Pivoting from Graphic to Product Design

A designer’s resource guide to breaking into product.

You might be here because you’re at a career crossroads, looking to specialize or do a career cha-cha. You may be yearning for more high-impact work that grinds your mental gears. Or, you just stumbled upon this article out of sheer curiosity…(what is product design, anyway? Hold tight - the answer to that question will be covered very shortly.)

Over the years, we’ve interviewed a vast number of talented designers, and a consistent story emerged. They had portfolios chock-full of compelling marketing sites and digital ad campaigns. They wanted to break into product, but didn’t know where to start. If that describes you, then this article is your silver platter.

1. First... What is Product Design?

A Product Designer crafts the user experience for a digital product, such as a web or mobile application. Product Design is a unique cocktail of user experience, technical architecture, strategy, visual design and business acumen. Exceptional Product Designers are adept communicators, excellent problem solvers, effective moderators, and skilled creatives. They’re T-shaped folks with a core talent for UX… paired with an insatiable thirst to learn about complimentary skill sets like front-end development, conversion funnels, workshopping and product strategy.

Product designers are humble, yet confident humans that can take an idea from a “what if…” conversation to an elegant, functional prototype. They dig to the core of problems by designing workshops and processes that uncover a product’s users, their needs and the features needed to meet their goals. Most of all, they’re great listeners, and are in constant pursuit of relevant insights. From these learnings, Product Designers are able to execute full-fledged design systems complete with complex UI patterns, compelling copywriting and effective funnel optimization tactics. Their work has deep impact for both the client’s business and the end user.

They ponder Pirate Metrics and the Lean Canvas, and dive deep into whiteboarding the unknown when they don’t understand a nebulous concept. They feel a deep-rooted responsibility to advocate for the user and empathize with their needs, while working collaboratively with folks from a variety of disciplines and with varying degrees of technical competency.

2. What differentiates Graphic Design from Product Design?

It’s highly measurable. Graphic Design is inherently subjective, while Product is easily measurable. Product Design is heavily driven by data: it’s at the centre of a beautiful venn diagram comprised of analytics, business metrics, and qualitative research. Graphic design is primarily focused on evoking emotion and connection through strategic aesthetic choices.

It thrives on constraints. In the Graphic Design medium, creativity thrives on visual exploration. For product designers, creativity thrives within constraints. We’re most effective when we’re handed a challenging business problem, and tasked with solving it through a cycle of empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing. We’re happiest when digging deep into the “why,” rather than wading in perfect pixels. We prefer spending time in Google Analytics over long walks through font libraries.

It’s alive! Graphic design is often static, with occasional interactivity. Products are deeply dynamic, and rely on human interaction to increase the value to their user over time. As a user, you are able to create your own experience by creating, editing, updating, renaming, and deleting content in a product. For this reason, the limitless intricacies of human interaction must be accounted for in the design.

3. How do I break into Product Design if I don’t have any relevant portfolio pieces?

Quite literally break. products. Product Design is all about patterns. We’ve found that one of the most effective ways to learn is to follow design flows and identify opportunities to carve an “unhappy path” on popular applications. This will show you how large companies like AirBnb address their edge cases. Focusing on the flow of the application rather than the design of individual screens is integral to understanding the systemic nature of this design discipline. We’ve included a number of our favourite resources in the Appendix at the end of this article to send you down the right path.

Other ways to build a product portfolio:

  • Hackathons - An amazing way to tackle tough problems with other passionate people, and create portfolio pieces with real-world impact.
  • Side Projects - A great way to demonstrate personality and passion in a portfolio is to complete a side project or self-imposed design challenge. These are great ways to focus on a soft spot where your portfolio is lacking. Never designed a native app using the Material Design framework? Design a prototype and document your process.

Tangent Alert: Hey so, TWG… What are your feelings about unsolicited re-designs? We’d recommend veering away from re-designing a major product like Facebook, Twitter or AirBnb. Chances are, their design team of 20+ designers have already solved a great deal of over-arching usability issues. Opt for a smaller product (such as a charity dashboard or a web application for an early stage startup) where you can have real impact while demonstrating your ability to solve muddy real-world problems without clear-cut solutions. Document the sh*t out of your process.

4. I’m considering formal(ish) design education. Should I pursue B School, D School, a Bootcamp…

…or a trip of “self-discovery” in the mountains of Peru?

While the Peruvian mountains have been said to facilitate unique methods of self-discovery 😉, we’d recommend a combination of traditional(ish) education and UX specialization. This helps to establish a baseline understanding of the industries you’ll be playing in, paired with the applicable skills needed to design digital products. Many of TWG’s Product Designers studied design or business in traditional college or university settings, and took continuing education courses in UX design and Front-End Development to break into Product Design.

While the ubiquitous should designers code debate continues to attract lip service on the Internet, we’re seeing the rise of another conversational undercurrent: “should designers go to business school?” There’s a distinct case for taking this route if you’re interested in business-focused organizational impact. However, some pairing of visual design training would still be required if you were to choose this educational path.

