Getting Started in Design with Gerry Scullion

Natalia Alessi 'English as a second language & finding your way into a career in Design.'

John Carter
May 19, 2022
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Natalia Alessi 'English as a second language & finding your way into a career in Design.'

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Welcome to a new episode of Getting Stareted in Design, I’m your host Ben Maclaren.

In this episode, I talk to Natalia Alessi, a design lead at the University of Melbourne. Natalia reached out to us to help with some user research after this years Doing Design Festival.

She shared her illustrations from the Festival and I was inspired by her journey to bring her on the show. We talk about some of her experiences and challenges moving to Australia to transition into her design career from another field and how her perspectives on language and culture have influences her journey.  She shares her insights into making design more accessible and common challenges she has seen design students face.

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Episode Transcript

This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
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S1: Hello and welcome to Getting Started in Design, a theme series of the This is eight CD podcast. Our goal is to bring stories and insights from real people about the culture, challenges and opportunities for new and transitioning designers in the field. I am your guest host, Ben McLaren, strategic designer and customer success manager at this is doing AECOM. Home to many of the world's best design and changemaker courses online and based, as you can probably tell in Australia. I really wanted to host a few episodes of the Getting Started series as I believe that sharing stories and what's it's like moving into the design field is crucial to identifying and removing barriers, growing and reflecting on our own practice and supporting other designers. In a few episodes, we may talk about the personal experiences and diaries from the perspectives of gender, ethnicity or age. Whether you're transitioning into design a design student, mentoring new designers or teaching the next generation, we all play a part in supporting ourselves and those around us to grow and learn. Now, today on the show, we have Natalia Alessi, a visual and service designer based in Australia who works as a design lead at the University of Melbourne. We speak about how Natalia got into design. Her experience as a second English speaker, how she transitioned from another field into design as a career, and her perspectives from teaching, observing new design students. I had the privilege of talking to Talia, who has been amazing in sharing her story. Now let's get on with the show.


S2: So I am Natalia. I am a designer. Design. It's a broad term. So what I do in design is I do visual design and I also do service design, mainly those two, and I do some illustration as well. I work in education. I've been working a doing design in education for some years now, and I'm currently at the University of Melbourne working as a design lead as part of the operations group. So basically it's helping staff and different teams across the organisation to improve services using digital platforms.


S1: So how did you get into the design as like field you mentioned you were studying, is that how you first learnt about it? What was your how did you how did you discover something called design and find your way in there?


S2: Yeah, it's a good question. So it was I actually did my masters in communication design and does that I guess it's it's how I got off my Yeah. My foot into design. And yeah, it was basically a career change. I did my degree in communication and work for some years in doing advertising. This is back in my early twenties and then I guess I had kind of a crisis in that I was not feeling that that was enough or that I wanted to continue working as a career in that field. And I actually always thought or I always like to do things with my hands since I was a kid. So that was something that I guess it was in the back of my mind always. So yeah, when the right time came I decided to come to Australia actually and do a masters in design, but also having that experience of living abroad and and learning another language and learning English as well at the same time. So my master was in Australia, I did the Masters of Communication Design, a time I teach in Melbourne, but my degree was back home. I'm originally from Argentina and that's where yeah, that's, that's what I was before coming to Australia.


S1: Was there any barriers for you or what was it like being kind of coming across from abroad, from a place like Argentina? Was there any differences or was there anything, whether it be culturally, linguistically.


S2: All, all together? Yeah, for sure. There is a lot of differences. And then there is also things that are sort of quite familiar. I, I guess, yeah, like the first one is the language one where if you are familiar to speaking in a language, then sort of making your range of think in another language and and also absorbing information and performance on a student. That was definitely something that it was it was different to when I did my degree, but also I guess. Yeah. Also somehow a challenge. Yeah. And then in definitely control as well. There are differences in in every country and that's something that. I guess after ten years of living here, I still find differences or, you know, things you learn every day because. Yeah, because things are basically differential.


