How do I get myself a design career?

About once a month I get a random email from an aspiring designer asking me a variation of the question: “I don’t have a background in design but I’d really like to get into UX design. What can I do?”

Most often these questions come from people with a background in data science, journalism/writing, psychology or architecture. I originally wrote about this on the Red Gate blog when I was Head of UX there and to a large extent everything in that original post is still true.

I do have a few new things to add which I thought I’d sum up here rather than keep writing them from scratch each time I receive an email.

I’m afraid there is no silver bullet

In effect, this headline pretty much covers pretty much any advice I or anyone can give you: practice. And, I’d add, if anyone says the opposite, they’re probably lying.

I did not formally study design or had any ‘natural talent’ so to speak. My background academically is in computer science. Becoming a designer is not unlike learning to play an instrument or finishing a marathon: you need to practice (daily?) and read and slowly you’ll get better. Eventually you’ll get better faster.

The thing that really matters to somebody recruiting designers is skill and skill can only really be demonstrated by a strong portfolio and not by certificates.

Very different design disciplines

Its worth pointing out I think that very often saying you want to get into “Design” or into “UX design” is like saying you want to get into “science”. Graphic design for example is a very different beast to UX design. Sure, some underlying philosophies are the same (eg having a strong user-focus) but just because you can design a good-looking flyer does not mean you can (or should) apply for a UX position. Some really good UX people I know can’t design a good-looking UI to save their lives and the reverse is also true.

Here are broadly the different design disciplines (according to me) that more or less align with typical job roles. You should seek to understand each one and figure out which one you should skill up in or which one you already are competent in. (For example, if say you’re a journalist/author, looking for technical authorship/copywriter roles in the software industry is an easier route than trying to become an illustrator and as you have more transferable skills there.)

Interaction Design / UI Design

This is about designing the user interface of a particular bit of software. How it looks, what elements goes where, what sort of data and content should be displayed, and what happens when a user clicks on a control or selects something. And in what order things happen; so the user flow through a product. Here you might use products like Omnigraffle, Balsamiq Mockups or Sketch.

Graphic Design/ Illustration

This is primarily aesthetic and the focus is colour palettes, illustration, layout, typography (fonts). Think logos, flyers, posters, adverts, brochures, ebooks, etc. Here you might use products like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

User Research

This is about talking to actual or prospective users/customers of a product to determine what their needs are, what will solve their problems, and what frustrations they experience in using an existing product. Here you might use techiniques such as ethnographic studies, usability tests, interviews, quantitative/statistical analysis, qualitative research methods (surveys, etc), and persona creation.

Web Design

This is pretty broad but generally refers to designing the layout, content and aesthetics of a ‘marketing’ website. Here you’re interested in navigation, content design, page layout, information architecture, ecommerce and aesthetics. You’ll use a mix of design tools above as well as content management systems (eg: WordPress) and html/css/javascript coding.

Copywriting / Technical Authorship

This is about using the right words when deciding what text to put on a button, headings, title, support documents, help, error messages, tutorials, promotional bits. Besides basic syntax and vocabulary (d’uh) what makes the difference here is tone of voice, ability to be assertive, and skill at guiding users down the right path to accomplishing what they want.

UX Design / Service Design

All of the above. Unless you’re good at three of the above I wouldn’t consider somebody to be suited to fill this sort of role. A good UX designer is able to skilfully bring the above together to create end-to-end product experiences.

Conversion Optimisation / Growth Design

This is effectively using the above to drive product adoption, customer acquisition, and sales. Once again, I wouldn’t hire somebody to do this who’s not good at three of the above in addition to good experience of marketing and ecommerce.

Building your portfolio

This is very often what seems to be the catch 22: You can’t get a job without a portfolio but you can’t get a portfolio without a job.

The good news is that this is not true.

There are plenty of ways you can get a portfolio. As a recruiter I never really cared whether a candidate’s portfolio is the result of a full-time design job or burning the midnight oil doing work for free for a non-profit. These are my suggestions (based on my personal experience) on how to build a portfolio:

  • Be opportunistic. Offer your services for free to a charity, band, startup, or friend.
  • Get feedback. Find a mentor who is good at design, get rid of your shyness, and ask them for critical feedback on what you’re producing so that you can improve faster.
  • Grab some popular/established sites, apps, or products and do a usability or design review of them on your own time. Could be an airline’s booking system, an ecommerce site, a company’s marketing site, an online banking app, or any service/app you use regularly.
  • As a bonus, attempt to redesign them. Create three alternatives.
  • Finally, head over to a site like, signup, and start pitching for projects. If you do one a week you’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve.
  • If you really want to spend some money on a course, buy a few classes on

I’m sure plenty of design professionals may disagree with my categorisations of the design disciplines above but I’ve never heard anyone disagree with an emphasis on portfolios of work. That’s your silver bullet. It just takes a while to forge :-)

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