I’ve been living and breathing user interface and product design for just over a decade now, and although I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some incredibly helpful and creative colleagues, my formal guidance (or teaching, as I should probably say) has been rather limited.
In this article, I want to share ten tips that helped me grow and become a better designer, and I hope these tips will also help you while you’re trying to find more solid ground under your feet. In this first part of the article, we’ll start with the first five tips, and the rest will continue into the second part.
This article is aimed at all design beginners out there — willing to learn UI (user interface), UX (user experience), and product design. But before I start sharing my advice here, it would probably be a good idea to first explain who I am and where I’m coming from. My tips have to be grounded in at least some sort of success, right?
I’ve been working as a designer for just over ten years now, which is both exciting and horrifying. I’ve been in almost every industry, spanning e-commerce, charity, hospitality, travel, and startup, mostly as a solo designer. In fact, the majority of my career has been spent shooting from the hip, in the darkness, as I tried to drive design operations forward in a mostly non-design environment — fun! This exposure forced me to stretch my skillset outside of just being a designer concerned about aligning pixels perfectly, to one interested in the broader question of, “Will this sell more products?” Today, I’ll explain why I believe you should try to do that as well.
I now find myself working as a Designer Advocate at Figma. That’s right; I’ve parked day-to-day design work in favor of becoming someone very active in the design community, focusing on best practice design advice and scalable systems.
1. We’re All Faking It
No one really knows what they are doing. I know that “fake it ‘till you make it” is not a new idea which is why I will not be advising you to do that. Well, kind of.
“Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.”
— Amy Cuddy, Professor at Harvard Business School
In the design and tech industry, the first thing we all need to realize is that the vast majority of people really do not know how to get through the day. The best way to become a millionaire in tech is to be granted a penny for every time you will work in a team that has no idea what they are doing but are pushing forward anyway.
It’s not their fault though — it’s the system’s! Our industry has a low barrier to entry, and a lot of venture capital money is being pumped into it, meaning that we’re effectively in a gold rush. With entrance into the industry being so easy and lack of proper benchmarking (Note: this is somewhat contradictory to point 2, but more on that later) around what makes a good designer, software engineer, or product manager, we’re forced to face the facts that it’s a recipe for poor quality products.
Alright, enough doom and gloom. How can you navigate these waters? The first step is admittance. You will persistently work with people who don’t meet your high standards, and you have an opportunity to leapfrog this incompetence if you play your cards right. It’s only at this stage that you can propel yourself fast into a successful career, and not be “left behind” building products you actually don’t want to put in your portfolio.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that it’s important to become a “rounded” employee? Ding-dong, now is your time. Building strong interpersonal skills, becoming someone who is willing to make a decision and run with it, and understanding that if you don’t, someone else will, is where you will make progress.
The very cold truth is that even designers with ten years of experience are asking seemingly silly questions, such as “What is the pixel width of an iPhone 12?” (Hint, that was me this week.) Sure, that’s a seemingly foolish question to ask, but the important thing is that you actually do ask for help (and that’s because you do not and simply cannot know everything).
A previous manager of mine accused me of “spinning my wheels” at the start of every project, which took me a while to understand, but hey, he was absolutely right. How was I trying to work everything out myself going to help the team, and ultimately the business? You guessed it, it wasn’t. Admitting this to myself was a huge step in becoming a better designer, colleague, and professional.
2. Finding A Job Is Really… Really Hard
Hiring is broken. Allow me to share my advice on navigating the oceans of employment.
I was once stuck in a full-time job.
Stuck? Yes, stuck.
I wasn’t progressing, our projects were being rejected or de-prioritized by management, and I spent months designing a mobile website and a separate desktop experience for two products only for these to be swiftly brushed to the side. I had actually been applying for jobs for… 12 months.
You read that right. I was trying to find a new job for an entire year without a single first-stage interview.
I was fortunate enough to have a job in the first place, otherwise things could’ve become very tricky, very fast. The fact is that my portfolio wasn’t shiny enough, I had no real presence in the industry, and no connections to rely on for warm introductions to other companies.
