How to do an Unsolicited Redesign That People Care About

My most important advice to aspiring designers

When an aspiring designer asks me how to build their portfolio, I always say to redesign something and write about it.

Cue the groans and the “design is more than just how something looks”…

I know, I know.

Redesigns are often frowned upon because so many people do it wrong. But there’s a way to do them effectively. I’ve done quite a few redesigns of my own, and they’ve led to some of the most exciting opportunities I’ve come across in my career. I’ll share them, and my thought process, below.

Make it purposeful

Don’t just mindlessly dive into redesigning. Think about both your personal and design objectives before starting your project. What’s the best case situation that could come from this project?

First, what might the redesign achieve for yourself? Maybe you want to appear as a thought leader, build your portfolio, attract new contract opportunities, or get the attention of companies. All of these are valid reasons.

Second, how might the redesign be useful for the company? This can be many things, such as creating a more relevant visual brand, an improved user experience, a better converting website, or some other business objective. Just don’t fix something that’s not broken.

Left: Cyber Dust V1. Right: My Redesign

One of my first redesigns was shortly after graduating university. I had an accounting degree and almost no work to show. I knew I wanted to attract UX/UI design opportunities and needed to build my portfolio. This was my personal objective.

I came across Cyber Dust, an ephemeral messaging app backed by Mark Cuban. After exploring it, I felt that a lot of the user experience and all of the UI design can be executed better. With that design objective in mind, I redesigned some of the core pages in the app.

I tweeted Mark the link to the above post, and then this happened:

After some conversation and a part 2 blog post, I eventually landed my first real design contract with Cyber Dust. More importantly, this was a great story I could tell in any following job interviews.

Choose the company strategically

Pick a company or design challenge that others care about, and use that as a means to engage a wider audience — people who can learn from your work or are looking for designers to solve a similar problem.

I like to look into the size, funding, and team composition of the company. Do they have any designers? If so, how many? Are the designers split into functional teams? The goal of this research is to find out if and where the company is lacking in design resources. For example if the company only has a few UI/UX designers, then theres a chance that their branding or marketing design isn’t as strong. That’s where to strike. Early-staged startups and companies that do not invest much into design typically have these holes to patch up.

On the other hand, if you’re targeting a big organization known for its design culture and talent, such as Airbnb, things will be more difficult. There’s always room for improvement, but you’ll be challenging the work of many seasoned designers.

Make it timely and relevant

This isn’t a hard rule, but redesigning something timely and relevant will attract more attention. When Medium first rolled out their new Claps feature, I immediately wrote this:

Our redesign of Medium’s Claps

It was a feature change many people felt strongly about. The timing and content of this redesign attracted a lot of readers—making it one of the most popular Medium posts of all time. The piece led to a few inbound connections and contracts, and lots of new followers.

With Cyber Dust, I did their redesign just one day after they announced the app, before most other people’s feedback came in. This made my work more valuable to them.

Scope the work carefully

If you’re looking at a big company like Facebook or LinkedIn, don’t just jump into redesigning their entire core interface. These organizations have tons of people optimizing their brand and user experience for hundreds of millions of people. Facebook had a whole team work on just their reactions feature! All out redesigns tend to miss a lot of the details and business objectives that go into the current design. For large companies, start with a single design challenge (ex. Claps on Medium). If its a smaller company, this scope can be bigger.

Consider the brand

Think about companies like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks. These organizations have incredible brand equity and all have instantly recallable logomarks. While they might rebrand over time, its unlikely they will abandon the key features that make their logo recognizable. If you’re ever doing a rebranding exercise, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the currtent brand.

Recently I wrote a piece on modernizing Canadian Tire’s logo, which is one of Canada’s biggest brands. I chose this company because I literally see the logo everyday. It looks great on storefronts, but the application of it on digital screens isn’t a strong due to its complexity. In updating the logo, I made sure to keep most its recognizable features, which is the green maple leaf over a red triangle.

Branding certainly applies to UI and website design too. If you’re redesigning Snapchat, don’t randomly introduce square buttons and a pastel color scheme. Most companies already have style guides that are appropriate to their brand and audience, and unless those are outdated or inappropriate, they should be followed in your redesign.

Lastly, don’t make a company look like their competitor!

Gather context and make assumptions

You’ll never fully understand the motivation and reasoning behind an existing design unless you work for the company. Perhaps it was created under resource constraints or technical limitations. Maybe there were business objectives and specific applications that the design needed to support. It’s important to gather this context, even if it means making some assumptions. You’re trying to show that you can come up with meaningful design solutions given a set of constraints and objectives.

As an example, people were quick to blame Snap’s design team for its new app design. But that work wasn’t done in isolation. It involved multiple functionalities across the organization and Evan Spiegel himself— who likely had pressure from investors and the Board. The current Snapchat design was likely made with monetization in mind, so if you were to redesign it, consider the need to emphasize ads.

In my Medium Claps article, I assumed that the team had already thought about my solution. I talked about why they may not have done it the way I designed, and provided possible UX and business reasons. People appreciated that perspective.

Be proactive with your work

Remember that a company may not respond to your redesign, and that’s okay. You now have work to use as a conversation-starter with other companies. My Canadian Tire article was viewed by Partners from established branding agencies, which I made sure to reference in my introductory emails with them.

Final story. A redesign actually helped me land my first full-time job at Thanx. After my phone interview with the art director, Mark, I did a redesign of one of the app’s main screens. The phone conversation gave me context about the business and their challenges. I scoped the work carefully, and followed up with a well-timed and purposeful redesign.

My interview redesign for Thanx

Within the same year, I was in charge of the actual Thanx app redesign.

*This isn’t something I’ll recommend to everyone. In hindsight redesigning for a company you’re interviewing for is risky and time consuming. Do it only if you’re really confident in your work.

Final Words

I know this is an exhaustive list of things to consider when doing a redesign, but as you see, the work can be highly rewarding if done with consideration. I hope you’ll give it a try too, and if you do, I’m happy to provide feedback. Don’t hesitate to reach out. Best of luck.

TomYum is a Toronto-based Digital Product Design and Branding Studio. Get in touch with us to discuss your next project. Follow our work on Dribbble.

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