Safety and stability are often the main selling points of a desk job. In addition, having a big desk or a corner office brings a sense of importance, even now — just like we saw it in the Suits in the 2010s. But sometimes, with great support, relevant knowledge, persistence and a stroke of luck, switching to a more creative role can become a true success story. This interview is with Niya, previously an Operations Specialist at the U.S. Department of State, Office of Foreign Missions, and currently a Senior UX Designer at National Geographic Society, who doesn’t want to sugarcoat her path to design, but tell it like it is — and, maybe, inspire someone to make a change they wanted for a long time.
Niya Watkins is a Senior UX Designer at National Geographic Society, based in Washington, DC. She combines user research and visual design to create digital products for National Geographic Explorers.
I am a UX/UI designer born and raised in Washington, DC. I studied International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East/North Africa and Sociocultural Anthropology at George Washington University. Currently, I work as a Senior UX Designer at the National Geographic Society. In my role, I combine user research and visual design to create digital products that facilitate the work and amplify the impact of National Geographic’s community of funding recipients, also known as Explorers. In my free time, I love to travel, study languages and scour the internet for vintage artwork.
Traveling has always been a huge part of my life, and even as a child, I loved learning about and being immersed in other cultures. Aside from that, DC is a huge melting pot of people from everywhere. By middle school, I knew I wanted a career that would allow me to travel the world and make a positive impact, so I naturally gravitated to the diplomatic career track.
The thing about me is that once I set my mind to something, I narrow in on that goal. So I landed my first gig at the Department of State after graduating from high school. I interned there for the duration of college and started working there full-time after I received my degree.
It was all pretty random. One day, a family friend happened to mention UX design to me and it sounded so interesting, I decided to do some research. I don’t know how to explain it, but as soon as I discovered UX, I just knew I was meant to pursue it. Ironically, while I had explored the arts as a hobby, I also had a perception that being in a creative field meant I would struggle financially.
I never had much exposure to people in creative industries growing up, so I never really considered it as a serious option. I remember being so amazed to find a career that combined so many of my interests: visual design, technology and anthropology. I’m an overthinker, so it’s kind of wild to reflect on how easy it was to decide to quit my job and switch careers.
I left the government after the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration, and it’s no secret that it was a chaotic time at the State Department. There was a hiring freeze that made it almost impossible to switch positions or get promoted, plus a lot of people I looked up to left the agency during that period. I think in that kind of environment, you start questioning what words like ‘safe’ and ‘grown-up’ even mean. UX started looking better and better after I discovered that it pays well and can be learned through a bootcamp. The government was not where I was supposed to be at that time, so I decided to take a leap of faith.
I was very fortunate to have a very supportive partner at the time who really helped me ride the wave of emotional and financial uncertainty during that period. He even moved in with me so that my savings would last longer and I wouldn't have to give up the co-op I lived in. I am forever grateful for the people who supported me along the way because without them the transition would have been difficult, if not impossible.
Still, it was quite tough on me psychologically. Mind you, I had been consistently employed since I was 16, so to be 25 without a job often felt like a failure. As much support as I had around me, there were still people who questioned why I would leave my ‘good government job’ with no real sense of where I was headed or if I’d be successful. I think it was during that time I realized no matter how well-intentioned, the opinions of others can become noise that distracts you from your goal. ‘Move in silence’ became my personal slogan during those 6 months.
I tried my best to keep up a schedule, work out and eat healthily. Those habits gave me a sense of control and balance. There were many days when I was glued to my computer completing my Designlab course work, so I would set timers to make sure I was stretching and getting fresh air. In those moments when doubt started to creep into my mind, I would find articles or podcasts about designers who had successfully transitioned from other industries.
It was a pretty unique circumstance. After I completed Designlab, I submitted my portfolio to Toptal — a website that showcases design portfolios — and somehow it ended up in an email newsletter that my current manager reads. He invited me to interview for a contract role shortly thereafter. I honestly did not believe it was a real job interview until I was physically at the National Geographic headquarters.
