How to start your UX design career: A complete guide

Gene Kamenez
Cameron Chapman
Alesya Denga
Crafted by industry experts
Updated on January 17, 2021

A comprehensive guide packed with step-by-step tips on how to start and advance in your UX design career.

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Get started with all the most frequently asked questions about starting your UX design career.

We take you chapter-by-chapter through all the most essential information and resources you need to kickstart a successful design career. Let's start!

Chapter 1

What is UX and UI design?

User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design are two separate, but related, design disciplines. There are designers who specialize in one or the other, as well as designers who do both. So what are the differences and similarities between the two? And which kind of design should you learn?

What is UX design?

UX designers focus on the experience users have while interacting with a digital product. Much of the work they do comes in the early stages of the design process. They do things like user research, user interviews, and wireframing. Basically, the UX designer is responsible for the underlying functionality of the product and less on the purely visual aspects.

UX designers consider the entire user journey when making decisions. They think about all of the steps necessary for users to complete tasks on a website or app and how to make that process as efficient as possible. UX designers are also involved in the user testing process throughout the design project, to ensure that the visual solutions meet user needs and expectations.

What is UI design?

UI designers often work on a project based on the findings and recommendations of the UX designer. They create the finished user interface, with all of the visuals and functionality in place. They’re responsible for the look and feel of the product.

UI designers need to have a thorough understanding of what a UX designer does, though. They need to know how to take the findings from the UX designer about the needs of the user they’re designing for and effectively apply them to the visual elements of the product.

Learn more about UX design and basic design roles with our UX Design Foundations course.

Similarities between UX and UI design

Both UX and UI design focus on creating user-friendly digital interfaces. They work on websites, apps, and other digital products.

Both disciplines are concerned with the user-friendliness and creating a functional product. They both aim to delight users and create an experience that fulfils their needs.

Here are a few other things they’re likely to both work on:

Their approach to both is slightly different, though. For example, a UX designer will be concerned with the readability of the typography, while the UI designer may be more concerned with the aesthetics of the typefaces. When they work together, though, they can find typography solutions that are both highly readable and visually appealing.

When it comes to wireframing and prototyping, their work also differs somewhat. UX designers are likely to work on early wireframes and prototypes, while UI designers may work on later versions, or expand upon what the UX designer has done.

Both UX and UI designers benefit from a thorough understanding of design thinking processes. While they often work on different (but overlapping) parts of that process, knowledge of how the entire process works is essential.

UX and UI designers also need to share some of the same skills. Both need to have solid customer service, research, and project management skills. They both need to be excellent communicators, be open-minded, and have empathy for users.

Differences between UX and UI design

While UX and UI share a lot of similarities, there are also some stark differences between them. The main difference, already mentioned, is the phase of the design project where they’re most active. UX designers will do most of their work at the beginning of a project, before much of what we think of as “design” even begins. UI designers, on the other hand, spend most of their time on a project during the later phases, when visuals are actually being created.

Their mindset when designing digital products also differs somewhat. Both UX and UI designers need to have problem-solving skills. But UX designers will generally approach problems from an analytical viewpoint, while UI designers tend to approach the same problems from a creative viewpoint. UX designers will analyze the data they have available to come up with solutions (which can absolutely still be creative), while UI designers may focus more on coming up with solutions based on their own creative instincts. When UX and UI designers can work together on this problem-solving, they often come up with innovative, unique solutions that work for users.

As far as skills go, here’s a quick rundown of the different kinds of skills each type of designer needs:

That’s by no means a comprehensive list of differences, which can also vary based on the project or company a designer is working for.

So what about UX/UI designers?

On larger teams, UX and UI design roles are generally filled by separate people (and in some cases there may be multiple people in each position), in smaller teams, one designer may fill both roles. These unicorn designers are able to guide a product from start to finish, including everything from user research and creating initial concepts to creating finished design files to hand off to developers and engineers. These designers need to have both exceptional analytical and outstanding creative skills.

