How to become a Product Designer
In this article you will learn what product design is about and how to become a product designer yourself. Even experienced product designers can discover inspiring book recommendations at the end of the article.
Product Designer, UI Designer, UX Designer, Unicorn UI/UX Designer, UX Rockstar, Information Architect. The titles are many, but the goal remains the same: designing a user journey that is so seamless, that it fades into the background and ceases to be noticed at all.
As the world around us goes digital, product design has quickly surpassed other design priorities to be at the very top of the list for startups and big businesses alike. This is particularly true when entering a consumer-facing market. These market evolutions have created an exciting opportunity for any creative individual: becoming a product designer.
Not only is this field growing, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to venture into as well. So, to get you going, we’ve made this short and easy-to-follow guide as you get started on your journey to become a product designer.
Table of Contents
What is Product Design?
What does it take to become a Product Designer?
What qualifications or courses do I need?
What’s the right tool to start?
What do I make once I’ve learned my software?
What makes a Portfolio great?
How do I make sure that I'm making the right choices in my work and career?
What books should I be reading during this time?
Before we get going, let’s clarify the basics…
What Is Product Design?
If you’re a beginner, chances are that the graphic design term “product design” being used to describe websites, apps, and digital creations is new for you. Until very recently, it was only used to describe the packaging found on products you could buy in physical stores. But nowadays, it encompasses far more than just that.
But the basic principle remains: in a market that is constantly flooded with new products and ideas, design becomes a paramount concern in setting yourself apart from the clutter.
So, in that sense, product designing can largely mean the process of identifying a user demand in the market, clearly pinpointing the primary problem to tackle, creating a solution for this problem, and testing it out on your core audience to measure and improve your results.
How does one get into product design?
Well, first and foremost, there is no fixed journey to becoming a successful product designer. Some product designers evolve from basic interface designing at small firms, some grow with the steady mentorship of industry professionals, and some simply spot a gap between a user and a need and set off to design a solution for it.
An important aspect to remember is that it isn’t just the technical know that makes you a good product designer; the more important aspect is the process you form to help any user achieve a desired outcome in the most intuitive path possible.
In this way, the ideal candidate is a person with an open mind who readily analyzes existing user journeys and looks to improve them. The practical skills you learn to apply into this philosophy certainly help in making successful designs. Here are some that will help you in that.
Do I need product designer qualifications or certificates?
This is an age-old question. What certification should I have to be taken seriously? Does this specific/time-invested/expensive piece of paper distinguish me from others? Which institution’s name on a certificate do I need to get my foot in the door?
To be frank, there are great product designers out there who have never set foot in a design college, or even joined in on any online courses. But, that also isn’t to disparage the many other designers who have done these things and come out with valuable insights. In the end, it all comes down to you and your learning process.
Udemy App Redesign by Diar Kutllovci
Currently there are an endless number of online academies offering design courses you can enroll in. Udemy and Coursera come to mind right away, if you are in the beginning stages of your learning and looking to build a solid core knowledge foundation to build on. But there are also plenty of free resources available on Youtube with Designers like Will Paterson leading the way. Additionally, there are also easy-to-follow classes on SkillShare if you check out Sandra Bowers classes. Other more focused courses can be found on Hackerdesign.org and Google’s Udacity. If you’re pressed for time, bootcamps (online & offline) are also a good place to start; providing learning at a quicker pace.
Ok, so I don't need a certificate. What's the catch?
You’re right! While you can enroll yourself into every cheap course available online, it won’t necessarily translate to a good practical skill set. That’s why many product designers choose to go the practical route and jump right into work on a design app. In any profession, you will be required to become skilled at working with the tools of your trade to make it. In this case, your tools are your design apps.
Whether it is our trusty vector graphics software, Vectornator, or another graphic design platform, the tools you choose are an extension of you. Learning their ins and outs will allow your designs to improve and deliver individually-catered solutions for specific problems.
Got it, so now I just need to pick the right tool to start…
There are a plethora of tools available. Some can even be run right through your browser; letting you prototype your ideas and tweak interfaces as you’d like them to be. If you’d rather work offline and away from all the distractions; there are plenty of free apps available for your design needs.
If the thought of learning these tools alone is giving you anxiety, don't worry! Chances are, there are infinite tutorials up on Youtube or even on your design software’s website/blog that will guide you through the basics along with more complex processes as well.
Along with getting comfortable with the software of your choosing, it's also important to organize your work efficiently and neatly. A good workflow is what sets regular designers apart from professional ones. Everything from file organization, file naming, being aware of file compatibilities, and even how you organize your layers in a project has an impact on your success.
Because if there is one thing that is every designer’s pet peeve, it’s people who create a mess of a work with more layers than actual colors in their work. This skill set is what will lend you to perform well within team structures, where shared work is how project's are usually accomplished.
Working with many unnamed layers can be challenging, but unfortunately this is a common practice among amateur designers.
Okay, so, once I’ve learned my software, what do I make?
For starters, you want to understand the basic premise of product designing, like we mentioned above. It’s all about the user, what they desire, and how to deliver it to them in the most intuitive way possible.
If you’re fresh out of bootcamp with no projects to pursue, then why not design something that you feel is valuable? Working with a self-driven motivation for solving a problem is great fuel for inspiring creative work. Take up ideas and work you’ve had passing thoughts about but never really closely looked at.
