The Accidental Unicorn: How I Became A Designer Who Loves to Code

The Accidental Unicorn: How I became a designer who loves to code

The Accidental Unicorn: How I Became A Designer Who Loves to Code

I’m a creative person. I’ve always been that way. After my first week in preschool, my teacher surprised my mother by telling her that I would “one day become an artist.” How she could tell that when I was that young, I have no idea, but I think it probably comes down to not only how I view the world, but also how I process the information I’m given. Artists tend to view things differently than others who aren’t as creatively inclined.

As a child, I loved learning. I still do. I don’t like to consider myself an ‘expert’ in anything, for the sheer reason that I feel there’s always more to be learned. Books have always been a gateway for me, and I avidly read everything I could get my hands on as a youngster. This helped build my imagination- an important trait of any designer or artist.

A New Way to Create Art

In my youth, there was a new technology rapidly catching on: the internet. One particularly dull summer between seventh and eighth grade, I found myself sitting at my family’s new Apple computer, combing through something called ‘websites.’I loved writing stories and decided I needed a place to house my writing endeavors. Websites were fascinating to me. I loved the idea of producing something seemingly out of nothing: it was code, I soon found out- HTML.

On one of my first computers, aged 13

This was 1998, when email was still a relatively new method of communication and websites were fairly simplistic. The internet was largely a strange and endlessly interesting place. There was an air of mystery surrounding it. By viewing the page source of websites I liked, I began to take bits and pieces of code, and reformulate them to do what I wanted. Having my own domain was important for me as I’d then have somewhere to channel all my writing efforts. Coding quickly became something of an obsession for me- I didn’t know what I was doing, but you’re crazy if you thought I’d let that stop me: it was a trial and error game, and with each hour I spent, I got a little better.

Hours turned into months, and months turned into years. By the time I was in high school, I considered myself to be a fairly decent designer and developer, though if you’d asked me point-blank at the time, I wouldn’t have used those terms. Being self-taught meant I’d never labeled my little website-creation hobby as anything completely specific- I made websites; it was what I loved to do. The online world had also given me a small community of other girls across the world- usually aged somewhere from thirteen through nineteen- who all had similar websites. This little community was wonderful and a great outlet for feedback, creativity, creation, and growth. I owe a lot to those girls and what they did for me, without intentionally meaning to.

The funny thing was, I never talked to anyone about the websites I made. I considered it my secret passion- something I did in downtime and shared only with my faraway friends who had web projects of their own. Only when I got to my junior and senior year in high school did I begin applying the skills I’d learned to schoolwork. Luckily for me, I landed an opportunity to take more craft-focused courses at a local technical school. This gave my confidence a boost. (Coding classes were NOT the norm in those days.) I remember sitting in class, senior year, working on a project when the thought finally hit me: “Wait- maybe I could make a living doing this one day.” I was hooked.

After several rocky years after graduating high school, I finally got tired of slinging sub sandwiches at Subway and realized if I didn’t go back to school, I’d end up behind the deli counter for the rest of my life. I enrolled at my local community college, originally signing up to study English as a major. My love of writing was still my dominating passion, but I still loved making websites as well.

Discovering the Design Field

A year or so into college, I found graphic design. I had no idea what ‘graphic design’ meant and assumed it must mean designing websites, so I signed up for the Introductory class. Much to my surprise, the Graphic Design degree did not mean designing websites per se- it meant learning to craft print designs. I decided to stick with it though because I figured the idea was the same at the end of the day, and why not broaden my horizons by learning how to design for print material?

I learned a lot in school. Countless lessons that are now ingrained in my mind. But, working full time while taking a full-time course load meant it took me longer to graduate. By the time I did, it was the winter of 2009, right after the recession. It was a tough time for a new graduate. A lot of companies were not taking on new employees, especially when it came to the creative field. I’d been working as a barista for five years when I graduated, and much to my dismay, I was still making coffee months after having received my degree. It’s hard, finding your first “career job” after college. Sometimes, it feels like you’ll never find anything. It’s easy to get discouraged. I can recall playing a lot of Farmville in between scanning the latest plethora of email turn-downs from various jobs I’d applied to.

Finally, in April of 2010, I landed my first job in the field I’d studied. It was a Web Developer and Content Manager position for several local Kansas City radio stations in town. To put it lightly, it was the best job I could’ve hoped to find at the time. I remember my last day at the coffee shop; it was a Friday- Good Friday- and I was behind the espresso machine, loudly steaming milk in a metal pitcher when my phone rang. I was offered the job, as I cradled the phone on my shoulder with my chin. I knew it would be the last time I made coffee for tips, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. (Though, I still do make a lot of coffee in the office. But there’s no tipping involved.)

You Can Go Your Own Way

I never followed the more predictable road in my pursuit to become a developer and a designer, but I did do it my way. At this point, almost ten years after graduating from college, and twenty years since first creating a website, I consider design and development my life’s pursuit. I am still growing as both a creative and a coder every day, and every single year. As time passes, I take on new projects, and I learn a great deal along the way. I couldn’t be happier with my lot in life, and though I never considered myself a “unicorn” by any stretch of the imagination, it is kind of a cool title. (At a conference last year, my boss introduced me to someone, saying, “She’s a unicorn but she doesn’t know it.”) Obviously, I still pursue my love of writing to a degree, though not as often as I’d like to. But I’m working to change that. I truly feel that when it really comes down to it, I’m doing what I am meant to be doing. I love my work, and I always put my heart and soul into every project I work on- no matter how small or large the task at hand is.

Were my websites always beautiful? Definitely not. Was the code always clean? No; in fact I’m still not overly confident of my skills as a front-end developer- I work to improve on my skills daily. (I’ve always been a stronger designer than developer.) But do I enjoy what I do? Yes, I do.

You just have to find that thing that’s special about you that distinguishes you from all the others, and through true talent, hard work, and passion, anything can happen. – Dr. Dre

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking of becoming a designer, or a developer, or both, I say: do it. What’s stopping you? In this day and age, it’s so easy to learn a new skill- there are almost endless resources at your disposal. There’s no reason not to. And if you truly love to do it, then that’s the most important part anyway. Because when you chase your passion, no matter how hard it feels sometimes, you’ll win in the end. Good work speaks for itself. I for one know that if I’d never forced myself to go back to school, I’d probably still be working in a deli or making lattes for people. Which isn’t a bad gig, but it isn’t what I LOVE to do. I love to make websites. And that is what I do, now, and hopefully always.

design, inspiration, jess, life, shit i write, web design, work

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