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How to Become a Designer: The Complete Guide

It’s no secret that ours is the age of design. Ever since Steve Jobs placed design at the heart of the experience at Apple, there has been a burgeoning demand for better design.

What used to be once at the periphery of customer experience is now at its very center. From packages to products, there is little in business today that doesn’t demand a designer’s touch.

Being a designer can be massively rewarding - professionally and personally. It’s a rare profession where your work has the potential to be seen and used by millions of people. The financial perks aren’t half bad either - good designers are among the best paid professionals these days.

Maybe you’re completely new to design. Or maybe you have posters of Jony Ive and Saul Bass in your bedroom. Regardless of where you stand in your design journey, this guide will give you a roadmap to building a design career.

We’ve divided this guide into three sections as follows:

 

  • Overview: This section will give you an overview of the design field, including salaries and future outlook.
  • Foundation: This section will help you understand the fundamentals behind building a design career better
  • Education: We’ll help you pick the right education path to become a designer in this final section

 

Let’s dig in!

 

Section I: Overview of Design as a Career Choice

The design field is often misunderstood and misrepresented. To a layman, design is often just the way a thing looks. This understanding skips over the real purpose of design: to impact how things work.

So in this section, we’ll do  a deep dive into design. We’ll help you understand the design field better and give you real reasons to pick it as a career.

 

What is Design?

The design school at UIC defines design as follows:

“Design is about progress. It is the conceptualization and creation of new things: ideas, interactions, information, objects, typefaces, books, posters, products, places, signs, systems, services, furniture, websites, and more.”

This definition is purposefully vague and expansive. Design can be about anything. If you’re creating or conceptualizing something new, you are essentially designing it. A guy painting signboards is as much a designer as a Tom Ford or a Frank Shepard Fairey.

What separates design from art is purpose. Unlike art, you don’t “design for design’s sake”. A designer’s work has clear intent and goals.

As the great designer Massimo Vignelli once said, design is utilitarian.

Image source: TheFutur

More often than not, design involves communicating a message and turning it into action. When a designer creates a road sign, for instance, he has a definite goal:

  • To warn or notify you about something (“bridge ahead” or “school ahead”)
  • To get you to act on the message (“slow down; there is a school ahead”)

This is the same for a UI/UX designer creating a computer alert message, or a graphic designer creating a Christmas sales promotion. The designers in these cases want to tell you about something and, through effective communication, turn it into action.

Essentially, design is a form of conversion. You communicate something (an emotion, a message, or even a sales promo), and convert it into something tangible (a sale, a donation, a positive brand experience).

Thus, a more succinct definition of design would be:

 

Why Choose Design as a Career Option?

Design is a unique field in that it combines the creative satisfaction of art with the financial rewards of an in-demand skill. A skilled designer not only gets to create meaningful work that might be used by millions every day, he also gets paid well for it.

Think of it as being an artist, without the starving bit.

There are financial and creative reasons to pick a career in design. We’ll explore all of these below.

Design Salaries and Jobs Outlook

Designers rank among the most sought-after professionals today. Salaries, however, vary a great deal, ranging from mid five-figures for less technically skilled fields (such as graphic design) to six-figures for UI/UX design.

Broadly speaking, salaries go up the more technical the design field is. Salaries are also aligned with how “close” you are to the customer’s product experience.

For instance, a UX designer’s work in an app is directly used by people every day. A graphic designer creating promotions for the app is abstracted and distant from actual users. Thus, graphic designers get paid less than UX designers.

To give you a rough idea, here’s a quick look at salaries for various design fields according to the Creative Group’s annual salary guidelines:

  • Graphic designer (1-3 years): $39,750–$56,750
  • Graphic designer (5+ years): $67,500–$93,000
  • Package designer: $59,500–$91,000
  • Visual designer: $66,000–$99,250
  • Front-end web developer (3+ years): $80,000–$119,500
  • Web designer (5+ years): $83,250–$118,000
  • Interaction designer (5+ years): $88,250–$124,500
  • UX designer (1–3 years): $52,000–$79,500
  • UX designer (5+ years): $92,750–$138,000

As you can see, salaries range greatly, stretching from $39,750 for a starting graphic designer to $138,000 for an experienced UX designer. Technically skilled design fields such as interaction design get paid more than broad, unspecific design fields such as graphic design.

Salaries are also a function of your location. UI/UX jobs tend to be clustered around tech centers such as San Francisco, NYC, etc. which have higher cost of living.

Salaries for such roles are also inflated by the presence of large tech companies paying above industry average wages. Google, for instance, pays its UX designers $122,204 on average.