All this will lead to your own professional portfolio. And that is what you need most after your resume to land work. If your only qualification is that you’ve done a bunch of courses on Udemy, but you’ve got a portfolio that boasts of passionate, creative work then guess what? Chances are you’ll be better at explaining your designs and creative process in an interview than the person who just copied their bootcamp trainer’s tutorials and made similar designs.
To make a portfolio that checks all the right marks, focus on the following:
▸ Design for the work you want to be doing
Just like you tailor your resume for various opportunities, you absolutely need to tailor your portfolio for the jobs you want to pursue. If you want to design for the growing business of mobile e-payment wallets, then showcase works of icon designs for art studios. One major pitfall of many bootcamps and design crash courses are that people start replicating the work taught everywhere. Always take the knowledge you gained before to apply it into a completely new setting. That’s where the real creativity blossoms.
▸ 3 is the magic number
Don’t worry about making a portfolio lengthy enough to be printed as a graphic design book. All you need are at least 3 solid projects that you know from inside out, which you can freely explain the workings behind and rationale for to make your impression in an interview. Each project has got its own problem-solution story, so focus on that and build up from it when creating projects for your portfolio.
▸ It’s always a work in progress
You might be thinking that your portfolio needs to be made of works that are so perfect, they couldn’t possibly be made any better. This is yet another common mistake. Thinking that your works cannot be improved upon is just not true, especially in design.
Take a closer look at your designs and see where they are lacking; aesthetically or functionally, and take time to improve them. During this process, you’ll be forced to dive into different methods of product design with newer tools and options previously not explored in your trusted design app.
Look at visual references and apps you really enjoy, and really closely focus on what you like about them. Don’t worry about making completely unique work, such a thing just doesn’t happen that often when everyone is trying to break the mold. Worry about making a design that really works well for the problem that it is trying to solve.
Your portfolio will also make you focus on your end user A LOT.
Ultimately, it is the end user and how they use your design that dictates a project's success. They might love it, or they might take to Twitter and write a rage-filled rant thread. Get to really know your core demographic well. Talk to User Researchers and other friends/coworkers. Explore surveys, user interviews, and questionnaires to see what it is they wish to get out of their experience and where the existing gaps are. A lot of the problems will already be identified for you by your users, it’s simply a matter of tackling them with patience.
Dealing with these problems means thinking like a user, not a designer. Focus on great UX/UI design from the start, as this is a hygienic factor. What does that mean? It’s something that is instantly noticed when not present, causing great dissatisfaction, but something that is completely overlooked when done right. This can be frustrating to come to terms with, but as a designer it’s everyday’s work so better get used to it! Your users don’t care how they reach the dropdown menu in the app, they care that it is done with the least amount of taps.
How can I be sure that I'm making the right choices in my work and career?
Seek out people of your trade. Where there is passion, there is a community. If you’re keen to share your work and bounce ideas off of other professionals in your field, then look for meetups, conferences, and social gatherings occurring around you. The design community is very creative and they love to talk about it! Even a simple discussion with people from the design community can inspire you towards new projects you’d never even thought about.
And if getting to a physical meetup isn’t possible, join online communities. Places like Reddit, Prototypr, DesignerNews, Dribbble, Medium’s UX Collective, Creative Bloq, and countless others are bursting with creative individuals all showcasing their works, and many will even guide you through their process step-by-step. These sources offer weekly mailers, regular blog updates, and valuable insights into the minds of other designers and their problem-solution based approaches.
For any designer, this is a treasure trove of information that is as good as attending any online course. Build relationships with these people by engaging with them online or offline. From there, it is easy to identify someone as a possible mentor, if need be, who you can talk to about your thoughts and worries. Slowly you’ll be able to develop a nice back-and-forth with them; getting constructive feedback on your questions and precious inputs from an industry professional. It really can be just that easy!
What books should I be reading during this time?
If you're looking to build your knowledge base, you should definitely check out our other blog post on the graphic design books you must have on your shelf.
For literature more focused on this specific field, you can give some of these books a try:
The Design of Everyday Things
by Don Norman
This U.S. bestseller is thumped as the bible of cognitive design, and rightfully so. With examples of all kinds of designs, and simple rationales that guide you through their mistakes and highlights, this is another easy read to get you going.
Don’t Make Me Think
by Steve Krug
With an apt title, this book is the first one you should start with. It offers the main fundamentals that every product designer should be considering in their works. It's easy to read and gets to the point quickly, much like the designs you’ll hopefully be making!
Start With Why
by Simon Sinek
Famous for his Facebook share worthy musings, Sinek’s book zeroes in on the patterns of thinking that let leaders inspire those around them; tackling the “Why”. Thinking about the “why” becomes key in understanding what you’re facing, and solving it with an unfettered passion that will no doubt be reflected in the final product.
The Best Interface Is No Interface
by Golden Krishna
Yet another apt title for your work, this amazingly funny look at the designs around us goes beyond your computer screen to analyze the designs that surround you via three principles. Like we said before, three is the magic number!
While we’ve aimed to provide you with a definitive guide to follow in becoming a product designer, we all know by now that this is never a fixed journey. What really matters is identifying which methods above speak to you and work for you the most. In adopting new methods of designing and working, it is important not to overburden yourself with the pressure of change.
Once you feel comfortable to click into a design software, give Vectornator a try. We hate to toot our own horn, but it’s designed to let all levels of designers easily get to work and start forming their ideas into beautiful creative works. Oh, and also it’s a great example of product design in itself. #HumbleBrag
Images by Unsplash.com, edited in Vectornator.
June 1, 2020