This is what happens when we focus too much on what’s going on inside our boxes, rather than taking a look outside for a moment and do our best to understand the reasons why we’re personally not progressing. At this job, I was the go-to person for all design-related queries, I was driving new money-making initiatives forward (I introduced a newsletter scheme that brought in an extra £10k per month and helped to scale our subscriber list from 60k to 500k in around 9 months), but it was seemingly insignificant on my CV — and soul-destroying, as you can imagine.
So what did I do? I left the country. Actually, the continent. In fact, I moved as far away as was possible — from London to sunny Sydney.
Mmm, now that was quite a drastic move, but you know what? It was required. I needed to reinvent myself outside of the shackles of my existing position. I was working in a place that was failing to help me package up my skills in a way that the London job market required. By the way, I found a new job before I’d even arrived in Sydney. (It’s amazing what a bit of direction can do for your motivation.) In fact, I found an even better job within the first three weeks of this new job I was working at — I became a product designer at a hospitality startup.
You see, the problem with my situation being stuck in London was that I wasn’t looking beyond my computer to appreciate what skills I had acquired over the years and how that could shape a new career projection.
Now, let me stop talking about me for a second, and ask you what you can take away from this experience? Firstly, you are employable. You just need to shape your narrative. Are you interested in the agile design process? Okay, show us how and why. Are you also pretty good at illustration? Show it off. Did you take a short course in front-end development basics? Make it known.
At the risk of sounding a bit like a broken record, it comes right back to being as round as you can as a candidate. We can all design a login screen in Figma (or in Illustrator, Affinity Designer, or any design app of your choice), but can all of us talk about it, write the copy, apply some illustrative flourish, or plan the entire user journey? No.
Knuckle down on where your interests lie on this scale and make sure you shout about it in your job applications because it’s this difference that will make you stand out.
The preaching section of this point is over, let’s get back to some more practical guidance.
So far, in my career (seven full-time jobs), I’ve found positions via:
An obscure internship website that I wouldn’t be able to remember or find ever again even if I tried;
A friend’s referral (the job was poorly advertised);
LinkedIn job search;
Facebook freelancers group;
A Slack channel for Australian designers;
Twitter search and direct messages follow-up.
Are you seeing anything interesting here? Well, you should notice that there is only one job listed that I found via a traditional platform — and guess what, this was the job I was stuck at.
My career has been a series of lucky strikes (although I do believe you make your own luck, however, this is a topic for another article) where I’ve gone into places to find positions that are not traditional, discovering jobs that are either poorly applied for, or poorly advertised; or both, to be honest. Why is this important? The more obscure the application, the fewer candidates will apply, and the easier it will be for you to shine.
Note: This does not apply for people who qualify under point 8 (coming up in Part 2) because your breaks are already lucky.
If you’re struggling to get interviews, the likelihood is that you need to follow a similar path that I did and become a bit more of a detective, finding the companies that struggle to spend large amounts of money on advertising positions. Get yourself into designer Slack groups; dig around Twitter (I honestly searched “product designer London” for one of my positions and direct messaged the CEO who then invited me in for an interview the next week based on my (now old) Behance work), or scour LinkedIn hashtags rather than blindly applying to every company you recognize the logo of.
Starting out your career is tough, and companies need that extra level of comfort when bringing juniors in, so let’s make their lives a bit easier by spelling out our skills and applying them in the places others don’t think of.
3. We’re All Worthy!
Always keep in mind to communicate your value. Following on from the previous point, proving that you know your stuff is really tough. Trust me, I’m the guy that had zero interviews in twelve months, remember?
So how can we package up our skills effectively? My past few jobs have become smoother application processes because I’ve landed on a formula that makes your life and the recruiter’s life easier, and that formula is being concise. Of course, this is coupled with my previous advice on finding jobs that no one else has.
This could be the point where I paste in a list of “here’s how to write an effective CV” articles, but firstly I’m not that lazy, and secondly, I don’t believe in most of what they say because the advice shared in these articles ignores most of what you’ve just been reading about luck.