S1: What are some of the, I guess, the biggest challenges that you've seen in in those differences? Are there any that you've consistently encountered or any were there any that were like a really big.


S2: Yes, for sure. For example, to to to to give an example of this one challenge that I had when I finished my master's and I was trying to get a job into into the field, it took me a long time and I wish I had that time. I had some mentors or support that could help me because I figured I would sort of create a portfolio that was aligned to what I understood from my home time, how you should be doing a portfolio, how you should present yourself in an interview, where where the things that you should be saying, your attitude and so on. That was something that was very difficult for me and that it took me a while to realize that, you know, not being successful on interviews in the way I would approach companies or agencies to, you know, to introduce myself, etc., that the way to do it, there are codes. That is not something that people would tell you but definitely exist and that they're quite different in every country. So that that was one great challenge I had in terms of like, you know, being in another country that it was on my. Yeah.


S1: What what's the difference, I guess between like how you would interview represent yourself in Argentina versus how may be either in Australia or in that other sort of context?


S2: Yeah. So for example, in back home, your resumé would be one page. And the reason why your resumé would be one page is because the person that would be looking at your CV, it's obviously looking at many. So they want to quickly see why. Like why they should hire you or why they should, like, you know, why you you stand up. And at the beginning I was doing that each year. So I was not including a lot of information because in my mind it was that, well, what I have to include is these key things that I have done. Then along the way I realized that that it was not seen okay here in Australia because um, what, what, what later I learn is that in Australia they want to see how did you went from A to B. So they want to see exactly everything that you have done. They, it does not really matter. It's not so important that it has to be in one page. You can do two or three pages. And here, even for in some cases, depending on what you are applying for, could be fine. So that's that's one thing that it was different and I think it varies in different countries. I was talking with someone in the US and they were telling me, oh, now here in the U.S. you would only encode one page like more is like just too much to read. So that's one. And then in, in relation to that, your attitude in an interview. So for example, back home, if you show yourself or, or if you demonstrate a lot of passion when you talk about your practice, that's it. Scenes at something really good, it's like, Oh, this person is really committed to the practice. And for sure it's going to be, you know, someone that we can rely on and that we can trust that it's it's going to sort of do their best. Whereas I found the here that can be seen sometimes as somewhat emotional and maybe that it's it's not as good because if you are working, maybe it's not it's not so professional sort of to bring so much of your emotions into your workplace. So these are these only some examples.


S1: So is, is, is English your first language.


S2: That's nice from you? Obviously not. And I'm saying obviously not because I know I'm aware that I have an accent. So my my native language is Spanish.


S1: When you talk about design, do you normally talk about it in English or are you able to have those conversations in Spanish?


S2: It's a really good question. You know what? Because I feel that because sort of my designer life has been pretty much in English. And what I mean is I study. The sign in English. And then I got into the feeling English and since like I never sort of had a job in Spanish, that would be the sign. Well, I had a few collaborations, though. But what I was meaning to say is that it's it's a challenge to speak about design in Spanish more than it is in English. What was really this means is that a practice is everything right? Whatever you practice is whatever you would feel comfortable with. And I guess because my practice of design has been pretty much always in English, it's what I feel more comfortable to do. I'm still learning and I think somehow that put me down or that like, for example, like it took me a long time to be confident on an interview or I don't know. Some years ago I would not do what we are doing now. Like it would be extremely terrifying because it would be, yeah. It's basically because we usually don't feel comfortable in, in, in what we don't know or would it's a challenge and, and I guess as well I'm a bit of a perfectionist then. Yeah. And I would be oh you know in Spanish that would be so much easier for me to explain. So the first year definitely was that sort of self-confidence that I had to build or like, you know, accept that, yeah, this is my second language, but I still can communicate. And even if it's not perfect, it's okay. So that took me some years for sure.


