Strategies for Thriving in Your First Product Design Role
Over the past year, I’ve been mentoring students on Designlab, an online bootcamp for new designers.
During weekly 1:1 sessions, I help answer any questions that students have. One of the questions I get asked often:
What should I know to succeed at my first design role?
Here are the things I wish I knew before starting my first design gig, years ago.
1. Remember to ask the important questions upfront.
With each project you take on, remember to ask the important questions before you even think about opening Sketch.
“What problem are we solving?”
“What role does this product play in the user’s daily life?”
“How do they react emotionally and physically to it?”
“How does this new feature align with the business goals?”
“How are we going to measure success?”
Questions, whether directed towards the users or the business, should be asked every step of the way. By asking these questions right from the start, you can trace every product and design decision back to something tangible, in turn allowing yourself to create better experiences for your users.
(📚 recommended read: Build Better Products by Laura Klein)
2. Your job is to not only ship, but to sell.
Getting stakeholders to understand and even care about design is pivotal to how designers work. I found early on that it’s not only a designer’s job to build great experiences, but also our responsibility to sell it—knowing how to communicate our work to stakeholders, clients, and other non-designers.
While there are a ton of methods and tactics to communicate designs effectively, I won’t be able to even scratch the surface here. However, one of the things to remember is that empathy will go a long way. This means you are constantly empathizing with the people you work with—knowing where they’re coming from and what their needs are. Only from empathy will you be able to clearly articulate your designs, respond effectively, and follow through with value.
(📚 recommended read: Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Greever)
3. Know your tools, but focus on the fundamentals.
When I first started my design career, Photoshop was the tool of choice. A few years later, Sketch rose to industry prominence. These tools will continue to evolve, and in five years the design tool landscape will grow and transform even more.
My advice here is to focus on the design fundamentals that can translate over time: information architecture, visual design, user psychology, etc. Focus on asking the right questions and nailing down the right principles, regardless of what tool you use.
4. Open up your work often.
Juggling feedback and criticism from so many perspectives, personalities, and job titles can sometimes be overwhelming. However, separating yourself from your work, and showing your work early and often is key to iterating effectively. Critique, when executed properly, can be extremely valuable at every step of the process.
Also, don’t just solicit feedback from other designers. You’ll find that product managers, researchers, engineers, and other stakeholders can bring unique knowledge and perspectives to the table.
(📚 recommended read: Discussing Design by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry)
5. Change is the only constant.
When shit hits the fan, you’ll quickly learn that you can’t always get too attached to our designs because change is inevitable— and we quickly learn to be okay with that. Sometimes business priorities shift 180 degrees, sometimes a company re-org can move teams around. Either way, you need to be adaptable in how you work — always ready to jump head first into new problems and contexts.
One thing I encourage is to focus on the relationships. Building trust with the people you work with and creating close ties is what usually pays off in the long run, no matter what challenges are thrown your way.
6. Allow your teammates to inspire you.
Whenever I’ve started a new job, I’ve found myself eventually asking each person I’ve met the same question: “What do you outside of work?” You’ll quickly learn that people come from all sorts of backgrounds—anthropology, architecture, computer science. You’ll learn that they have all sorts of passions and interests. They travel extensively, are experts in typography, do pro-bono work for non-profits, and have even built their own homes from scratch. They are people who never stop learning, tinkering, and experiencing.
I loved my time in both my previous and current roles mainly because I was constantly surrounded by interesting people. Allow yourself to learn from and be inspired by them.
7. The learning never stops.
No matter if you have a formal design education, or you’re entirely self-taught, having a beginner’s mindset will be one of your most important assets. I’ve told myself over and over: you’re not your degree.
Seeking out new things to learn and do helps you stay curious, introspective, and aware of what you’re striving to grow towards. The best designers I’ve worked with are constantly learning new ways of doing things, and infusing those learnings into their work. Luckily, there’s a million ways to grow: podcasts, books, meetups, conferences, and even Slack communities.
By staying curious about new skills and technologies, you can keep yourself and the product you’re working on relevant.
(📚 recommended read: Mindset by Carol S. Dweck)
8. For mentorship, embrace “Plus/minus/equal.”
There is a strategy that legendary mixed martial arts coach, Frank Shamrock used to train his fighters called “plus/minus/equal.”
“Each fighter, to become great, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.”
This approach to learning can apply to one’s progress towards mastering almost anything, but I’ve found it helpful in my own growth as a designer. As you start your next role, who are the people you can make your plus/minus/equal?
Teaching your “minus” reinforces what you already know. Working alongside an “equal” ignites challenge and prevents complacency. Seeking a “plus” gives you the opportunity learn from someone more skilled—and more importantly— shows you what’s possible. This strategy will constantly remind you there is always so much more to learn.
9. Gravitate towards situations you think you’re unqualified for.
A mentor once told me that a successful career is one where you keep on attempting things you think you’re unqualified for. What does that mean?
It could mean leading a cross-functional design workshop when you’ve never done so before. Or it could be speaking at a design conference about a topic in which you don’t have a formal academic background in. One thing I’ve embraced at every step of my career is not asking for permission to try something radically different from what I’m used to. Only from experience can you truly learn what you suck at, what you excel at, and what needs improvement; the only way to move forward is to try.
10. Be fearless.
When I first started out, my imposter syndrome stopped me from speaking up. The thinking that I was a fraud of a designer made me the quiet designer hiding behind my laptop screen most of the day. Other days, I thought that showing I was always in control and that I knew my shit was the only way to be successful.
When I admitted this to my former manager, he passed along the quote,
“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, bring others.”
Don’t feel afraid to admit you don’t know the answer. Don’t be ashamed when you think you’ve made a mistake. Rather, trust your gut, and find the confidence to open up your flaws and insecurities to other people. You might find that they have similar insecurities, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. Opening up will help you connect with people, and they can help you push you farther than you’ve ever been.
11. Don’t forget to have fun.
It’s an exciting time to be a designer. Just remember— we’re all in this crazy ride together.
Like many designers, my own path into design has been a bit serendipitous. This post is dedicated to the people who have inspired me and the mentors that have taught me some incredible lessons along the way.