Career Stories

Simon O’Donovan

Senior UI Designer VHI

UI Designer

What initially drew you to your current creative field? – did you always envision a career in this discipline?

I can’t say that I always envisioned a career in this field – honestly, it wasn’t until I was working in my first job as a graduate, that I realised UI design was an actual job.

I had always assumed that developers did the design work too, so I took some computer science electives while I was at university. I wasn’t majorly keen on all the backend stuff, functions and algebra, but I did pick up enough HTML and CSS to continue experimenting with web design in my spare time.

My first job after graduating was at a mobile tech startup, which was the ideal environment for me to try out a variety of different roles in a short space of time. I put my hand up for any design work that was going, and learned the tools as I went along. There weren’t quite so many YouTube tutorials those days, so it was a lot of trial and error!

About 18 months later, I was convinced that this was the job for me, so I went back to college to get some formal design education.

What type of formal education or training did you pursue and how has it influenced your career?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college, so I opted for an undergrad degree in Commerce as it was pretty broad and would leave me with options to specialise. I specialised in the technology stream and then completed a masters in Digital Innovation. A couple of years after graduating, I went back to full time education to get a diploma in Graphic Design.

I probably took a less conventional route into the design field, but I still regularly use skills acquired at each step of the way, in my current role.

As part of my business degree, we did a LOT of presentations, which really helped me out when it came to pitching design work to colleagues and clients. As part of my masters degree, I collaborated with software engineers, which gave me great experience of translating business requirements into technical specifications. And while UI Design was only a small part of my diploma in Graphic Design, the design theory, practices and processes are skills I use every day.

How does the reality of your career differ from your expectations?

I definitely spend a lot more time talking about design than I had expected! I’m a pretty introverted person by nature, so to be honest, the idea of sitting at a computer screen all day perfecting works of digital art was very appealing to me. The reality is quite different.

I spend roughly half my time designing and the other half communicating. It’s very rare that you are designing something for yourself, so naturally, design is a collaborative process. Being able to explain your design decisions is as important as being able to make the right decisions in the first place.

Design is also a team sport. Every day I work with talented business analysts, researchers, developers, and of course other designers, to scope, refine and implement design projects. None of that gets done without great collaboration and communication.

How has your career evolved over the years – did you start in another discipline before transitioning to your current field?

I started out working in a broad Marketing role and quickly gravitated towards projects that involved some design work. I would take on design projects of any kind, and figure out the right process and tools along the way.

When I started out, my design roles were not well defined and came with many responsibilities, encompassing print, digital, branding, UI and UX design. Often the design function was not well established, and sometimes I was the design function!

As a result, there was rarely a well defined career path, so I was responsible for figuring out the right next step and then pitching it to my manager. This was often confusing, as there are plenty of vague, fuzzy and inconsistent job titles in the design world, which made it hard to know what to aim for.

That’s why I’m such a fan of resources like Flow which aim to put a structure in place that you can use to chart your own career path.

Were there any pivotal moments, insights or decisions that significantly impacted your career path?

For sure, I think the decision to return to full time education in order to get a formal grounding in design theory was a pivotal moment.

At the time, I was already working primarily as a designer, and was reasonably well versed with the design tools, but crucially, I did not have the vocabulary to explain my design decisions, or the theory to back it up.

I was not jazzed about the idea of going back to college for 2-3 years or studying part time, so I went to the UK to study at Shillington College, which crammed a one year diploma course into an action packed four months. It sounds like a short time, but being immersed in design theory twelve hours a day for four months was exactly what I needed.

I came back to my design role armed with all the right principles, processes and theory, and haven’t stopped talking about them since.

What three skills do you believe are crucial to succeeding in this career?

Communication. If you are able to tell a good story, it goes a long way as a designer. The ability to get clients, colleagues and others on board by taking them on a journey from initial problem to your solution is invaluable.

Growth Mindset. The learning never stops. As a UI Designer in particular, the sands are constantly shifting. The platforms you design for, the tools you design with, and the standards to adhere to are constantly evolving.

Time Management. This is an area that I still struggle with. Knowing when to call it done can be tough, especially when you enjoy what you do, but it does get easier with experience. I’ve recently become obsessed with project management software like Notion to keep myself organised and on track.

How have you continued to develop your skills throughout your career?

A lot of design theory and principles stand the test of time. I often find myself coming back to books I’ve read or heard of, to see if there’s a framework or heuristic that applies to a new project I’m working on. Design tools and technology on other hand, are constantly evolving, so that’s the stuff you need to keep on top of.

When I started out, the best way to learn about design software was either formal education, or through trial and error. I often opted for the latter. Nowadays, there is an endless supply of quality content available online (mostly for free), as well as industry recognised certificates and diplomas.

These days, I keep my design skills up to date mostly through a curated selection of YouTubers and webinars hosted by design companies.

How has your industry changed since you started, and how have you adapted?

There have been countless evolutions in design tooling, trends and technologies in the 10+ years that I’ve been working as a designer, but it doesn’t feel like a burden to keep up when you enjoy what you do and you’re excited about what’s next.

The tools I use today are not the tools I used five years ago. Figma is the fourth UI design software that I’ve learned from scratch (I started out doing UI design in Photoshop) so I’ve learned not to get too attached!

I also think the perception of the industry has changed a lot since I started. The maturity of design as a profession means that I spend less time advocating for the value of design than I used to. Now that design is better understood and accepted as part of an organisation, we have more opportunities to demonstrate that value. It’s up to us to continue delivering. 😄

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in your field?

Always keep an open mind.

It can be tough not to fall in love with your own design work, especially when you know how much effort you’ve put in, but it pays to remember that you are not your own client and you are not a typical user.

Design can be a humbling profession. I can’t count the number of times I’ve presented design work believing it was spot-on, only to have a glaring flaw pointed out immediately by a colleague, or for it to be roasted by a group of users in testing. A good feedback loop throughout the design process should help avoid too many surprises, but there’s always the odd shock on the cards.

While you might be astonished by the feedback you receive, you need to be able to take it on board and use it to push towards the best solution.

How important has networking or being part of a professional community been in your career?

It’s really handy to have a group of designers that you can bounce ideas off, share work with, and just generally learn from. You might have a regular design crit at work, or a Slack channel with a college group, or attend a design meetup. All are good options.

One of the best things about having that regular back and forth with other designers is developing your ability to give (and take) feedback. Like I said, design is a collaborative process, so being able to recognise and convey thoughtful, constructive feedback is a super power for designers.