Reflections on “personal branding”

Another word for personal brand is “reputation”

Lai-Jing Chu
9 min readJun 25, 2023
Working out a “personal brand” means taking a hard and honest look at yourself. [Source: Mirror (1935–1942) by Nicholas Gorid and Frank Wenger. Original from The National Gallery of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.]

The term “personal branding” always sounded like an elusive buzzword, pretentious and reserved for those who appeared to have it all together. It was an area I struggled a lot, especially when trying to transition out from a humanities PhD program into what we like to call “industry.” I could barely deal with my own identity crisis, let alone try to “brand” myself.

Yet, in any career transition 101 class, the first thing you are told to do is to establish some sort of a “personal brand.”

It would be boastful to say I’ve nailed my personal brand. I haven’t. But, I’ve worked on it long enough that I feel like I’m starting to feel the difference. At the very least, when people ask me what I do, or what my work style is like, I typically can answer these questions with ease (yes, elevator pitch style). If you read my LinkedIn references, what people say about me is pretty consistent as well. And as a result, most people can pretty quickly decide whether they want to work with me, or not.

So, I want to reflect a little bit on where I’m at with this topic and see if I could offer up a refreshed (if not, at least a personal) take. If it helps elucidate the concept for you, great, and if you have further thoughts, feel free to leave your comments.

My main disclaimer here is that this article might inadvertently relate better with digital product and design professionals just because that’s my current field and because many, if not a majority, of workers in this industry come from a different background and therefore have made a pivot at some point. But if you are operating in a different industry, maybe you will find it helpful as well.

What is your brand?

A brand is not a logo or a website, although it may be the medium through which a brand is conveyed.

A brand is a portrait, a suite of qualities that others conjure when they think of you, and what they say about you.

It’s a reputation.

Deciding what you want to be “reputed for” takes listening to yourself over a long period. Establishing and reinforcing that reputation takes even longer. Even if you already have one, it will most likely continue to evolve. Your personal brand today probably looks very different from what it was ten years ago or what it will be ten years later. The important thing is to be in control and intentional about it.

Tap into your track record and motivations

When it comes down to it, a really good place to start is to stop and reflect on this question:

Having completed a challenge, what is your source of pride?

Or, that prompt could be flipped: If an experience really didn’t work for you, why didn’t it? What made you feel discouraged or ashamed? Those are things you want to avoid.

Tapping into these strong feelings could be very informative.

In my case, I can pick out a few poignant memories over the past few years. For example, I can fondly recall that night I looked into Google Analytics a week before something was released and saw with my own eyes that bounce rates halved, or the day we released an internal tool feature that changed our company’s operational game instantly. Heck, I can get pure satisfaction out of fixing a button that is the wrong size and correcting something that was once crooked, if nothing else.

These are the big and small moments that make me feel like the energy I’ve invested gets replenished. Reflecting upon them helps me realize that I’m very outcomes and results-driven and that efficiency and effectiveness are one of the top things I value. In light of these wins, I can articulate precisely the battles I found that directly led to those outcomes. I can then consider if those skills I enjoy exercising and deepening.

Reflecting on my best and worst experiences made me realize that I value shipping high-quality, robust products. I’ve worked long enough to know that I am generally methodical, critically minded, and efficient. And in my experience, I work well with others who are like that as well.

So I want to send the signal out and attract like-minded people.

If you are an aspirer, start here

But, let’s rewind a little.

At the start of the post, I mentioned that when I was just going through my career pivot, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Well, I’ll devote some space below for advice I’d given my slightly younger self.

If you are still in the beginning stages of hoping to become a <fill in the blank>, the first step would be to confirm the area of expertise you want to gain is right for you.

To do so, find your area of interest by running short, controlled experiments on different sets of pre-defined activities to see what gets you into a flow state the fastest. E.g. Want to learn jazz piano? Spend two weeks learning all the different chord progressions and see where it takes you. Then check in with yourself to see how that feels at the end of it.

When I was a teenager, the idea of studying architecture entered my brain and somehow got stuck. I made it my goal and wholeheartedly pursued it for the next decade. Wholeheartedly but painfully — since I didn’t like it at all. I felt like a fish trying to fly, not knowing that I belonged to the ocean. I did minimal career exploration and did not attempt to discover my real predilections. Consequently, I felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole for years and paid a steep price. That is an example of not listening to yourself.

You learn interesting things about yourself when you give yourself space to explore. These days, outside of work, I just try different things. At the start of each year, I list out a few things I want to try by the end of the year, and surprisingly, I usually end up doing most of them.

Recently, I took a few weeks off between jobs to learn to code and make a little project. When I did the coding exercise, I became completely consumed with it. I had so much fun springing up little ideas and building something from scratch. That’s when I realized, I was much more of a tinkerer, and is another ingredient to add to my own self-identity.

