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Renae is the UX Design Lead here at We Write Code, but often steps into development, marketing, and business development roles as well. She has served as a board member for the Art Directors Association of Iowa for the past four years, and a council member of the Iowa State Graphic Design Advisory Council for the past two.

Oh hey there, Renae. We’ve been doing short bios, but let’s switch things off: give us a little interesting fact about yourself.

Oh man, okay. Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a Lego set designer. I admit, it was a very, very specific profession I wanted to go into. At school everyone else was like, “I want to be a doctor!”, “I want to be a teacher!”, and I was like “I want to be a Lego set designer.” It went so far as one day, when we were supposed to dress as the job we wanted to be when we grew up, I didn’t—instead I brought along a bag of Lego bricks. I guess I came pretty close—I design apps, but I also build them.

It seems safe to say that you kind of always knew what you wanted to do!

Absolutely. I was fortunate enough to have my career path pretty narrowed down by the time I was in high school. I knew I wanted to either study graphic design or go into the culinary arts—I love to cook and bake in my free time. I really loved the idea of opening up my own cafe, but as I started looking into culinary arts programs, I realized “Oh, wow, I have to take a lot of chemistry.” Like, a LOT of chemistry. I had also been working at Pizza Ranch and realized the hours wouldn’t be my thing. I knew I wouldn’t want to spend all my nights and holidays away from friends and family, no matter how much I loved my job. 

I had been leading our yearbook for a couple of years at this point, and the success of that experience made me think, “Oh, I can do this with books or magazines.” So I landed on graphic design. 

So you walked into upper education thinking you had it all figured out?

Oh yeah, but I quickly realized design was a WHOLE lot more than that—than just books and magazines. I went to ISU [Iowa State University] and enrolled in their design program. ISU’s program has a reputation for being good, and it lived up to that—you couldn’t even officially enroll in the program until after a full year of classes and a portfolio review. Once you got in, they really made sure you had to learn basic fundamentals no matter what your industry was.

How did development end up in the mix?

I realized early on I had an aptitude for programming. My second year of college we had a required HTML and CSS unit in a class and I kind of latched onto it. It was really satisfying to be able to make something come to life in that way and figuring out how I could animate stuff, or interact with things motivated me to keep learning. I loved watching things evolve in front of me by just writing or adjusting a few lines of code.

I kind of grew into this role in college when I became one of the go-to helpers in the class—one of my TA’s started it. I had spent multiple office hours with him really trying to understand coding HTML & CSS—so when he was trying to teach 20 kids who all had questions at the same time, he would be like, “Oh, Renae, will you go help?” I ended up enjoying it and really learned a lot that way, helping other people solve their problems can only benefit your own growth.

The one problem I had, there was a point where I wanted to be really good at all things design. As I watched my peers get better at illustration, or photography, I would get jealous and think, “I need to get better at that too.” Eventually I realized you kind of can’t; you just can’t do everything on an excellent level. So I decided to sit down and prioritize what was most important to me based on my skillset as well as what I thought I’d enjoy the most. Eventually I said, “I’m going to do web stuff.” Instead of someone else making the interesting things on the web that I thought up, I would do it myself.

I also knew going into the tech sphere was going to be lucrative, so I’m not going to say that didn’t play a part in my decision. I could see the potential and growth—that stability combined with the creativity I wanted is hard to come by.

Renae’s at-home COVID setup isn’t complete without a few cat snuggles thrown into the mix.

What other challenges did you overcome?

I think I had a really “hacky” knowledge of coding…I could get things to kind of work, but I had no idea of any good practices, or professional standards for anything. When I got into the development world and started getting critiques on my code, it would be upsetting to me. I’d be like, “But it works! It looks fine!” But over time I’ve accepted I don’t have a formal development degree or training—I just want to be better. If someone tells me a better way to do a certain thing, I say thank you now. I want to be better. I want to be seen as someone who knows what she’s doing instead of someone who can just make something work.

Do you feel like there’s creative overlap between design and tech?

There are definitely days where I’m like, “Oh man, this [type of site] has been designed a thousand times before.” It’s not all the time, but it happens. When I get a new project, I try to think, “What is the most beautiful form this can take?” If it is something that can’t be really pushed or explored, that’s okay. Ultimately, I want to give people the most beautiful thing that they need, not that I want. If a crazy, wacky experience is not right for a medical application, that is okay. If people want a cool experience and come looking for that, that is when I get the most excited. 

One of the biggest barriers with being creative in tech is simply resources. Creating something fantastic can take a lot more time and energy than one would expect, and I’m definitely guilty of designing a great experience that might be a pain in the ass to develop—I’ve literally done it to myself. When I’m getting started, I try to think of what form I want a project to take before I think about technical limitations. After that, I need to figure out what compromises are available to me and what is just not worth it. I lean a bit on my own development knowledge for that, but looping in other developers early for feedback can give me even more clarity, and also get their blessing before a wild design lands on their plate—”Sorry, you have to build this now.”

What’s the importance of design within tech? Why take the extra time and resources to make something pretty?

It’s not just about making something pretty, it’s about making something usable. Accessibility is important to me and I try to build it into everything I do. It’s tough, though, because it can add cost, but the cost is worth it. If it’s accessible, it’s most likely usable. It benefits the UX of your site or application—not just as a checkbox to make sure you’re marking off a certain demographic, but overall. I try to think of making a “minimum lovable product” instead of a “minimum viable product”—if your users aren’t loving it, they’re likely not going to stick around.

Not many people are designers AND developers. What makes you different?

I sincerely think anyone can do what I do; I’ve never considered myself to be “special” in any kind of way. I take a lot of pride in my work—almost to a fault—but I think anybody who has a serious want to create can do it. I won’t lie and say it’s easy, but if you’re a designer looking to add code to your toolbelt, then I am your biggest supporter.

I do want to say that I don’t think that every designer has to code. You see it asked for, debated, expected in a lot of cases, and I’m like, “Hmm…not necessarily.” I don’t want anyone feeling forced to do it. It’s a great skill to have, but play to your strengths—whether that’s illustration, typography, animation, photography, coding, or something else. That being said, you’ll likely end up designing a website at some point in your life. Being able to speak in development terms and ask the correct questions in a dialogue with a developer is invaluable to save you not only time or money, but frankly the integrity of your designs.

Code isn’t as scary or unapproachable as it might seem, and developers aren’t as scary or unapproachable as the stereotype puts off. Every developer I have interacted with or talked to has been willing to hold my hand and guide me along. Forming relationships with people I consider mentors was such a big thing in guiding my career. Being able to ask them questions without fear, getting their input and feedback…it was, and is, so helpful. My recommendation? Find a developer friend; they might want a design friend too!