Which one is right for you?

If you don’t shy away from analyzing data and trying to understand what makes people tick, then UX design might be the perfect path for you. If you’d rather not dive into tons of data and focus more on creating something beautiful that people love, then UI design is probably a better fit. Of course, if all of the above sounds great to you, you can create a hybrid career working as both a UX and UI designer. The next part of this Guide will dive more into specific design roles and career paths.

Chapter 2

Types of designers

Gone are the days where we simply had “web designer” or “graphic designer” positions. Search for “designer” these days and you’ll find mentions of UX designers, UI designers, mobile designers, motion designers, and more. So what do the different designer roles actually mean and what do they entail?

(Note: salary ranges for each position are from Glassdoor.com and are in US dollars.)

UX Designer

UX designers focus on creating user-friendly experiences in digital products. They’re responsible for making sure that a product meets user needs and wants. Beyond that, they aim to create products that are more than adequate; they focus on creating products that delight users.

Their main focus is on user research and how to translate that research into product functions and features. They work closely with UI designers, UX researchers, and other stakeholders to create digital products that exceed user expectations and beat their competition.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for UX designers is excellent. CNN Money expects UX design to grow by 18% between 2015 and 2025. Nielsen Norman Group predicts explosive growth in the field. In 2020 they estimated there were roughly a million UX designers worldwide and by 2050 that number may grow to as many as 100 million.

Salary Range

$81,000–165,000 per year

UI Designer

UI designers are responsible for the look and feel of digital products. They create the interfaces we use every day. While they keep user experience in mind, their focus is more on using visuals to create exceptional user experiences in attractive ways.

UI designers use creative problem-solving techniques to design interfaces that are both innovative and user-friendly. They work closely with UX designers and developers to create products that meet user needs while also being visually appealing.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for UI designers is good. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 10-year growth expected for digital designers (and web developers) is 13% between 2020 and 2030. That’s a faster-than-average growth rate compared with other careers.

Salary Range

$69,000–127,000 per year

UX/UI Designer

UX/UI designers combine the roles of UX and UI designers, often guiding a digital product through the entire design process. They conduct user research, create wireframes, and translate those wireframes into finished products.

UX/UI designers may work with other designers, developers, and any other stakeholders on a design project. They need to have both strong analytical skills as well as strong creative problem-solving skills. It’s an excellent option for people who love both the data-driven side of design along with the more creative aspects.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for UX/UI designers is on par with that for each specialization individually. As mentioned already, that means faster-than-average growth for this position.

Salary Range

$55,000–125,000 per year

UX Researcher

UX researchers focus on the — you guessed it — user research aspects of a design project. They focus on both quantitative and qualitative data about the users for a digital product, and help translate those things into usable information for the design team.

UX researchers conduct most of their work at the outset of a project, before the “design” parts happen. They may be heavily involved in things like creating user journeys and basic wireframes. They may also conduct user testing throughout the design process.

Job Outlook

In 2017, CNN Money estimated the 10-year job growth for UX researchers to be 19%, which is much higher than the average growth across careers. It was ranked #39 that year for the best jobs in America.

Salary Range

$79,000–210,000 per year

Visual Designer

Visual designers have a role similar to UI designers, but work on digital designs for things other than user interfaces. They design everything from content marketing and social media graphics to infographics and editorial illustrations.

Visual designers need to have strong digital design skills first and foremost. They also need to understand how to create visual elements that will appeal to their target audience, so some basic UX knowledge is also helpful. Visual designers may work with UI and UX designers, content marketing teams, or any other department that has a need for digital graphics.

Job Outlook

According to Zippia, the demand for Visual Designers is expected to grow by 3% between 2018 and 2028. While there’s some career growth for visual designers, it’s not as high as some other design roles.

