Confessions of a Designer: Designing your way from Junior to Senior Designer

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So you’ve finally made it as a designer. You’ve landed your first job, and now you’re looking to hone your craft, and make it in the world as a bonafide senior designer.

Maybe you’re reading this because you’re not sure where to start, or need some advice on how to improve.

Either way, let me tell you the story of how I started my journey.

Back in Shanghai, when I was still in high school, I used to be a diehard Jay Chou fan. For those of you who don’t know Jay Chou (you’re missing out), he’s a legendary Chinese pop singer/songwriter/actor. My friend and I were so inspired by him that we set up an online fan club. I self-learned photoshop by watching videos and looking up the resources online, and created my first website which caught the eye of my highschool teacher. She really liked it and encouraged me to participate in a web design competition. I was hesitant at first, but decided to go for it. To my surprise, I ended up winning second place.

That’s when I developed a fascination with design, and embarked on my journey to become a designer. I started out by working as an intern, and eventually landed my first job as a junior designer.

It wasn’t easy being a junior designer. I was filled with doubts, which were often left unresolved.

I had to push myself to utilize time effectively and continue learning without anyone else’s input. I realized, that in design, processes and platforms are constantly changing, so I made sure to keep up to date with trends and best practices. Thinking back, I kind of wish someone had written a blog back then to take some of the guesswork away.

From here onward, I want to suggest some tips that have helped me in my professional UX/UI design career.

1. Keep learning

It’s just as the title says. Learning is an ongoing process, so it’s important to make it a habit. There are many sources you can acquire knowledge from, including online courses, books, blogs and articles. Below are some sources I personally found to be quite useful.

UX Collective

This UX design blog gives you the chance to plunge into stories coming straight from the community. Whether you’re looking for material on user experience or technicalities in product design, it captures it all. Reading the struggles of fellow designers is a great way learn.

DesignBetter

DesignBetter provides you with in-depth, yet easy to follow design handbooks. It covers various topics like design thinking, designing for business optimization, designing with intention etc. The insights shared and best practices used by top designers can be a powerful design tool for a junior designer just starting out.

Awwwards Blog

Awwwards is a website that recognizes creativity and innovation in design. It’s a great place to go for inspiration if you’re looking for something unique and different. The work featured on here often have interesting interactions and elements you don’t often see on the average website.

From a more practical standpoint, I would recommend keeping an eye on the websites of well-known brands that are transparent in their design process and principles.

Below are some of my favorites:

Airbnb

Airbnb has shared multiple case studies on its design process in the past. For those of you who don’t know, Airbnb was started by 2 designers. They’re a company that focuses heavily on designer-first thinking, and definitely a brand to follow.

Google Design

The Google Design library is a great source for diving into the process of design. They have videos on design techniques and a design newsletter which keeps you up to date with award-winning projects, podcasts from their SPAN x Design Notes series and guides on latest design terms.

UBER

Uber, just like Airbnb, has shared a mixed bag of case studies. The one that really intrigues me is the case study on the enhancements in the new driver app vs old driver app and the thinking behind the changes.

2.  Practice

    “There’s a way to do it better—find it.” –Thomas Edison

There’s no better way to improve than to get your hands dirty and start exploring diverse topics and illustrations, keeping a tab on the things that intrigue you. You can arrange these designs according to a category or a theme such as technology, art, retail and so on. Most people stop at this step, but to actually improve, I would recommend taking it a step further. Analyze these designs and think about what it is that makes them so great and effective. Now see if you can design along similar lines to the great pieces you’ve chosen. It might seem like imitation or copying at first, but it’s a great way to learn. After you sharpen your skills a bit, then you can continue to experiment and use your creativity to branch out, and expand on what you’ve learned.

Another way to brush up on your skills is to create alternate designs to the apps you use every day. A great way to start is to redesign the user flow of that app.

Take the Uber app for example. It’s a good one to start with since the intended experience and user goals are pretty clear. Try polishing your skills by redesigning the app, and forcing yourself to think about why certain decisions were made and what you would change. Think about things like the placement and colour of call to action buttons. Features like these can greatly affect the user interaction and engagement (read more about CTA buttons here). Doing this multiple times with different iterations and various applications would help you improve your skills.

You can also do this exercise with your own previous work. Re-doing the same design in an alternate ways can help you develop the skills to be self critical and approach your work from different perspectives.

3. Join communities

As a designer, it is a good idea to know what is popular on social media, which designs are trending and who to follow. Building your design social network is a fantastic way to showcase your portfolio.

Ever heard of Dribbble? Behance? These are online design communities where fellow designers post their work and get feedback. They are good platforms for sharing your designs online and connecting with experienced designers. You will find an endless variety of design posts, bookmark designs you liked, and follow designers that you find interesting. These platforms are a great place to draw inspiration and could be used as a reference while working on future projects. These communities also provide resources to learn techniques for certain design processes. I visit these platforms daily to stay up to date with the most recent designs.

Another advantage of being part of such design communities is that they have meetups in various cities that are really fun to attend. You get to network with designers from your locality and talk about what they are currently working on. In fact, there are more than 10 upcoming Dribbble meetups organized for February 2019.  Attending conferences would be a further step to getting more involved in the design community.

3 conferences which I highly recommend are:

Interaction 19

The Interaction 19 conference features workshops, discussions and a mentoring program where you can receive feedback from an industry professional on your work.

Adobe Max 19

The Adobe Max 2019 conference offers you sessions, labs, and discussions with experienced creatives.

Awwwards Conference

Get the chance to listen to industry leaders, participate in workshops and network with other participants at the 2019 Digital Thinkers Conference.

4. Think beyond design

It’s important to remember to look at the big picture. Hop out of the design mindset for a second and slip into the shoes of your user. Consider the business problems you are aiming to solve, and the ultimate goal you’re trying to achieve through design. Unfortunately, we as designers, don’t live in an isolated world where we’re free to create the ideal solution of our dreams 100% of the time. Most of the time we’re operating under budget restraints, resource/timeline limitations, and working with client preferences.

It’s important to know when to compromise and when to speak up for a certain design decision. It’s not always about finding the best design, but finding the best solution.

5. Communication

When it comes to design, people often talk about creativity, technique and hard skills. Something less often talked about is interpersonal skills. However, it’s important to remember that a key part of your job as a designer, or in any senior role, in fact, is communication. Even as a junior designer, communication within your team is extremely important. As you make your way up the ladder, you will get increasingly more face time with clients and external stakeholders. You will be required to give presentations and clarify your reasoning behind a specific process you picked. It’s imperative that as designers, we don’t forget to brush up on our communication skills.

You can prepare for this by practicing effective communication and collaboration within your team. When given the chance to lead a meeting, or give an internal presentation, take those opportunities. It might be terrifying for some designers, especially if you’re an introvert, but it’s a critical skill to have no matter what industry or role you’re in.

At the end of the day, what matters the most is how passionate and driven you are in your work. If you have the desire to improve constantly, that mentality is what is going to take you from a junior to a senior designer.

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