July 22, 2009

DesignEngage.com: A Career Springboard for Beginning Designers

I often recall from my undergrad days both the difficulty and mystery behind landing a design internship, including out-of-school work. Today the web, of course, is a wonderful channel for announcing and promoting design internships by way of job boards. I’d long considered creating one as a companion site to my design webliography Design Feast.

I’m glad to announce that I have made that idea into a reality with Design Engage, a job board dedicated to opportunities for those just entering the field, no matter their design discipline. Employers can post design internship details along with junior and freelance design opportunities.

Simplicity is often anything but
A web-based job board may seem an easy concept, but the road to realization took considerable time and effort. My first challenge was describing my intent—what the website is and why. I wrote a story relating the site’s service, confined to one page:
It’s not easy to find information about design internships, whether it’s in graphic design, fashion design, industrial design or user experience design. Whatever the discipline, domestic and international design students face a seminal challenge in their academic career, and must find stepping stones to greatly jumpstart their professional careers.

A dedicated web resource is needed to make design internships more findable for and by design students, undergrad and grad, participating in any design program, anywhere. Design Engage gives employers an exclusive space to share their design internship opportunities. New employers can be inspired by this new, dedicated space for them to establish and formalize a design internship program. Likewise, Design Engage serves the design community by advancing and promoting the design workforce, and helping an ever-growing number of aspiring designers realize a critical first step toward career success.
Writing the site’s story was a get-it-out-of-my-system move. But the site evolved as the project progressed, because the result became not only focused on design internships but also junior and freelance design opportunities. It’s satisfying to write the site’s what and why. Then there’s the how. The next challenge was finding a web developer. I did the keyword search and ultimately found Minna Kim Mazza of Blue Agate (her web design business) at LinkedIn. I would have first used CollabFinder in my search but discovered this service later.

We began working on Design Engage last March. I kicked off with a couple of digital sketches in black-and-white, and color came later. I knew which essential pieces of content and interactions were needed. The sketches, done in InDesign, were handed over to Minna for her translation:

Sketch of home screen

Sketch of job posting form

Sketch of published job ad

You’ll notice that the original title was “Designternships.” I was trying to be clever. Incited by a web-developer colleague who stressed typing correctly, I changed it to Design Engage.

Again, a job board isn’t conceptually challenging, but making it wasn’t so simple. It came with many details and re-testing, mostly concerning the online forms—what they say, how they look, how errors are checked and displayed, and how they integrate with PayPal. Speaking of which, another major area of work was the data input flow into forms (a two-step process), plus the proofing of payment information for job ad postings. Yes, I could have simply directed the “Purchase and Post” button to launch a PayPal interface, but I wanted payment process to cohere to the site’s visual design. Though I did think about taking out the PayPal integration, which would have greatly reduced work, having it as a part of the site ultimately feels good.

Proofing and testing takes communication, a lot of it
Sounds like a no-brainer, but the conceptual ease of an online job board leaked into how little time I thought that proofing and testing might require. The reality is that it took several months since the first live iteration on July 14, 2008.

Whenever Minna notified me about a revised iteration, I would review and send feedback within the body of an email, typically as a Word document. When the interface versions and interactions grew more refined, screen captures were marked up and sent as PowerPoint docs.

In retrospect, 200+ emails later, something like Basecamp or Backpack (which I use now, posting to come later) would have better managed our communications. But Minna and I made do with email.

Working with a small team is the best
Minna and I met only once, to introduce our selves. Afterwards, we worked on the project. One of the best qualities of working with a small team—in this case a team of two—is directness, particularly if the web developer is direct. Minna’s no-nonsense delivery was appreciated. There was another highly integral team member, Tom Printy, who smoothly handled the PayPal integration and online form intereactions. Working with a small—or even tiny—team makes work less cluttered. It doesn’t get much more manageable than simply dealing with two people.

Today may seem an ill-timed moment to debut a job board. But I believe in the importance of opportunities, particularly internships (among other options), for designers. I believe in the generations of designers. Beyond the philosophical justification, identifying the right go-to time would have delayed the work and wasn’t important, at least in this case. The best time is early and often—in other words, right now—to “getting it real.”

Realizing Design Engage was and still is fun, as I commit to its growth and changes. This success is coupled with the great pleasure of finding a reliable web development team in Blue Agate’s Minna and Tom. But the ultimate reward is the DIY-attitude combo of Nike and show Fashion Runway’s host Tim Gunn: “Just do it.” Only then, “Make it work.”