Sara Zhang abstract product designer

The accidental product designer: How I stumbled into my dream job

An Abstract product designer shares her winding career path, discovering her love of problem-solving, and why more designers should talk about their struggles and triumphs.
Open Design

“Product Designer.” When I first moved to San Francisco and was looking for a job in the design world, this title appeared in listing after listing, and I had no idea what it meant. I wondered, What is product design? What is product? And what on earth is Sketch?

The year was 2013, and I was fresh out of Florida State University with a shiny new art degree. I’d been creative since I was young and began taking art classes in middle school. Like many immigrants, my parents were very focused on my becoming a doctor or lawyer. Luckily, in college, I started working for the student union, discovered I was good at making posters, and narrowed my career focus to brand design — an actual job! I figured I’d move to Chicago or New York and work for an agency, where I’d climb the rungs of the advertising ladder.

There was, however, one problem: I didn’t really want to be a brand designer. I loved the creative aspects of the work, but I wasn’t passionate about the rest of it. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t that great at it either. Sure, I was OK at designing posters, logos, and typography, but I didn’t excel at it by any means. However, when I graduated, brand design was all I knew how to do and the only design career path that I knew existed.

After scrolling through what seemed like endless job listings calling for product designers, I accepted my first entry-level job offer as a production designer at a Bay Area startup. The company crafted brand campaigns around user-generated content, and I designed websites with custom widgets. The job turned out to be a hybrid of brand and product design — not that I understood that at the time. In fact, when I was ready to move on and hit the job boards again, I still thought product design might involve designing watches or building computer hardware.

In retrospect, had I not moved to San Francisco and encountered the industry’s boundless need for product designers, I never would have become one. Until I moved here, I had never heard the words “product” and “design” together. I suspect that had I moved anywhere else, there would have been a high probability that I would never have found out what a product designer actually is.

Now, after six years in San Francisco and six months after accepting my dream job as a product designer for Abstract, I can finally tell you what product design is with confidence. Product design is problem-solving, as energizing and satisfying as solving a complicated puzzle. It’s also an exercise in empathy: for client expectations, for engineers building the product, and above all, for the people who use your creation. Putting yourself in the user’s shoes is among the key aspects of the job, and I consider this requirement a privilege. As luck would have it, “product designer” is the perfect job for someone like me — someone who loves learning about what makes people tick.

Product design is problem-solving, as energizing and satisfying as solving a complicated puzzle.
It’s also an exercise in empathy.

As a product designer for Abstract, I help create our software. I spend most of my days talking with people. I talk with customers about how they use our product, what they love, and what they hate. Internally, I talk with fellow Abstract product and brand designers about our design system and the best ways to solve problems. I also talk with product managers about top priorities and with engineers to figure out the complexities of building Abstract.

To me, product design is not about the pixels at all; though, that part is fun, too. Product design at Abstract is about working as a team to help our users — who are largely product designers themselves — do their jobs better.

How I found my dream job as a product designer

As you might have guessed, I got here incrementally, and not entirely on purpose. Believe it or not, this is an excellent strategy if you’re just starting out. Product design involves a lot of learning on the job.

Looking back to my first job as a “hybrid” designer, I was relieved to discover that my foundational art skills helped me immensely. I knew the basics of visual hierarchy, color theory, and typography, and I knew what looked good — but at that point, I couldn’t articulate why. My coworkers supported me from the very beginning. They saw a spark in me and took time to explain why they made the decisions they did. In addition to learning mobile design, responsive design, and how to use a grid, I also learned one of the fundamentals of my future career path: how to articulate why something is working, or isn’t.

But I wanted more. I wanted to see my work implemented, not watch idly as my budding projects drifted off to parts unknown, which is often the case with brand design. I learned that when you build things, they break. I wanted to know how and why. If you don’t work on a product after rollout, you don’t get to learn how successful it is or what went wrong. I needed to see a project through to the end.

I learned that product design transcends how things look and that relationships between people are equally if not more important to it.

After a year in this role as a production designer (and being promoted to visual designer), I got my chance in my first official job as a product designer for an enterprise customer data platform. And later, I became a product designer for a mortgage software company. It was during these jobs that I learned about empathy. I learned that product design transcends how things look and that relationships between people are equally if not more important to it.

These initial product design roles allowed me to build relationships with engineers who provided invaluable feedback on things like the feasibility of the projects at hand and how we could reuse existing components. I learned about system-based design and discovered that I love talking to people about their day-to-day. Doing discovery and talking about it have become my favorite parts of the job. I learned the joys of direct feedback and that it energizes me. I learned how to present my work and how to decide how strongly I need to feel in order to fight for it.

Perhaps most pivotally, I learned that product design involves working intensely with many different people, most of whom are not at all like me. Figuring out how to navigate wildly different personalities and skill sets was, by far, the most challenging part of learning on the job.

My mom always told me that “You can only change yourself.” After all, it’s almost impossible to get someone else to change their personality. Learning this was the hardest — is the hardest — part of this job, but the most fulfilling in terms of my personal growth.

I didn’t get here overnight

Did I mention I’ve had six jobs in six years? Did I mention I’ve applied for 500 positions? It wasn’t until I interviewed at Abstract that it really hit me: I understand what being a product designer is! When I started here, I loved it immediately. I have a mentor as my manager for the first time, and a woman mentor at that. In addition to being an industry leader, Heather Phillips, our Director of Design, makes sure that we designers feel supported; she listens to us, helps us steer through challenges, and guides us in our career growth.” She is incredibly inspiring to me, and I feel very lucky to be on her team, not to mention being able to work for this company in this corner of the industry. There’s a lot of action in this space, and I’m excited to watch things grow.

I hope that sharing the roundabout way I landed this wonderful job helps the budding product designers out there to figure out how to get their own dream jobs. But the thing is, I needed to tell you about all the complications. There aren’t enough people in this industry who talk openly about their struggles, which might give you the impression that every successful person in the field walked a straight line from college graduation to a corner office.

There’s a saying that I came across on Twitter that has stuck with me since I read it: “Think about when you wanted to have what you have now.” Ever since 2013, I’ve been running from one job to the next. When I read that quote, I finally took a moment to feel proud. It’s been a long winding road, but the journey was what made it so gratifying.