Salary Range

$50,000–120,000 per year

Motion Graphics Designer

Motion graphics designers create a variety of graphics for digital products. They may create animated video content, animated GIFs, splash screens, or even microanimations for user interfaces. Their work spans beyond user interfaces to also include content for social media and advertising.

Motion graphics designers work alongside UX and UI designers to create the moving parts of user interfaces.

Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for “Special Effects Artists and Animators” is expected to be 16% between 2020 and 2030, twice the average growth for all occupations.

Salary Range

$42,000–102,000 per year

Mobile Designer

Mobile designers work primarily on the interface design of mobile apps. They may also work on mobile versions of web apps or websites. They need to have a thorough understanding of the patterns that create highly usable mobile products, which differ in many ways from the UIs of websites or desktop apps.

Mobile designers work closely with developers, UX designers, and other stakeholders on mobile apps.

Job Outlook

While it’s difficult to find statistics specifically for mobile designers, the job outlook is similar to that for other UI and UX design positions. A quick look at LinkedIn Jobs shows over 10,000 open mobile UI designer positions.

Salary Range

$58,000–134,000 per year

Many of the skills and qualifications for these design roles are the same or similar. In all of these positions, creative problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate with others will take you far. Salary ranges are also fairly similar for all positions, and they all have good job growth outlooks over the next 10–30+ years. Which positions is right for you will depend on the exact types of design projects you most enjoy working on.

Chapter 3

Learning design fundamentals

“Do I need a college degree to be a designer?” is likely one of the most popular questions of people looking to get started in UX/UI design. The shortest answer is “no, you don’t.”

You can come into the field with a related degree in psychology, human-computer interaction, graphic design, visual design, UI design, or interaction design. Or, you may not have a degree at all but be passionate about UX design and have other traits that make an excellent UX professional. There’s no single path to becoming a UX designer. However, no matter your background, there are concepts you’ll need to learn before you start searching for an internship or your first job.

What to Learn

UX and UI design fundamentals course is a good place to begin. The order of learning topics doesn’t matter — just pick a place to start. It’s a good idea to set a schedule for yourself for learning if you’re serious about starting a design career. Otherwise, it can be easy to spend too much time learning a single topic, delaying the start of your career.

Remember: you can always keep learning even after you’ve started your career. In fact, you should keep learning!

Principles of Design

If you search for “principles of design” you’ll find lists for anywhere from 7 to 13 principles. That can be confusing as a new designer. How many are there really? The answer is that no one can seem to agree! But you’ll find a few principles (balance, contrast, hierarchy, repetition, and white space, for example) that repeat regardless of the source. In any case, reading about the principles of design and understanding how they’re applied to digital design is a good first step.

💡 Uxcel’s Design Composition course is a great introduction to the Principles of Design!

History of Design

Understanding the history of design and how established design patterns came to be is an important bit of background for any designer. The field of design dates back centuries, to the early days of the printing press. Through trial and error, designers have figured out what works best for different use cases and what works best for users. Understanding that background can save you time and effort in your own UX design work.

Typography

The way the text content within a digital product is arranged and formatted is key to the product’s usability. A thorough understanding of at least the basics of typographic design is vital for designers to learn. Good typography makes a product a pleasure to use, while bad typography can render it entirely unusable. Studying typographic principles and how to use them in your designs is important for designers at all levels.

💡 Take Uxcel’s Typography in UX/UI Design course for a solid foundation in typographic design.

Color Theory

Color theory is all about how to use color to influence user psychology and behavior. Color is generally the first thing users notice when visiting a website or app. The wrong color palette can turn off users, while the right one will help build trust and reinforce the brand. While color theory is a complex subject, mastering the basics doesn’t have to be complicated. And there are plenty of resources online that can teach you those basics, as well as give you example color palettes to use in your own work.

💡 For a thorough understanding of color theory, take Uxcel’s Color Psychology for Designers course.

