First Hand — Frazer Sparham on moving into UX design straight out of a graphics degree
It often takes time and experimentation to land on the right career path. But for designer Frazer Sparham, the dots connected quicker than most. A then-student on the graphics course at Leeds University, but with a hunch that he was more technically wired, Frazer set his mind to working in digital design. The decision took him from Leeds to Amsterdam during his sandwich year, accumulating plenty of intern experience along the way. Now working as a digital designer at agency Parallax in Leeds, he shares some practical notes on what has helped him make the switch from graphics to digital, and tells us how he knew UX design was the path he wanted to pursue.
UX and UI (especially the UX part) wasn’t commonly talked about while I was studying graphic design at university. Now it’s becoming more and more mainstream, but the way I like to make sense of it, is that it puts the fun in functional. This is also my philosophy for work. The fun being the craft of making beautiful interfaces, and the functional being the craft of making a streamlined experience. Bringing both together creates a seamless experience with the user at the centre of it.
Making the move into UX
When I finished my degree, I was lucky that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, having completed 13 months of internships between my second and third year. The aim of this sandwich year wasn’t just to give us a good footing for leaving university, but help us discover our strengths and weaknesses. I split this time between two different disciplines – branding, at Leeds-based DS.Emotion, and digital, at the award winning Amsterdam-based digital agency Momkai.
There was a lot of risk, of course. Moving to a new country for seven months on a student budget was a huge leap, but I couldn’t have been happier to find that digital was the path for me, and to learn from some of the best Dutch designers. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to jump at all these chances as they were all paths for growth. It also helped that I’d reached out to Parallax, who I found were doing the work I’d like to do, during my final year for a short internship and secured a graduate job at the end of it.
Looking back, I can start to connect the dots and notice points of redirection, and it looks fairly clear that I was heading in this direction. Throughout my education, I always had more of a technical mindset. I always enjoyed subjects like maths, physics and product design, and thought my path would lead me to either to engineering or architecture.
“I’ve come to realise that it takes exploration and graft to figure out what doesn’t work for you, and where you need to be.”
It was only until the UCAS process, then the realisation that architecture takes seven years of study, that I decided to shift to more art-based subjects. I found the craft of graphic design fascinating, and creative subjects seemed more fun and exciting. I’ve come to realise that it takes exploration and graft to figure out what doesn’t work for you, and where you need to be.
On a day-to-day, I’m still doing ‘traditional’ graphics. This is usually designing and artworking assets for a number of social media campaigns that Parallax work on, or crafting interfaces. So I don’t see much divide between graphic design and UX or UI design. We may use different tools to craft our work, but it’s still raising awareness or promoting something, designing for humans and problem solving.
I’m still building on everything I learnt in university. The projects I work on just have longer lifespans and live in the digital space, more than the physical. However, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the rate of change is fast. It’s an interesting time: new tools and ideas are being developed every day in design and tech.
“Go with your gut on what you feel works for you; it will reveal opportunities better tailored to your personality in the long run.”
The more I work on exciting projects, the more I feel there is to learn and discover. I definitely don’t feel like it’ll get mundane anytime soon. For students wanting to branch out into the digital world, I recommend reaching out to people in positions you aspire to, exposing yourself to ideas behind the work, and practising collaboration. Here are the things I’ve found most useful so far:
Brushing up on case studies
Another tip is to read a lot of UX case studies. These can be from agencies you admire. For me this’ll be: Momkai, Bakken & Bæck, Parallax, (naturally) Huge Inc, Ueno, Focus Lab, Stink Studios, and more. But there are a lot of case studies on Medium from designers who find a problem and come up with a solution purely for fun. Not only will this show how they’re written, and the methods used to come up with creative solutions, but it’ll also expand your imagination and highlight ideas that you may have never thought of.
Mastering the tools
This is the same for design tools as well. Currently I’m a big fan of Sketch for both wireframing and designing, as I can layout of every page – desktop, tablet and mobile – in the same file and it’d still be a smaller file size than Photoshop, all the things that make developers happy. Then Principle or After Effects for when I’ve got particularly exciting interactive ideas that I want to portray but can’t do it in words. However, I’m still a firm believer in core design skills, such as coming up with solid concepts and collaborating to come up with solid foundations to build great interfaces on top of.
Researching and documenting in detail
Some of my biggest learnings have been the importance of strategically documenting user research and discovery stages in detail, before launching into making marks or playing with visual styles and layouts. While previously, at the beginning of a project I’d have reached for a pencil and notepad. This is very strategic and may seem slow for someone who just wants to focus on their craft, but enables everybody to take the project one step at a time, and not get a wrong footing in understanding the user’s needs.
Go with your Gut
While some of my designer friends who didn’t go to university are far better at their craft than I am, I found that the journey through university was one of exploration as well as studying and craftsmanship. Especially with a graphics degree as varied as Leeds’. Each brief came with room for us to find out how we wanted to compete it. So going with your gut on what area of design you feel does or doesn’t work for you, will reveal opportunities tailored to your personality in the long run. And if the opportunities don’t present themselves, make them.