(Image Source: Glassdoor)

Design is financially rewarding regardless of your location or specialty. A career in design also opens up opportunities to progress to roles such as “art director”, who are even more richly rewarded (median pay of $92,500 as per BLS).

But it’s not just wages; demand for designers is also on the up.

Businesses are beginning to realize the impact design can have on their bottom line. One study by DMI found that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P by 228% over a 10 year period.

More and more businesses are pivoting to adopt design. IBM, for instance, recently moved to increase its ratio of designers to developers to 1:9 from 1:72 earlier.

In fact, demand for design talent is even higher in top-tier companies. Design in Tech Report found that top tech employers such as Google, Amazon, Facebook are on a hiring spree and increased design headcount by 65% in 2017 alone.

This is the reason why World Economic Forum ranked design-related jobs as one of the top 8 most in-demand professions by 2020.

Which is to say, picking a career in design will help you make money, land plenty of job offers, and keep your job safe for the future.

Not a bad deal, right?

 

5 Other Reasons to Pick a Design Career

Besides the above, there are plenty of other reasons to build a career in design. Let’s look at a few of these below:

 

1. You will have career fluidity

Apart from the financial rewards, picking design as a career option also grants you significant freedom. A designer can work in countless fields, from graphic design to information design.

Because there are no formal degree requirements for most design fields, skilled designers often move from one field to another. It’s not uncommon to find a UI/UX designer create typefaces in his spare time, or for a fashion designer to delve into graphic design.

As Massimo Vignelli was fond of saying, “If you can design one thing, you can design everything”.

 

2. Your job will be future proof

The prospect of automation with AI is an ever-looming threat for most professions. Not a day goes by when you don’t hear yet another doomsday report of robots taking over most jobs.

McKinsey even estimates that as many as 70M jobs in the US could be automated by 2030.

As a creative field, design is largely insulated from disruption by AI. A robot might be able to make dull logos on the fly, but it can’t really think creatively or solve innovative problems (the core of design work).

Even Indeed considers design to be one of its 9 “future-proof” professions.

 

3. You will be happy at work

A survey conducted by AIGA interviewed 9,500 people spread over several creative fields (including architecture and advertising).

The survey found that designers are overwhelmingly happy with their jobs. A whopping 80% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with work. Product, digital, and interaction designers were the happiest among all these roles.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course. Design jobs have all the ingredients of workplace satisfaction: creative challenges, fair remuneration, and plenty of workplace benefits.

 

4. You will have plenty of perks

Design jobs tend to be clustered in employee-friendly industries such as technology, creative agencies, etc.

Unsurprisingly, these industries do a good job of offering their workers plenty of perks and benefits. A survey by Invision found that a vast majority of designers had at least the following perks:

  • Vacation time
  • Paid holidays/flex time
  • Sick time
  • Healthcare plans

Most designers also worked under 40 hours per week. Only those in C-level roles worked over 40 hours.

Here’s a full breakdown of the benefits for designers according to the survey:

 

5. You will have opportunities outside of work

Don’t like your current job? Want to make some extra cash on the side? Dream of owning your own agency or business?

A career in design gives you a great deal of flexibility in striking out on your own. There is a tremendous amount of freelance work for designers. From making additional cash to starting your own venture, designers have a lot of opportunities outside of their 9 to 5.

A quick look at UpWork shows over 25,000 listed freelance design jobs.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg; designers remain among the most sought after freelance professionals.

Opportunities like these are hard to find outside of most professions.

 

What Do Designers Really Do?

A career in design is financially rewarding and opens up countless opportunities.

But what do designers really do?

To answer this question, you have to first understand the many fields of design. What you work on - and how - will depend on your chosen design field.

Let’s look at some common design fields:

 

1. Graphic design

Graphic designers are sometimes also called “communication” designers. A graphic designer essentially creates visuals to communicate a message in a clear, succinct manner.

Banners, display ads, flyers, logos, illustrations - this is all the work of graphic designers.


Saul Bass’ poster designs are a great example of graphic design used to communicate a message creatively (Image source)

If you’re a graphic designer working at an agency, you will be tasked with:

  • Condensing complex briefs into succinct visual messages
  • Aligning visuals with brand guidelines

You’ll usually work closely with marketers and copywriters in crafting these visuals.

 

2. UI/UX design

UI/UX design is concerned with how a product or website works, rather than how it looks. As a UI/UX designer, you’ll conduct user-research, create mockups and wireframes, and borrow lessons from psychology to create a user-experience that is intuitive and effortless.