Composition

Composition refers to the way elements are arranged on the page within a digital design. Proper composition helps organize information and makes it easy for users to find what they’re looking for. Basic composition patterns have been established for years, so start with learning those and then try out your own variations.

💡 Uxcel’s Design Composition course will teach you all the basics!

Design Terminology

Learning to talk the talk is important for designers and anyone working with designers. If you’re working as part of a design team, you’ll need to understand what your teammates mean when they use terms like “microcopy” or “white space.”

💡 Uxcel’s Intro to Design Terminology course will teach you all of the basic terms you’ll need to know in your design career.

Where to Learn

You don’t need a degree in UX design in order to become a successful designer. Some of the best designers in the world are largely self-taught! The internet offers a wealth of resources for learning design, many of them free or low-cost.

Courses

Taking courses in specific design topics is a great way to orient yourself in the world of design. There are free and low-cost courses for virtually every topic. Read reviews for any courses you might want to pay for to make sure they’re worth the money!

💡 Don’t forget to check out all of Uxcel’s UX courses!

Bootcamps

If you’ve got the time (and money) available and want a really structured way to learn UX design, check out a bootcamp program. Bootcamps generally run for anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months and can give you a solid foundation in UX design. The downside is that they generally require a lot of commitment in terms of time and money. Make sure you have enough of both before signing up for one.

Tutorials and articles

There are literally hundreds of thousands of articles and tutorials about various design topics available online, for free. Pick a topic, do a search on Google or YouTube, and start learning! For best results, look at articles and tutorials from multiple sources for each topic to make sure you’re learning best practices and not a random individual’s opinion about a design topic they aren’t really familiar with.

Find a mentor

Finding a mentor who already has a successful design career is another excellent way to learn. Having someone to bounce questions off of or ask for advice is invaluable. At the very least, find designers whose work you respect on a site like Twitter and follow them, or join design-specific communities. You may find that many are more than willing to answer questions posed by their followers, which can be an excellent way to start building a relationship. The design community is generally very helpful and someone is almost always willing to lend their knowledge to someone new to design.

Learning UX design doesn’t have to be complicated. Create a list of the topics you want to learn, make a plan to learn them, and get started! There are plenty of success stories of people who have started a new career in design in as little as six months to a year. It just takes discipline and practice.

Chapter 4

Learning design tools

UX/UI design, like any profession, has certain tools of the trade. The most obvious tools you’ll need to learn are specific design tools. There are currently three UI design tools that you’re most likely to encounter: Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD.

Figma has become the most popular UI design tool on the market. It’s the only one of the three tools mentioned that is browser-based, making it within reach of a much wider audience. Don’t let the browser-based platform fool you, though: Figma is just as powerful as downloadable design software.

In reality, once you’ve learned the basics of one UI design program, you’ll be more easily able to learn others. And depending on the company you end up working for, you may not be able to choose. So pick one to learn on, and then familiarize yourself with the others. (If you have a dream job at a particular company, you may want to start with whatever software they’re already using.)

How to Learn

There are a number of resources out there for learning to use design software. But the first step is to download your software of choice. Most design software offers a free trial, so you can check out each one before making your final decision if you choose. Don’t forget that most companies provide extensive documentation for their apps, which can be an excellent place to start learning.

Tutorials

Thousands of tutorials exist online for virtually every design software. And the best part? Most of them are free.

Try searching for “Figma for beginners” or “getting started with Figma” (or whatever your tool of choice is) to find the most basic tutorials. From there, you can search for tutorials to tackle specific topics you might want to learn. Any time you get stuck on a particular task, search for a tutorial that can walk you through the process.

Courses

If you want something a bit more in-depth than a tutorial, try finding courses for your specific design application. Just be sure to read reviews prior to paying for courses, as the quality varies significantly.

You can find beginner courses that will walk you through setting up your application and workspace, as well as more advanced courses for specific types of design projects. If you’re a fan of structured learning, a course may be the perfect solution for you.

