Emily’s Career in Design So Far: From Industrial Designer to Global UX Lead

With a background in industrial design, Emily already had a wealth of experience under her belt before deciding to shift her focus to UX/UI design. Since graduating from CareerFoundry, she’s worked as global UX lead at Avon Cosmetics, become a CareerFoundry mentor, and has recently moved on to a new role as service design director at computer software company, Pegasystems. Here’s her story.

by Alison Lightfoot on 17 November 2021

Emily Lai, service design director and CareerFoundry graduate

It’s always fascinating to catch up with our graduates and hear how their lives have changed since CareerFoundry. In August 2021, we were fortunate enough to host a panel discussion with Emily Lai—an industrial designer turned global UX lead. In this hour-long live event, Emily told us how she navigated a career change to stay relevant in the design industry, shared her networking tips during the job search phase, and explained how she handled the additional challenges of changing careers during a global pandemic.

You can watch the full discussion in this video, hosted by Ashley, Senior Career Specialist at CareerFoundry, or keep reading for the highlights.

Originally from Hong Kong, Emily moved to the US after finishing her school studies, where she studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Cleveland, Ohio. She was lucky enough to get a place on the competitive Industrial Design program. Design seemed like a natural study path for Emily, given her creative mindset and love of art as a child:

“It sounds very cliché, but when I was a kid I started to draw before I knew how to walk. So I always knew I wanted to do something with my art skills, and so when I went to study industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I thrived there.”

Attending one of the top design schools in the country had its benefits. During her time there, Emily worked hard to secure internships at Ford Motor Company and Lear Corporation in Michigan, and Milai Corporation in Tokyo, gaining valuable experience to kick-start her career in design.

As Emily recalls her first taste of the design industry, it’s almost hard to believe how much experience she accumulated in the first few years of her career. Her passion and drive to learn more about the industry is commendable. The more she learned about design, the more she craved to learn about design thinking, and so she went back to Hong Kong to obtain a graduate degree in design strategies from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University:

“It opened up a lot of opportunities because I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, so when I started working in Hong Kong, I quickly became a manager and I was able to work with a lot of really amazing companies and with a lot of really talented designers.”

Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Unilever, and Phillips are just some of the clients Emily worked with while working at a product design consultancy in Hong Kong. However, while thriving in the industrial design industry, Emily made an important observation that changed the course of her career path:

A quote from Emily about her career change journey

Emily started the UI Design Program in January 2019 and graduated in October that same year:

“CareerFoundry came up amongst many other famous school names when I started searching for an online course. The job guarantee really stood out to me. I also liked the one-to-one mentorship model and the fact that I could study in my own time, while still working full-time.

I selected the UI Design Program because for me, transferring from industrial design, there were some areas of UX that I was already familiar with, like human-centered design, but UI was a gap in my skill set. However, to make sure I had chosen the right program, during the 14 day trial period I inquired about the course material for UX from the CareerFoundry team, who were a great support to make sure I was on the right path.”

I’ve made it all sound fairly logical so far, but it’s important to note that Emily’s career path hasn’t actually been all that smooth.

Having met her partner in Bali, Emily decided to move to London where he was working as a medical doctor in a hospital. She left her job as design director in Hong Kong and planned to use her relocation for some much-needed time off from work to relax, travel around Europe, and get married! So far so good…

The wedding was due to take place in Macedonia, where her husband has citizenship, so Emily arrived in the country first in early March 2020 while her husband was still working in London. But, as Emily began collecting the documents to legally marry in Macedonia, things took a turn for the worse. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, flights were grounded and lockdowns commenced all over the continent:

“Out of all the different experiences I have been through in my life, I have to say this was the most hopeless moment. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t speak Macedonian. I was staying with my in-laws who didn’t speak English. I had a job offer waiting for me in London, but I was afraid they wouldn’t move forward with it because of the pandemic. In my heart, I couldn’t help but think, all these studies I’ve done, all this hard work I’ve put in, and all this experience I have, I don’t know what to do next or what will happen.”

This point of Emily’s chat with Ashley really stood out to me, serving as a valuable reminder that no matter how successful you are, sometimes life still gets in the way. The pandemic has, of course, been challenging for people all around the world, for both personal and professional reasons, and for Emily, it was a complicated mix of both. And I think it’s an important part of her story to share, because the way she proceeded to handle one of her life’s biggest curve-balls is nothing short of inspiring:

“For about two weeks, I was just extremely depressed. I don’t use that word often, but it really describes how I felt when I was stuck in Macedonia. I cried, I just let all my emotions and all my frustration out, thinking “Why me?” I think you need to let that emotional side out first and then you can move forward.”

