Breaking the Rules: One Designer’s Journey from Science to Tech

Tessa Chung believes that rules are meant to be broken.

She has a habit of thinking outside of the box and tackling any challenge that comes her way. As a designer, Tessa works on everything from developing mobile app experiences to designing packaging for home textiles. Before she dove into the design world, Tessa had an entire other career in science.

After ten years in lab, Tessa felt less and less fulfilled with her daily work. So she took her happiness into her own hands and started taking design classes at night. From there it was a bumpy road, but today she works as a Product Designer at AOL Alpha in California.

Read our interview with Tessa to learn how she made the jump from science into tech, how her page helped her get a job, and her thoughts on virtual reality. Don’t forget to visit her page to check out her design portfolio.


Tell us a little bit about yourself. You can start from the beginning, if you’d like!
Well, I’m a Libra who likes longs walks on the… just kidding, I couldn’t help myself.

I’m just a kid who grew up in suburban Orange County. I was an only child, so I had plenty of time on my hands to play with Star Wars action figures and think about the meaning of life. I came to a few conclusions:

I’ve always been interested in both design and science. When I was a kid, I’d spend hours watching cloud formations or collecting and identifying rocks with my handy field guide — I know, pretty nerdy. But I also liked artsy things like playing piano, making crafts like handmade Christmas ornaments, or spontaneously cooking something after watching an episode of The French Chef. So when it came time for me to decide on a college major, I was torn between the two paths.

Ultimately, I opted for what I thought was the responsible route: Science. I was satisfied with this decision and spent a ton of hours studying, did alright in school, graduated, and started working in research labs. But to be honest, I didn’t know what to do with this responsible major that I had just attained. After a few years of working in research, I decided to go through the process of applying for Pharmacy school to get a Pharm D degree. Again, a responsible choice. I ended up getting accepted, but not going due to a glitch in my records where I was missing one necessary class. I hailed this as a sign that I wasn’t destined to work in a pharmacy counting pills for 12 hours a day, and continued to work in various R&D labs at universities and biotech companies until I made a transition into design.

Aside from work and career, I like to watch sports — I grew up watching the Lakers and tennis, but I’ve branched out into baseball, soccer, football, and a little hockey (though I still find it confusing). I’m on a bit of a running and yoga hiatus these days, but i’ll get back into it at some point. I like live music (in both real or tribute forms). I like making interesting things in the kitchen without recipes.


10 words that describe you. Ready, set, go!
Ten words? That’s a lot of pressure. Can I use a thesaurus? Can I call a friend?
Industrious, Sarcastic, Down-to-earth (because fake sucks), Concerned, Honest (about my shortcomings), Self-deprecating, Judicious (I like to keep things fair), Rational, Goofy, Laid back.

What inspired you to move from biology to design?
Nearly a decade had passed since I graduated and I was feeling less and less satisfied with the daily work in the lab. The experimental design part was great, but the actual legwork in the lab was rather repetitive. Sure, I had my wins, like figuring out how to get anti-clotting proteins from leech stomachs by making them vomit. Ok, not exactly a publishable finding, but it’s a great story to share with skittish people. Then I’d tell them to put on a latex glove and hold out their hand and I drop a leech into it. Massively uncomfortable. Aside from those occasional fun times, dealing with cancer cells and mouse brains all day long just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So I explored design.

I started taking night classes at a local junior college, quickly eliminating Industrial Design from my future when I had to draw a toaster and it just looked like an ugly, gray blob. I found that I couldn’t draw or render objects by hand if my life depended on it. It was quite a deflating semester. But with that failure, I found an interest in Graphic Design — Illustrator, Photoshop, etc. — and found that I liked creating with a computer. I spent a couple of years taking design classes at night while working in the lab by day until I could find a job as a Graphic Designer then eventually as a UX/UI Designer.

People ask me all the time, “Those are such different careers, how could one person be good at both?” My answer is that science and design have similarities. Really, they do, especially UX design. They both involve planning, extensive research, analytical thinking, and logic in addition to the creative aspect. Hey, what’s more creative than making leeches barf? It’s out of the box thinking, I tell you. Revolutionary.


Any advice for someone who wants to make a dramatic career change like you?
Don’t give up. I know…that sounds like a canned response, but it’s honest. I technically made the jump twice — once from biology to graphic design and then to UX/UI mobile design. I got rejected over and over again, especially when I was trying to make that second move (into tech.) I managed to get phone interviews, but nothing was panning out — and this went on for months.

