Career Stories

Valentina Antunovic

Founder of UX Tree Mentorship Programme Design Manager at Vhi

Design Management UX / Product Designer

What is your current role and what does it involve?

As the Design Manager at Vhi, I lead my team to ensure our projects stay on track and that our design system is effectively integrated across various platforms. I am dedicated not only to elevating the standards of our interfaces but also to emphasising the critical role of UX design throughout the organisation. Collaborating with cross-functional teams is a key part of my job, enabling us to address design challenges with a cohesive and innovative approach.

Beyond my role at Vhi, I am deeply passionate about the UX Tree Mentorship Programme, a platform I founded to mentor and guide the next generation of UX designers. This initiative allows me to connect mentors with mentees, organise webinars, and coordinate meet-ups, providing hands-on career advice to assist them in navigating their UX journey.

Can you tell us about your education and career journey to date?

My journey began with a degree in Digital Marketing, but I quickly realized that my true passion didn’t lie in that field. The turning point came when I created a website for a final project, which sparked my interest in UX design. This interest was driven by my love for research and the process of understanding user needs before starting the design process. 

My career started in Croatia as a web designer, a role that marked the beginning of my professional development. However, driven by a desire to constantly challenge myself, I moved to Ireland to pursue a position as a UX designer at AIB. In this role, I contributed to significant projects such as Remote Account Opening and took the lead on the Mortgage Digitisation initiative. This journey has not only allowed me to grow as a designer but also as a team player.

Have you done any further education and how has that influenced your practice?

In 2018, I took a significant step in my professional development by enrolling in a Master’s program in UX at IADT. I had an incredibly valuable experience, mixing in-depth coursework with the opportunity to create key connections that became crucial as I built my mentorship program. It went beyond just learning; it opened doors to meet people who would play a significant role in my future projects.

Can you tell us a bit more about the UX Tree Mentorship Programme?

The idea for the UX Tree Mentorship Programme came to me back in November 2020, right when I started mentoring in one UX program in the UK. 

That experience was incredibly insightful—it revealed exactly what the program lacked, especially in terms of its structure. At that moment, I realized I could leverage my UX design expertise to create something more effective and structured.

So, I set to work. I wanted to create a program that wasn’t just more organized, but also meaningful and practical for everyone involved. I aimed for clear, achievable goals, deadlines that made sense, and all the support our participants would need. Plus, I wanted to make sure we were doing real work that mattered—like case studies that participants could show off. And of course, networking had to be a big deal. After all, making the right connections can really kickstart a career in UX.

In UX Tree, we match up mentees with seasoned designers. They dive into a project together, then document their journey in a detailed case study. We’re all about giving constant feedback and support, helping everyone not just to finish a project, but to be truly ready for the job market and to add an impressive piece to their portfolio. For me, this has been an incredible journey, I’ve had the chance to learn from and connect with so many amazing people!

Did you have expectations about a career in UX and did they differ from your experience?

I thought UX design would be mostly about technical skills and keeping up with the latest design trends. But I quickly found out that a big part of my job was actually about getting people within the organisation to see the value of UX design. This side of things—talking, convincing, and sometimes negotiating—has been challenging, but honestly, it’s been a great way to learn. It’s made me better at making strong arguments, handling difficult  relationships, and really highlighted how important it is to always put the user first, no matter where you are in the organisation.

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

In UX design, being successful really comes down to three key skills: 

  • empathy, so you can really get where users are coming from and make designs that fit what they need; 
  • communication, because you need to collaborate with all kinds of people and get your ideas across clearly; 
  • problem-solving, which is all about coming up with new, creative ways to make the user’s experience better.

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

It’s never too late to change your career to UX design, no matter your background. Don’t let the fear of change hold you back. Some of the most talented designers I know have come from different fields like nursing, customer service, advertising, journalism, graphic design… This variety of experiences can actually enrich your approach to UX design, bringing fresh perspectives and innovative solutions.

Secondly, your portfolio is crucial. Treat it as if it were a project for your most important client: yourself. Understand who will be viewing your portfolio and tailor it to speak directly to them. Highlight your process in each project and don’t shy away from discussing what you learned along the way and mistakes you made. This not only shows your design thinking, but also demonstrates your ability to reflect and grow from your experiences.

And finally, stay curious and don’t stop learning. UX design is a field that’s constantly evolving, with new tools, techniques, and best practices emerging all the time.