How to Shift Your Mindset from “Graphic Designer” to “Product Designer”

I probably wouldn’t have graduated college on time if the first iPad hadn’t been released one month before our senior portfolios were due. In 2010, my graphic design peers were hand-sewing the bindings of their beautiful, pristine portfolios. I had zero confidence in my book-binding skills. I got in frequent fights with my Canon printer. And every poster I mounted with spray glue for a critique was guaranteed to have bubbles.

But it just wasn’t the manual aspect of graphic design school that made me feel like this career wasn’t the right fit. It was the fact that, at the end of the day, I preferred to work toward usefulness and usability more than aesthetic.

Fast-forward a decade, and the world has changed. Technology has changed. More and more people with a graphic design background want to get hired as product designers. There’s overlap in the skills needed, but actually making that transition in your career is hard. I know because I did it. And I’ve been teaching dozens of students how to do it too.

We don’t want to throw away the design-oriented skills you already have. We want to pivot the existing skills you have into the experience that you need to land the job. But doing so means making 3 big shifts in how you approach your work:

Become user-centric instead of client-centric

During college, I worked for a small local company as a graphic designer. One project I had was to design a calendar. A shiny, papery, orange calendar that the company was planning to send to their best customers.

As a graphic designer, I’d say “Okay, great! Let’s look for visual inspiration, let’s make this artifact as beautiful as possible.”

As a product designer, I would have a totally different mindset. I’d be primarily concerned with the people who were actually supposed to be using the calendar. Before picking up a pencil to draw, I might ask these “users” questions like, “Tell me about your scheduling habits” or “How difficult is it for you to remember upcoming events?” Maybe they need a paper calendar with just numbers. Maybe they need a digital calendar with friendly reminders. Maybe they just need their mom to call them and tell them the day of the week. Or maybe, just maybe… they don’t even need a calendar at all.

Becoming user-centric instead of client-centric means falling in love with the problem and the people you are trying to serve instead of designing a specific solution. They are 2 sides of the same coin, but a product designer is going to help better understand whether it needs to be a gold coin or maybe we can do this whole thing over Venmo.

Let data drive design direction more than a client critique

Often in graphic design, you are mainly worried about what the client thinks (and feels) when they see your work. The build-up to big client presentations is intense. Those are the days for showering and putting on the nice shirt. You walk through the various logo designs, or the branding for their new marketing campaign. Sometimes you get feedback like “can you make this more funner” and “it just doesn’t jive with me.” I almost feel like there should be some bowing at the end of this show.

When you let data drive your design decisions instead of a client critique, you may not even have to worry about showering*. The data should speak for itself. For example, let’s say I worked on my orange paper calendar and presented it to my manager. She may say “This isn’t the vibe we want” or give some other visual feedback. That may be totally valid, but the data-driven response that product designers think about is just as, if not more important to present. If I was able to say “Here’s the calendar I designed, and also 82% of people who used this calendar responded that they were better able to organize their day,” then the data would speak for itself. Yes, the visuals are still important, but the useability and usefulness is what drives the design direction.

*Showering preferences are totally up to you

Make sure your design process reflects your newfound user- and data-driven attitude

Shifting a mindset is one thing. Showing how those user- and data-driven insights are a truly integrated part of your design process is another thing. How do you have conversations with users early on in the design process? How do you make sure you have a feedback loop with real customers? How do you discern what’s usable and what’s useful?

These are all questions I had when I was sorting out how to be a better product designer. One thing I found to be super helpful was becoming mildly obsessed with having the right process for coming up with solutions, rather than relying on my ability to come up with the right solutions. I could trust the process rather than my own (lack of) genius ideas.

The process I use is based on the Design Sprint methodology. I apply this process to my day to day product design work. You can learn more about the five-stage process.

I still have a copy of that shiny orange calendar. I never wrote on it. And I still have that original iPad. Over the years, I’ve learned that I prefer being a product designer over graphic designer because I get an up-close look at how the work I do has a positive impact on real people.

Shifting your mindset to being user-centric, data-driven, and process-oriented is a huge part of building your confidence as a product designer. But the fact that you’re reading this, means you’re already on your way.

I help graphic designers become product designers. Learn how to transition without the expensive bootcamp here:

I help graphic designers become product designers

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