How to become a designer with zero design background
On seeking out design and making it happen
The other day, I wrote an introductory article on Product Design. The most frequent follow up question has been, “How did you get a design job at Facebook?”
This article indirectly addresses this question by highlighting the challenges I faced as someone who had little experience with design starting out, and how I overcame them. I hope it’s useful for others in a similar position!
In summer 2015, two of Facebook’s first designers returned to its headquarters to give a Q&A. In their 7 years working together at the company, Soleio Cuervo and Blaise DiPersia laid the groundwork for Facebook’s design culture and worked on features foundational to its experience, including the Like button, Groups, Videos, and more.
As a Facebook design intern, I was lucky to be able to see them but was particularly excited because Blaise, Soleio and I share allegiance to another shade of blue — that of Duke University, our alma mater.
This was exciting, because while Duke is generally a great school, it’s never been an easy place to engage in design or find other designers. “Dribbble” is foremost something our athletes do well. We don’t have design majors, and companies don’t come to recruit for it — not even Facebook.
While it’s difficult pursuing any passion when you don’t feel the support of your environment, it’s particularly hard when you’re trying to enter an industry of craftsmen and perfectionists.
When I decided to pursue a design career during my junior year, I knew the bar was set high without any idea of how to reach it. I felt disconnected, because it seemed the people closest to me neither understood design nor took an interest in it. There’s only so many “Oh you do design, so you make things look pretty, right? Is there any money in that?”s I could take before I started to doubt what I was doing.
Being in the audience was a personal victory for me, because I had gotten here despite my lack of training and a clear path. Blaise and Soleio were the examples that proved somehow, this could be done.
So, I asked them:
“How did you thrive as a designer in an environment that doesn’t overtly embrace design?”
In short, you need to seek ways to find design beyond your space, find design within your space, and bring design into your space. Let’s dive into some detail — here’s some more of their advice and my thoughts:
Find design beyond your world
No design near you? No problem. As with most things on the Internet, there are many resources for learning about design and connecting with other designers for support — you just need to know where to look. Here are some helpful links:
For honing your craft
- Find the tools — this summary is a good start
- Learn the art from design-specific courses or bridge your existing development knowledge with design through HackDesign
- Seek inspiration from places like Dribbble and Codepen
- Study processes
For finding peers
- Join communities like HH Design
- Participate in conversations on Twitter (say hi to me!) or Quora
- Write about parts of design you’re interested in on Medium (hey!) or other writing outlets
For keeping up with the industry
- Read the news (in healthy doses), both non-tech, tech, and design trade specific
- Read curated design blogs, like Codrops, Sidebar, or HH Design
- Follow the design stories of companies like Uber and Facebook
- Watch products on Product Hunt
- Track UX patterns on pttrns
- Familiarize yourself with popular style guides, if only to understand references and component nomenclature
Find design in your world
While it may seem like you can only find design beyond your world, in fact design is all around you. Even if you’re not reporting to a design job or school each day, there are many other outlets in life to practice and learn about design.
Make design thinking a habit
You don’t need a studio or devoted class hours to hone your craft — you can practice design anywhere, even in the spare minutes of your day. You just need to look at the world around you. As Facebook Design Director Margaret Gould Stewart illustrates, some of most mundane-seeming items can influence important design decisions:
A Facebook Designer Reveals How Her Favorite Objects Inspire The Site's Design
Ever since she was a child, Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook's director of product design, was "interested in artifacts…
The next time you use a product, consider its design. What problems does it solve for you? Does it solve them well? Why did its designers make the choices they did? How does this solution compare to others?
This will not only improve your product thinking abilities but also prepare you for the critique portion of interviewing, as Andrew Hwang details here:
A Guide to Interviewing for Product Design Internships
“We reviewed your portfolio, and we’d love to interview you for our product design internship. What times will you be…
Seek design beyond titles and descriptions
You don’t need to be taking classes on UI/UX to be learning about design. In Facebook Design Director Julie Zhuo’s “dream design curriculum”, less than half of the courses she mentions even have “design” in the title:
Seeking design lessons beyond formal training can actually make you a better designer. As former Spotify design lead Tobias van Schneider puts it:
“Every designer, from advertising to product deals with a different set of problems. But in the end, each designer caters to us humans, regardless of what problem we are trying to solve. The day I became a better designer was the day I started looking outside the design industry for inspiration. It was the day I started reading books about philosophy, psychology, art or science.”
The Day You Became
A Better Designer
by Tobias van Schneider
Some people ask me why I don’t write about “real design topics”
Design is fundamentally about solving real problems in the real world, which takes a more holistic learning approach than any one subfield can teach. Exposing yourself to varied subjects improves your craft by broadening your perspective and your knowledge base. For example, when she transitioned from architecture to UX design, Ling Lim was able to use her past experience to examine her current role more critically:
“As an architect, whenever we are presented with a project brief, we often have to travel to the project site for studies before starting on the design. We would sleep on site, eat by the site, breathe the air at the site and talk to the locals who are using these existing spaces. That often makes me wonder, why is it that product owners and UX professionals often start designing for a demographic without first living the problem?”