S1: What are some of the things that either you yourself found or you wish you had that would help people who either haven't maybe English as a second language, or they come from a different culture or a different area. That would have been really something that would have helped lower those barriers or at least help that process.


S2: Yeah. And so what I would say or what I wish I had or what I would could suggest to someone is having a mentor basically. So and what I mean by this is that there are many things that go to do with working or sort of yeah, having a career in, in design. And I think that maybe this goes beyond design to anyone. I think there are certain things that you learn at the university. If you go to university to study and there are certain things that you would learn if you are a practitioner as you go at work. But there are things that that there is always support that you would need there. There's always going to be challenges that you are facing. And maybe my challenges are not the same as yours may be for you is very easy to speak in front of others. But maybe, I don't know, maybe you are not so good at something that I find easy to do. So having a mentor, I think it's very, it's, it's I recommend it at all. I think it's very beneficial both for for both parties. And usually, you know, it's a space that you can find that is not your class or space or it's not your work. It's a space, but someone that you have somehow a connection with. It could be someone you admire and you can reach out or it could be someone you work in the past and know yourself well that can help you along the way and kind of advice you with the uniqueness of you, if that makes sense.


S1: There's been times where I've looked back and realized that I've had mentors, but maybe I haven't called them mentors, that it's not necessarily as formal as a role as some people often think it is, that almost anyone can be your mentor and that it's more of finding it's finding the right person who knows you who who like believes in you and is willing to give you some of that time, preferably regularly. It doesn't even need to be like, Hey, will you be my manager? It's like, Hey, can I run? Can I let you know what I'm doing? Can you give me some feedback? Can you give me some advice on what I'm doing like that? That's an amazing stop right there.


S2: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And you're right, sometimes we have mentors whom we are not even aware. And I think for me, like, maybe making more conscious that idea, okay, I need and I value someone that can help me in this need that I identify as something that I would like to improve or or something that I don't know I need to work on, etc.. I think that sort of self-awareness is also very important as a designer, something what do we do with that? Right. Well, and I think that's where a mentor comes into hand. And yeah, mentors could be about. But they also could be life mentors. You know, I had someone that suggests me or maybe doing meditation could help you, and it helped me in my life. It was not someone that was sort of. Yeah. In this formal setting. Oh, you are my mentor. And today I'm going to ask you questions. But sometimes also having someone that it's really good at what you do and it's in another level of maturity and creating that a space where you can, I don't know, have whatever a11 hour a month conversation and that continuity, you can see progress. And I think that's another thing that is very beautiful about, you know, having a mentor that or the benefits I being a mentor mentee and like when I'm in TNA I can see a progress of of of someone is so satisfying. It's it's it's really nice to see that's great.


S1: I've definitely I think the power of having a mentor you don't always see it immediately but like when they say something cool like that's exactly it, that's, that's exactly what I was trying to figure out. And that can be such a pivotal moment in, in your career sometimes. So I have a few questions and one of them is something like I was really interested in. I really wanted to hear what your you thought even if there is nothing feels or if it's a bit uncomfortable, feel free to skip past it. But I was wondering, obviously I am a white man, obviously, and that comes with a certain degree of privilege that comes with that from an ethnicity standpoint or your gender and your ethnicity. What was your experience in design with this? Some barriers and.