Practice

One of the best ways to learn a new design tool is to practice using it! Once you’ve got the basic features and functions figured out, start designing something. It’s the quickest way to reinforce the skills you already have as well as figure out what you haven’t learned yet. From there, you can find answers to your questions in tutorials, articles, or courses, and continuously improve your design skills.

Not sure what kind of projects to practice with? You could start by trying to emulate or improve upon an existing design you love.

Beyond design tools

While design tools are vital for any UX/UI designer to learn, there are other tools you’ll likely encounter in any design job.

Collaboration tools

Collaboration tools can range from a shared whiteboard to software like Zoom or Google Hangouts. Be sure you’re familiar with the basic functions of these tools, especially if you’re looking for a remote position. The good news is that many of these tools can be learned in an hour or less.

Wireframing tools

Wireframing is a major component to UX design. While you may choose to use your general design software to create wireframes, learning dedicated wireframing apps can speed up your workflow. Be aware that some of these apps allow you to directly export your wireframe files into other design programs, creating an even more efficient workflow.

💡Curious to learn more about the value of wireframing — learn with our interactive Wireframing course at Uxcel.

Research and testing tools

Another major component of UX design is user research and testing. There are a lot of app options out there for both of these aspects of design. Pick a few of the most common ones (such as Maze, InVision, and Hotjar) and familiarize yourself with what they can do and how they work.

You don’t have to become an expert at these tools before getting started as a UX/UI designer. But understanding how to use at least their basic functions will set you up for success in your first design job! Plus, as you use them more, your skillset and knowledge will naturally grow.

Chapter 5

Ongoing education

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” And who are we to argue with a man who was a leading figure of early American history, a Founding Father, a polymath, inventor, scientist, printer, politician, writer, and diplomat.

Ongoing education makes even more sense if you work in a constantly changing and evolving industry like design. Ongoing education implies that even if you already have a degree and/or experience working in a related industry, you continue gaining new skills and keeping track of the latest trends. Designers who can mention in their CVs that they're continuous learners increase their chances on the job market and make themselves more competitive among other designers.

The desire to learn new design techniques and the willingness to spend time taking courses and tutorials, reading books and articles, listening to and watching informational material about design demonstrates to employers that you're a serious candidate ready to invest in your career growth. So, what should you begin with?

So, what should you begin with?

First off, analyze knowledge that you already have and can refresh. It'll cost you less time and effort since you already know the basics. If you're starting your career or thinking about moving into a related design field, investigate the skills required for your dream job and use them as a guide to get there.

Nowadays, the internet is swarming with tons of resources for learning that you can make use of regardless of your experience and entry point in the design industry. But which ones to choose? We’ve put together a guide of the best educational resources that can help you stay in the loop!

Conferences and workshops

Today you can visit a conference or workshop without leaving your couch. Explore updates on virtual and onsite events via local and international design communities on social media or websites like All Design Conferences or Design Calendar that gather the most outstanding UI/ UX events.

If you're more interested in UX design specifically, explore the collections of UX events posted and regularly updated on the UX Mastery community or at UX Salon.

Events that are definitely worth your attention:

UXLX

One of the largest UX conferences in Europe is UXLX, which traditionally takes place in Lisbon, Portugal. It lasts for 4 days and invites speakers from various design domains, covering topics in the fundamental disciplines like product design, UX research, and content strategy.

UXDX

UXDX comprises hybrid events that cover topics of UX, product, design, and development. Typically, conferences are held 3 times per year, last for 4 days, and feature speakers from Microsoft, Shopify, Asana, Kayak, Twitch, LinkedIn, eBay, and other top-notch companies.

Books

Although books are no longer the only source of wisdom in our digital era, they allow learning fundamentals in an old-fashioned, structured way at your own pace. If you aren't a beginner in design, you've definitely heard of classic UX design literature such as Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman or Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think. We have a whole challenge devoted to books every designer will love to read.

