From the Apple Store to Design Systems: My Career Journey

Lean in, start small, and build brick by brick. Meet designer and mentor Rick James, and get inspired by his career story.

Hey everyone, I’m Rick James, a designer and mentor in Dribbble’s Scaling Design Systems Course with Dan Mall. I’ve been working in production and design systems since 2008. I live in Reno, Nevada with my partner Cam and our dog Enzo. We’re outdoor kids at heart and try to spend as much time as possible outside in every season. Let’s chat about design systems and how I got started in my career.

My career journey

In my first year of college, I found out how fast financial aid can run out and realized I needed to get a job ASAP. I went to the mall a few blocks away and submit a few applications. I got a job offer at Cinnabon and the Apple Store. At that time, I had never used a Mac before, but I decided it’d be in my best interest to specialize in computers rather than pastries.

I eventually landed an internship (after applying 3 times) at Infinite Loop, worked my butt off, and got a full-time job offer at Apple. My first product design launch ended up being the first iPhone launch for the Apple Online Store. I love cinnamon rolls, but starting my design career at an Apple Store was the best decision I ever made.

“Starting my design career at an Apple Store was the best decision I ever made.”

As far as design systems go, I’ve always been interested in how things work. I get excited about seeing mechanics and moving parts. I’m also curious and an explorer at heart, so understanding the how in all things motivates me.

Scaling systems, improving operational efficiency, and simplifying complex problems gives me every opportunity I’ve ever wanted to learn and build. How is that made? How did they compose those frames? How do they do that in an accessible, inclusive way? The systems behind these choices continue to motivate me to remix and try my own interpretations.

Even when I think I’ve mastered something, I still discover new opportunities to refine and refactor.

Advice for new design system learners

  • Lean in. If you’re already curious about design systems, lean in even more. You have a really fun adventure in front of you. Find an open-source library to download and don’t be shy about detaching components to dig through the layers, styles, tokens, and composition. Meet some more design systems designers (we’re friendly!) show them what you’ve learned, and ask questions. If you can contribute to a design system, find out how! Make a small contribution and iterate. It’ll be more fun to learn with something you or your teammates need.
  • Start small. Build brick by brick and make time to return to iterate. Building a single component can spark a hundred valuable conversations and opportunities to learn. Experiencing and designing the entire lifecycle of building a single component has often informed how I build the rest and saves time down the road. This also affords you the time to iteratively tailor design systems to your team, culture, and customer.
  • Find support. I’m a huge fan of having mentors and being a mentor for others. Design mentors have helped me stay curious and optimistic while growing my skill set. They’ve also been a neutral party and grounding when I’ve needed shelter and firm footing during challenging moments. When I’m unsure, I often ask my mentors what they would do, and find it extremely helpful.

Want to keep up with Rick? Follow him on LinkedIn or find him in Dribbble’s 8-week Scaling Design Systems Course mentoring students.