In a website, for instance, a web designer will decide how a button looks. But where the button should be placed for optimum conversions is the job of the UI/UX designer.

An example of a UI design mockup showing the layout of various elements (Image source)

Think of UI/UX design as the steel frame that gives products their structure.

UI/UX designers work closely with web designers, developers, and at times, marketers to create optimized designs.

 

3. Web design

Web design is a broad term for design work related to websites and apps. A web designer is expected to have a range of skills, including some knowledge of web development.

If tasked with creating a website from scratch, a web designer will first create a mockup in Photoshop then use his knowledge of HTML/CSS/JavaScript to turn the mockup into a website.

Web designers often work closely with developers to create complex websites. It’s not unusual for them to work alongside a team of UI/UX and graphic designers as well.

 

4. Product design

Product design is a catch-all term for a range of design fields, from “interaction design” to “experience design”.

Essentially, a product designer creates, well, products. Given the scope and scale of the project, this might require several skills. If you’re making an app, for instance, you’ll need UI/UX design to create wireframes and app design skills to translate them into a prototype.

Similarly, if you’re making an IoT device, you’ll need interaction design and industrial design knowledge to create the software and hardware necessary for the device.

As Henry Wu, the product design lead at HubSpot notes:

“A Product Designer, at its core, is a problem solver.”

 

5. Other design fields

There are several other design fields apart from the ones above, such as:

 

  • Industrial design, which involves creating hardware products. This can include everything from smartwatches to massive machines for factories.
  • Interaction design, which is a subset of UI/UX design and is focused on how people interact with objects. Figuring out where to place buttons on a smartwatch, for instance, is the job of an interaction designer.
  • Information design, which deals with how information is displayed. Figuring out what fonts, icons, and colors to use in a subway map, for instance, is the job of an information designer.
  • Motion design, which deals with how a design looks and acts in motion. For example, creating a button that moves subtly when you hover over it is done by a motion designer, as is creating animated whiteboard videos.

 

Then there are traditional design fields such as fashion design, interior design, and even niche fields such as furniture design.

If it can be created, it can be designed.

 

Design Combines Several Fields Together

It used to be that good design used to mean “looks pretty”.

But we’ve come a long way from such simplistic notions.

A designer today is expected to fuse knowledge from several fields. A successful web designer, for instance, would know the following:

  • Subjective user-research through interviews, surveys, and user testing reports
  • Objective user-research through data analysis, heatmaps, eye-tracking, etc.
  • Basic psychology to create designs that are easier to consume and share
  • Conversion rate optimization (CRO) to create better converting designs
  • Basic coding skills to turn mockups into working prototypes

This is true for most design fields. A fashion designer can’t really be good at his work without knowing the basics of color theory. A UI/UX designer needs to know user-research if he wants to be good at his job.

Modern design increasingly demands that you combine learnings from multiple domains. This is what makes the work so creatively challenging and financially rewarding.

 

In the next section, we’ll chart a roadmap to building a career as a designer.



Section II: A Roadmap to Becoming a Designer

Design is a unique field in that you don’t need any specific degrees or certifications to become a designer. A civil engineer or an architect can’t practice without being accredited. But a designer can have a thriving career even if he is self-taught.

Indeed, some of the world’s top designers either studied ancillary fields to design (such as architecture) or didn’t study design at all. Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand was largely self-taught, while Dieter Rams - the man who inspired Apple’s Jony Ive - studied architecture.

Google and Facebook’s current heads of design - Matias Duarte and Julie Zho, respectively - majored in computer science, not design.

In practical terms, this means that you can be a designer without ever going to college for it (thought a degree certainly helps). As long as you have the requisite skills (and a portfolio to show it off), you can get a job as a designer.

How you approach your design career will depend much on where you currently stand in your life. If you are young and have the means, a formal degree program might be your best option. If not, you can take online courses to build up your skills over time.

In the section below, I’ll share a few things you need to know before starting a design career. I will also share tips to pick up skills, build a portfolio, and carve a roadmap to become a designer.

 

Get a Foundation in Design Thinking

What design field should you specialize in? Graphic design? UI/UX design? Motion design?

Before you answer this question, you need to build a solid foundation in design thinking. The skills you pick up as a graphic or UI/UX designer are transferable to other design fields, provided you develop a fundamental understanding of how design works.

What exactly is design thinking?

GoodPatch, a Tokyo-based design studio, defines it as follows:

“Design Thinking is a creative and interdisciplinary approach to problem solving which consists of divergent and convergent phases. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.”

That is, design thinking is a way to solve problems by approaching them from the perspective of the user, not the creator.