Apart from them, we recommend looking into:

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

This book is a must-read for UX designers, product designers, and even UX writers interested in driving customer engagement. The author provides a powerful model of helping users build long-term relationships with your product. The book also contains fascinating insights into how top-notch companies like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Tinder have successfully adopted this model.

The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley

If you're a solo designer on your team or working in a rapidly evolving start-up or small business environment, this book is your guideline to the UX world. It covers multiple techniques, practical advice, and visual examples to gain a deeper understanding of UX skills and leadership.

Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin and Dana Chisnell

This book is the ideal introduction to usability testing and is the best fit for lone or first-time practitioners. The authors provide valuable insights and practical tips for UX designers and researchers who have little or no budget but are determined to build user-centric interfaces.

Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb

Certainly, the book has nothing to do with hacking and doesn't speak about design directly. However, it provides food for thought to UX designers, researchers, and writers interested in learning how the human mind works and interprets the world around us.

Articles

Blog communities are the perfect resource for those who don't have finances for full-time education or want to gain practical knowledge without going through lengthy books.

Nielsen-Norman Group

Many designers religiously follow this platform founded by design gurus Don Norman and Jacob Nielsen. It contains multiple articles and case studies based on in-depth user research (such as eye-tracking studies).

User Interface Engineering

Founded by usability expert Jared Spool, the platform offers more than just articles. You can watch webinars, listen to podcasts, or participate in intensives by joining a community of UX leaders, designers, researchers, and writers from all over the world. Additionally, UIE's library offers over 378 seminars and recorded events led by experts in all UX design topics at just $29 a month.

UX Magazine

UX Magazine offers a range of well-written articles on various topics and unites a large group of contributors: senior UX designers, team leads, product owners, and technical directors from various product domains.

UX Mastery

This is another treasure box of professional articles, design events, books, and course recommendations, founded by Luke Chambers and Matthew Magain, both UX design experts with experience leading UX at small and large organizations.

Courses

If you don't have the resources to get a full-time education but still believe in a more traditional and disciplined approach to learning new skills, there are a variety of online courses you could explore. Many of them aren't cheap, but getting valuable knowledge from experts in their fields is priceless. Plus, students often receive helpful feedback on their assignments from a mentor, professor, or peers. Another benefit is the certificate you receive acknowledging the time and energy you spent to gain new skills.

But even if you're tight on budget, there are many free courses to help you get into the UX world, like the UX Crash Course. In a simple yet practical way, Joel Marsh provides a 31-step journey in UX design fundamentals. He breaks down the process into extremely digestible chunks, from information architecture to designing with data, with extremely helpful hints, tips, and advice along the way. It's not a comprehensive course but a solid overview of all the big parts of UX so you can understand where you need to learn more.

If you already know which areas you want to improve, explore courses offered by specialized design communities like Uxcel, Interaction Design Foundation, NN Group, The Team W, or Design Lab.

Udemy, Udacity, Gymnasium, and Coursera are multidisciplinary educational platforms, but they also have UX/UI courses that you can find in their catalogs.

Tutorials

If courses give you conceptual knowledge of user research methods, usability fundamentals, and human psychology, tutorials demonstrate how to apply this knowledge in practice. Youtube contains hundreds of tutorials that can teach you how to design anything in Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch, or any other design software, regardless of how experienced you're in prototyping.

Continuing learning implies that every time you have some time to kill, you take it as an opportunity to listen, watch, or read something worthwhile. We recommend you explore our challenges that provide lists of the most inspiring podcasts and TED talks you'll certainly love.

To summarize, self-education requires a lot of discipline, but don't let that discourage you. You have the privilege of creating your own study plan, combining various types of practices, and selecting your own comfortable pace. Plus, in contrast to a college curriculum, you don't have to sit in a stuffy classroom and take classes. You can choose to listen to a podcast or a video sitting outside in sunny weather, sipping coffee in a cafeteria, or while traveling. You also have the freedom to fail as many times as needed and not be afraid of getting bad grades.

