Working as a designer in a foreign language

Main illustration: Chelsea Spratling

The design industry speaks English. The articles we read, the tools we use, the conferences we attend: we all speak the same language when it comes to design.

If you are investing in self-development and learning about UX, it’s highly likely the materials you use are in English. In fact, right now you are reading this blog post in English.

At the same time, for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, English is a foreign language which they need to spend time and effort learning. The stakes are much higher again if you want to challenge yourself by working in an English-speaking country. It means that English suddenly becomes your primary language. Life changes, and that change is big enough to scare some people out of the very idea of relocation.

I’ve experienced this myself in the past year as I’ve relocated to Dublin for my role as a product designer at Intercom. In truth, I’ve been scared a lot, affected by misconceptions about working abroad: “my level of language doesn’t feel high enough,” “the culture abroad may be too different,” “the roots are too strong.” Now, after a year overseas I have some learnings to share.

Linguistic diversity

Tech companies are filled with people from a variety of countries who speak with each other in their second language and face very much the same difficulties as you. I was greatly surprised by the variety of backgrounds people at Intercom have. In my particular team, for instance, each person is from a different country.

That gave me a great opportunity to absorb knowledge and get some support from others. It also meant that no one expected me to speak fluently with a perfect accent from day one. Moreover, I’ve heard a vast variety of accents around. We are all in the same boat.

What’s even more important, since it’s such a common situation, companies empathize with the difficulties that relocated people face and can provide the support (such as online-courses tailored to improve written language skills).

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating”

I’ve learned that we cannot even imagine how adaptable our brain is. It does whatever it takes to smooth the stress when you put yourself into a new language environment. After just a few days of active interaction, you start thinking in English – your brain considers that to be less effort than constant translation and eases things up for you. At first, that process of translation requires considerable effort and concentration – in effect, a large part of your job is translating not just the words, but the context and culture.

These challenges and learnings are not specific to design, of course, but by the nature of our work, design demands more from us in terms of how we communicate. As Don Norman puts it in “The Design of Everyday Things,” “design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” The centrality of communication to our field puts a greater burden on our linguistic abilities.

Beside pushing pixels, the essential part of our job is about being able to communicate clearly what has been done, articulate our decisions and fully understand our colleagues’ opinions. Your work won’t always speak for yourself, you have to speak for it. It only can be successful if you don’t waste your mental energy translating thoughts back and forth in your head. You need to absorb the language as a way of thinking, not just communicating.

Master your company’s ‘grammar’

Making a decision to try working as a designer abroad is only the first step forward. Real learning begins with your first day at work. Alongside studying the foreign tongue, you familiarize yourself with the language of the company.

On your first week, setting yourself up in the new environment, you get the “alphabet” and the basic “vocabulary” of the company. Your first interactions with colleagues give you a glimpse of how the company thinks and speaks, while the onboarding process exposes you to the company’s dialect.

Now you can talk to people, but your communication may not be that efficient without learning the rules of the language. The next step is understanding company structure and processes – the “grammar” of the language. My first few months at Intercom involved learning all about our comprehensive product, as well as the principles and processes we use to design and build. Beyond just knowing how the company operates, all of this knowledge enabled me to communicate proficiently.

“It is important to embrace company culture, which acts as a kind of an ‘accent’ on top of our language”

At Intercom, we emphasize working collaboratively. To do so in a sustainable way, we need to ensure that everyone in the company can understand each other and is on the same page. So after getting the “grammar,” it is important to embrace company culture, which acts as a kind of an “accent” on top of our language.

For instance, we do regular design critique sessions that I have found really helpful to build up articulation skills. Indeed, systematic crit presentations were pretty much the most powerful exercise that helped me adapt to the design team’s specific “accent.”

Eventually, your communication goes like clockwork with minimum lost effort. However, there’s a cherry on top of a cake that will let you become a fluent speaker. A layer of deeply ingrained traditions, norms, even specific vocabulary – the “idioms” of a company’s language. Internalizing them makes you truly articulate.

It took some time for me to fully internalize Intercom-specific terminology like “Intermission”, “Interconcept,” “wiggle week,” etc. Eventually it pays off as you ensure that none of the context is lost in translation.

Reaching fluency in your work

This process of absorbing and internalizing the “language” of Intercom was particularly important to me, as I immediately set out working on our design system.

This project was a comprehensive rebuilding of our existing pattern library, and in some ways it felt like I was helping to define the common language for the whole company. This helped me feel like I was not just learning the “local language,” but also contributing to it, making sure the whole company is using the same vocabulary in terms of how we build the product.

“As you increasingly contribute to designing and building new products, you will reach a turning point”

It also speaks to the power of design as a mode of communication – in practice, the refined design system is a highly formalized way of helping all of us work, communicate and think in an efficient way.

As you increasingly contribute to designing and building new products, you will reach a turning point, of sorts. This is what fluency really feels like – the point at which you feel you are shaping the language, and not just speaking it.

You learn fast

Nobody says this journey is not going to be an effort. Moreover, it is pretty damn hard even after a year. However, there are multiple tips and techniques that have proven to speed up the adaptation for me – if you find yourself embarking on a similar journey, these steps will help immensely.

  • Practice speaking regularly. Even if you have not relocated yet – maybe especially if you haven’t. It only makes sense to learn another language when it is being applied in practice. Online schools help with that a lot nowadays.
  • Switch to the foreign language completely. Your phone and desktop UI, things you read, movies/series you watch: everything should speak on that language to you. Surround yourself with it.
  • Think in a foreign language. You wouldn’t achieve fluency by wasting your mental energy on translating thoughts back and forth. The brain will turn that switch on for you if you immerse yourself into language well enough.
  • Be patient. It might take a significant amount of time to achieve real confidence. However, you’ll absolutely certainly get there eventually once you put yourself into the foreign environment and start talking daily.

For me, even the process of writing this blog post is an act of translation and immersion. It may take considerable courage to move abroad, but each journey starts with the first small step, and investing time into learning a new language is definitely the most impactful first step you can take.

If this sounds like an environment you would enjoy working in, check out our open positions.