The whole thing lasted a few hours, with multiple rounds of speed interviews where I walked members of the Digital Team through my case studies. I had 15 minutes to complete a design challenge on the spot, which I then presented to the team. I received an offer the next day, and the rest is history.
NIYA WITH COLLEAGUES AND AT HER WORKSTATION. FROM NIYA’S ARCHIVES
From day one, my manager Luke had me creating diagrams, flows and interview scripts for Explorers. It was a little stressful, but it was a great way to be onboarded because I was immersed in the world of my users right from the start. In the first week, we set up a meet and greets with all of my stakeholders who gave me a sense of what the overall vision was for Explorers and funding opportunities at the Society. I also had a Google Drive full of strategy documents, designs and user research to get me caught up to speed.
The first few months at Nat Geo challenged me to confront my imposter syndrome and desire for perfectionism. I had no clue what I was doing, and I learned to be okay with that!
The silver lining of the pandemic is that I was able to realize my dream of being a digital nomad. I’m a permanent remote worker, and it’s been amazing!
I miss hanging out with coworkers and getting the latest issue of the magazine delivered to my desk, but I am much more productive from home. My colleagues are a fun bunch with a lot of interesting conversations, which is a gift and a curse when you’re in an open workspace.
Nat Geo office. Photo from Niya’s archive
The most important and difficult skill I had to learn was asking questions. I call myself an extroverted introvert, but as a UX designer, you have to be an extrovert all the time — with your users, your stakeholders and your developers.
Coming from the State Department where there’s a clear chain of command, I was not accustomed to being in a position to speak up and ask questions, especially not with leadership. Separately, Designlab did a great job of preparing me for a career in design, although I only had a few months' worth of design training under my belt and there were gaps in knowledge on the UI front. I knew how to use tools like Sketch and Figma, but it was at Nat Geo that I learned how to create designs to spec, how to work with a design system and how to use an agile framework.
Thank you! Receiving a Webby award felt like such a personal milestone. The project we worked on is Field Notes, a map-based storytelling platform where National Geographic Explorers share updates about the amazing innovative work they do in the field. I’ve been a fan of Nat Geo photography since I was a kid, so it was an honor to design a product that amplifies that media and the world-changing work that goes hand in hand with it.
I would say the biggest difference is who gets a seat at the table.
In my experience at the Department of State influence was largely determined by age and rank, so as a young woman of color, I had no voice. Also, as with many older institutions, there was a lot of resistance to change and innovation. I was amazed to enter the design space at National Geographic and see how receptive my colleagues were to my ideas and perspective. It was pretty intimidating at first to be taken so seriously, especially by older, more experienced colleagues. The fact that my team and stakeholders not only seek out my input but also encourage me to innovate has given me an incredible sense of empowerment.
Wow, this has been on my mind so much lately. I think for many underrepresented groups in this country following your passion is a luxury. It’s a nice idea, but the reality is that a lot of us are just trying to achieve basic stability. So while a desk job may not be the most exciting or fulfilling, it is sufficient. It’s secure. And that goes a long way when you are from a group that has been historically disenfranchised. Even in my own family, that fear of losing what’s been gained is intergenerational.
It’s a big risk to step away from security, so while I encourage people to pursue their dreams, I completely understand why many people don't.
100%. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Having a career where I am constantly growing and learning has improved the quality of my life in every way.
As professionals in the field, we have to resist the urge to be gatekeepers of knowledge. We all had help along the way in our careers, so it’s important to pay it forward and share our experiences. When aspiring designers reach out to me on Linkedin, sometimes I am tempted to sugarcoat my journey into design, because I don’t want to discourage them from taking the leap. It’s important to be real about the struggles that we have faced as professionals. Obstacles and setbacks are a natural part of the process, and the more open we are about that, the more prepared the next generation will be to handle them.
Try not to get bogged down by the opinions of others. It’s your life, and you know what you’re capable of. If you wanna make that switch, do it!
If you want to tell a story about your career or share your expert opinion, send us a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org