In saying that, there is a way we can package ourselves up to make sure that when the recruiter spends their customary 30 seconds scanning through our application, we can be remembered.
And it’s incredibly simple: use bullet points. The second way to become a millionaire in tech is to receive a penny for every time you read something where one hundred words are used instead of ten. Be concise! Time is precious, and when someone is scanning (yes, scanning, not reading) two hundred applications for a design job, yours will simply not make the cut if you can’t explain quickly your value. Speaking of which, here’s your CV starter kit:
Note your team or business wins rather than pixel-pushing projects.
Did the company recently go through funding? Were you involved?
Did something significant just happen on a project you worked on? Maybe a boost in subscriptions or signups? Talk about it.
Have you led anything?
What specifically did you lead and can you attempt to describe the impact?
What cross-functional impact have you had?
Maybe you worked in partnership with the engineering lead on X to increase the efficiency of Y — I’d love to hear more about this during an interview.
And portfolio starter:
Who worked on the project;
What you built;
Why you built it;
When it was built;
Where it was marketed/showcased;
How you had an impact.
Think in actions here, rather than describing what you’ve done. For example, having a bullet point of “increased conversions on our signup form by 10%” on your application is something I can immediately be impressed with, and will have the hiring manager nodding in approval (rather than statements such as “worked on the website” which doesn’t tell anyone anything about what you actually did) — and can help get you into that interview with confidence.
I mentioned this before, but it’s worth hammering home. If you have skills different but complementary to the specific position you’re applying for (e.g. you are a designer who enjoys writing), then add these as a footnote to your CV. I also like to include an “ongoing side projects” section in my CV to show that I’m interested in other things.
Note: It’s not a requirement to work on side projects. Being able to “work” outside of work is a privilege I fully appreciate, and the industry should not hold it against those who just want to work their contracted hours and get on with their lives in their free time.
4. Prioritize Networking Over Pushing Pixels
Community is everything in the industry. It took me seven years to realize that the more I invested in the industry, the more I’d get back. Sure, I had a Twitter account with a few hundred followers that I’d occasionally chat with, but this was second to trying to learn Photoshop (yes, I designed websites in this app) or Sketch (also in this app) inside out.
The fact is that no one tells us that we should be working harder on making good connections rather than polishing our designs or code. Why would they? It’s the industry’s best-kept secret. Heck, I wouldn’t have landed my Figma job as a community ambassador without some investment in the community itself!
What does this actually mean then? Dialing back to my big Sydney reinvention move, I decided (you know, because I didn’t know anyone) to get involved in local design events. I immediately fell in love with this access to other people trying to work out similar problems in a safe space.
I would frequently attend a small design critique monthly event (otherwise known simply as a “crit” among designers with more years of experience), which I ultimately ended up running a few of, and also attended a monthly speaker series which encouraged people to share tips if they wanted to. Being someone who loves the microphone, I shared a few tips too at a couple of these events. Then the next thing I knew, I was being asked to co-host — and I jumped at the opportunity.
At the same time, I fell back in love with writing. These two non-designer skills were paramount in becoming a better all-rounder — and here’s that phrase again. Being able to communicate — whether that’s holding a microphone at an event, describing your decision-making to colleagues, or documenting your work in an article — is an incredibly important skill as you move up the career ladder. The best designers (and managers, to be honest) are the ones who communicate often, in detail, and to the benefit of the team. So, start getting into the habit of documenting your work now, and it’ll push you forward a lot faster in the long run.
Tip: Hover around at industry events, maybe dabble in replying to some social media posts of designers you know (or want to know!), pop into some design Slack or Discord communities, and just become well… known. I realize it’s frightening, but as I explained earlier, we do all know something, so grab a hold of that and contribute to the community.
Most big companies prioritize internal referrals to blind applications, so take this and run with it. Become friends with people at companies you want to work at, or just become friends because we’re all human and need real connections with other people.
