Why I Started a Career in UX Design as a Math Major | by Eric Chung | Nov, 2022

Reflecting on the aha moments that led me to become a UX designer

An asian woman smiling in front of a whiteboard with wireframes drawn on it.
Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

I almost got kicked out of university.

Unlike many designers, I started my career journey studying math. As if I hadn’t studied enough calculus and algebra in high school, I chose to major in mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

As a teen, my parents sent me to extra-curricular math classes on Saturdays and I was already studying three grades ahead.

I guess that’s how I got so good at solving problems.

But math ain’t no joke when it comes to Waterloo. They even hang a giant pink tie on their math building because that’s how important math is.

A giant pink tie hanging on the side of a grey building.
The pink tie hangs proudly on the Mathematics and Computer building at the University of Waterloo.

I still remember spending days at the library, eating vending machine snacks and trying to finish my assignments on a Friday night before the midnight deadline.

But somehow I made it through my first semester, and barely passed my midterm exams during second semester when I received a letter from the school.

It wasn’t congratulating me for having a great year. It was a warning to get my act together or get kicked out.

Aha moment: a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension (that makes you go Aha!)

At this point, I had been studying so hard, but for what? My grades were bad and I definitely didn’t want to become a mathematician in the future.

I was losing motivation and seriously considered dropping out of school.

Then one day, in the cafeteria of my residence, I saw my friend working on a project for one of her digital arts classes.

A woman wearing orange headphones and a red and black checkered flannel works on her laptop.

She was using Photoshop to create a digital portrait of herself. I was intrigued.

She told me that she was studying to become a designer. Back in the day, I used to play around with Paint.NET just for fun, but she’s doing this as a career? My mind was blown.

I had just experienced my first aha moment.

A student club that I was a part of posted a few options for their logo on Facebook. They asked people to vote for their favourite one, which would be printed and sold on a sweater.

Wanting to be creative, I drew up my own logo ideas and mocked them up in a bootlegged version of Photoshop. Then I posted them in the same Facebook group, not expecting many people to notice.

About a few hours later, I had received dozens of likes and plenty of positive comments on my logo.

A screenshot of positive Facebook comments that were left on a design that I shared.

This was my second aha moment. It might not have seemed like much, but the encouragement I had gotten from random students liking my design was enough to help me realize that design might be a valid option for my career path.

I pulled through with my final exams and managed to pass my first year of university.

But I failed to get my first co-op job, even though my program required it. Instead, I spent the summer working at Walmart as a cashier. Not the most ideal job in the world, but there were a few good stories that came from it.

A lady waits to pay at a Walmart checkout, as the cashier and manager try to apply the coupon.
Good luck calling the manager over if they’re even working. (Source: The Krazy Coupon Lady)

Entering my second year, I had transferred to the computer science program, as I thought it would be more interesting to write code than to solve math proofs.

On the side, I was practicing graphic design as a distraction from my studies. In fact, I had joined a few student clubs as a graphic designer to create posters and banners for their events.

A group photo of the members of the Taiwanese Waterloo Student Association in front of a standing banner that I designed for them.
I created this standing banner for this awesome group at the Taiwanese Waterloo Student Association that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.

And while I did enjoy learning how to sort a linked list, I was still barely passing. It turns out, computer science students were still required to take math classes in their second year.

After a few months, I started thinking about dropping out again.

But then one snowy day in December, I got an unexpected phone call. I thought it was a wrong caller. It was a recruiter from IBM, calling about a UX design internship position that I didn’t remember I applied to.

At this time, I had no UX design experience and no idea what design thinking was. But I did the interview on the spot and talked about the posters that I designed.

The recruiter followed up with me the day after and offered me the internship. I was on top of the world.

A group photo of the interns of IBM Ottawa during the summer of 2015.
The interns of IBM Ottawa during the summer of 2015.

After completing the internship, I ended up switching into the digital arts program that my friend was in. And that was the start of my UX design career as a former math major.

These three aha moments were defining points in my life during a time when I felt lost.

  1. Discovering design as a career path
  2. Being praised and encouraged for my own creation
  3. Realizing I have what it takes to pursue a career in design

I had nearly given up on myself and wasn’t sure what was next for me.

But these moments of realization led me on a creative journey to discover my passion for design.

Looking back, I don’t regret studying math or computer science, as I genuinely enjoy solving complex problems. But I always felt like I was missing a visual aspect in my work.

After discovering and learning more about UX design, I realized that it fit my personality and interests as a creative and visual problem-solver who loves collaborating with others. And the rest is history.

Thanks for reading!

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