How to transition from Graphic Design to Product Design? - Lakshmi Deshpande

Lakshmi leads Design at XR Lab, Tata Consultancy Services. She aids product teams and stakeholders to view Extended Reality (XR) experiences through a human-centric lens. As a Spatial Storyteller, she creates compelling experiences through user empathy for a wide range of immersive experiences- 360 virtual tours, Augmented, Virtual, Mixed Reality, Spatial Audio and Digital Humans, to name a few.

Q: How did your journey start as a designer?

I started my journey in visual communication, after graduating from Symbiosis Institute of Design, Pune. Post that, I did my Master’s in visual communication from IDC School of Design and joined TCS where I was given a visual communication designer role in the UX team.

Q: What were your day to day responsibilities as a designer?

The international designers in our team did the requirement gathering - they talk to all concerned stakeholders and get the requirements from them. Post that, they created wireframes which came to me and I would think of how to best represent the UI mock ups, keeping all the context and cultural implications in mind. I followed it up with the design-developer hand off, who would work on the back-end, packaging it for release.

Q: How and when did you transition from a visual designer to a product designer?

I used to write blogs on my experiences as a designer and that’s where my current boss noticed me. He approached me asking where I’m at and if I would be willing to move to XR (Extended Reality). At that point, I had a very superficial understanding of what XR was. Although I’d heard about AR and VR, I’d thought that that it’s only use-cases were in Hollywood movies. Post some research, I realised that it also has many real life applications.

Q: How did you stand-out as a designer?

The corporate world is very different. When I got into UX, I realized that the knowledge required to deliver in a corporate setup is quite different from what you learn in schools and colleges. Hence it’s important to have really good mentors when you’re starting off, otherwise, you feel a little lost. Making brilliant designs is not visual design, you have to tick other boxes as well like specifications, context, and aesthetics which is subjective to every client. You principally have to be in their shoes, think from their perspective and how they’re going to perceive it. These things are not written in any books, it’s only through experience that you get to learn these things.

Q: How was that journey from someone doing very specific work of taking wireframes to getting into a position where you’re dictating the future for TCS and their customers?

The journey has been absolutely rewarding. I used to take a lot of directions in my previous work, but not much has changed since I’ve become the lead to be very honest, because I think it’s a lot more responsibility because you’re thinking of not only the stakeholders, but also how to communicate the requirements and get work done from the team. I think my biggest learning has been people management. It’s extremely hard to work with humans and get work done. It’s tough to communicate your vision to someone else, make them understand it and produce what you’re expecting. Every role has its challenges, being a leader doesn’t mean you just sit on the throne and throw out orders, you also have to do the work along with the team.

Q: How did you upskill and what impact has it made in your journey?

Upskilling is essential. You can’t just tell people to teach you. You have to read aggressively so that you can communicate and discuss those things with the subject matter experts. For instance you read about some design principles, then go to one of your seniors or anyone on your team who was an expert in that particular field and discuss it with them. This is how you build opportunities in your career.

Q: What do young designers lack in terms of hard and soft skills as a designer?

The pandemic has affected the campus life for all the young designers out there. The idea exchange between professors an students is missing. Hence what I have observed is that they seek a lot of direction for even small bits of things. It’s very important in the creative field that you give space to everyone to let their ideas flow without stiffing them in with your vision. You have to bring your own thoughts, you have to bring your own visuals, you have to bring your own creativity to the table. I have observed that they are overwhelmed by this information all around them and hence are too scared to be wrong.

Q: As you’re moving away from being an individual contributor to a leadership role, how have you kept your sense of craft alive? How do you keep that sense of newness, especially with visual design?

It’s very important to keep your eyes and ears open to stay inspired. The primary activity that you can do before starting any project is to go through a lot of sites and take inspiration from what’s out there. I used to doodle a lot and have a slightly quirky style of doodling where I used to, just draw out my thoughts, color them and send them out across the team. Doodling really helped me with my creative process. Lastly, it’s also essential to sit in a space that inspires you. Sit in a light room where you have a lot of visuals pasted on walls or your surroundings or on your desk. You never know if some inspiration might strike when you look at certain shapes or in typography or colors.

Q: What skills did you notice were transferable when you transitioned from visual design to product design?

I think over the years, it gets a little easier and harder at the same time, because you’re not only looking at your own work and improving yourself. As a design lead, you’re also supposed to pull everyone else up. You have to ensure that your team is doing well and transitioning to the next level being responsible for their growth, as well as yours. In terms of knowledge of the subject, I think it gets easier because you know how it works. You’re able to predict what the next step will be. The approach to a specific problem is now embedded in your mindset. So you can draw upon that knowledge and tackle anything new that comes your way.

Q: What advice will you give to someone who is just starting out?

For anyone who’s starting out first identify what you’re really good at. That’s how you will understand your USP. Ultimately, when you’re being hired, you’ll be onboarded because you’ll bring something unique to the table which no one else can. We want each individual to bring in something unique that no one else has thought of, maybe it’s your thought process, maybe it’s the way you execute things, maybe it’s the way you interact.

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