Chapter 6

Practice projects

Ever read a UX job description looking for a UX/UI Designer with 3+ years of experience? We’ve all been there. Frustratingly, starting out in design can seem like a catch-22: most entry-level design positions require experience, but getting experience only comes with employment. So how do you break this pattern and launch your career?

The truth is the number of years you work in the industry isn't the most groundbreaking benchmark that sets you apart from other designers. Hiring managers and recruiters go through hundreds of applications, and your CV can easily get lost if you don't have some evidence to prove you're a real catch. Ultimately, a design job requires more than a CV — you also need to showcase what work you can do and whether you know how to use the skills described in your CV effectively.

Recruiters are also interested in your approach to solving problems, your design process, and your ability to learn from mistakes. Your portfolio is a key component that answers these questions and makes you stand out from other designers.

What makes a portfolio stand out?

Whatever project you decide to work on, don't stop with the visual representation only — go one step further and tell a story!

  • Your redesigns may not be revolutionary, but they should provide reasoning behind your designs. Imagine potential users, create personas, describe their needs and desires your product can satisfy, and think through user flows.
  • Use real content instead of "lorem ipsum" and image placeholders. It makes your imaginary designs look more plausible.
  • Showcase your human-centered design approach by supporting your design decisions with heuristics, product guidelines (like iOS guidelines or Material Design), patterns, or research data (even if your target audience is just a group of friends).

How do you create your portfolio if you haven't done any professional projects yet?

Unofficial redesigns

Redesign existing products. Look around and search for websites, landing pages, application features, graphic work, etc., that you'd do differently. It'll help you get the feel of being a designer and add the first works to your portfolio.

Even the best products might have some room for improvement, but we don't recommend looking at products like Google or Facebook. Their design decisions usually rely on in-depth user research findings, and you may waste too much time hunting for designers' missteps. Instead, browse through websites and apps you use or look for products with low ratings or outdated designs that are most likely to have room for improvement.

Another option is to look at the product of a company you're applying for and see if there are any design inaccuracies. The goal is to stay polite when talking about those mistakes and avoid blaming or mocking the interface or functionality.

Volunteering with nonprofits or open-source projects

Volunteering is a fantastic way to gain experience. It doesn't involve any financial issues, and you have more freedom to experiment with ideas. Volunteering also provides an excellent opportunity to network and meet potential clients down the road.

Search on Facebook or Instagram for nonprofit organizations or student initiatives in your town/college and select those you feel enthusiastic about working with. If you care for animals, for example, volunteer at animal shelters where you are genuinely eager to invest your time and energy by redesigning their website or working on visuals for their social media.

Your personal projects

If you fail to find external projects to work on, create your own! Find a topic you're passionate about and make your own deadlines to make sure you’re working efficiently and finish your projects. If you lack ideas, search for inspiration by looking at other designers' portfolios on Dribbble or Behance.

Hackathons

A hackathon, aka a code fest, is a social coding event that brings people with technical backgrounds together to work in teams, solve problems, or develop new ideas. Different types of hackathons come with different objectives and themes. For example, altruistic hackathons aim at solving social problems like public transport systems or educational centers for kids with genetic conditions. Other hackathons are aimed at specific demographic categories like women or students.

Hackathons are usually held by tech companies, startups, universities, nonprofits, or industry leaders interested in fostering industry collaboration, recruiting new talents, finding unique solutions, or growing their businesses.

Keep track of such events in your location and apply for projects you feel eager to contribute to. As a bonus, your work might draw the attention of potential employers or new clients.

Internships

Many tech companies and startups may not offer you a design job but will be willing to take you on for a paid internship (although not all internships are paid) in a design department. As part of an internship, you learn under the supervision of a mentor (e.g., a senior designer) while completing design tasks.