S2: I like I really like your questions and sort of talking and sharing our experiences around that. I don't know if I would said that I experienced racism. I definitely had felt some judgment or biases sometimes in relation that and I felt it was to do with I was a woman and that my English is my second language. These in I'm talking about work settings. And then I also had the opposite experience, you know, teams or people that were extremely welcoming and and embracing the fact that I was different, not highlighting I was different, but again, embracing and and trying to create teams that were very different in terms of ethnicity but also like careers as well like that. So I also had really good experiences with that. But one thing that sometimes I mention because I always find quite interesting is that, you know, I think that sometimes we do things without even noticing. And I remember when I first came here and I was doing my masters, one thing that surprised me, like I arrived like really naive with this idea that it all started in a different country. I'm going to make a lot of friends and they all want to speak English and they're going to be for Australia. So I'm going to get to make Australian friends. And when I arrive, what I realize is that no one that was Australian was not willing to speak with me, but like, yeah, that they would prefer to speak with other people that go to speak English rather than way to me. And then when we had to do group assignments, I would always kind of be left like I could be the one that no one wants to be with. But what it was very funny is that so in, in, in the classroom context it it was this dynamic. But then on, on the weekends that I would go out with friends or I would be invited to a house party, whatever the fact that I was human and I was speaking a second language, suddenly in another setting becomes super attractive. So everybody would want to speak with me because I had an accent and I was different. But in a more formal setting like university, it would not be cool to speak with me or to engage with me. And I think because I work in universities and sort of familiar with the classroom settings, I think usually in classrooms we tend to connect or to relate to what is similar to us. So I think in there there is. The work that we as designers can can do, I think, to narrow those bridges that exist, because I don't think those things happen because people are racist. I think it's more that we don't have enough tools to know how to sort of navigate the discomfort of speaking with someone that is different to you or that you don't know what to ask or that it you you kind of don't know much about it. And I understand that that can be overwhelming or challenging. And I think that goes also for international students as well. Here in Australia. I'm I'm quite an extrovert. And so somehow that was not a big challenge. It was a little bit. But I do see many, many international students, even when I did or when I was studying that straddles lots. We're sort of engaging in a commercial Asian and that is also translate translated then when they try to find jobs. But I think those are still somehow like tensions that we that I think we can work together to to to get better at it.


S1: I really appreciate you sharing those personal elements and your perspective on that. I'm very new to having these types of discussions, but I find it enlightening and also really just amazing to hear from people like you and and other people. And I feel like it breaks me out of my own experience that often is quite solid. And I came from a very small well, not very small, but a very traditional area up in up in Queensland. And I remember I had never really seen, I think our school had one person who wasn't like your, your, your stereotypical Australian, like someone from that who, whose ancestry came from ethnicity. And I think we had one and that was, and the dynamic back then was it was definitely not the healthiest. But I remember breaking out of that space and kind of being exposed to the incredible and diverse people that seem to be all over Australia, which is which is amazing and people like yourself. So I really appreciate you being open with that and sharing.


S2: Oh, no, I'm I'm glad. And I think that's another beautiful thing about it that I love about these countries, that it gives me the opportunity to really be makes myself weird, all different people from all different places where all different stories are and it's beautiful because I think definitely that it makes me better. Like I, I found that interactions and seeing like listening to stories of others and how different life can be for like, you know, different people. I know. And I found that very inspiring because also then you also find that there are many things that even we can be very different, but there are many things that are pretty, pretty similar and that we all can relate to.


S1: You mentioned so slightly differently. You mentioned you deal a lot with teaching students about design. What are some and given kind of all the stuff we've talked about, are there any common challenges or patterns that you've kind of seen that maybe, maybe happens a lot across those new or those learning designers are people who are getting started in design?


S2: Yeah, I think I think the biggest challenge I see and also like from my practice on service design with the students I know like there is some evidence on that. This is a common challenge. Students in Australia, both local and international face, is transitioning to to an industry. So these there is a gap between right, I'm a graduate and I finish my degree too, or I have a job, I have a secure job, I have a practice. Like, yeah, I think that is still a big challenge. So I think, I don't know exactly this year, but I remember in 2020 like there was something like two years that the average people take about two years to find in a job in their field. After they graduate, they graduate. Maybe that has changed now. I know in our feel like it's design, it's on demand and maybe that has changed a little bit. But I think that's that's a big challenge. And I think also it's it's it comes with a lot of frustration and. Because it's not a word. The students expect that it will happen today when they finish. So in the last year, they are super excited with portfolios and they start to feel confident in in doing design. They find a wall sort of that is difficult to break when when they want or when they try to find jobs.


