So you want to be a designer?

I decided to write a full series on how to become a designer starting from scratch. If you’ve been thinking about it and really have no idea where to start, hopefully this guide will help you. The tech industry absolutely needs you. This is a “build your career from the ground up” guide to becoming an employable designer. One that if I were mentoring someone new to design, would want them to read and reference.

My methods are certainly not the definitive way to do things. They’re just what I did to get to where I am. There are plenty of ways to become a designer and about a million sites out there which can help you. I plan to reference many of them. I’ve used them all myself.

Who am I anyway?
Currently I’m a Senior User Experience designer at Amazon. Prior to that I built and lead an 8 person design team at FanBridge for just about 3 years. Prior to that I owned a small design agency for 4 years building brands, marketing, and websites for about 250 clients. I have about 12 years experience in design and 7 in coding. There are people with much more impressive resumes out there than me and you should certainly listen to them.

Everything I know how to do was 100% self taught. I didn’t go to school. And guess what; You can do it too. The only thing you need is determination and time.

This series will be full of opinions, lessons I’ve learned along the way and what I consider to be common sense. I plan on covering topics from user interface design to people skills. I encourage you to challenge everything I say and find your own answers. I welcome debate and feedback. (Which by the way is another part of this series and is in my opinion crucial to becoming a great designer.)

Each part of this series will cover a specific topic. I will frequently refer you to other websites in order to learn more deeply about a subject. (E.g., I will recommend you take an entire 12 hour Lynda.com video tutorial series about HTML, or to read Noah Stokes article on AListApart about CSS Positioning.) You should stop and go out and take the course and come back when you’ve finished. Take your time with this process. Really dive in and learn these skills, you’ll need them as we progress.

Use this series as your educative guide towards building a complete skill set as a designer. There are a great many resources out there which explain things with much better skill and depth than I can in this series. Anything you read here is recommended to you because this is exactly how I got to where I am today.

How long will it take?
That really depends on you and how much effort you put in. It would not be unrealistic to expect to be employable as a junior designer within 12 months if you work hard.

How much will it cost?
Aside from a membership to sites like lynda.com and tools like Adobe Creative Cloud it’s absolutely free. Anything that I suggest to you which costs money are tools that I use and pay for myself. (Should be affordable even on a shoe string budget.)

Do you mentor anyone?
It’s something I strongly believe in. I’d absolutely answer any questions you have or even give you some feedback on the work you’re doing. You can email me here.

What do you mean employable? I have no experience on my resume.
Everything I do, you can do (better?). Having had the experience of sorting through a digital sea of resumes as a hiring manager, I mean what I say when I say: it’s not about where you’ve been but about what you can do. If you can design well, the offers will come. By the end of this guide you will have some projects under your belt and a portfolio site to call your own.

Introduction to the bigger picture

Design isn’t just simply opening Photoshop and pushing pixels around until they look pretty (although sometimes it’s exactly that). It’s a combined set of skills which all work together in unison. The more you know in each respective area, the more informed your decisions are.

In my opinion, everything should begin and end with the user in mind. When you think more deeply about it, we’re crafting experiences for people. We may be covering digital design in this series but design extends to everything in life.

  • When you sit in your car, how are the controls laid out? What’s well thought through? What isn’t? Is it obvious how to connect your phone to bluetooth? Are the gauges easy to see in daylight and night?
  • When you go to the grocery store, are there carts always available? How helpful is the staff? How are the isles laid out? Do they make sense? How is the check out process? Where are the pain points?
  • When you turn on your blu-ray player, is it easy to connect to the internet? Does the UI get in the way of the content or simply enhance it? When you connect to Netflix from your player, how many steps does it take? Did you find that experience easy or frustrating? Why?

“Unicorn” is a term that floats around the tech industry quite a bit. Shawn Borsky on Medium (go read the article) defines unicorns as being “designers that can create outstanding identity, websites, web or application UI, user experience flows and studies as well as implement their work. Basically, a talented design generalist.” I see where he’s coming from and in many respects he’s right. Especially about not heralding the “unicorn” as the be all end all. But, perhaps we shouldn't get so caught up in defining ourselves. I've found that the more I try to define myself the more I limit my potential.

Is there a structure or concept we can grok that allows us to tailor our skill set and continually grow towards becoming a great designer? I tend to cringe when I hear people use buzz words (now watch me use one, LOL). My favorite visual metaphor which we will use in this guide continually is "becoming T-shaped".

You're like great! Now what the hell does being T-Shaped mean?

Being T Shaped

In Valve's employee handbook they define “T-shaped” as: “People who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T).” I think this is a model to aspire to. It’s been my model and has served me incredibly well.

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In your first job at a tech you will inevitably have your hands full crafting digital experiences of some sort (websites, web apps, software, device platforms, apps). Working at a small startup means you’ll be expected to do more. Companies are trying to get off the ground and often times can’t afford to pay for multiple heads. You’ll have to think about and design end to end experiences:

  • How does a user step through this particular experience?
  • What does the user interface look like across multiple devices?
  • How can we minimize UI and use interaction?
  • Why is this button on the left instead of the right?
  • How do we set up a user test? What questions do we want to ask users without being too leading?
  • How do I bridge the gap between my qualitative instincts and what the quantitative data is saying?
  • How do I earn trust with stakeholders and sell my ideas?
  • How do we make this better for our users?
  • Am I actually solving a customer problem? If so, which? Is it the right one?
  • How is this going to get built?

This is probably going to sound a little scary but I am actually going to recommend you learn how to code html, css, and some javascript/jQuery. I consider it a crucial part of being T-Shaped. Much like an architect needs to be familiar with the individual systems and components of how a building is built in order to design it well, you should be familiar with how digital things are built. Knowing how to front end code is not only empowering but it will make you incredibly marketable as a designer. (Huh? What’s front end code? Don’t worry I’ll explain this later. To those of you who came to the logical conclusion that if there is a front, there must be a back; you’re correct and more on that as well in a future post.)

One last note. Take your time with this. Teaching yourself how to do something requires a tremendous amount of patience, especially with yourself.

You'll get frustrated and probably even have a couple melt downs. That's pretty normal. You're making brand new neural pathing in your brain which requires a lot of effort, practice and tenacity. Don't get discouraged. Realize that YES, your designs will probably suck for a while. Everyone has to go through that stage. Keep going. I promise, sooner than later, you will look back and laugh. Or you'll cry. Either way, the end result being that you now have an incredibly well paying stable job doing something you absolutely love.

Read this next: Getting yourself oriented