Meet Kolby McElvain, Senior Designer at High Alpha
Employer: High Alpha
Job Title: Senior Designer
Degree Path: Graphic Design, Bradley University
Hometown City and State: Overland Park, KS
City and State: Indianapolis, IN
What led you to your getting into tech and this occupation? What was your first job in tech?
I never set out to “work in tech” exactly, but my career path and interest aligned so that I could realize this was the best place for me. I started out as a web designer and made my way into the tech industry when I joined a local startup as their lead designer. Once I realized the amount of impact I can have a designer within tech, I knew it was the industry I’d be in for a while.
What has been your career path so far?
When I was in school I was interested in development even though it was not a part of my major. I took extra courses in game development and was, therefore, able to get my first job out of school designing and developing websites. From there my career led me to an agency where I was able to work on a “Web App” for one of our clients. I got more interested in product design and eventually left to be the designer at a local startup. There I was able to have a huge influence on the product roadmap, the visual aesthetics, and determining the product’s functionality. I loved being so hands-on within this company that I left to do the same thing for multiple companies at High Alpha. Now at High Alpha, I’m able to help each of our studio companies as they create their products in a similar capacity. I am also on the Business Design Team, where we are vetting and prototyping new company ideas that could eventually become studio companies.
When you think of a day in your life, what are the main work activities you do or responsibilities you have?
Generally, my responsibilities fall into a few categories:
1) Manage any current internal design projects we have in progress, such as ordering new marketing materials or designing and ordering items for an upcoming event.
2) Research and manage new company idea projects, such as running interview sessions, building findings decks, and creating mockups of product solutions.
3) If I’m attached to a new company, then I will be working on that week’s product sprint assignments, such as creating new screen designs, user testing or coding a prototype.
4) I’m always trying to stay up-to-date with tech news, ideas, tools, and looking for ways for High Alpha to show up within the tech and design community.
Help us picture your work environment.
High Alpha has an open concept space so I am typically at the office amongst others working on my computer. Our office is very lively, and throughout the day there might be guests showing up, food being delivered, and people socializing within the main area. Since we don’t have assigned desks, if I want to escape the noise and focus, there are tons of places to grab a quiet seat and work with my headphones on. As a member of the design team, we frequently work together on ideas or projects and therefore will sit together most of the time. Designers from across the portfolio will get together as well in order to give advice on the projects others are working on or to share ideas. High Alpha is also very flexible so if I need to work from home for a day or just want a different environment, I can head to a coffee shop to get my work done. As a member of the Business Design Team, when I’m not designing or working on emails, I have a good amount of client calls and meetings I’ll attend either via Zoom or at their offices.
What do you love about the work you do?
My job is the best! I get to think about problems that people deal with and how to make them better. I get to learn all about different industries and people to understand them and how they think. I get to use creativity to come up with things that have never existed or to utilize current tech and ideas in new ways, as well as use my technical design skills to create visuals that make those ideas come to life. I love how we use a holistic design approach to problem-solving as well as our high bar for experience and brand within our companies. It allows me to be involved in a wide range of projects and continually challenges us to uplevel the quality of each project. Being a senior designer on our team provides me with the ability to have a good breadth of strategic projects as well as hands-on design projects.
Which personality traits, interests, and abilities are important or common for a person to succeed in and enjoy this occupation?
Being good at asking non-obvious questions or being someone who likes to take things apart and put them back together is important. You have to take self-initiative to learn new skills or tools. Design requires someone who has good aesthetic taste and can use design tools to output projects well. It is more than just making logos or websites. You have to like a variety of work and manage your own time, work quickly but also at a high-quality level, be resourceful, and enjoy learning about new technology.
Which tools/technologies or technical skills are particularly important for a person to be proficient in for design jobs?
You must have the ability to use design software such as Adobe Suite, Sketch, Framer, Invision, and Keynote, to name a few. Understanding of development capabilities is a bonus if you can front-end code. You also need to understand basic design principles and typography.
Which soft skills (aka general business skills or employability skills) are particularly important for a person to be proficient in for design jobs?
Someone who likes problem-solving, is resourceful, has self-initiative, is a lifelong learner, is collaborative, can communicate their process and reasoning for a solution and how it achieves the business goals for that problem are all helpful in design.
From your experience with new grads applying for and beginning design jobs, are they missing any particular knowledge, skills, or experiences that hold them back?
A lot of time I see new grads coming out of school with “design thinking” skills or process, but they don’t have the visual skills to execute their idea out well. For us, you need both. You need to be able to come up with a solution and show why but also do the design work. They also lack an understanding of being able to communicate their process and reasoning for a solution and how it achieves the business goals for that problem.
Which resources, people, books, websites, etc. would you recommend to those who want to learn more or advance their skills in this occupation?
Learning to be a product designer is two-fold: there is the inspiration side of understanding how companies are using design as a differentiator and understanding the role design can play in an organization, as well as the creative inspiration on how to think differently. For that I would recommend these podcasts: DesignBetter Co, Ted Radio Hour, The Hustle, Why Design Matters, 99% Invisible, How I Build This, Design Details, and The Crazy Ones.
The second part is the hands-on tactical skills you need. To learn and get better at this you can do lots of things: challenging yourself to duplicate work that you think it is great and learn how they do it, watching tutorials on YouTube, doing online courses like SkillsShare, Lyndas for design and SuperHi or Team Treehouse for code, or going to design school ranging from short academy programs from the Kenzie Academy to the Art Institute. Also, explore the products and software you use, understand what makes them good products versus bad products. What are key patterns that are replicated? What are interactions that are pleasant versus annoying? Having a good understanding of these things will help you learn what to do within your own projects.
What encouragement or advice would you offer to others considering this occupation or wanting to stand out amongst others?
For young students, be curious and learn lots of different types of design. Understand how to solve a problem in a way that is functional and beautiful, and be able to communicate your understanding of how design can be used as a business tool and an art form. Also, remember that your online presence is just as visible as the portfolio that you send – we want to know who you are when we hire people, not just if their work is good.
For current professional designers interested in getting into tech, know that you have a ton of transferable skills already. Take the time to do side projects to learn how to apply your print or web skills to a digital product, and demonstrate to potential employers that you are learning and getting better.