S1: How would you bridge some of that gap, especially the first one you said they sometimes face a wall. Would you have any recommendations that you've seen? So that works well?


S2: Yeah. Find a mentor. Like I promised that most of my questions go to be find a mentor today. It's like my my mantra of the day. What I mean by find a mentor is I think and you're going to learn that, but you are not gonna learn how to find a job. And in the same way that I was saying at the beginning that I had to navigate these differences when I did my career change here in Australia, I think the same problem is faced for a students. When is the first time that they are going to create a folio and find like search for jobs and understand which ones they can apply and which ones they don't? The other one is that, as we were saying before design today, it's so many things that I think it's also overwhelming for students when they finish their degrees that, you know, you you're still a baby in your field, so you still don't know exactly what what is what you really like about design. That is a bubble that has so many colors and so many different things. And I think that is it also is difficult to find a job because you you still don't know exactly which roles you can do, which roles you want to do, or how those roles could help you to build your career. And so I think these are very difficult things to do in your own essay graduate. So I think again, find in finding a mentor, for example, to find a job, it's something that that I definitely recommend. So I think, yeah, it's also about being curious about what how you can improve or what are the things that you need to know to to get into the industry or to be successful on an interview. I think what helped me now, looking back and thinking how I sort of how it happened. So. Yeah. So one is persistence. Don't think that because you haven't been successful done that. That's an equality. You are not good. That equals error, that you are not a fit in that or there are things about how you are presenting that can be improved. So that's why I like having that persistence. So that's one I think another thing that, that it took me a bit but it but I finally understood that and it was good is not comparing myself with others so it was very common at the beginning for me to think, oh, of course I'm not going to get a job because English is my second language. Or of course, I'm not going to get a job. That person that is in the classroom with me illustrates so much better and so much faster than me. Yeah, of course. Yeah, that happens. Like. But that doesn't mean that you still cannot get a job, or that doesn't mean that it's not out there. That's someone that would see your value, no matter if they know that English is the second language.


S1: Something that I've encountered, and I feel like it's been a theme of advice that I've always given to friends who have who are new to any field, that there are more than one ways to get to a goal. And if your goal is to be a particular kind of person or a particular kind of designer, and you find that one of your roads has been blocked or a door has been closed, that that's just you now know that you can take a different path there. You can find that next step that you need to get to where you're trying to head or that next step that will get you better than you were yesterday.


S2: That also happened way to my illustration practice. I. I never been good at drawing and I never liked drawing. I loved design, but drawing was not my thing. And at some point in one role I was doing some years ago, I was asked I yeah, I was asked to start illustrating things. This is how we do icons and then it transferred, Oh, I like your handwriting. Maybe you can start drawing. And I was like, No, I don't want to do it. I don't want to. I'm bored of these. I cannot do this. I cannot do these. And my manager at that time, which was an inspiring person to me, was pushing me a lot. And today I can say that I'm an illustrator and that is start from a need that a team had that I was going to do something that I didn't want to do, but it was part of my role. I was the visual designer in that team, so if they ask me to draw, I have to draw. And I found I found something very special at the end with that. And it's something that trace it's part of my practice and something I feel proud of I now regret. And I don't beat myself anymore, but I regret that it was moments in my life that I didn't have that openness or that understanding to know that maybe opportunities don't have exactly the shape or the name that you that you put on that goal list. But it is still an opportunity and you don't know where it's going to take you, but maybe it takes you to a better place that what you've had in mind.


S1: So there you have it. That's all for this episode. If you liked this episode, feel free to visit. This is a sitcom where you can access our back catalogue of over 100 episodes with episodes related to service design, product management, design, research, and much, much more. If you're interested in design and innovation training, feel free to check out our business. This is doing dotcom where you can join online classrooms and learn from the world's best design and innovation leaders. Join that. This is eight city newsletter where you receive updates from the network and also, if you're interested, apply to join the Slack community on this exciting AECOM. Stay safe and until next time, take care.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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