From Designing Physical Experiences to Designing Digital Experiences

Over the past year, I received dozens of messages asking about my successful transition from Architectural Design to Product Design. In this piece, I’ll be transparent about my process and lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully, it will give you some helpful insight.

I broke my essential lessons into five themed phases — Identity Shift, Network, Framework, Application, and Patience. TLDR: Know why you are changing careers, find your struggle-bus gang, understand the material, apply it, and practice patience. This was my formula.

1. Identity Shift

Like most working creatives, I formed my identity around what I did at work for so long, including the all black uniform. Architecture and Design (A+D) was my first love in design. I was the person who pointed out mistakes and celebrated interesting design solutions whenever I walked into a new building. When I decided to make the shift, I mourned for the part of me that saw myself as an Architectural Designer. However, I learned to celebrate the fluidity and relativeness of design. Design is everywhere — not only in architecture. I realized that I could be a designer who grew horizontally, not only linearly. In retrospect, I didn’t lose anything. I manifested a new facet as a creative. This mind-shift is very important because it opened up the possibility that I can be a designer in any industry because — fundamentally, my purpose in design was to solve problems in people’s everyday life.

📚 Lesson Learned: Growth is what you want it to be. It doesn’t have to take the form of a vertical line. Spend some time to refine your design identity. You’ll see that it can take any shape or form.

2. Network

Network, network, network. When I received this advice for the first time, I was discouraged. I always thought it would be extremely difficult to ask for people’s time, especially from strangers. After a few uncomfortable cold calls, I took an iterative approach and found a method that worked for me. I started to connect with people of my people, those who shared a similar background, and others I could relate to outside of my professional life. It didn’t feel forced anymore. Through this journey, I found people who later became my peers, mentors, and friends.

📚 Lesson Learned: When you share yourself with others, you find a community to support you emotionally and professionally. And, you need both.

3. Framework

The obvious 📚 lesson here is to learn the must-have skills, and the good news is there are tons of parallels in both industries. With a robust design foundation, you can quickly adapt to new industry terms and communication of standard processes and solutions.

Here are some parallel examples:

  • A+D & Product Design: User Research is the same in both industries.
    Learn the constraints, find the why’s, understand the business and design goals, do your due diligence, etc.
  • A+D: Schematic Design
    Product Design: Information Architecture and Wireframes
    I believe the term wireframe even comes from architecture. Information Architecture is equivalent to the path of egress, journey experiences, flows (the term flow is used in both industries).
  • A+D: Design Development
    Product Design: Developing Low to High Fidelity Screens, Creating decks
  • A+D: Construction Documents
    Product Design: Hand-offs
    This includes all the coordination involved. All the back and forth with structural engineers, MEP, consultants, etc., are equivalent to annotations and collaboration sessions with PMs, software developers, stakeholders, etc.

🛠 Technical skills: If you learned Revit and Adobe Creative Suite, you could learn Figma in 10 minutes, so don’t worry about this part. It would be more beneficial to focus on flexing your design and systems-thinking skills. I spend equal parts in communicating design through specs and in figma daily.

💡 Tip: Don’t forget to use your master-level deck skills to communicate the process. People love a good storyline and clear process journey in deck form.

4. Application

Do, don’t tell. While ex-Architectural Designers know precisely why they will be successful Product Designers, no one else without the same context gets it. They don’t know how hardworking you are. They can’t see your killer visual design skills, how well you can balance speculative interest with constraints, and how great a systems thinker you are. Learn to apply your strengths from your experience. Speak to the users. In this case, the users are the people who will evaluate your potential. I’m not a master by any means. However, I learned that if I try to articulate my ideas and design work in the same language that my audience uses, I will find a better way to communicate successfully.

Also, find freelance work through your network or whatever (the internet is good too). It gives your audience a sneak peek at who you are as a Product Designer, even if it is just a baby project (as long as it is shipped). Give people reasons to invest in your potential without needing to do it blindly.

📚 Lesson Learned: Apply your skills in your product design portfolio pieces. Find freelance projects so you can say you shipped a feature, have experience working cross-functionally, and understand design process in Product Design.

5. Patience

Don’t doubt yourself. In A+D, landing jobs was never an issue for me. All of that changed when I started my hunt for a full-time Product Designer role. My expectations didn’t match reality. As someone with general anxiety, I was extremely panicked and stressed. I must have cried after every rejection I received for one month straight (there were a lot of rejections). Looking back, I wish I was more forgiving and patient with myself. I had ongoing freelance projects. I had the drive to make the transition work. Also, the best part is that I got to participate in multiple interviews. Those are moments to celebrate. Don’t just focus on the rejections.

📚 Lesson Learned: Please be patient. You will successfully transition. It is just a matter of time.

Good luck, friends! 🍀 Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I’ve been through a similar experience, and I hope I can answer any questions in your transition. No gatekeeping here! 😎

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Product Designer based in LA ☀, sometimes in NY.

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Yvonne Chen

Yvonne Chen

Product Designer based in LA ☀, sometimes in NY.

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