A DIY Design Education
Build your own design curriculum without going to design school
I’m a student at Stanford and a product design intern at Facebook, where I help design products for billions of people around the world. But I’m not studying design—I spend my time in school taking classes on philosophy, computer science, psychology, and linguistics. Instead, most of what I know about product design comes from independent learning and on-the-job experience.
For those who didn’t have the fortune of going through a design program, the path to becoming a product designer can be murky and laden with uncertainty.
Even for those who did go to design school, many programs fall under more traditional design skills or isolated proficiencies without covering the full range of product design as it exists today, which is comprehensive from idea to execution. At Facebook, we break that range down into three parts: product thinking, interaction design, and craft and execution.
Here is a collection of the strategies and resources I’ve found to be most valuable while attending school and building my own design curriculum on the side.
Learn the tools
At Facebook, we use a variety of tools in our design process. At first it was daunting for me to learn so many programs; we use Sketch and Photoshop for creating mockups, and Origami and Framer JS for prototyping. However, once I dove in, I found the learning curve wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected.
I recommend following online tutorials from sites like Envato—you’ll be learning about the tools as you use them, and a simple search like “photoshop tutorial for graphic design” will uncover a treasure trove of step-by-step walkthroughs. Many of the companies that build design programs also have their own Facebook communities, like the Origami group and the Framer group, where you can post questions if you’re stuck.
Take online courses
Treat the internet as your design school. There are many high quality resources online for everything from learning design programs to building your knowledge of visual design fundamentals.
Here are a number of excellent design classes online:
- Coursera: More on the conceptual side, taught by different universities. Offers classes like UX design, interaction design, and graphic design.
- Lynda: Offers classes that cover both design fundamentals and design tools.
- CreativeLive: Offers art and design classes, along with design fundamentals and tools.
- Skillshare: Offers creative classes from hand lettering to photography; also has classes about design tools like Framer JS and Photoshop/Illustrator.
Another good way to improve your skills is to solicit feedback from peers, design communities, and even people you admire online.
One of the most powerful ways you can advance your own design is to get feedback.
At Facebook, we often say that feedback is a gift. Critique is a cornerstone of the design school experience—however, if you don’t go to a school where you can regularly receive critique on your work, there are plenty of ways for you to find that feedback yourself.
There are dozens of online groups where you can share screenshots of what you’re working on and get feedback from the community. Here are just a few examples:
- HH Design: A community for design within the context of technology.
- HH Illustrate: A group with a focus on sharing visual design work.
- Designers Guild: Designers across different industries coming together on Facebook to share thoughts and support each other.
- The Designers League: A place for creatives to network and share their work for feedback.
- IxDA: A formal organization focused around interaction design; hosts discussion boards where designers can discuss questions and share their take on topics in interaction design.
Giving feedback in critique is as valuable as getting feedback; it allows you to exercise your skills of observation and articulation. Share your thoughts with others in return for their help, and you’ll learn and connect with the community as well. Facebook Design is also running an open design critique program—I encourage you to take part!
In addition to taking advantage of online resources, reading can help you build empathy and inform your thinking around design.
Traditional design schools offer classes on subjects like typography and visual design fundamentals, but reading books about these areas can help fill in the gaps and give you access to a common design vocabulary. Other books about fields like user research can provide fresh insight into the perspectives surrounding design. Here’s a short selection from my own bookshelf:
- The Design of Everyday Things (Donald Norman): A well known primer on the rules of usable design, with examples of good and bad design in daily life.
- Universal Principles of Design (William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler): An encyclopedia of key design concepts and examples.
- Don’t Make Me Think! (Steve Krug): A classic on web usability and user testing.
- Thinking with Type (Ellen Lupton): A wonderful guide to typography both in print and on screens.
- Graphic Design: The New Basics (Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips): A beautiful introduction to graphic design and how to use visual language in design.
More generally, reading fiction or literature across different genres is one of many ways you can increase your empathy for people who don’t share the same path as you — a scenario often encountered in design.
Stay up to date with the field
As you work on your technical design skills, it’s also valuable to stay in touch with what’s happening in the design community. Keeping up with design news can help you uncover new tools that will make your job easier, and will give you a shared archive of knowledge with other designers.
To keep yourself up to date on the latest news, I suggest reading as many articles as you can from the designers and organizations that spend hours collecting and sharing their knowledge about design. I spend about 30 minutes to an hour every day just catching up with things people are doing, thinking, and writing. For starters, here are some design newsletters to which you might subscribe:
- Sidebar: 5 great design links every morning.
- It’s Nice That: A daily collection that falls more on the art direction/creative side than product design, but has great inspiration for graphic design and showcases new artists and exhibitions.
- InVision Digest: A newsletter run by InVision (a prototyping tool); collects an interesting set of design interviews, resources, and articles.
- Product Design Weekly: A weekly digest of design news and resources.
I also love Julie Zhuo’s posts about product design as well as Facebook Design’s Medium publication, where we document lessons learned from our design team. On your browser, you can install extensions like Panda to catch the latest design news and inspiration whenever you open a new tab.
Once you feel like you have a decent grasp of the kind of design work you want to pursue and you’ve built up a body of work through practice, you might decide to interview for a design internship—you’ll be amazed by how much you can learn on the job.
Designing real products for real people will push you to become more thoughtful and intentional in your design decisions, and working with a team will shape your design process.
If an internship isn’t in the cards or you’d rather pursue something on your own, side projects are another amazing way to build your experience and propel you forward. Jessica Hische’s lettering side projects, Graham and Melissa Ebetsch’s Purveyors of Packaging website, and Elen Winata’s Glass Quarter Full illustration project are all great examples of side projects. Practice building a website, designing a poster series, or creating a branding system—you might want to look into the projects assigned in design schools and tackle them on your own. Check out these related stories by art and design students talking about their favorite assignments.
Collaborating with other designers and makers can also help you expand the limits of your projects. If you know friends who have experience with design or programming, try building something together! It can be a website or an app, a zine, or even a series of articles about design or other interests you share. HH Design’s blog is a good example of a collaborative project—designers from across their 9,000 member community contribute by writing articles on everything from conversational UI to misuse of animation in design.
The takeaway? If you practice and combine this practice with getting feedback, you’ll improve.
Join the IRL community
Attending different design-centric events and meetups IRL—in real life—is another great way to expand your network and meet people you could potentially work with:
- CreativeMornings: A creative lecture series, held over breakfast.
- Dribbble meetups: Self-organized events where designers meet each other to build up their local design communities.
- Designers + Geeks meetups: Meetups for designers and others in tech to get together and start discussions around technology and startups.
- XX+UX events: Monthly meetups for women in UX.
If there aren’t many design meetups where you live, you can start your own. Beyond attending IRL meetups, staying active in online communities and sharing your work can also lead to fruitful collaborations!
If you’re trying all these things and you feel like you’re not making progress, remember that it takes time. As you immerse yourself in producing more work, your sense of design — and what you consider good or bad design — will evolve. Ira Glass gave a famous talk about the dilemma facing beginners doing creative work:
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
Keep making and creating. I wish you the best on your journey into product design!