How would you explain your job as a Senior XD Visual Designer to others who might not be familiar with it?
An XD (Experience Design) Visual Designer in a sense is a graphic designer but has an additional focus on the overall experience of a user. A Visual Designer looks at the hierarchy of a screen or web page and takes into account the overall flow of the page through the lens of visual elements and/or cues. How do the various sizes of typography map out the movement and importance of the information and content? What should the user see first? What is secondary? Can they find all the information they need above the fold? Do the colors on the page make sense? Is there an established pattern and design system? If it isn’t done right, it can be confusing. Everything has to have a pattern or system that is easily identifiable to the user without having to invest much time in figuring it all out. I believe that people easily recognize design in products, architecture and objects in their daily lives, but sometimes the most important and subtle designs are the ones they just experience and are happy. If that happens, I’ve done my job right. I don’t need flashy designs to feel good as a creative, I want my visuals to make sense to the user and not confuse them. That is a skill…to make beautiful design usable and serve a function.
What is a typical day in your life like? How do you organize your day?
As a design consultant, sometimes I am on a 2-week project and other times 5 months. So there really isn’t a typical day, project or client. Most of them involve meetings. Meetings with business stakeholders. Meetings with Product Management. Meetings with developers. Meetings with designers. Meetings. Meetings. And more meetings. The main thing I learned to organize my day is not to organize my day. It is extra pressure that lends to stress. I can tell you that I rarely check one thing off a list. Scope changes daily. Features change daily. Meetings pop up out of nowhere. Bugs happen. I find the best way to structure the day is daily 9:30 a.m. standups. Short meetings where the entire team attends or phones in. Everyone gives their tasks completed from the day before and what they will focus on the current day. The teams then identify blockers that are keeping them from them doing their work.
When building out a responsive website, a mobile app, an internal company website or software, it really is a collaboration and team effort. It isn’t just my day to organize. So each day has to be flexible. I will always have my coffee and then the standup meeting to decide my day. I do typically know what I have to turn in by certain dates or end-of-week. But really letting go of organizing your day allows you to be less stressed and be more creative as a designer.
What are the most common misconceptions about your career?
That I just make things pretty and that anyone can be a visual designer.
What do you believe is the key to moving up in your career, specifically after the 5-year mark?
I think the key to moving up a career path as a designer is really to get feedback along the way of how you are developing as a designer. Also, noticing what comes naturally to you in your design toolkit and what you feel most reward for professionally. Do you have big visions and curiosity that allows you to thrive in the conceptualization/strategy phase? At the same time inspiring others (clients and team) with your creative vision? This type of toolkit would really be the path to become an art director or creative director. If you add into the mix that you really want to mentor young designers whilst fostering them through their creative journey, then the path is probably more of a Design Manager.
The other route is that if you really just love designing, then attending workshops, conferences and be on a continuous path of learning, then the route is really that of a senior role and then a principle. If I were to pick one thing above all of that, it would be to stay curious. Every single day, curious, explore something new, learn something new and don’t get stagnant.
Could you share more about your side hustle? How do you make this work with a full-time job?
I first started my design career freelancing for bands and music events. It has always been a passion for me, the combo of the design of album covers and music. It is a creative outlet for me to be really expressive with designs, not so structured. In addition, I like to help non-profits and small startups. I have really reduced the number of side projects, but am always open to taking some on. It is my tinker time. I love to spend a few hours on the weekends just letting go and really expressing myself.
Do you feel that you have a good work/life balance, or do you have more of a work/life integration? Why?
That is a great question that I’ve been asking myself a lot as of late. So many times I think that I am not being mindful of the importance of a good work/life balance. It is something I am working on. I introduced the word “no” to my vocabulary (ha!), and it has helped a lot. In addition, I made a new rule to not open my computer on Saturday’s. Not even a teeny tiny peek. Saturday is a play day and I love it! I think really forcing myself into this balance increases my creativity. I explore and find inspiration everywhere. One has to recalibrate weekly to let go and relax.
What is an accomplishment on your resume that you’re most proud of?
I am most proud of my time at Slalom. I was the Editorial Production Director at Dwell magazine prior to it, which was a great job, but I have learned and grown 100% since joining Slalom. I’ve been exposed to visionary leaders, governance boards, stakeholders, collaboration with engineering and product management, agile and lean methodologies, and I am able to mentor other designers and client teams.
