Carly Schonberg

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Do Design Bootcamps Have Value for Senior Designers?

Following is a review of my experience with Designlab’s UX Academy. I have not been asked to write this, but when I was doing my initial research, I struggled to find input from people with similar backgrounds to mine. I hope others in my position find it useful!

In October 2020, I left my job of 6 1/2 years as a visual and product designer at a small events company — perhaps a touch too much hubris for the pandemic-stricken economy, but I had definitely hit a bit of a plateau in my career, and it felt like the right time for a change. I planned to take a little time off to give some serious thought to my values and priorities, and to revamp my sorely neglected portfolio.

It had been quite a while since I’d last been unemployed, and I was seriously craving some feedback and guidance on my professional materials — especially my portfolio, which, in the bit of casual job hunting I’d been doing before formally leaving my job, was not attracting the kind of attention I wanted for my desired positions.

Quite a while back, I’d seen an advertisement for Designlab’s UX Academy, one of the many online bootcamps out there in the design world. Busily employed at the time, I balked at the 20–40 hour a week commitment, but filed it away for a rainy day because it boasted career services with a rather impressive placement rate. When I gave notice at my job, I unearthed the Designlab info and decided to attend an intro webinar.

I’ll be honest: as a professional designer of 13 years, I considered myself a bit above online design classes; I was much more intrigued by the career counseling. But the curriculum seemed to relate nicely both to the experience I already had and the kind of job I was hoping to get, and I figured spending my time off on some assigned challenges would help keep me on task with my portfolio revamp (plus, I assumed that with my background, it would be a breeze). Since landing a senior UX/UI design role would easily justify the cost of tuition, I figured I had nothing to lose, and decided to enroll.

Despite my sound justifications for this endeavor, I was still a bit wary going in; I knew that design bootcamps are largely attended by people transitioning their careers to design for the first time, and I feared I’d find the coursework too elementary. I could not have been more wrong.

First, the whole idea of “time off” flew rapidly out the window. Eager to get to career services as quickly as possible, and well accustomed to working 40 hour weeks, I enrolled in the full time track. What I didn’t realize at the outset was that while 40 hours a week is the minimum requirement for the full time track, it’s very easy to put in significantly more time than that crafting great projects (especially if you’re a perfectionist like me). The experience quickly became more time intensive than the full time job I’d just left, but also much more inspiring and rewarding.

Here are my top reasons why, even as a senior designer, I am thrilled with my decision to go through Designlab’s UX Academy:

You’re never too old for a mentor. Rather than having formal classes at a particular time, Designlab provides a go-at-your-own-pace curriculum of readings, assignments, and projects, and pairs you with a mentor to help you through the process. I could not have gotten luckier with my pairing — I had the pleasure of working with an incredible mentor who saw my background, challenged me in my weakest areas while encouraging me in my strongest, and helped me tailor the curriculum to get as much out of it as possible for my personal journey. As designers, our work is judged on every conceivable level, and I think every designer has struggled with confidence at some point. Working with my mentor multiplied my confidence in my existing skills many times over.

Broadening your horizons is priceless. I was very fortunate in my last job to be part of a small but wonderful team of designers, and to have yet another incredible mentor in my creative director; but no matter how great your team is, working with the same people on the same products with the same workflow for years upon years will limit your perspective. Having the opportunity to to work on wildly different projects, incorporate different methodologies and processes, and talk to different people from all over the world was incredibly inspiring, motivating, and refreshing.

Nothing beats collaboration. I’m a firm believer that no matter how good a designer you are, solutions designed alone are never as good as those designed through collaboration. Without Designlab, I faced the task of rebuilding my portfolio and devising new challenges for myself alone in a bubble. With Designlab, I had access to hundreds of other students and their insights through weekly group critique sessions and a vibrant Slack community. I gained so much from shared resources, collaborative working sessions, and general discussion that I would never have gained alone, and I also loved having the opportunity to share my insights with other designers at all stages in their careers.

A challenge is a challenge. Despite my initial worries, there really is no such thing as “elementary coursework” when you’re facing a design challenge. Every challenge is unique and takes well-honed design thinking to tackle; it’s simply not possible for designers to flex this muscle too many times.

You should never stop learning. I spent quite a lot of time at my last job, and the outside world did not stop evolving during that time. From a technological perspective, Designlab expanded my arsenal, giving me the impetus to try out some tools that I did not use in my last role, and that did not even exist when I started it. It also reminded me that you can (and should!) learn from anyone, and the more people you encounter who challenge your perspective, the more valuable learning opportunities you’ll have.

All in all, I can’t imagine spending my last few months of “time off” from work in a more productive way. For any senior designers in between jobs, I would absolutely recommend seeking out learning opportunities (bootcamp or otherwise!) to stay motivated and keep expanding your horizons.

Carly is a full stack designer passionate about ethical design and climate activism.