With a unique outlook, you also become a better team contributor because you can see solutions and ideas others may not consider. As a Public Policy major, I often give other designers feedback steeped in ethics, psychology, politics, and other schools of thought. I’m much more at home discussing Dan Ariely than Dieter Rams:
I can’t always recite design industry terms, but I can talk about people’s behavior and beliefs. This power is as critical to the designer’s role as an advocate for people. Designer Beth Dean’s piece on emotional intelligence in design shows exactly why:
None of this is to say you can just waltz into a design position without practical skillsets — you still have to know how to work your tools. When I arrived at Facebook, I certainly had some technical catching up to do. But while tools and patterns are important to know, they are easy enough to pick up on the job. Moreover, they come and go — your perspective, potential, and attitude toward learning are what define you as a designer. They are what matter in the long run.
Bring design into your world
While reflecting on products and studying diverse subjects are helpful to becoming a designer, they lack the satisfaction of having live forums to connect and express what you love doing. You may just have to be the person that spurs those forums by introducing design to your world.
They say one of the best ways to learn is through teaching. If there is no one in your community teaching design, seize that as an opportunity to learn through teaching it yourself. You may not be an expert, but that doesn’t mean you lack valuable ideas and experiences to pass onto others. By calling attention to design and associating yourself to it, you may even find “your people”:
Partners In Crime: The Power of Finding Your Creative Collaborator
Everyone has the capacity to be more creative.
As a junior, I partnered with HackDuke and Ashley Qian to teach a presentation on Product Design. Neither of us had much teaching or design experience; we worried people wouldn’t come. Despite our nerves, about 40 students came to our first session. Many people even came up to us afterword to ask us more. The numbers only increased when I taught the session again before HackDuke 2015.
Through teaching this session, I not only learned to communicate better as a designer but also met new friends and helped others start on their paths into the field. Teaching can improve yourself and your community, regardless of your qualifications. So, teach design at your school or a hackathon. Write Medium articles about design. Explain graphic design to four-year-olds:
Explaining graphic design to four-year-olds
50 minutes to explain graphic design to a reception class at a primary school. How do I do that?
Feel free to use my presentation as a starting point:
Bring your world into design
No matter how much you bring design into your community, nothing compares to having the closest people in your life understand and take interest in what you do. For careers like design that entail a lot of criticism and subjectivity, the support of your friends and family can be crucial to overcoming your self-doubts. You may just have to be slightly proactive to make this happen.
Give people some credit
Just because you don’t feel the support of those around you doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to give it or at least humor your passion. You may even find that people are more interested in design than you originally realized.
Remember, design is fundamentally about communication and understanding. Your family might not be explicitly interested in typography, layout, or grids, but they may have opinions on the designs of this year’s presidential campaigns and what these mean for the election:
Trump's Campaign Hat Becomes an Ironic Summer Accessory
An old-school, wide-brimmed rope hat - some in white and navy, others in red and white - has seemingly become the…
The lesson here is to just reach out and express your interests despite preconceived notions of others. Talk about what you do and why you love it. Bring friends to your design job. Argue about political campaign designs. Ask engineers for design feedback. Liberally invite others to design events. Send your parents Dribbble links. You never know what sort of new connection you’ll form by doing so.
Speak their language
Design is a very wide field, with deep roots in just about everything. So even if you find someone else interested in design, know that they might not necessarily be as excited about typography as you are. Design exists in just about everything — why not engage people in design by relating it to what they do?
My dad couldn’t tell you the difference between UI and UX, but he could understand my passion when I interpreted his career in pharmaceutical drug development as a particularly constrained design challenge. Now, we have heated discussions on articles like this:
Connecting with a developer, on the other hand, might entail literally learning some of the languages they use to execute on the designs you produce. Below are some great explanations for why this is important and how to improve. The gist of it is that when you relate to others, they are more receptive toward relating to you. Plus, relating to others is great practice at being a designer!
How Not to Make Your Engineer’s Life Completely Terrible
or ‘I’m a Designer, I Don’t Need to Understand’
“Because an imposter is always trying to fit in, she views her differences from her peers as something to overcome….Focus on the strengths of being different rather than the weaknesses….you belong here. You are going to be great.”
— Julie Zhuo, “The Impostor Syndrome”
If my story is any testament, you don’t need a design degree to be a good designer. In fact, the diversity of your knowledge and experiences might just make you a better designer, because you bring something new and important to the table.
You do need an aptitude for learning and a support system to succeed on this path. In absence of formal training, find opportunities to practice design in your spare time. If no one around you is teaching design, be vocal about the craft and teach it yourself. If no one is discussing design, bring it up and include people in the conversation. You’ll surely improve your own abilities and drive awareness in those around you.
When you do end up a designer, be generous and give anything you’ve learned to your community. Help people with improving their portfolios and telling their stories. Single out people from your schools and hometown in a crowd.