At the end of the day, don’t try to make any brand statements until you’ve gone through enough experience to affirm it. Otherwise, you’d be doing it backward — forcing yourself into an arbitrary statement, rather than having the brand statement reflect who you are.

Your background is not your brand

As someone who comes from architecture, for the longest time, I struggled to introduce myself other than to say, “Hi, I’m a product designer. I come from a background in architecture.”

Don’t get me wrong; architecture is a great background to have for product design. It’s not unheard of. I’ve also met many people who have told me that the best designers they know have similar backgrounds.

But. A background is not a brand. It does not say anything.

For one, architecture involves a wide array of skills — from creative thinking to storytelling to 3D visualization to project management and much more. An individual could not possibly be equally good at all of them. So which of those skills influence your current capabilities as a product designer? For me, I’m embarrassingly terrible at hand drawing, which might surprise people because it doesn’t fit their stereotypical image of what an architect (or any ar-school-trained person) is good at.

The point here isn’t to throw away your past but to do the hard work of articulating how past experiences inspired the way you approach your current work. When I first made my career pivot, I wrote my own reflection. But another person with a similar background might have a different take. I encourage you to articulate your conclusion too.

Showing and telling who you are

Think about what your T-shaped skillset looks like, and try to reflect that in the work that you do / want to do. Show, and tell.

I used to presume that a successful career progression meant moving to larger and larger companies, so I tried to fashion my portfolio and resume in a way that appealed to larger tech companies, but it never felt quite authentic. Finally, after some soul-searching, I realized that at that point in time, I wanted to be in a fast-moving startup built by smart people, so I decided to lean into that rather than fight it while revamping my portfolio.

Based on my startup experiences, here are what I believe to be my three core strengths that work well in lean and agile product teams:

  • Thorough but pragmatic approach to research;
  • Passionate and quality-obsessed when it comes to software design and implementation;
  • Effective in optimizing team workflows and organized in maintaining documentation;

Taking those three points, I doubled down on the following:

  • not just communicating clearly in my case studies how I leveraged research and testing to advocate for design, but also explaining how I changed the minds of stakeholders using data and steered product direction;
  • not just showcasing impeccable project thumbnails and images, but also polishing the portfolio website itself to my ideal standard;
  • adding a “process” page on my portfolio that describes my approach to working in a small startup, and having success data show for it.
    (Note: And by “process” I don’t mean “double-diamond”, I mean how I work as an early startup designer. This, I believe, was the biggest “risk” I took, as startup processes may not translate well for larger enterprises, so I was making a clear choice by showing that.)

Identify areas of pride, and present them explicitly and implicitly. Whenever possible, don’t just say it; show it.

But that’s a picture of me. For you, it might look entirely different, and you could go so much further.

Maybe you are a senior team member who is an incredible thought leader and mentor to the team — you could have a prolific blog with all of your webinar videos.

Maybe you are artistic and have a very playful approach to visual aesthetics — you could have a cool side project to showcase.

Maybe you are an expert in motion and animation — you could have a youtube channel to teach people how to get better at these skills.

Different strengths and personalities would call for very different channels of expression and types of representation.

Do what you love, and the rest will follow.

Invest in your brand, and it will work for you

I wanted to work at a startup, but not all early startups are created equal. Once I started to explicitly call out that “I’m looking to work for a startup, here are my strengths, and how I could contribute,” — I saw a remarkable difference in the types of startups that approached me. These startups held higher bars for product and design, had way more promising prospects, consisted of more ambitious teams, and we shared much more similar values and vibes.

Some recruiters and hiring managers explicitly told me in calls that the quality of my portfolio was what attracted them.

From that, I learned one crucial lesson:

you can make a portfolio, and your portfolio may get you jobs, but you basically reap what you put out.

One last, but important note

Your brand is your reputation — it precedes you; it’s your portrait that people conjure when they think of you.

Your brand is also who you are as a person, because reputation is all about how you are remembered and spoken about.

So, be kind, be humble, and be a person of integrity.

These qualities may not be visible on a portfolio or a resume. It lies in how you interact with people, and how you show up day after day. That said, it’s never too late to course-correct when you’ve screwed up.

In conclusion:

Tap into what made you happy after a successful experience. Discover what you truly enjoy doing and notice when you lose track of time. Make that known to the world through the actions that you take, and the quality of the work that you put out every day. And, not to forget — be the person that you want to work with.

When you do this “personal branding thing” right, your image will align with your passion and values, and people will come to you for it, which is a really good place to be.



Lai-Jing Chu

Product Designer @ Polycam and mentor at Springboard / ADP List. I write here to organize my thoughts. My opinions are mine and could change.