I’m a 24-year-old designer from Grand Rapids, MI. I’ve spent the last four years working for an IT consultancy doing marketing design, and I am now doing UX design in the blockchain space.
Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I’m Somalian. My dad came to the US in 1987, settling in New York City. My mom and older sister followed shortly after. In 1993, I was born and went on to spend my early life in Harlem. My family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2002. People always ask why my family chose to relocate. My aunt and some cousins came to America around then, and they settled in Michigan. We didn’t have immediate family in NY, so that was nice. Harlem was also rough, the schools weren’t great, and there was always this sense of fear for my family. I remember we had so many locks on our door and my parents never let us play outside. I missed NYC at first, but having been in Michigan much longer now, I’ve come to appreciate it.
I was blessed with the opportunity to attend one of the most diverse high schools in the country - East Kentwood HS. As a young kid, I hated being different. It goes without saying that Somali culture is drastically different than its American counterpart. Navigating those worlds, constantly explaining things to classmates and teachers was hard. In high school, I met people who also had that struggle. It bonded us and helped me understand that being “different” is cool. That was a great dynamic to have, especially during those teenage years.
My favorite thing to do in those days was to make funny videos and make music. I’ve always enjoyed connecting with people that way, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Back then, I thought I was going to end up being a film director or work in the music industry. And I believed in that idea until about my second year into college.
I went to a local school, Grand Valley State University. I told myself I’d do a year there and then transfer to Emerson College in Boston to study film.
Now, this next part is kind of cheesy tech boy dream stuff, but it is what happened. My sophomore year, I was gifted Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. It had never occurred to me how impactful technology was to the world. I had always just been a consumer of it and never really saw the world of technology as a possibility for me. I also started to apply for internships at the time. One application after another, I finally heard back from a tech company in my city. I was like, yo; this could be tight. I wanted that job and was fortunate to land a marketing intern at Open Systems Technologies, where I worked for the remainder of my college years until I transitioned into a full-time role when I graduated. Not at all what I had planned as a kid, but was incredibly thankful because working there brought me into technology, a world I became so fascinated with.
How did you first get interested in design?
It all began for me in the MySpace days. You know, I just wanted to be cool. I used to see these animated pictures people would make of themselves, customized layouts and stuff. I was like, I need that. A good friend of mine told me about this program called Photoshop. I pirated it so I could make GIFS of myself and banner images for my profile. I kept using it but just thought of it as a complementary skill to other things I wanted to do. I loved video, so I used it to make beautiful graphics for that. I made music, so I made album artwork on it and so on. I went on to learn other Adobe software like Illustrator and InDesign in high school and college, but never took it seriously.
I didn’t understand how design applied to things like technology until I started working at Open Systems Technologies. I was introduced to the world of web design, UX, app design and so on. Saying that seems crazy because apparently, I knew that web design existed, but didn’t know the possibility of that world.
Tell me about the work you've done?
At Open Systems Technologies, I did a lot of marketing design. An amalgamation of infographics, presentations, technical diagrams, digital ads, print ads, email, etc. All of those mediums bring different constraints and challenges so it was a great way to enhance my design ability. I’ve also designed an app called Nect, which helps people connect friends to friends. A recent project was a proposed a redesign for a digital currency desktop wallet app. And some websites in between.
What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?
During college, I was excited about the idea of trying to help create more friendship. It led me to Nect, a project I was extremely passionate about for some years. It took a LONG time to see it come to fruition. It finally did, though, at the end of 2017. I was proud of the ability for me and my friend Andrea Houg (iOS Developer) to stick with it for so long and complete. Finishing things is important to me.
What have been your biggest struggles of your career?
Letting lack of preparation be the enemy of change. I’ve always felt that to make the transition from marketing to UX designer meant more experience and that I wasn’t ever talented enough. I slowly stopped believing this fallacy, but it was a real struggle to get over this and just do something about it.
What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers?
Honestly, what I am about to say isn’t unique, because any can do it, but truly immersing myself in the blockchain world. Blockchain technology will rearchitect the world as we know it. It’s going to take tons of brilliant designers, but design alone won’t be significant. An accurate understanding of its implications and how to stay true to the mission of making decentralized systems that genuinely benefit everyone.
What have your experience been as a person of color in the design industry?
I’m in a unique position these days. One of the co-founders of Storj (the company I’m at now) is Shawn Wilkinson, 25-year-old African American. Among a few other people of color, I get to work with. These folks are super intelligent. It’s been cool learning from them.
In my past role, I found myself typically being the only person of color. Also, being a tech consultancy in the midwest, the folks we were marketing to were rarely people of color either. I felt disconnected quite a bit in that way. I never honestly grasped the opportunity to be 100% me entirely. I just never thought that the environment was for it. Thinking about doing this for an extended period, you sort of limit your potential and growth if you’re not operating at 100% of who you are.
What are your biggest motivators?
Super poly-annaish, but just doing good for the world, man. Learning and creating things that help move the world forward. What excites me about Storj is that we need to re-think how we handle data. Today, we share information, create content, all to make the Facebook’s and Google’s of the world more profitable. Why do they own information that we create? We should retain the value that this data creates. Decentralizing storage is how we start. This is going to be great for us.
How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?
My family doesn’t understand it. My friends think I just make things look cool haha. I like to think they’re still pretty proud though.
What do you love most about working in design?
Not knowing what I’m doing. Seriously. I mean, you just walk in with open ears. Listen, immerse. Learn from people. Learn from others. Just continually gathering and understanding are exciting to me.
What would you like to see changed about the design field?
People do feel that it’s much more inclusive. That it isn’t limited to designers. Design to me is merely looking, understanding and making. Learning from people, asking questions reframing problems, and uncovering insights that help us come up with solutions. This work isn’t limited to people like me. I’d love this mindset to be adopted everywhere. Especially in education, from a young age.
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
The spectrum of what design is needs to be better communicated. Back to my last point, kids need to be learning design thinking from a young age. The age of memorization and regurgitation are over. Google can do that. We need to teach kids that we need thinkers and problem solvers. And that problems solving isn’t just related to building apps like Facebook, but everything from music, sports, to racial inequity. And the solutions aren’t just apps. Design is huge. And we need to help each other in this way. We cannot continue to rely on folks who don’t understand us (as well as we do) to solve problems for us.
What are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself?
Nothing specific at the moment, just all in on work at Storj.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you'll stay in design?
I hope to stay in design. Or at least working with a design mindset. 5-10 years down the line, I just hope to be helping move the world forward. And not in some consumerism, help the CEO get richer kind of way, but helping us collectively gain somehow.
What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds who are in design or hoping to get into it?
Don’t let lack of preparation be the enemy of change. Some people will offer to help you along the way, lean in and appreciate it a lot. Some people will curve you, don’t take it personally, people are just busy. At the end of it all, the work just has to be put in. Go get it.