Design thinking defines both a subjective way of looking at problems, and as an objective process. Although the exact process varies depending on who you ask, all design thinking is essentially:

  • Empathetic and human
  • Tangible and communicable
  • Iterative and experimental
  • Collaborative

There are several distinct steps in this process, such as defining the problem, researching solutions, ideating solutions, prototyping and testing, and learning from the results.

In a way, it is the obverse of the conventional “analytical thinking” process, which emphasizes technical optimization over radical approaches.

Consider the click wheel on the original iPod. This was the iPod’s revolutionary feature that made it possible to browse through thousands of songs on a tiny screen.

The “analytical thinking” solution would have been to use the tried and tested interface - four-way navigation button. Not only was this solution cheap, it was also proven to work.

But because of Apple’s focus on design thinking, it developed the technically complex, unproven, yet more user-oriented click wheel.

The rest, of course, is history.

To become a designer, you have to first understand this mode of thinking. You have to divorce yourself from a purely analytical approach to problems. Rather, ask yourself: how would you design something from the perspective of the user? Why are certain designs the way they are, and if they are, can they be improved (and moreover, should they)?

Essentially, you must be empathetic and learn to see problems from the perspective of people, not just the problem itself.

Before you start picking up real design skills, focus on changing the way you think about design. The better you understand design at a fundamental level, the faster you will pick up design.

Here are some books to help you out:

  • The Design Process by Karl Aspelund: A technical book that breaks down the 7 stages of design - identifying problems, conceptualizing solutions, exploring ideas, refining ideas, defining and modeling solutions, and communicating results on the way to production.
  • Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand: A philosophical treatise on design by the legendary Paul Rand. More than half a century old yet considered one of the most important books on design ever written.
  • Design as Art by Bruno Munari: This short, highly readable paperback explores how design is everywhere around us, even when we don’t notice it. A great book for beginners to understand the fundamental role design plays in our lives.
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman: One of the most popular books on design ever written. Don Norman dives into the ‘why’ of design of everyday objects and delivers some startling insight. Often considered the entry point to UX design.
  • Change by Design by Tim Brown: Author Tim Brown digs into the idea of design thinking. You’ll learn that design is less about inspiration and more about following a well-crafted process and a mode of thinking.
  • The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher: A collection of 72 loosely-organized essays on “visual intelligence”, this book will show you the connection between the verbal and the visual. A great primer to any design field that deals with words - web, graphic, or type.
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug: One of the most important books on web and UI/UX design. Consider it the first stop in your reading list if you want to create anything for the web.

 

 



Pick a Design Specialty

As a professional field, design is quite fluid. You can start off in one design specialty before switching to another. Even if the skills aren’t transferable, the basic approach (i.e. design thinking) remains the same.

But of course, you need a place to start. Which design field you choose to specialize in will depend on a number of factors:

 

  • Learning path: Can you afford to go to college or join a professional course? Or do you intend to rely on self-taught or self-paced learning? Some design fields, such as architecture require professional coursework. Others, such as web design or even graphic design, can be self-learned.
  • Career opportunities: Certain design specialties have more jobs and higher pay than others (refer to the salary ranges listed above). You’ll likely make more money as a UI/UX designer than as a graphic designer, though the former will also likely require a degree.
  • Barriers to entry: Certain design fields require a little more than a half-decent portfolio and some marketable skills. Others, such as UI/UX design, often require degrees and certifications. If you want to start quickly, pick a design field that is easier to break into, such as graphics or web design.
  • Difficulty and technical skills: While this is entirely subjective, there is at least a perception that some design fields require substantial technical expertise. You can’t hope to be an architect without a solid understanding of drafting and CAD tools, for instance.
  • Creative expression: Lastly, consider which field will help you express yourself creatively. Salaries and jobs are nice, but you’ll do your best work if you actually enjoy doing what you do.

 

Besides answering all these questions, there is a great strategy to building a design career that I’ll share with you below.

 

Reverse-Engineer Your Dream Job

One of the best ways to build a great career in any field is to study:

  • The path taken by top performers in the field
  • The job requirements for top employers in the field

This applies to everything from becoming an entrepreneur to building a design career.

Start by making a list of companies you’d love to work for. Then head over to their career site and look for any entry-level design jobs.

Ask:

  • How much experience does the job require?
  • What technical and soft skills should I have before applying?
  • Does the job require a degree? A portfolio?

For example, here are the requirements for a visual designer role at Google. Note how the job requires an undergraduate degree, 5 years of work-experience, and proficiency with leading design tools.