Design as a career path? Yes, you can.
The potential to create emotional connections is what drives many creatives to choose design as their field of study and career. It’s what drove me to design, and what still fuels me years later as I lead design at RBCx. We design products, services, brands, and marketing campaigns that engage millions of Canadians in new and compelling ways. It’s not only incredibly fun, but critical to the success of our business.
If you’re like me, you chose design because you grew up loving art. I was that kid with the ‘gift of drawing’, so in university I picked a subject that allowed me to use that gift while also holding a so-called ‘real job.’ Parents like that.
And there were so many jobs to choose from! In university, I learned a designer can become a specialist and design logos like the legendary Paul Rand or Saul Bass, or typefaces like Claude Garamond and John Baskerville (do those names sound familiar?). Or a designer can push the envelope, like David Carson, and seemingly break all the rules to create a unique portfolio and a little chaos. Designers can also strive to work at the world’s top advertising agencies, like Ogilvy or Publicis, and work on campaigns for some of the greatest companies in the world.
I loved it all, but at university, I was most intrigued by the fairly new subject of designing user interfaces and maybe one day becoming the next Jony Ive. I’m still not there some twenty years later, but it sure has been fun trying.
Yes, designers create products too!
In the world of user experience design (also called user interface design, digital product design, or, simply, product design), designers require an abundance of skill sets and experiences. Gone are the days of merely designing a poster or billboard for a product someone else was responsible for creating. Designers now also create the products we all use today, or at least control how easily they can be used. As a result, designers are more critical to the success of a business than ever.
The best of us recognize this shift and study a whole new suite of subjects in addition to the traditional design curriculum, like ethnography and behavioral economics to better understand our customers, or Agile methods to be better partners in the product delivery lifecycle. On top of filling typical design roles, many of us stretch ourselves and gain workplace experiences in areas like product management or engineering. At RBCx, we hire talent with not-so-traditional career paths and experiences, because we know broad skill sets and backgrounds help us discover and deliver unique products and services.
To get more specific, here are the fundamentals I recommend for every seasoned or aspiring designer who is in or wants to move into the field of UX/UI/digital product design. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers a few essentials I believe are critical to success in this still relatively new and ever-evolving field.
How to start creating products people love
- Just do it.The most cliché of clichés, but relevant nonetheless. Don’t wait to be hired into a product designer role. Don’t wait for someone to show you how. Product design is about building systems and creating utility. There are any number of systems and utilities to build, so build them.
Start with a personal website or portfolio piece as your training ground to learn toolsets and participate in the entirety of the product development journey, from concept development through execution, launch, and refinement. It shows initiative and empowers you to start your learning journey on your time.
- Immerse yourself in consumer research. I love to think of the product designer as “the voice of the customer” when everyone else is focused on delivery timelines, scope creep, bug bashing, and getting to market. But who’s thinking about what actually gets to market? This is the domain of product designers. If you don’t truly understand and have an empathetic lens of customers’ needs and wants, what you take to market will be flawed and your market won’t respond. To build great products people want and will use, do your research. In-depth Interviews (IDIs), diary studies, user testing, and listening to client calls are indispensable when it comes to understanding your customer. Do it all, and do it constantly.
- Learn the fundamentals. Of course you need to learn Figma, or Sketch before that, or Photoshop before that, and the dozens of other tools, old and new, that will always be part of your world. But, to create both beautiful and functional user interfaces, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning the fundamentals of visual design. How do I move the eye to the most important thing or message on the page? To do so, you need to deeply understand the use of space, color, and form to create contrast or a focal point. You must know how to use an underlying grid system to help bring order, consistency, and create hierarchy. Learn how to choose fonts for supreme legibility or exude an emotion without relying on video or photography. Graphic design is fundamentally about effective communication, and effective communication is at the heart of good software design. Don’t skip the important stuff.
- Start on paper (maybe). Ok, I’ll admit I rarely do this anymore. Time pressures, other priorities, and laziness are all to blame. So why would I suggest it?
I can’t tell you how often I’ve looked at portfolios or app concept designs and been distracted and disappointed by a designer’s overuse of drop shadows, gradients, beveled edges or arbitrary animations, iconography of all shapes and sizes, and twelve different font faces in every color of the rainbow. If I could disable the ‘add an effect’ option on most software, I would! Why? Because design isn’t about these superficial elements. Too often they simply mask a flawed structure underneath and tempt designers into not thinking critically about the system or utility they’re designing. Starting on paper can help to force a focus on the fundamentals. Just try it – and leave that effects toolbox alone.
One of the most exciting things I’ve experienced in my career is the evolution of design in the corporate world. Today, companies large and small know the value designers bring to their organizations. They’ve gone from relying on external agencies to hiring the single token designer, and now to hiring teams of designers with org structures that support their growth and development.
But how do you attract highly sought-after talent? And how do you keep them? In the final part of this series, I’ll share my approach to creating an organization that can find, grow, and keep designers of all levels and skill sets.