From Fashion Design to User Experience Design
I’m a freelance user experience designer living in Brooklyn. It’s been nearly nine years since I graduated from Hamilton. I spent the first eight years working in fashion design and the past year in user experience design. Yes, I made a career change. Yes, it was tough. Yes, it was worth it. I’m currently on maternity leave, but before I left I was working on a long-term project for The New York Times.
Here is my background: I double majored in studio art and French. While at Hamilton, I studied a total of three semesters abroad. I was a January admit, so I spent the first semester of college in London, and then because I was a French major, I participated in the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program. As cliché as it sounds, my time spent abroad was the most formative part of my education, as it developed my understanding of culture and art on a global level. It also furthered my knowledge of fashion and its relationship to art, which eventually led me to study fashion design.
Backing up for a minute, one of the things that attracted me to Hamilton was its open curriculum. When I was a junior in high school considering various colleges, I loved the idea that I’d never have to take a math or science class ever again (ha!). While at Hamilton, I basically took four types of classes in the areas that interested me the most: Studio Art, Art History, French, and Women’s Studies. As I mentioned, I ended up majoring in Studio Art and French, mostly because they were my favorite subjects— but, by the time I was a senior, I realized neither area really felt right in terms of a long-term career. I didn’t see myself as an artist, nor did I envision a career where I’d use French. This is what was challenging and confusing. I had backed into majors that fit my interests the best, but careers didn’t feel 100% right in either. In the end, my interests in art, French, and women’s studies fused together and led to fashion.
After graduating from Hamilton, I studied fashion design at Parsons The New School For Design. It was a grueling two-year program but a great experience. While at Parsons, I interned in the design departments at Donna Karan and Thakoon. At Thakoon, I had the opportunity to work with the design team through Fall 2009 Fashion Week. While at Donna Karan, I assisted the collection design director and frequently helped in the fabric department. Additionally, I was selected to participate in a collaboration with the Luxury Education Foundation, Parson’s School of Design, and Columbia University Business School, which involved working directly with luxury companies on design-centric case studies.
My first real job was at a startup womenswear company. Unfortunately, as happens with startups, it went under after just two years. However, I had the unique opportunity to be there from its beginning and build it from the ground up, which was rewarding. Aside from the founder, I was the only other person at the company. It was a highly involved position where I was accountable for everything from developing and researching the initial concepts of the collection, to seeing through its final production in local factories.
From there, I continued working for small, niche, women’s ready-to-wear labels. After several years of this, I began to feel that my career was plateauing. I wasn’t happy in my current position and wasn’t finding other roles that were a step forward. By the time I turned 30, I felt like I either needed to open my own label or change careers. I didn’t want to open my own company, but I had no idea what else I could possibly do. I had always thought fashion was my dream, and I’d worked so hard to get where I was. I was stuck.
As fate would have it, I ended up sitting next to someone at a wedding who founded her own tech company. As I was telling her about my career struggles, she suggested I look into working in tech, specifically user experience (UX) design. Initially, I shrugged it off because it was totally out of left field, but eventually I began to research it. I realized that my design skills could translate to the tech world, but I needed some formal training in the tech programs order to make the leap. I did a three-month, full-time, boot camp-style course at General Assembly. It was incredibly intense, but kind of like ripping off a band-aid, where you just need to jump into it and become totally immersed in the subject in order to make a career change. It was not a gradual transition. I was living and breathing UX.
After finishing the program at General Assembly, I began freelancing for The New York Times’s Ad Innovation team. I worked on a redesign project for The Big Story a B2B (business-to-business) website for The NYT’s advertising team to pitch products to clients. This involved moving the existing site to a new platform along with a complete site redesign based on user needs and feedback, designing modular templates for article pages, design iterations, working with developers, and delivering final assets. It was a great experience.
In both UX design and fashion design, the most important thing in getting a job was having a strong portfolio/website. When I was younger, I thought that having gone to Hamilton and Parsons would put me a step ahead of candidate pools for jobs, but I was wrong. It really only got recruiters to give my resume a second glance. It was the work that had to speak for itself. A lot of the employers in the fashion industry had never even heard of Hamilton, so I was relying only on the Parsons name to legitimize my background.
That being said, I found that my education at Hamilton put me ahead of others in different ways. Most importantly, being able to think and write clearly. As simple as it sounds, it’s something I took for granted until I was out in the real world. In fashion, my background was more well-rounded than my peers who had only gone to fashion school. Additionally, as I was contemplating a career change, I was confident that I could do it because I had a solid foundation from Hamilton on which to fall back. I wasn’t stuck in one career because of my education; I could change.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
In design, the other thing that I quickly discovered was that, specifically at small companies, there is a lot of learning on the go and Googling random tutorials online to figure out how to do things. I was once in an interview with the CEO/developer of a fashion tech startup company and mentioned this point, that you can google just about anything to solve a problem. His face lit up immediately, and he said that was exactly how developers figure out things, too, and that you just need to know how to research well. I was offered the position but ended up not working with that company, but it goes to show that the learning never stops.
Kate Flynn '08 majored in studio art and French at Hamilton before studying fashion design at Parsons School For Design. After spending eight years in the fashion industry, she switched careers and is now a User Experience (UX) Designer. Most recently, Kate was doing UX design for The New York Times.