I have grown immensely as a designer, creative and I have become a confident woman walking into any tech environment. My design skills have evolved and I can flex into a creative director, strategist, art director, principle designer, user experience and educator depending the given client or project. That has exceeded my initial graphic design toolkit. It is so rewarding to be in a collaborative, innovative and creative environment. I have worked at large healthcare companies, biotech, technology, eComm, software, energy and political organizations. I have been on a team at two large retail companies helping them successfully with going responsive. These are amazing opportunities I’ve been given at Slalom.
You are extremely passionate about women joining the tech world, specifically working moms, which we love. What advice would you share to other women (or anyone) about making it happen?
I grew up with a single mom who worked a FT job. She is my inspiration. She gave me 110% of herself. Not just her time but she instilled upon me kindness, drive and determination in challenging environments. She worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Defense and Nuclear Technology Division. So she was in it, the tech arena, and reported to mainly men at the time. She was what I wanted to be, a strong independent woman. She gave me shelter, clothes, food but most of all, she showed me what it was like to be a smart woman. She showed to me that you could still be a “woman” in a tech environment. And by that, she wasn’t out to prove that she was tough, cold and bitchy in that environment to get ahead. She was a woman. She was a mother. She was kind and soft-spoken and brilliant. She was proud to be all of those things. She was genuine.
That is the thing I would share to other women. Be genuine. Be a mother. Be a “woman” in tech world. Be an inspiration. Be you. Don’t adapt yourself to something you are not. Search for tech companies that are known to be inclusive and diverse, not just to women. Inclusive to all. Look at their programs for working mothers or mothers to be. The bonus is if they offer leave to fathers as well. Does the company have flex hours and opportunities to work from home at times? Strive to be in these companies and environments. Companies are being driven to be more diverse. If women look for employment at the tech companies that offer these benefits, it will hopefully guide those that don’t to do so. Find like people, find a mentor or be a mentor. Join meetups. Attend conferences. Find the work/life balance that you need for you and/or your family.
If a reader thinks “I want her job!” how would you coach them to do so?
I think there are a lot of opportunities in the user experience career path for different types of skillsets. Besides being a designer, there are a lot of great roles that solve complex problems for users. There are research roles, front end dev roles, product management, product leads, scrum masters, strategists, people managers, recruiters and designers. So I’d like a reader to think about other roles if they don’t feel they are creative or that there is opportunity in user experience for them. I would encourage readers that are interested to read, read and read all the blogs and feeds on technology, innovation, design, development, branding marketing and basically obsess on it all, take it in. In my commute, I allot 30 minutes to reading articles to always stay current. There are also so many boot camps, hack-a-thons, user experience structured courses (like general assembly for UX or Visual Design and/or Development) and many other places.
Attend meetups and conferences and networking events. If you know someone that does something you’d like to do, see if they’ll be your mentor! I’ve had a few that I’ve coached through the process of what they want to be. I’d also coach that it is okay to change the direction of your career path, go for it! No regrets. If a reader has always doodled and done some graphic design here and there, take courses, there are so many online opportunities out there now. Be willing to work hard and absorb anything other designers want to mentor you through. Have a good portfolio that you show to people and get feedback from others in the industry. And remember that you are part of a team in technology and what you contribute to is larger than just you. Your reward when looking back should be that of your accomplishments and that of what you did to assist others.
What is a recent book you’ve read that you really learned from? What was the key takeaway?
I was at a conference and saw Malcom Gladwell speak and there was a meet and greet after where I got a signed copy of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Finally read it. It is a really empowering book to be able to make successful decisions with snap judgments “thin-slicing.” It is really about the skill of being able to make decisions with limited information and rapid cognition. How first impressions really matter because our mind in those snap judgement moments doesn’t always know what it knows, but it has an impressive ability to think about something and decide, just like that.
What career advice would you leave our readers with in 140 characters?
It is never too late to follow your dreams. Be a life-learner & stay curious. Always “Invite yourself to the table” – Kristy Tillman
What is one thing you’ve always wanted to design that is at the top of your designer bucket list?
I would love to work on a touring bands creative direction from the design of the album to the tour to the website to the posters, flyers, t-shirts and what not. I’ve done album work and flyers for a lot of musicians and events, but to do the whole thing would be rad.
I’d love to grab coffee with: Bjork, Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch
My favorite purse is: Black Marley by Hobo
My go-to outfit is: Black knit blazer, modcloth dress, leggings and black patent leather oxfords from Louise et Cie.
My favorite dinner spot is: East End in Alameda, Calif.
I can’t live without: Music
My favorite way to unwind is: Sipping a glass of bourbon while spinning some vinyl
I feel my best when: A team successfully launches a build/product and users like it