Design / UX: Getting That First Job
Summary: Focus on the work first, job applications and marketing second. The most important component of getting work as a designer, is having a strong portfolio of work.
I’ve taught hundreds of students UX Design at General Assembly, Springboard and Truth About Design. Aside from the fact that I’m learning a lot, I’m also inspired by the courage and tenacity of my students. Most of them have years of experience in a previous career and are starting in a new career that is completely foreign to them. The strength of character required to undertake such a feat is enormous.
I also noticed how hard it is to find a job when you’re just starting out as an entry-level UX designer — even in areas of the world that are full of UX design jobs.
That got me thinking: if I had to start over again today, how would I do it?
This post will answer that question.
1) I just graduated from a UX design training program that taught me the basics of UX and gave me a fledgling network.
I’m not sitting around at home trying to teach everything to myself. I have a certification that verifies that I at least know a little bit and have been vetted by other skilled designers.
I strongly recommend you do this. It shaves years off of your learning curve and puts you in touch with skilled mentors. Also, humans are social animals; we always do better when we work together.
2) I’d still have the same basic personality traits and habits.
- Strong work ethic, aka caring deeply about your craft, committed and disciplined about improving
- High internal drive, aka hunger, passion, self-motivation
- Curiosity, aka “I don’t know what will happen, let’s try it out”
- Positive outlook on life, no complaining
- Enjoy reading
- Don’t watch much TV
- A healthy, balanced lifestyle
- Growth mindset
These traits are important to success in any field, but especially in UX, where things are changing so rapidly and there’s so much to learn. You’re a lot more likely to get a job if you work hard and are pleasant to be around(surprise!).
3) I need to work a part-time job, to pay the bills until I get a job in UX.
Because realistically, very few of us can just sit around at home and work full-time on getting a job. So we’ll assume you’re working 20 hours a week and have the rest of the week to work on getting a job in UX. That means you have another 30 hours a week that you can focus on getting a job in UX.
You’re a lot more likely to get a job if you work hard and are pleasant to be around(surprise!).
I’d split my time into three big areas:
- Design work (20 hours/week)
- Job applications (5 hours/week)
- Marketing/networking (5 hours/week)
Most people put marketing first. This is accurate for most professions, but not for designers. I’ll tell you why further below.
Design work (20 hours/week)
One of the best things about this profession, is that no one asks what school you went to or what degree you earned — they ask you “what have you made lately”? The most important component of getting work as a designer is to hone your craft and have a portfolio of thoughtful work. You can get a job with almost no marketing at all if your work is world-class and you can talk about it well. So when you’re not marketing or doing applications, what you should be doing is:
- Reading everything on design
- Find things that annoy you, then redesign them
The most important component of a design career is to hone your craft and have a portfolio of thoughtful work.
In my experience, you meet the best people at volunteering events and the worst people at tech-networking mixers. People that dedicate a good chunk of their free time to worthy causes, tend to have a good character. If you don’t have a good character yet, doing stuff like this will build it, so do it even if you don’t want to. Find places where you can volunteer your design skills. Some good places in the bay area are Youth Radio, OpenIDEO, and Inneract Project.
Hackathons are another good place to spend extended amounts of time with people and go through an adventure together. My personal favorite is the My Brother’s Keeper hackathons, where you mentor kids, but here’s a list of all Hackathons in the USA.
In my experience, you meet the best people at volunteering events and the worst people at tech-networking mixers.
Read everything there is to read.
The first three years after college, I spent about 4 hours a day reading blogs and design books, until the content started repeating itself. The best way to become good at design, is to immerse yourself fully in all aspects of the craft. Smashing magazine and a list apart are good sites for beginners. Nielsen-Norman Group is an excellent source of reference material on usability.
If, while browsing those sites, you stumble across a book that sounds interesting, buy it and read it. But to start with, focus on a handful of good general resources, then branch out from there.
If you love doing design, why wait on someone to pay you for it?
Find things that annoy you, then redesign them.
This is another way to create opportunities for practice. Instead of doing some arbitrary UX challenge you found online, look for things in your environment that frustrate you. Channel that passion into a case study of how to fix the frustration. Use the skills you’ve recently learned, and apply them to how to fix the frustration. If you don’t know what tools you need to communicate your solution, find out which ones you need, and learn them! Remember: your job as a designer is to explain things.
A good example of this is Deborah Adler. Her grandmother took the wrong medication by mistake, and got very ill — because the pill bottles were poorly designed. This inspired Deborah to redesign the bottles. The design got adopted and rolled out nationwide by Target. Deborah saw a problem, created something useful to solve it, shared it with the world, and the world took notice.
Deborah saw a problem, created something useful to solve it, shared it with the world, and the world took notice.
Another good thing about having a “work first” approach to getting a design job, is that on every interview you get, you have new things to tell about yourself. It keeps you from telling the same, stale stories from your design bootcamp on every interview. It boosts your confidence, because even though you don’t have a job, you are still making progress in your growth, and you get that drug-high you get from creating something. And if you love to do design, why wait to do it until someone pays you for it?
