Designer Alexandra Mihai’s curiosity has led her to study abroad, learn more about technology and co-founded a start-up in Cluj-Napoca. Alexandra brings the tech & design communities together to strengthen the craft. Here, Alexandra shares in her own words her design journey.
For 18 months now, I have been working for Romania's most valuable start-up, now a unicorn: UiPath. As a Senior Product Designer, I am involved in the development of robotic process automation (RPA) software, also known as digital robots. We have grown at an explosive pace. I think our success lies in the way we work and collaborate with clients. Together with the Product team, we listen carefully to their wishes, and then the designers and engineers work together closely to fulfil them. During the Master's in Digital Design, I learnt to speak the same language as the engineers. I became interested in prototypes and interactive systems, something that still benefits me on a daily basis.
As a young girl, I was already interested in technology. There are photos of me when I was three years old, working on a computer. I liked building things in particular, but was also very connected to the digital world. After completing Design Architecture at high school level in Suceava, I wanted to continue my studies in this field. Preferably in a place that already had plenty of design companies. I felt that the range in Romania was too limited, so I decided to look abroad. I really fell in love with the Netherlands and that’s how my Dutch design adventure is begun.
After graduating from my Industrial Design bachelor’s, I carried out a few UX design jobs and freelance assignments but wanted to discover more. The English-language Master's in Digital Design at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences proved to be the perfect match, as students work in a very practical way there. You work on projects and create things that you can immediately add to your portfolio, which is certainly very useful in this field.
During the Master's programme, I always worked in small groups. Although I hadn’t expected this beforehand, it turned out to offer a huge amount of added value. You learn to work together and resolve conflicts, but also that everyone has different qualities. For example, one of the people in my group was able to work extremely well with a certain type of data. This was a new domain for the rest of the group, so he taught us the ropes. At the beginning of each project, someone took on the task of project leader and was responsible for allocating the roles and carrying out the project management. In some projects, I took on this task. Now that I’m a senior designer, my job includes management responsibilities, I can see how much I learnt from this.
One of the projects I worked on during my year at the Master’s programme was a virtual reality project for Ijsfontein. Through it, I wrote my first research paper. As a UX designer, you don't really think about research, but thanks to my lecturers I learned how to do this and how to present a project. As the icing on the cake, I got to speak at the Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) conference in San Diego. It was totally unexpected, but really awesome. Since then, I've also been keeping an eye on other academics. Last month, I started writing another academic paper, which is something I would never have done if I hadn't been able to practise during my studies.
Immediately after graduating, I went back to my roots. I was given the opportunity to set up a consultancy company with EU subsidies in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s Silicon Valley. The place where it's all happening. This start-up, called Innovation Society, focused on bringing tools from the Dutch design practice and sharing knowledge related to innovation. I organised meet-ups and workshops, which allowed my international network to grow even further.
At the same time, I was involved on other design projects but doing both simultaneously didn’t work. I also wanted to be a bigger part of the ecosystem and challenge myself. So, after a year, I stepped aside from Innovation Society and joined UiPath.
You have to keep pushing yourself. One of the pitfalls of being a designer is getting used to what you do. My lecturers always encouraged me to continue to develop and grow, even in areas that were new to me. My attitude towards my work has really changed as a result. One of the things I've learnt over the years is to always stay curious and not to be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. I’ve really taken it to heart: I’m constantly trying and learning new things. It keeps things exciting!