If you’re hoping to go all-in and change careers quickly, a bootcamp may be the best fit for you. This is certainly the fast-track method, but will make you über employable. Bonus points: It’ll help you speak the language of product design right out of the gate, which is a huge advantage in this buzzword-ridden industry. 🤓

Formal(ish) education is important, but the entrepreneurial hustle to make, test and break something over and over can out-shine in-class learning in many cases.

Other Informal Learning Channels:

5. What do you look for when hiring Product Designers?

Breadth of Experience - We look for folks with a proven track record of launching successful in-market, cross-platform products. A solid combination of Native iOS and Android applications paired with a suite of responsive web apps is the sweet spot for demonstrating experiential breadth. Bonus points for experience with emerging technologies like AI, VR, Chatbots, and iOT.

A focus on process and proof - Like many product-focused agencies, we have a major soft spot for browsing process work and scanning success metrics. The fidelity of these outputs is secondary to the thinking, so don’t be afraid of showing rough whiteboard sketches. In fact, that’s what we’d prefer to see. Showing rough, yet compelling process work is the mark of a seasoned designer. Bonus points for showing your very first iterations, failed attempts, learnings, and invalidated designs.

What are are the qualities of a great Product Designer?

  • Adaptable - You need to be able to pivot quickly, while not getting hung up on past ideas. You’ll wear a lot of hats in this role, and will need to adapt.
  • Humble - Your work will be continuously open to critique. Learn when to listen, and when to add context to your design decisions.
  • Empathetic - Empathy is quickly becoming the human-centered design buzzword equivalent of Agile, but for good reason. Product Designers are able to empathize with the people they’re designing for.
  • Problem-solvers - You’ll be tasked with solving tough problems. How you approach them will determine the success of your products.

6. What should I consider when searching for my first Product Design role?

It depends. We’ve found that a role that’s primarily focused on Product Design, yet occasionally affords you the opportunity to dabble, is the most ideal scenario. That’s what you’d find at a place like TWG. We live and breathe product, while occasionally dabbling in marketing design to communicate what makes our clients’ products awesome.

If you’re just starting out, look for a startup tackling a problem that deeply resonates with you. Apply for product design internships. Don’t be afraid to start out again as a junior product designer. You won’t be re-starting, you’ll be passing “Go” and earning your right to tackle higher-impact investments in your career. Park Place, here we come.

7. What are some common misconceptions about Product Design?

“Is it related to Industrial Design, aka the design of tangible, 3-dimensional products?” The short answer: No. In many cases, digital Product Design is a two-dimensional medium. We work on digital art boards rather than 3D materials like wood and metal. Charles and Ray Eames would agree. Digital product designers don’t work at Umbra, unless it’s to design their back-end inventory management systems.

“Your job is just making things pretty, right?” is one of the worst things you could say to a product designer. An interface is so much more than what meets the eye. It’s a carefully crafted puzzle of form and function.

Whenever someone tells me my work is “pretty” I don’t take that as a compliment. -@verorromero, Design Lead

“I thought only product companies could employ product designers…” Some agencies, like TWG, focus on product design while working on a number of client products simultaneously. Although behemoth product companies like Facebook and Twitter coined the term Product Designer, you’ll find PD’s working in startups, agencies, and consultancies alike.

8. #Realtalk time: Do I have what it takes?

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re wanting to break into Product Design:

  • Am I open to having my work regularly open to critique?
  • Am I comfortable running workshops and owning a room?
  • Am I comfortable with complexity and ambiguity?
  • Am I open to lifelong learning?
  • Am I able to confidently manage competing priorities?

9. Are you hiring?

Maybe! You can always check to see if we’re hiring Product Designers here.

Humble brag moment: TWG has an audacious goal of building one of the best Product Design teams in Canada, and we’re well on our way. We’re always looking out for the best candidates, but we’d rather play the long game to find the perfect designers.

The Pitch: You’ll provide deep organizational value by working on a wide range of products for enterprise companies and high growth startups. These verticals tick the following boxes: Finance, Education, Travel, Entertainment, and Emerging Technologies like AI, AR, Wearables, iOT and VR.

Our People: You’ll get to tackle some of the toughest problems of your career while collaborating with a highly skilled team of Product Designers, Product Managers and Developers. We all collectively give a lot of sh*ts, and live to take our craft to the next level. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

Want to get on board? Check out our careers page for opportunities to join our friendly & wildly talented team.

10. Final Thoughts

Without relevant portfolio pieces, finding Product Design opportunities can be very difficult. It’s the old chicken and egg story.

So, go forth and craft your own story. Designing your own personal narrative will help to focus your attention on the industry or products that resonate most to you.

If you can put in the work, document and showcase your process, get uncomfortable and effectively sell yourself in an interview setting (while remaining open to critique), chances are you’ve got what it takes to pursue Product Design as a career. Here are some of the reasons our design team got into Product Design:

Appendix

At the beginning of this article, we mentioned a silver platter. Well, here it is: a list of our favourite product design resources and tools (for beginners and veterans alike). Check it out on Google Docs, and add your own resources if you like!


TWG is a digital transformation studio with offices in Toronto and New York city. Want to talk to us about a Design or Engineering project? Email us at hello@twg.io. Have a question for our design team? Let’s chat in the comments below, or feel free to e-mail us at design@twg.io.
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