And then, Emily began to use her newfound free time as a force for good, as a chance to get organized, and network:

“I didn’t know how long I was going to stay in Macedonia. So every single day I put myself to work on my website. I updated my résumé. I started networking with people in my industry and outside of it, and not necessarily just talking about work. I wanted to know what other people were going through in this particular time in the industry. I even started a Facebook support group for expats stranded in Macedonia!”

Moving on from a tough few months in Macedonia, Emily finally made it to London with a strong mentality and motivated mindset. She spent seven months in the job searching phase before securing her role with Avon.

Recommended reading: Michael’s Career Change From Graphic Design To UI Design: How I Found A Job During Covid-19

At this point in the webinar, Emily shared some very detailed insights into her approach to job searching:

“I developed a system. I would look at how many cover letters and applications I had sent out and note how many of those had turned into an interview. From there I’d figure out how many interviews had turned into a solid opportunity,  and from those how many would actually yield a job offer. Looking at it purely from this angle meant I didn’t even think about rejection. I just thought, OK, well I sent out 25 this week, I will need to send out 100 to get maybe ten interviews.” 

Sending so many applications was surely time-consuming, so Emily also found a way to speed up the process:

“I developed a way to write my cover letter quickly. I would highlight key words in the job post and I would compare them to different companies and see which are the most important keywords for these types of roles. I would put them into Excel to compare them. I found it was a very good way of keeping track of my progress.”

Ashley asks an important question to Emily at this point in the conversation: how did you keep a positive mindset during this gruelling process? As you’d maybe expect by now, Emily is immediately ready to offer some practical advice and share her coping mechanisms with others. Yoga and meditation are part of her toolkit, serving as positive reinforcements that have become part of her daily routine. On the topic of interview advice, Emily offers:

“Before every interview, spend five to ten minutes just beforehand prepping yourself, almost like you are self-pitching to yourself! Repeat mantras like you’ve got this, you’re great at this. You can even read it from a script, but make sure you say it out loud. Tell yourself these things, because it’s so important before the interview that you are confident; no one wants to hire someone that does not appear confident.”

And it clearly worked for Emily as she landed a role in UX at Avon Cosmetics! When the opportunity came around, she was also interviewing with three or four other companies, but Avon appealed to her because they immediately asked her to complete a task. This was good news for Emily:

“I love tasks during the hiring process because I can spend as much time as I want on it, to show them I really want this job and I really know what I’m talking about.” 

A quote from Emily about her career change journey

After completing her task, Emily interviewed with the design manager, developers, and a director at Avon and landed the job. And we couldn’t be happier for her, especially considering all the effort she threw into her job search! Working as global UX lead, Emily spills all about a typical day for her and how much she achieved in her first five months working at Avon:

“I talk to the product owner, developers, and product manager a lot, to understand the business needs in terms of what we’re trying to do and also understand from the research department what kind of user feedback we collect. From there I will start creating wireframes and the workflow. Avon has its own ecosystem and style guide, so I’ll check everything is in line with the guidelines, before working with the UI designer so they can fill in the content inside of the wireframes I’ve created. With their help, I’ll communicate with the developers to understand, for example, if a component needs to be built natively, or if we have something in a library that’s already made. Since I joined, we have done a lot of new things. I’ve also done a new dashboard and new submenu, and I feel like I have basically changed the entire visual of Avon, and it’s only been, what, five months?”

Very impressive! It’s great to see that Emily’s hard work and dedication to design is presenting her with amazing opportunities to shape the industry. Since the panel discussion with Ashley in August 2021, Emily has secured a new role as service design director for Pegasystems, a computer software company. We wish her all the best in her future career.

Want to know if a career in design is right for you? Try your hand at UX or UI and sign up for a free, introductory, short course.

If you’d like to know more about how you can get a new job in tech, we can recommend speaking with one of our program advisors.

by Alison Lightfoot on 17 November 2021

About the author

Alison Lightfoot

Originally from northern England, Alison’s marketing background ranges from gaming, to sports, to the arts. When she’s not writing about CareerFoundry’s inspiring alumni, she can be found doing yoga, reading a weird book, or exploring new restaurants and cafes around Berlin.