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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

How to Become a Designer at Any Stage of Your Career

Thinking about a career in design, but not sure where to start? As a self-taught designer, I came later to the game than most, and I did my fair share of exploring before landing on design research.

The good news is, no matter what stage of your career you’re in or how far afield your background may seem, if it’s something you aspire to, it’s entirely possible to find your niche in the design world.

Here’s my quick cheat sheet on setting yourself on the path to calling yourself a designer.

1. Understand the Designer Landscape

Newsflash: Design isn’t just about how a thing looks. Your first step as you forge down the path toward a career in design is to understand the kinds of roles out there and decide what kind of designer you want to be.

UI, UX, visual, interaction, motion, research: Which do you want to pursue? If those titles put you in a tizzy, it’s time to understand them. There’s no one-size-fits-all primer, but you can start here to get a taste of the differences.

If you’ve done your research and still aren’t entirely sure which role will best suit you, fret not: Ignore the job title for a minute and focus on the design challenges that are most intriguing to you. Your focus will naturally narrow itself toward answering questions specific to one of those roles. For example, if your biggest questions are about why people use a thing, or how, a research role might be for you.

If you’re still not finding an obvious fit, know that the lines among these roles are changing every day, so go for the design challenges you enjoy and see where you land from there.

2. Make, Make, Make: Practice Makes Perfect

It used to be that there was no go-to spot for design learning. When I first started digging into design work, there wasn’t a strong centralized place for learning about it: I spent a lot of time—too much—culling and curating resources. Lucky for you, years later and this has changed: You don’t have to build your own curriculum anymore, because there are plenty of great ones already out there!

Here are the top teach-yourself-to-design resources to dive into:

  • Design Tuts+: This is the Holy Grail of practical design lessons, covering everything from graphic design to Photoshop to web design to drawing theory.
  • Gibbon: Gibbon has a wealth of “playlists” for learning. Read up on storytelling and copywriting (yes, those are design skills, too!), or create and share your own set of resources as you go on your own design-learning journey.
  • Hello Designer: Remember when I said I’d spent too much time curating resources for learning design when I first started out? Enter Hello Designer, the fruit of my labor. I did the hard part of putting those resources together, so now you don’t have to. (You’re welcome.)

3. Think Like a Designer

Thinking like a designer doesn’t happen overnight or through a single tutorial. Understanding mental models, recognizing core interaction flows and design patterns; these are skills that are built up over time. So, start now! The more you know and can talk about design, the more you build up an archive and a repertoire of knowledge to work through, return to, learn from, and iterate on.

How do you learn how to think like a designer? Scour websites like pttrns and lovely ui and start keeping track of what you like and don’t like. What details are you noticing and why? Then start unpacking why you have those preferences.

If it sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t—it’s likely you already have an instinct for a particular aesthetic if you’re interested in pursuing a career in design. You probably have a sense of what makes a thing well-designed or why certain designs work—you just have to learn to tap into that.

Can’t pin it down? Try this next step.

4. Talk to Other Designers

You will learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know by talking to other designers. So find people in your network in the field, or reach out to designers at companies you admire, and see if you can pick their brains. Ask them why they think something is good or bad or great. Notice the details they notice and understand why. Learn what they look for and where.

Understanding their thinking patterns (and yours) can help you improve your own skill, collaborate with others, and gain insight on the decisions distinguishing competing products in the design world. Talking to designers is also a great way of building your vocabulary and beginning to formulate how to defend your (or someone else’s) work. Articulating why a design works or how it fails is a skill not everyone has: Talking to people who live it day to day will help you exercise that muscle and stretch in the right direction.

Think of it as catching up on all the design critiques you missed by not going to art school.

5. Take a Class (in Person)

Don’t have a bunch of designer friends you can start bugging? You can also take a class. There are many reasons taking a class in person will give you a boost and lots of local courses to choose from. For in-person classes, aim for subjects that are harder to learn and improve upon on your own. It’s easier to do solo reading on design thinking than to design and iterate on typefaces or app flows alone—those exercises may be better served when discussed in a larger group than created in a vacuum.

You can find classes at specialized schools like Tradecraft and General Assembly, or check out continuing education classes and workshops offered at your local college. The latter is often a better bang for your buck, but do your research and see what’s best for you.

6. Get to Know People

To be a good designer, you have to understand people. Get to know them and try to feel their pain points. What are people motivated by? How do they make decisions? What delights them and frustrates them? What experience are you creating for them, and how will that make them feel?

No matter which part of the design process you’re interested in, all roads lead to designing an experience for people, so make a point of learning everything you can about them. Work on your listening skills and on building empathy for others to really get at the core of what people are feeling in different experiences. Listen to those around you and try to feel what they’re feeling and why, and think about how your designs might impact and improve their experiences. The nice thing about empathy is you can build it any time, anywhere, so get started!

7. Run With a Project

This can be the scariest part, but the best way to learn design at this point is to just start doing it. So find a project and get going! It doesn’t have to be a paid gig—in fact, a side project is probably better at this stage in your design education—the important thing is that you just start working on something.

Interested in visual design? Design a logo. Interaction? Prototype an app. Design things you will in six months be embarrassed to show anyone else—it’s OK, that’s part of the process! We’ve all been there. Start with the basics and go.

8. Show Your Work

Don’t be afraid to start sharing your designs, even when you don’t think they’re good enough. Guess what? They might not be! But it’s important to get feedback on them, to have someone tell you about an existing pattern you didn’t know existed, to join a community that will help you grow long down the road, to show and share your work, and iterate bit by bit with the help of others.

Over time, you’ll notice that the feedback you seek changes, too. As you become more seasoned in your craft, you may seek feedback that is more detailed and specific, right down to the smallest pixel. And you may find yourself more strongly debating (or even discrediting) feedback from others. That’s great! It means that you are transitioning into a being a designer with informed opinions, confident in your talents and understanding of what makes a design successful.

If you feel strongly enough to defend your own designs, you’re likely at the point where you can help others in their design process, too. Repay the favor and give feedback to other designers, just like they did for you. The feedback cycle never ends, no matter how senior a designer you become. Embrace it!

Photo of colored pencils courtesy of Shutterstock.