Another good thing about having a “work first” approach to getting a design job, is that on every interview you get, you have new things to tell about yourself.
Job applications (5 hours)
The two biggest mistakes I see new designers make are
- They don’t apply enough, and
- They look for jobs every day.
I’ve done this as well: I’d look at a job application, and get excited in my mind about the idea of working there. I’d obsess over what to write for hours, send out my application, then feel accomplished, because I sent out that application. I’d tell my friends and family about how I sent out an application. I’d eagerly wait for a response, and if I got rejected, I was crushed for days. Sometimes I’d ask for feedback why they didn’t want me. If I didn’t get a response, I’d hold grudges at the company.
This process is ineffective and emotionally draining. There’s a lot of reasons why you won’t get a job, and none of them are personal. IDEO gets 20.000 applications a year. Google gets 2 million/year. They give your application one glance-over and if it’s not a fit, that’s it. It’s not fair, but if you see it from their perspective, it makes a lot of sense. They are trying to find outstanding candidates for their roles, among a pool of mediocrity, and they don’t have time for your hurt feelings.
Eventually, I started sending out applications to ALL THE JOBS that sounded like a fit, and a few that weren’t — because who knows, maybe they will see my resume and see that I’m a fit for a different role? This worked a lot better, but the big problem was that I was applying to jobs all week, and not doing much else. There aren’t so many jobs out there that you can apply every day full time, so I’d start seeing them repeat on the job sites, wouldn’t know what else to do with my free time, and start to feel stuck.
Companies are trying to find outstanding candidates for their roles, among a pool of mediocrity, and they don’t have time for your hurt feelings.
What to do instead:
Do all of your applications on Sunday night. Apply for ALL THE JOBS, once a week. That way, they are at the top of people’s email inbox on Monday, and they have all week to process it. It also has the advantage that you know you’ve applied for all the jobs, you’ve accomplished something meaningful, and you can now focus your energies on other things.
Create a cover letter that gives three reasons why what you’ve got to offer is a good fit for the company’s needs. Keep it brief, attach your resume, and send it out. Once you get good at this, you’ll be able to easily send out 5–10 applications per hour.
Marketing (5 hours/week)
I never marketed myself, because I was shy and didn’t know how to do it. It also felt weird to talk to others about how great I am. But that’s not what good marketing is. Marketing, at its core, is making people aware that you exist, and of what you’ve got to offer. Once I got that, it became easier and more organic to do it. So if I had to start over, I’d do more of it, sooner.
Marketing, at its core, is making people aware that you exist, and of what you’ve got to offer.
Under marketing, I count things like:
- Reaching out to my network and getting informational interviews
- Posting useful things on Quora, design blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter
- Talking to recruiters
- Networking events
There’s been plenty written about how to reach out to your network and do informational interviews at companies you like. That’s super important and would be my first go-to as a new designer. It builds your interviewing skills, helps you refine your story, and gets you out of the house!
Posting useful things on social media
It’s also important to get your name out there, so I’d work hard to add useful things to the conversation going on in design. People need to be aware of you, and what you can bring to the table.
Be careful not to write stuff just for the sake of writing. Most designers are introverts and can totally tell when someone is being inauthentic. Add to the conversation when you feel it bubbling inside of you and you really have something to say. If you don’t feel you have anything to say yet, allocate the remaining marketing hours to doing more design work.
Recruiters can be useful
Recruiters can be useful, because the good ones have access to jobs that aren’t posted on job boards, and you get someone to look for jobs for you. The best ones I’ve worked with were Aquent, The Creative Group, TEKsystems, and Talent Ave. Apex Systems got me a cool contact at Google, but overall working with them was a bad experience.
Networking events usually suck.
Networking events are the lowest priority. If you look at the science of how bonds are formed, people form strong bonds by spending extended amounts of time together, and by going through either adventures or hardships together. Standing in circles with a drink in front of your chest for 90 minutes, talking about surface-level things, does not meet those criteria. Networking between people, just like networking between devices, only works if there’s a strong connection. If you don’t have a connection, it’s very unlikely that people will remember you and care enough to help you down the road. Also, the really talented people are too busy working to attend the average event.
Networking between people, just like networking between devices, only works if there’s a strong connection.
To get a job in UX as an entry-level designer is tough. How can you demonstrate to employers that you’re capable of doing the work, even though you have no track record?
Stick to a plan. Don’t apply aimlessly for jobs all week — reach out to people, both online and in the design community, continue honing your craft, and add useful things. If you want to do design, why wait on someone to pay you for it? Designers take notice of other designers that do this, not once or twice, but over a period of, say, 2 or three months. Those people get jobs.
I send an email newsletter every Sunday with the news and links I thought were interesting and what they might mean, plus any new posts I wrote.
Every week a few hundred new people sign up. You should sign up too — it’s pretty good.
Special thanks to Lauren Jow, one of my best UX students, for using her storytelling expertise from her previous career, to help me improve this post.