It’s okay if you didn’t go to design school

How one humanities student found a home in design (and why more should consider it)

Nikki Clark
Jun 27, 2017 · 8 min read

My winding path

Going into college, I knew that I was interested in the social systems behind communities, especially online ones, but I didn’t have a solid understanding of where I could take that passion outside of academia. Like many, I started Freshman year as a Psychology major, but soon shifted to English and Sociology. Most of my friends also were in Humanities, and most didn’t have solid career plans outside of grad school.

When targeting a career in UX design, learning everything I could about the surrounding spaces, including UI design and development, helped me find my footing.

I was fortunate that in the next semester, my limited portfolio and desire to learn landed me an internship at a small screenprint and web design shop. Although it was unpaid, it was invaluable to me. I was exposed to many different types of design and had access to a huge library of design books. I had freedom to explore directions on small client projects, and was also provided the resources to explore some of my own initiatives. Having a professional designer to help curate and guide your own self-learning is crucial as a new designer, especially if you haven’t gotten this guidance in school.

Even if your path seems winding and strange, if you continue to explore avenues you’re interested in, the skills you learn will often end up being valuable.

My next jump was to a full-time web design position on a small team, which finally allowed me to explore architecture, strategy, and UX. Small companies are great when you’re still searching for your niche — you are exposed to a variety of types of work and also explore new techniques quickly with little bureaucracy. I even found new interests, like building modular content management systems, that I could have never anticipated. I will always love the web, but I eventually found that I wanted more freedom in the type of design work I had. So when I found a studio that seemed full of varied and interesting design projects, from planning mobile applications to imagining the future of the connected home, I was all in. Combining that variety of work with a small team of smart, talented people means that work is always interesting at THIRTEEN23!

Some things I’ve learned

If you find that you’re the type that ends up taking winding paths through your career, consider that it might be part of your personality, not just a product of circumstance. You may continue to approach future work with that perspective, and this can work to your advantage.

A good job isn’t an end to your winding path, it’s a step that allows you to explore your varied interests and pushes you to find new ones.

Moving across professions may benefit you as an individual designer, but it also benefits the profession as a whole. Many people arrive in design from even more disparate fields than my path, and often these people are the ones most capable of addressing systemic problems within design and within our design outreach. They come with fresh perspectives and outside knowledge from their previous fields that traditional designers might not have insight into. If designers focused on embracing these newcomers and becoming design advocates, our work would stretch much further.

Lastly, some advice

For those that don’t go to school — know that meandering career paths are perfectly okay. Know that there are going to be things you miss when you skip design school. A lot of them. After comparing my own experience with that of my coworkers who went to design school, there are certainly some gaps! To start with, you’ll need to learn how to take criticism productively and how to manage working with clients. You’ll have to explore your own design ethics, which is harder in a world of budgets and ROI. You’ll have to develop your own technical skills and manage your own creativity. And you’ll have to create your own network of people you can lean on and collaborate with. You’re going to have to learn these things on the job, and it’s probably going to be painful. You’re certainly going to make some missteps along the way, but if you work at it, and always strive towards empathy, it will get easier.

Other perspectives

In her article Branching Out, Sarah included some great resources for people looking to break into design. Here are some places to get started if you’re interested in learning more about other ways people have gotten their start:

  • Natalie Vanderveen writes about moving from a large company to a small one in David vs. Goliath.
  • Women of Silicon Valley showcases some of the interesting ways people have broken into the tech field.
  • The Great Discontent features in-depth interviews with many different kinds of talented designers. You might be surprised how much you have in common with designers in other fields!

The Garage

Read more about our team’s thoughts and experiments at thirteen23, a digital product studio in Austin, Texas.

Thanks to Scott Staab, Sarah Johnson, and Lani DeGuire.

Nikki Clark

Written by

systems design, ux, social science, culture | Sr. Design @ USAA |

The Garage

Read more about our team’s thoughts and experiments at thirteen23, a digital product studio in Austin, Texas.