In a world where much of our communication is mediated through computer screens, it’s almost expected that most of the new people we meet are found through the internet. Many of the most memorable people I’ve met over the past year have been mentors I’ve found through ADPList, from professionals with unique stories to designers with viewpoints that have influenced the direction I want to take my career in. David Luong is one of these mentors, and I chatted with him to find out more about what he loves about mentorship, how to stand out as a designer, and how to avoid regret in life.
My name is David and I’m a product designer by day working at Shopify. I’ve been working in product and UX design for the past three years. I help out career searchers, new grads, and students chase after things that they might not know exist or might not believe that they can chase. That is something that I’m pretty passionate about. I live in Toronto, but I originally grew up in Paris, before I moved to Australia to learn English and then eventually moved over to Canada after that.
Yeah, I want to live in San Francisco. I know it’s a pretty generic answer as a tech person, but I think that it suits my ideal needs. I love nature. I think San Francisco has a good balance of both being very professional in its own way, especially in tech, but also has a lot of natural beauty in its own right as well. I’d probably like to go back to Paris to live there for a bit too.
I’ve always been a creative person. Math and things that required a lot of logic were not my cups of tea. I was much more geared towards things that are an expression of something. I originally wanted to go to school for architecture because that’s the only type of design that I knew of. Having grown up and lived in Paris, surrounded by beautiful architecture, it’s very natural for someone to gain interest in that. I got rejected from architecture school when I applied for it, so I went into geography and environmental management because it had some similar aspects. But two years into it, I realized it wasn’t for me. No, I couldn’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life, there was no way.
“Design is the intersection of tech, business, and creativity, which is where I want to be.”
One day, I was talking to a friend of mine, who’s a software engineer, and he said I should take a look into UX design. At the time, I thought what is that? I looked into it more and more, and I thought, this sounds really cool. It’s the intersection of tech, business, and creativity, which is where I want to be. I decided to transfer schools and specialize in interaction design, and that’s where I got started. It was just by someone just telling me, you should take a look into this, and recognizing that there are all the things I want to be working in.
I feel like a lot of people have these kinds of stories now, those little moments where they are looking for something and just stumble upon it, but they happen at different places in their lives. What would you say is the most rewarding part of mentorship to you? Why do you do it?
The most rewarding part of it for me is being able to be a part of someone’s journey and seeing the people that I talk to get to where they really aspire to be. I especially love it because you get a variety of students, new grads, and career-switchers. Career-switchers have the hardest time because they always think that they’re behind in life, they don’t have the skillset, they never went to formal education. It doesn’t seem possible for them. They have the mindset of, yes, I want to be there, and I want to do that, but everything in between now and then is impossible for them. I want to be that person that tells them, “Listen, you don’t need to do all these things at once, let’s do it step by step, and eventually you’ll get there.” There’s nothing blocking your way aside from yourself, really.
It’s almost inertia-based. For people in school, you get a first-time design job, you’re on the upward trajectory, but career switchers are redirecting from another place or speeding up from zero miles per hour. People are less willing to take a chance on you if you don’t have quote-unquote “potential” like someone right out of school, but that’s another issue at play.
“Although people know there’s something better out there for them, they don’t go for it because they don’t believe that they can do it. I want to be that person that says, you can.”
There is a different perception of it. And, unfortunately, it is what it is. But at the end of the day, it’s not impossible, right? There are things you can do to break it. There’s always a way.
I like being the hype man. Because I feel too many students these days are fixated on the idea that there’s only one path for them. Although they know there’s something better out there for them, they don’t go for it because they don’t believe that they can do it. But I want to be that person that says, no, you can. You just have to do this thing and this other thing and it’s gonna be amazing.
When people come to me for mentoring, they’re usually stuck on something, and they’re trying to find ways to navigate it. Providing that influence in terms of the mental shift of that things are possible, regardless of how impossible it seems, is rewarding to me.
The most common thing that I always get when I’m mentoring is how to stand out? 90% of the time, it’s gonna come up. Or it’s an indirect version of that question. How do I apply? How do I get into the job?
I strongly believe that the technical aspect of the design isn’t the bar of entry. Learning Figma is not that difficult. Visual design? Sure, that might be a little bit more difficult, but you can practice it. That’s not the hard part, and that’s not what is going to set you apart from other candidates.
“It’s really about leaning into, not who you are as a designer, but who you are as a person and using that as leverage.”
What will set you apart though, is leaning into yourself, your personal experiences, and the motivations behind why you’re doing something. It’s not about how good your technical design skills are. It’s about how you approach problems. How do you think about the conflict? What are your values and how do those feed into your design work and your professional life? And you should always play into that because everybody is different in those aspects, everybody will have their own way of approaching a particular problem or have variations of what they find important.
