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)
One of the things that makes design such an interesting field is that designers come to the profession from many places. Because the practice of design overlaps with so many nearby disciplines (human-computer interaction, sociology, psychology, communication, to name a few), many people find a home in product or UX design from an adjacent field. I’m one of those people. I didn’t go to design school, I can’t draw to save my life, and I honestly don’t really understand how Pantone books work. But like many humanities students, I’ve always been fascinated with systems and culture — and design turns out to be a great space to explore both.
I hope that by sharing my path to UX design, those that didn’t follow the traditional route of design school may find that there’s a home for them here, too. I also think that there’s a huge benefit to the design community in embracing diverse perspectives, and making design accessible to new groups of people will improve our community and the things we build.
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.
I never looked into design as a possible profession, because I didn’t fit the stereotypes of what I thought a designer was supposed to be (male, fashionable, probably wearing weird glasses and/or arguing at parties about “craft”), so I incorrectly assumed that I didn’t have many interests in common with designers. I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I actually met one — one of the regulars at my bartending job worked as an early, pre-mobile UX designer. This was my first real introduction to the idea of systems design and user research, and it revolutionized how I thought about design. I started stashing books on design theory and human-computer interaction under the bar at work to read during slow happy hours, and I started spending my nights off at home, studying and practicing. I spent endless hours pulling apart other people’s PSDs and analyzing how they were built. While I had used Photoshop before (once I photoshopped out a porta-potty from a construction photo in my high school yearbook), I started following tutorials to understand the different ways to approach similar problems in the software. I knew basic HTML & CSS, but started familiarizing myself with other web languages like PHP. Like many, I learn best by doing — once I felt comfortable, I also started doing some cheap (or, let’s be real, free) projects for friends to build up a small portfolio.
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.
[A small note about unpaid internships: despite the benefits of my own, I have conflicting emotions about the ethics of the position they put young people in, as well as the type of people these positions exclude. Mic has a great breakdown of some of the main issues facing unpaid interns, from lack of protections for the intern themselves to the larger societal questions of key industries being shaped by privilege. And the tides may be changing: questions of legality aided by multiple high-profile lawsuits mean that the best way for an employer to avoid trouble is simply to not offer unpaid positions. Hopefully, unpaid internships will soon no longer be an expectation of young people trying to break into an industry.]
But this was in 2009, in the midst of a boom of unpaid internships, and taking the position felt like the right call to make at the time for me.
The things I learned, the people I met, and the portfolio I built in my internship helped me land my next position in publishing design. Print design wasn’t what I wanted to be doing long-term, but I was open to learning about it in the hope that it would get me closer to where I wanted to be. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. After realizing my new company had no in-house web team, I offered my help to update and maintain the existing site. By finding a place where my unique skills directly benefitted the company, I was able to assert my value in a convincing way. And I was in luck — the company saw this as a new capability of the design department, and I was first in line to be recruited to help with new digital initiatives.
I’m continually surprised by the usefulness of the skills I learned while working in print design — a space I was open to exploring but never intended to pursue long-term. In fact, much later down the road, my print and InDesign experience helped me land a long-term freelance relationship with a group that ties together some personal passions of mine (poetry and social justice) that don’t always fit into my regular design job.
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.
With that realization, I’ve prioritized working in positions that allow me to be flexible with the type of projects I do. I’ve found that I enjoy “generalist” positions over “specialist” ones, ironically because they give me the ability to specialize deeply in one thing and then switch over to specializing in another. I’m not just interested in learning how to design, I’m interested in learning about all of the things that surround those decisions, too.
I tend to change my focus multiple times in a single job, so finding a job that allows you (or even encourages you!) to do that is hugely beneficial.
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.
Learning all this might mean that you’re doing a lot of studying at night, or working two (or three) jobs for a while. It’s not going to be easy, but you’ll have the opportunity to chase what is interesting to you and see where it leads. You might be surprised where you end up.
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:
- Sarah Johnson writes about growing an internship into a design career in Branching Out
- 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!