Talking mentors, freelancing, and community with product designer Laura Galbraith
Laura Galbraith has ridden the waves of digital design for over a decade, from her first position as a design generalist to her current job, Lead Product Designer at New York Public Radio.
Having worked both freelance and in-house, Galbraith knows what it takes to be a successful designer—both from home and from the office. She’s developed worlds of experience in interactive and product design and was happy to share some of that knowledge with us.
It’s time for us to shift our perspective when looking at the design community to find the unsung heroes: underrepresented designers who aren’t getting the publicity they deserve. Laura is the first of many designers we will be profiling to get a better understanding of what designers actually do all day—and what brought them to where they are.
Having graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) 12 years ago, your design career is the age of a seventh grader. When you look back on these last few years, can you identify the stages where you grew as a designer, both personally and professionally?
Wow, I never thought about it that way! 12 years doesn’t seem so long ago, but at the same time, comparing it to 7th grade…that does force me to quantify the time and experience a bit more!
My design skillset started growing with my first design job straight out of high school. It started with a teacher who pushed my work, introduced me to different tools and methodologies, and trusted me to start taking my work to another level.
As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve been super lucky to work under a number of great directors who took me under their wings and allowed me to make mistakes—and then used them as a teaching moment. They encouraged me to take real chances: ones where success and failure are a 50/50 shot, like setting expectations and goals for projects, running research sessions, owning the direction for projects, and running design thinking workshops.
Having leadership that trusts me to get the work done, but is willing to help when I’m struggling, has been a huge help with allowing my skills to grow. (And, of course, makes a job a more interesting place to be!) Alongside the mentorship I’ve been gifted with, I have a personal deep hunger for learning. When I’m not working you’ll find me buried in Medium articles, listening to design talks, digging up conferences, or even navigating design forums in my spare time—all of which has also helped me progress in my craft.
I’m always trying out the latest prototyping tool or research methods to see if I can improve the way that I work—both for speed and quality. My inclination to explore tools and research is a major influence on my design skills and have played a big part in who I’ve become today.
If MICA invited you to speak at graduation, what would you tell new graduates?
The most important thing that I want to emphasize is that although they’ve just completed their traditional education, learning never ends, and real education starts with your first job.
“It is so important to have a place to talk to people facing the same issues that you do working in design. Especially as a woman, and a woman of color at that.”
Much of what I learned in college became irrelevant when I entered the workforce. Job titles change. Some design processes are straight-up impossible because most companies don’t have time for the full design process, as we define it. You learn to fit things in where you can and fight for what’s important: to condense certain processes, often due to short timelines or budget.
For example, I’ve occasionally been able to use feedback from customer reviews, or even previous survey responses, as the basis for a hypothesis without then needing a full-on user research project. There’s no right way to go about this; figuring out how to make the best use of the limited resources available to you, is often times a necessity of the job.
“Something that’s very important to stress is that I built up a savings pillow for the “quiet times.” “When it rains, it pours,” as the saying goes, but there’s always an occasional dry spell.”
What have you learned makes a great manager or workplace leader?
A great manager is someone who is interested in your growth as an individual; considers themselves an advocate for design and helping designers, and amplifies the designers’ voice.
Find someone who encourages you to find new, more effective ways to solve everyday issues. Someone who trusts your suggestions and your design work because of your experience. Someone who listens to you!
What was the biggest challenge of going freelance? What was the biggest reward?
What really helped with this was not going freelance right out of college, which is what I initially, and unsuccessfully, tried to do. With time I learned that building up a client list can be as easy as networking—at events, online, and at work. After a few years in the industry, I was finally able to successfully go freelance using that network I’d built up.
“Having people with whom I can commiserate, who keep me from feeling alone; who understand how I feel, have been there before, and want to help me navigate delicate issues has been such a huge help to my sanity.”
Something that’s very important to stress is that I built up a savings pillow for the “quiet times.” “When it rains, it pours,” as the saying goes, but there’s always an occasional dry spell. There’s often an onslaught of projects once you start getting work, and then, eventually, a slowdown. Don’t let it get you down—but do come prepared.
The biggest reward of going freelance was, without a doubt, setting my own vacation days. What I miss is giving myself unlimited vacation days…but not hunting down past-due invoices or fighting for sporadic paychecks.
In light of 28 Days of Black Designers, BlacksWhoDesign, and the numerous other projects highlighting Black designers—what, for you, is the importance of community in the professional space?
It is so important to have a place to talk to people facing the same issues that you do working in design. Especially as a woman, and a woman of color at that, the design world can be SUPER isolating.
Working in an industry dominated by white men, working relationships are impacted by unconscious bias at every turn. Feelings of invisibility, colleagues’ assumptions, and even navigating your own projects become minefields. This can all have a negative impact on your state of mind—and, therefore, your work.
“Having leadership that trusts me to get the work done, but is willing to help when I’m struggling, has been a huge help with allowing my skills to grow.”
Having people with whom I can commiserate, who keep me from feeling alone; who understand how I feel, have been there before, and want to help me navigate delicate issues has been such a huge help to my sanity.
I highly recommend every person of color find a community to join. One group that I’ve really taken a liking to is the Design Guild Women of Color group; they have been very supportive, and have provided lots of insights into dealing with people who may think less of many WOC.
Name a colleague who you think should be world-famous, or at least Twitter famous, for their design skills.
I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some really amazing designers over my lifetime, but a few that I really think should be superstars:
Their work has always been on point and I think the world needs to know about these awesome, talented women!