How to Become a Product Designer Without Formal Training
Honest and practical advice I give to those looking to get into UX or Product Design
Early in my career, I attended a conference for budding designers. Each speaker tried hard to reach deep into our souls, to inspire the designer out of us. VPs of Design sauntered across the stage expounding the ethics of design, offering their thinking on Design Thinking, or just presenting a bunch of cool shit they’ve worked on.
These are important topics, no doubt. But if you are trying to get into UX or product design without formal training, chances are you‘re most curious about…
“How the fuck do I land my first job as a Product Designer?”
Since I’ve been a designer, I’ve had a number of former classmates and folks in my network reach out to me about this. The story’s usually the same: “I want to work in tech, but I don’t want to code. I want to do something creative, but I’m not artistic. User experience design intrigues me, and I see you do that. Any advice?”
Here’s the honest truth and practical advice I give them.
Allan’s New Workout Plan 💪
Note: this is not for those who have had formal training, went to design school, or have worked as a designer before.
The goal: 3 projects 🏁
Becoming a UX Designer does’t happen overnight, so know what you’re working towards: a portfolio with 3 projects. Going forward, everything you learn and do should get you closer to completing 3 sample projects for a portfolio.
Everyone’s circumstances are a little different, so these projects might come from anywhere: classes, bootcamps, personal side projects, work, freelance gigs or through close friends. Design a small app you wish existed, or redesign your most (or least) favorite app. Just find a way to work on design problems you have to think long and hard about. Down the line, you’ll have to explain these projects in depth.
Learn interaction design
- Read Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. This book was my entree into design. It’s a simple but powerful read, and it’s considered the bible of web usability.
- Practice wire-framing a variety of UI elements on pen and paper. Learn when you should use a dropdown menu versus a radio button and when a button would be better than a link.
- Recreate an app experience you use every day. Some examples are logging in to Twitter app and adding a new event to Facebook or a calendar. Using pen and paper, draw simple boxes and arrows to show transitions between steps or screens. Repeat.
- Learn these key terms: flow, personas, user journeys, mental model, onboarding, use case, low vs. high fidelity prototyping, and user-centered design cycle.
Learn visual design
- Learn to use Sketch. It’s the most popular tool right now for visual/UI design, and you’ll find plenty of tutorials online. It’s free if you’re a student. Full disclosure: I use Figma, which behaves very similarly to Sketch, but isn’t as popular.
- Choose one screen from one app or site you use every day. Recreate it in Sketch — exactly as it appears in the app or site. Take special note of colors, vertical & horizontal spacing, font, and font size. Repeat.
- Read Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton. Understanding typography is extremely high leverage when it comes to upgrading your designs from amateur-ish to beautiful.
- Learn these key terms: visual perception, gestalt principles, and accessibility.
Learn user research
You’ll hardly ever design something just for yourself, so it’s essential to understand how other humans think and see the world. Experienced designers maintain a healthy amount of skepticism towards their own intuition and consistently rely on feedback from user researchers and others to check themselves (lest they wreck themselves).
- Learn how to set up a proper research study and how to avoid asking leading questions. Understand how researchers recruit people for studies. Learn about qualitative vs quantitative research.
- Learn these key terms: User interviews, usability testing, contextual inquiry, heuristic evaluation
Learn about Design (with a capital D)
Designing digital products is still very new, but rooted in the much older industrial and graphic design.
- Start paying attention to good design in your everyday life. You’re constantly surrounded by the work of designers. Identify your favorite chair, building, poster or app. Then, ask yourself why it’s your favorite.
- Read Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It’s not specific to UX or screen design, but many design principles are universal. It’s considered essential reading for all designers.
- Watch Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix.
- Watch Helvetica. A whole documentary about a font? Yup.
Things you don’t need to do to 🙅♂️
Here’s a list of things that many junior designers think they need to do, but aren’t requisites for landing your first job. I’d recommend focusing on the above first.
As a designer, you won’t need to code in your day-to-day, but you will work closely with software engineers. Some designers know how to code (I do a little), but many do not. People that can code and design have horns on their foreheads, and we call them unicorns 🦄.
Be a strong visual designer
I’ve worked with brilliant designers across varying levels of visual design skill. It’s an important part of a designer’s skill set, and it’s helpful for winning over non-designers who equate visual design to all of design. But you can get far in your career without being an ace visual designer.
Don’t be discouraged by the delicious eye candy you see on Dribbble. Experienced designers know to take it for what it is–great visual design inspiration that’s often over-designed, impractical, and unrealistic.
Blog, tweet, and network
You don’t need to act like your design heroes to become a designer. It was a long while before I realized that the majority of good designers in the industry are not visibly active on social media. They do great work at their companies, are great leaders within their teams, and go home without tweeting about it.
Recognize selection bias. The most visible designers you see are the ones that put themselves out there, but they are just a small sample of the design industry as a whole.
Pretend to be an expert
Hiring managers don’t expect junior designers to be design experts, so don’t try to sell yourself as one. They’d rather hire someone who’s self-aware and honest about their skill level, than someone who’s unconsciously incompetent.
Make work you’re proud of right away
“I know what looks good, I just don’t know how to make my stuff look good”
There will be moments when you’ll be staring at the pile of poop on your sketch file, wondering if you inherently lack the magic possessed by the wizards that made that cool thing you saw on Dribbble.
Remember, your first few projects will suck. They just will. Every person in a creative role experiences this. But crappy projects are not roadblocks. They’re stepping stones; you simply don’t become an employed designer without them. So finish those ugly mockups with gusto and move on. It won’t feel like you’re making progress, but you are!
Things to know about your first design role
What is in-house design?
Unless you work at an agency, your job likely won’t be designing new apps or sites every month. In-house designers like myself work on a team to support one app or platform. The bigger the team, the smaller the scope of your projects will be.
The size, or scope, of your projects and the amount of time and effort you’ll be expected to put into them will vary. Some might take a day to design, build and release. Others may take months. Here are some common examples:
- Small project: Designing a way for users to turn notifications on or off
- Medium project: Designing how users will add, edit and delete images attached to their messages
- Large project: Designing how new users get set up on an app for the first time
What is enterprise software?
You probably have ambitions to work on cool consumer apps you use every day (e.g., Instagram, Airbnb, or Reddit). The reality is that you may start off at a less sexy enterprise software company, so learn the difference!
Enterprise software companies are business apps used to run companies. Software for human resources, project management and IT are examples. Instead of designing for broad groups of people, you may be designing for accountants, HR managers or IT managers.
Enterprise software design generally lags behind consumer software design because many companies are slow to abandon legacy features and products. There are many exceptions. However, the selective user base and complexity of enterprise software can present satisfying challenges for designers, especially those just starting out.
- Make a portfolio. Get started now. Finish 3 projects by any means necessary.
- Learn Sketch.
- Read Don’t Make Me Think, Design of Everyday Things, and Thinking with Type.
- Pay attention to the design around you.
- Learn UX patterns by recreating flows and screens from apps you use every day.
- Trust the process. Accept that your first few projects will suck. Don’t be discouraged — everyone starts this way.