One year at this agency made me happy to give up design forever
Katie Conforti Jul 10
My first year at Ueno.
When I graduated from art school it was my dream to live in San Francisco and work at a design agency. Ten years later and I’ve finally realized that dream—sort of. I live in the East Bay, not SF, and I work at a “full service” agency (you might have heard of it), which does design and so much more.
And, as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not a designer anymore.
Ten+ years trying to make it as a designer
Starting in 2005, I spent summers as an intern in my family’s advertising business and created our very first digital ads. In 2008, I landed a full-time design job at a small print shop and took on development work too.¹ In 2010, I worked from someone else’s dining room and helped build a new e-commerce business from scratch. In 2011, I had a client who cared about quantity over quality, so I wrote template-driven sites to deliver better layouts in less time.
In 2013, I strove to provide meaningful designs, despite having no direct client contact. I experienced loss, both personally and professionally. I moved to SF, and slept on a friend’s couch for six months. In 2014, I was unemployed for too long, but used that time to volunteer within the design community. By 2016, I had stagnated at a startup, where I spent two years engulfed in flames, as the only web designer.
I was being challenged in all the wrong ways
I realized I was no longer growing my skills. At the end of 2016, I pulled the “if you can’t do, teach” move, which allowed me the flexibility to travel the world. I tried to appreciate what I had, even if it wasn’t what I had once envisioned.
I still wanted a taste of life at a big agency. I imagined creating work that I was proud of and serving clients with household names. I dreamt of work that was always new, interesting, and challenging. I longed to work alongside people who were better designers than me, whom I could respect and learn from. I wished for the energy that replaces frustration when a problem is important and exciting. I fantasized about doing something I loved and still making enough money to feel comfortable buying new socks when my old ones formed holes.
I wanted to do something I loved
I applied to 155 jobs in seven months. I know this because I kept a spreadsheet to ensure I didn’t apply for the same role more than once. I calculated the percentage of interest I received from my applications to keep myself from getting discouraged when a new “Thank you for your interest…” rejection letter hit my inbox. I got ghosted by someone I had hoped would be a great mentor. I worked with recruiters…bless their hearts.
I felt dread where I used to feel passion
I applied for Product Design and UX jobs that I felt unqualified for. I made a fool out of myself in interviews because I was embarrassed by my work and couldn’t articulate the value in my experience. I thought about switching careers and becoming a sign fabricator or a project manager.
To keep myself going, I got back into volunteering, no longer too busy with work. I organized a bar crawl and built an app for it, giving myself an excuse to learn React. I attended events I hadn’t previously had time for.
Then Ueno reached out to me
I was sent a coding challenge, which was right up my alley: to recreate a Photoshop document in code. I used it as a playground to try out CSS grid. “The team […] gave a big thumbs up!” and I got an interview—the best one I’d had in a long time.
I felt confident, I felt relevant.
I got the job
My first assignments were bug fixes and additions to existing, internal projects. I got my feet wet on these smaller tasks, gaining familiarity with the Ueno tech stack and programming style. I was given far more time to get comfortable than I was comfortable with. I was sure I would be fired because there was so much I didn’t know.
But after ten years of teaching myself development, I knew how to figure it out. I wasn’t fired and I found working at an agency to be everything I’d imagined.
In the last year, I’ve contributed to at least eleven client projects—including some big names, as well as brand new ones. I am proud of my work on every one. Each assignment has expanded my knowledge of a language, framework, or library. The seven internal projects I’ve touched have served as a particularly valuable space for me to take on technologies I thought were beyond my capabilities. Each person I’ve worked with has inspired and supported me. I have endured Gene Ross’s relentless puns, while managing to avoid being on the receiving end of Jenny Johannesson’s eyebrow. I’ve wrestled with challenges, gotten stuck, and been frustrated, but I still look forward to coming to work everyday, because there is nothing like the rush of solving a new problem. I love what I do, and can now comfortably buy new socks when I need them, but I still think $12 for a single pair is a bit much.
At Ueno, developer-life is about more than Github contributions
I proofread (almost) every one of Ueno’s newsletters and blog posts. I added 10 custom emoji to our Slack — half of which are food items. I can now tell you what
M means in an SVG file—it’s not the same as
m. I ate more açaí bowls than I can count. I submitted pull requests for typos in the documentation for libraries I was learning. I played hours of Rocket League and didn’t improve at all. I accidentally wrote copy for a billboard. I sang karaoke in Iceland. I saw my coworkers, Carolyn, Elliott, Karli, Kyle, Liz, Najla, and Robbin, earn new titles. I learned to appreciate the subtle texture that confetti adds to my lunches. I served as on-camera talent. I was happily reimbursed for my time with cheeseburgers.² I became a member of the FWA jury. I joined my first book club.³ I QA’d websites and apps. I felt brand new, and I felt my opinions were valued.
In some ways, I feel just as much like a designer as I always have
I have always taken on more than my title implied, because it all was design to me. The process of translating a design into a real working website or app is chock full of decisions, large and small, that I consider design decisions. My end-users may be a lot different, but they aren’t any less important. They are the other developers at Ueno who work alongside me and our clients’ engineers who will expand on my work in the future. They are the servers which deliver the code and the browsers that render the final product.
I continue to design — in my own way
In my next year at Ueno, I will employ new frameworks (React Native) and take on new tasks (help plan the first Ueno conference). I will seek discomfort and keep learning, but I probably won’t get better at Rocket League. I will write more code and the occasional blog post.
I will be so thrilled to never source another stock photo. I will feel no nostalgia for the process of finding the right typeface. And I will not miss having “designer” in my title.
 I couldn’t stand that my designs were being built by someone who used table-based layout in 2008, so I developed them myself.
 I owe cheeseburgers to Carolyn, Tom, Shannon, Halli, and Amy for proofreading this for me. Thank you.
 We’re currently reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads in the SF office.
 This article was reposted from the Ueno blog