Funny thing is, back in 2011 when was in its early days, it unexpectedly came to my rescue by linking my profile on their home page. Suddenly, I was getting a ton of traffic to my site and people were contacting me for jobs. That’s how I landed my first job as a marketing intern at a startup based out of NYC. It was an unpaid internship, but it got my foot in the door. Soon after, I got a contract job as an Interaction Designer, but it ended after a few months and I was suddenly out of a job for the first time in my life. Honestly, if my friend hadn’t taken me in I would’ve been close to sleeping in my car. But I just kept trying — honing my interview skills (I could recite my bio in my sleep), trying to boost my profile by making things, making a quirky but honest resume, driving to SF every few weeks to “meet with people in the biz” for coffee, and grabbing any contract work I could. Because, ultimately, designing for tech is what I wanted to be doing for a living and I knew I would eventually catch a break if I worked hard enough. And I caught that break when I met the founder of a startup called Activehours, who believed in me enough to make me his first hire. Soon enough, I was getting solid mobile design work and problem solving under my belt, and the road opened to so many possibilities, including joining AOL’s Alpha team, where I am now.

How do you think virtual reality is going to change how we interact with technology?
What we’re seeing now is just at the fringe of what is possible with VR and AR (Augmented Reality) — we’re just barely getting a peek into what’s possible. It could change how we learn, how our kids learn, how we work, how doctors treat patients, and how we game. But, if we’re not careful, it could also isolate people and discourage real human interaction, so we need to be careful of that.

With VR/AR/MR (mixed reality), people will learn to interact with devices and the world around them in an entirely different physical dimension that so many of us never thought possible. Instead of swiping at the flat screen of a phone in 2D, imagine pulling pictures and information out of the device with your fingertips and make them swivel like holograms. It’s like science fiction. Companies like Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens are making games and experiences with characters that invade your surroundings, as part of your augmented reality. Because, really, who hasn’t dreamed of dinosaurs roaming through their living room?

It’s an exciting time. It’s still the early days, and people are making and investigating VR and AR apps with a frenzy of creative openness, because really, aside from keeping people’s eyes focused properly and not making them vomit, there aren’t many rules this early in the world of VR/AR. Anything we can imagine could one day be possible. But for now we’re limited by the confines of today’s technology — phones, processors, and video cards that will need to be more powerful to drive the large images and high frame rates that would bring that dinosaur to life. But one day… one day it could.


What do you like most about your current work? 
For me, I’d say it’s more about what I like and what scares me and the answer is the same for both: change. The tech space is constantly morphing. A decade ago, everyone was designing websites, then came the iOS and Android apps, then the focus changed to wearables, now it’s all about VR and bots. It’s exciting, but really hard to keep up. Designers who fail to predict the future of what being a designer means could get left in the dust with outdated skills. It’s frightening. But at the same time that’s what keeps me going every day, knowing that there’s more to learn and there can be a new road to take as technology evolves. It doesn’t get boring and there’s always a new challenge to tackle. That’s important to me.

Do you have any goals for yourself for the next 5 or 10 years?
I don’t have a long term plan. It’s true, and I don’t feel bad for saying it. Because, really, would I have imagined myself where I am now if I had looked forward 5-10 years ago? Definitely not. (I would’ve seen myself working in the lab, looking at a microscope all day.) The world is changing around us constantly, especially in the tech industry, and it’s changed more than I could have ever anticipated. Each person’s life also changes, who you meet and where you go can set your course on a different path. I think plans should only run the scope and span of what they need to be — I take them one step at a time, making sure that I’m good with where I am now and where I’m planning to go in the immediate future. Staying flexible is key. Because, who knows? Maybe we’ll be pulling dinosaurs out of our phones in 10 years and we never could have known it was possible.

What’s one mantra that inspires you and/or who is your biggest inspiration?

Rules are meant to be broken and tested — that’s a principle that could be applied to both design and science. Innovation doesn’t happen unless we keep testing what exists. That keeps me going career wise.

Also, I hate being bored. I guess that’s more of a deterrent, but it’s how I work. I was an only child and needed to keep myself occupied. As an adult, I need to have interests and hobbies and a desire to grow, otherwise I’ll just feel static. Why else would I be here? I don’t want to grow old and feel like I have nothing to do with my life. I want to feel like there’s so much more to keep doing, seeing, and experiencing, that I almost can’t possibly fit it all in. That’s what keeps me going.

Zoë Björnson is an Editorial + Social Media Coordinator with She is a graduate of Tulane University. You can find her on Twitter @kzoeb.

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