November 7, 2012

Julie Cheung’s Decisive and Self-Fulfilling Journey from Economics to Design


It was from the well-done design of medical-care funding platform Watsi’s website that I discovered Julie Cheung. She’s an economist turned graphic designer. I was struck by this switch. Here, Julie shares her impressive story and recommends concrete steps for those who also strongly desire to make a big change in making a living:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from? Are you a native
of San Francisco, California?
My name is Julie, and I’m a Visual Designer in San Francisco. I’m originally from Hong Kong, but I grew up partially in Vancouver B.C. and the Sacramento area.

You made a career change from economics to graphic design.
What sparked this move?
After I graduated from college, I worked as a Marketing Coordinator for several years, but I didn’t feel satisfied with the work I was doing. The drive and passion was simply not there, but it took a while for me to realize this. I was unhappy with where my career was heading, and that’s when I realized that I needed to make changes.


Logo design explorations

When and how did you really know that you wanted
to become a graphic designer?
I’ve always been a creative person at heart. Growing up, I loved to draw and create crafty projects for fun. I toyed around with the idea of going to art school for college, but my parents convinced me out of it. After working for several years, I realized that I needed to find a career that aligned my talents with my interests. I started thinking about what I loved to do, and then I remembered a particular incident in astronomy class. For the final, I created 10–15 pages of letter-sized study sheets packed with visual content. I didn’t realize this at the time, but what I created were essentially infographics. That was when I realized that I am a visual learner and thinker. I came up with a list of career options, and graphic design was on top of the list. Nowadays, I find the combination of graphic and user-interface design to be a lot more challenging and rewarding.


Mood board explorations

I recall a former classmate who had an MBA and wanted
to become a graphic designer. I was curious
how she went about making this happen. What was your process
in making such a change?
I started off by reading a ton of articles, blog posts, and forums on the topic of switching careers into graphic design. There are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Get a masters degree in design
  2. Teach yourself through online resources
  3. Take community college classes
  4. Get a design certification from art school

Option 1 was ideal, but I didn’t have the money to do it. I ended up choosing Option 4 because I wanted to attend classes where I could receive feedback from other designers. I took night courses for a year, but never finished the program in favor of Option 2 instead.

Was there a part of this career change that was particularly
trying and how did you cope and overcome it?
I was very uncertain on whether I would ‘make it’ or not. I was already behind other designers who graduated with a design degree, and the competition for internships was insane. During the year that I took night courses, I was rejected by too many internships to remember, but I eventually landed some pro-bono nonprofit design work. The countless rejections you receive when you are starting out is pretty demotivating. When I moved back to the Bay Area for more job opportunities, I created an online portfolio. It was a terrible portfolio when I first started, but I kept improving the projects in my portfolio until employers responded. It eventually took three months for me to land my first internship, and that’s when my career started taking off.


Logo and typography exploration

How do you promote yourself to prospective employers
or to get freelance work?
When I started out, it was through online job sites (indeed, craigslist, etc). Some of these clients now refer me to other clients, and some found my old portfolio on Carbonmade. It’s a lot easier to join design meet-ups and network with other designers to get your name out there.


When taking a break, Julie doodles for fun

What are some rewarding things 
about your career journey so far?
I genuinely love what I do, and I don’t mind staying up late at night perfecting my designs. Also meeting other designers who are equally as passionate about problem solving through design.

Do you sill maintain a connection with economics?
Does economics still play a role in what you do?
Absolutely. Especially when it comes to the analytical side of design thinking and understanding how the market for designers work. A lot of employers actually liked that my background wasn’t completely ‘artsy.’

Do you have recommendations for software/web-based tools
to use for collaboration and getting things done?
For collaboration, I use Basecamp to share mockups and store my files on Dropbox. I use Freshbooks to track my hours and bill clients.


Julie likes to keep my tools organized to bring everywhere with me

What tools do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?
Simply pencil and paper for conceptualization, and then I dive into using programs to bring them to life.


Along a hike, Julie took this picture of a flower for inspiration. She loved the subtle shades of grey and the striking purple contrast against the white.

How do you stay creative?
What are some of your sources of inspiration?
After I spend too much time in front of the computer, I stop being creative and lose productivity. So I balance this by getting out of the house and participating in outdoor activities like hiking or jogging. I always bring my camera, so I’ll document anything that inspires me along the way. Don’t sit in front of your computer too long—it kills creativity.


Conceptualization through word mapping

What is your advice to people who aspire to switch careers:
how to start, what must be kept in mind and put into practice?
I’m mostly a self-taught designer, but I don’t think this method is ideal for everyone. Some people need the structure that a design degree provides, so you need to figure out which method works best for you. Don’t be afraid to fail when you are starting out, and reach out to other designers if you are looking for advice. I’m not a fan of interning/working for free (there are rare exceptions), so you could consider doing volunteer design work for real-world experience. If you feel demotivated, I recommend watching Nick Campbell’s video The Creative Gap.



What makes San Francisco, California, special?
You will find some of the friendliest and most diverse groups of people in San Francisco. Its easy to get around the city with public transportation, and there is amazing food, nightlife, and beautiful scenic destinations nearby.

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Photos courtesy of Julie Cheung.

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Read previous Interview:
Writer and Drawer Beck Tench

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