Based in San Luis Obispo, California, Olga Apolinarska has mentored over 10 Designlab students. We spoke with Olga about why Lady Gaga is her design icon, how she’s painting her RV a creamsicle orange, and why she thinks great metaphors are an effective mentorship tool. Read on to learn more about this Designlab mentor.
Hi Olga, great to meet you! How did you get into the field of design?
I started in architecture and that’s where I gained a strong user-oriented perspective, developed my first design process, and explored creative problem-solving 🏛
However, my greatest gains came when I became a full-time student of Designlab’s UX Academy about 4 years ago. That’s when I was able to make that final push into exactly the kind of role that I had been trying to achieve for years.
I’m living proof of success from the program. I care deeply about education — particularly skills-based online alternatives — so I knew I wanted to come back and mentor. But I waited a few years to make sure that I met the Designlab mentor application requirements and felt like I had enough to offer as a mentor.
Where else have you worked?
I’ve worked in a whole range of environments, most of which, by pure accident, are branded in orange — my brand color 🧡
I spent time at Mindbody, a wellness software company. Then Fiserv, a highly corporate financial environment. In addition, I’ve done work with early stage startups, led creative workshops, and done docent work in local art communities.
Upon graduating from UX Academy, I started working in my ideal industry: education. I’ve worked as a UX Designer at Oregon State University, and now I’m at a skills-based IT training company, CBT Nuggets. And as a Designlab mentor, of course!
It’s great that you’ve pivoted towards your ideal industry, we actually have quite a few students asking if they could work in education with their UX skills! What does an ordinary day look like for you in those roles?
I’m a UX designer and I work a lot on design strategy, feature development, interaction design, instructional design, and future-focused scaling.
So, a usual day for me is quite diverse: it can be pushing on scope and strategizing with product owners, presenting to C-suite, design team review, collaborating with my research team, or optimizing with development.
Right now, we are spending the bulk of our time building out a robust design system and doing a thorough accessibility review and redesign. Most importantly, there is always a good amount of laughing at ourselves and some of the strange design conversations we find ourselves in.
Awesome to hear that you have lots of fun in your day-to-day! On that note, what parts of your job do you find most fulfilling?
I love the moment when I hand off a large project that I designed from the ground up.
It’s common to get a lot of push back throughout the design process, but when I’m able to completely shift the direction of a project towards more research-based decision making, and then see it succeed through testing, it is extremely validating.
Changing tack a little bit now: what attracted you to becoming a mentor?
I value education above all else and believe it’s the key to enriched individual lives and a successful society. I fully support a skills-building mentorship model, over traditional education methods, so I knew Designlab was the exact kind of environment I wanted to be a part of.
It’s definitely really clear that education is important to you. What do you find most exciting or rewarding about being a mentor?
I think what my students would say is the relief when they “get something right.” But, from my perspective, the most rewarding thing is to see a student work through an enormous design challenge, iteration after iteration.
I know that’s difficult, but I love seeing how much they are gaining through the process of pushing themselves. That’s far more important than the end result.
What has surprised you most about the students you’ve worked with?
Designlab students are exceptionally smart 🧠
Before becoming a mentor, I never expected to have such incredible conversations with students, and to learn so much from them.
I feel so confident with the future of design after seeing the talent that comes through UX Academy.
The most interesting area to explore together is empathy mapping and defining deep-seated emotional behaviors. Most students are worried about the research phase, and then I get to see firsthand their awe at how tangible some of the results can be.
Thinking more holistically now, what do you think makes a good mentor?
A mentor’s purpose is to help students reach their potential. I think a good mentor needs to have constant awareness of their student’s strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots, in order to guide conversation and questions in the right direction.
Also, a good mentor will provide lots of good metaphors. With me, you’ll hear about SATs, meat grinders, Applebee’s, all-black fashion, buffets, new years’ resolutions, fair rides, and clothing racks...
Got to love a good metaphor! On the other hand, what do you think makes a good student?
I always try to impress upon the students that this is a supportive environment and an opportunity to design without consequence.
There is no reason to hold back and not explore their deepest creative corners because that’s where their learning gets footing.
That’s a really great point, and it’s totally understandable that some of our students take a little while to reach that point — it can be scary learning something new! Now, let’s learn a little bit more about you now if you don’t mind. What do you like to do in your free time?
Right now I’m spending all my time renovating my RV/home with my partner. We are turning it into the orange creamsicle artmobile of my dreams.
Otherwise, I enjoy cooking Korean food, exploring urban environments on foot, watching the rain, swimming (in the rain), going to live sports events, or watching Grand Slam tennis on TV 🎾
What’s your favorite project in your portfolio?
It will probably always be the Somos Latinx project: this was an interactive, reflective, informative educational module in partnership with Juntos (a program that has a 100% success rate of higher education enrollment for Latinx adolescents).
It was a great experience in putting assumptions aside and empathizing with a culture different than my own. It’s no longer my “best” work, but I took a lot of pride in working to build a great product that continues to have real impact on a large, underrepresented community.
Thinking about the industry in general, what people in design do you look up to?
I’m going to say Lady Gaga. She is a multi-faceted visionary who understands perception, people’s deepest emotions and needs, comprehensive design, and execution of creative vision. She is the ultimate creative collaborator 🦄
I also highly appreciate the smart, personable, Nancy Douyon, and her voice on diversity. Similarly, Mike Monteiro, a no holds barred voice on the moral responsibility of designers. And, of course, Aaron Draplin, because he’s an incredible force in the field.
Do you have any predictions for product design in 2021 and beyond?
When looking at design trends, I always look at society. Inclusive design has started to gain momentum for the last few years. But now even more so, with movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too taking center stage in politics and society. We’ve reached an impasse where companies cannot stay silent. The success of their product(s) and the talent they attract will only further integrate and elevate inclusive design.
⚡️ Lightning Round ⚡️
Are there any tragically designed products or services that you think could use a revamp?
Redesigning the Apple TV remote. And relocating Facebook to the garbage bin. I said what I said 🗑
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not sure where I heard this quote, but it always resonated:
“A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today.”
What is the best piece of advice you have to give someone entering the world of design?
As long as you keep trying and practicing, you will keep improving.
If you’re interested in learning UX/UI design with a mentor like Olga, we invite you to explore our UX Academy program. If you’re interested in becoming a mentor with Designlab, we encourage you to apply here.