5. Learn By Doing, Not By Asking
Inspiration is (almost) worthless. We’ve all been there, doom-scrolling through design inspiration websites waiting for the spark to hit, and then ultimately just copying something cool we like the look of even though it doesn’t fit the style of the product we’re working on.
This is not how good design is produced.
At the same time, it’s tempting to ask others for the elixir to achieve perfect designs. However, the reality is simple — practice makes perfect. Or, as Pablo Picasso once said,
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
There’s a lot of truth in this saying.
Having the unfortunate career exposure to being the only designer in the team meant that I didn’t receive the mentorship or direction from a senior designer and just had to… do it (please don’t sue me, Nike!).
I’ve always been the kind of person to try and learn just enough to impress and I’m also a stickler for shortcuts. I was the go-to guy at the university for helping with Adobe Flash, because I spent my evenings bumping into every possible error message that could appear while I worked with the Flash program, and then I’ve learned all the solutions.
So, rather than focusing on asking someone else how to do something, let’s focus on finding the answers ourselves. Google search is really your best friend; and if it doesn’t help, then there are also these designer community channels which I mentioned earlier and which will come in handy when finding the solution to something very fast.
This approach really pays off as you build up more and more expertise in the field. Being self-taught isn’t a problem, especially in a world where you’re one click away from finding out almost everything you need to know about the industry because all you need to do is search and then try to apply the bits of knowledge that you’ve just found.
When it comes to the process of design, the only way we can build user-friendly and scalable interfaces is again by doing, rather than only by reading countless articles about what we might want to do. Open up your favorite design application and start playing. Move elements around, zoom in and out, and keep experimenting.
Important: Nothing can replace a solid foundation in your work. By creating (or relying on, if it’s been defined elsewhere) strong and accessible color palettes, a good typography hierarchy, and an underlying spacing rhythm, your designs will start to “feel” right faster than it takes for you to design a meme and tweet it out.
A few recommended readings (a.k.a. setting up the foundation) before we proceed further
“When Typography Speaks Louder Than Words,” by Carolyn Knight and Jessica Glaser (Smashing Magazine)
“Creating Exciting And Unusual Visual Hierarchies,” by Carolyn Knight and Jessica Glaser (Smashing Magazine)
“A Simple Web Developer’s Color Guide,” by Laura Elizabeth (Smashing Magazine)
“Taming Advanced Color Palettes In Photoshop, Sketch And Affinity Designer,” by Marc Edwards (Smashing Magazine)
“Color Tools And Resources,” by Cosima Mielke (Smashing Magazine)
Color Theory series in five parts: “Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color,” “Part 2: Understanding Concepts And Color Terminology,” “Part 3: How To Create Your Own Color Schemes,” “Part 4: Visual Perception And The Principles Of Gestalt,” “Part 5: Best Practices Of Combining Typefaces,” by Cameron Chapman (Smashing Magazine)
”How To Use Spaces In Web Design With Gestalt Principles,” by Ayesha Ambreen (Smashing Magazine)
“The Comprehensive 8pt Grid Guide,” by Isaac Sheptovitsky (a.k.a. Vitsky)
This should be every designer’s bible!
“Atomic Design,” by Brad Frost
Atomic Design is the concept that underpins almost every design product you will use. Learn the terminology and you’ll become a better designer in a flash.
“Orbiting The Giant Hairball (A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace)”, by Gordon MacKenzie
The best book I’ve read about being a creative, without actually talking about the work. It’s an honest book about the ups and downs of working in the creative industry.
“A Design System Is Not A Sticker Sheet,” by Corey Roth
Design systems are a bit of a minefield, but you’ll likely hear about them every single day of your working life as a designer. This is a great primer on what one actually is, and how you can be equipped with the right terminology for the job.
OK, hopefully by now I’ve helped you set the most important foundations when starting out your design career. I’ll continue with my next five tips in Part 2 that is already scheduled for next week. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you have comments or want to share some feedback and ask questions, then please do so by using the comment form below or drop me a message on Twitter. I’d be happy to help!