Today, the candidates are so saturated. And what I mean by that is everybody’s the same, the portfolios look exactly the same, the tagline looks exactly the same. Everybody is super excited to do clean, minimalistic design and go through human-centered design methodologies, it’s so cookie-cutter. And 100%, you’re not gonna stand out like that, you’re just blending in with the rest. So what do you do? What CAN you do?
Well, the only thing you can do is just be unapologetically yourself. And that’s how you stand out. Again, there are multiple ways to go about that. But it’s really about leaning into, not who you are as a designer, but who you are as a person and using that as leverage. It’s actually not hard to stand out these days because everybody is doing the same thing. So the moment someone does something different I’m going to remember that person for sure.
Another rule that I really enjoy is the one percent rule. If you’re trying to achieve something, for example, build a portfolio. It’s very difficult and takes a long time. The one percent rule is just working on it one percent at a time, one percent a day. It can be as little as opening up your browser, creating a link, you’re done. Over the course of, let’s say, six months, that’ll be a lot. Most of the time, you end up doing more than that anyways, but the expectation in your head should be as long as I just do one percent, or one little thing that moves the needle a little bit, that’s okay with me. Once you accept that, it just takes this giant weight off your shoulders. It’s not a matter of doing the bare minimum every single day, it’s more about the consistency so that you don’t get bogged down when you don’t finish a portfolio in a week because that’s super difficult and unrealistic.
It seems a lot of these lessons are geared towards breaking down these mental barriers that people put up themselves that prevent them from getting places.
I think people need to break down their goals to very granular levels in order to really find their groove in terms of doing those things. If their expectation is to complete this enormous task by a certain date, then it’s overwhelming. They just end up not doing it at all. But if you tell yourself every single day, I’m going to write a single sentence every single day, it’s very easy to do, and in a month you have something pretty good. And it really wasn’t that much effort on a day-to-day basis, but it definitely goes a long way.
When I’m having trouble facing a hurdle, it’s usually because I’m too close to it. For me, it’s always taking a step back and figuring out all the different perspectives that are happening. It’s about figuring out the root causes of the problem, where is this coming from? Is it really a problem? Realistically, it’s usually a tiny little bump and it’s just a matter of adjusting here and there. When you’re too close to something, you will be blinded. That’s for sure.
I would say trust your intuition. Especially in design where there needs to be a balance of intuition and research. If your intuition is telling you something, then it’s most likely because you’ve experienced it before. It’s kind of a gut feeling. You can’t rationalize or explain it properly, but you should always trust it. And if it doesn’t work out, then at least you tried it.
When it comes to career, life, and work in general, avoid regret as much as possible. I recently talked about this with a friend of mine, we were trying to figure out where regret comes from. Turns out, it’s when you have a gut feeling and you don’t follow it. That’s when the regret sets in because you won’t stop thinking about it until it’s proven right or wrong. So trust your gut, is what I would say. I did that, multiple times, it’s always worked out to have those moments. Two and a half years into my degree, I switched schools entirely, and when you tell your Asian parents that you’re about to switch programs to design, and they have absolutely no idea what that is, it’s definitely not what they want to hear. Everybody that was telling me, no, you shouldn’t do that, that’s garbage, you’re not going to get anywhere. I wasn’t getting any support at all. But I did it anyway because I knew that I was going to regret it if I didn’t do it. It’s worked out pretty great for me.
The second time that’s happened, what I will remember forever, is when I actually moved over to Shopify. I was in a full-time role, I had a great roadmap and professional career at my old agency, where I had the possibility of becoming a senior designer fairly soon. But I said I’m gonna move over to Shopify as an intern. Many people questioned me asking: Why would you move over from a guaranteed full-time position to an internship where you don’t know where you’re going to be in six to eight months?
That’s how they’re framing it. But in reality, there’s a big difference between what it sounds like, and a real reason for what you’re doing.
I told them that if I didn’t take it, I would regret it. And I’d rather much go with my gut and be proven wrong than not go at all.
“If you don’t know what you love, try things until you figure that out, because that will serve as the absolute foundation for why you’re doing something.”
The thing that I want people to understand is that you will never be ready to do something. It pains me to see people that always say, I’m going to apply when I’m ready. Whatever it is, you’re never going to be ready, right? So you might as well jump in now, and don’t let anyone stop you.
One final thing that I will say is, whatever it is that you’re going to do, make sure that you believe in it and that there’s a meaning behind it. If it’s just another job, you will burn out very quickly, because there’s nothing that will be fueling you, and that’s not sustainable. If you don’t know what you love, try things until you figure that out, because that will serve as the absolute foundation for why you’re doing something. It’s not easy to find something that you’re truly passionate about and stick with it. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve been able to quickly identify when I need to switch it up and find something else. So do it with passion or just don’t do it at all. And I really believe that.
Book a call with David on ADPList here: https://www.adplist.org/mentors/david-luong