You should think of it as your chance to learn from more experienced teammates, add a few projects to your portfolio, and increase your confidence before seeking a permanent job. You may also meet potential clients, build a professional network, or prove yourself as a reliable team member and receive an offer to stay at this company as a full-time team member.

Course completion projects

Many online design courses require students to complete a final project in order to get a certificate. If you have one, don't hesitate and show off your work! If you've worked on it in a team, give your teammates credit and describe your role and what value you brought to this solution.

You might feel insecure, worrying that your undertakings aren't good enough or that you don't have enough of them to show. The thing is, nobody starts their career with dozens of unique successful projects and years of experience. Start small and try your best to create 1-2 projects you sincerely care about. Improve their presentation so recruiters can see more than just visually appealing screens. Sometimes, one brilliant idea can be enough to bring you your first design job.

Learn more about how you can craft a great CV as a UX designer.

Chapter 7

Building your UX design portfolio

Are you thinking of creating your design portfolio but aren't sure how to get started? Fear not, as we'll walk you through all the parts a great portfolio should include and answer any questions you might have.

The purpose and "users" of your design portfolio

An excellent way to approach the creation of your design portfolio is to treat it like any other design problem. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of this document?
  • Who is its target audience?
  • What do they want to see included?

The contents of your portfolio will depend on the answers to these questions.

The main rationale behind a design portfolio is to help you (the designer) find work. This outlines its target audience: HRs, hiring managers, potential freelance clients, and fellow designers (i.e. your potential colleagues).

What do these people expect to find in your portfolio? Is it beautiful mockups? Or perhaps a list of your hobbies and interests? First and foremost, people viewing your portfolio want to understand what kind of designer you are. Some of the questions they might have include:

  • What's your design thinking process?
  • How do you approach work challenges?
  • How do you collaborate with others?
  • How do you do your research?
  • Do your designs achieve their goals?
  • What's your style and brand voice?
  • What kind of person are you?
  • How can they get in touch with you?

Think of your portfolio as your spokesperson (or spokesdocument) that can answer these questions in your stead.

What a portfolio should contain

To fulfill its objective, a designer's portfolio must include 3 main components:

  • Introduction,
  • Case studies,
  • Contact information.

Introduction

When you meet someone in real life, you most likely start by introducing yourself. The same goes for your portfolio. Include your name, the roles you are looking for, and any relevant background information such as your education or work experience.

You can also include your passions and hobbies but don't overshare. The purpose of this section isn't to learn everything there is to know about you — it's to get a feel of what kind of person you are.

Keep the copy simple and straightforward — use the same language you would when introducing yourself in person. The copy is a reflection of your style and brand voice.

Case studies

Case studies are successful projects you’ve worked on. While good-looking final visuals are essential, they aren't the only thing that the recruiters and clients want to see — and they’re certainly not the most crucial thing.

Let's be honest — anyone can take anyone else's designs and present them as their own. What's important here is to walk the audience through your design process. Think of it this way — for each project, you need to clearly explain the problem and its context, how you went about solving it, how successful it was, and what you learned from it.

Let's have a closer look at what a case study should contain:

1. Context and problem

Start by describing the overall topic of the project and the problem you needed to solve. You can also explain your role and responsibilities if it was a team project.

2. Final visuals

Include the finished designs early on — or use them as your project thumbnails. This will grab the viewer’s attention and make it clear what kind of project they’re looking at.

3. Your design process with different versions

Use visual aids to guide viewers through your design process. Consider including:

  • Initial user research summary,
  • User personas & user journey map,
  • Sketches and wireframes,
  • High-fidelity mockups & prototypes,
  • Usability testing,
  • Anything else that will help you explain the motivations that guided your design choices throughout.
4. Final solution and its explanation

Describe your final solution and explain what makes your designs the best.

5. The outcome and learnings

Explain how your design was successful. Did it increase signups or revenue? This is a great place to share what this project taught you — even if it's that you would do things differently next time.

Contact information

Since the goal of your portfolio is to get you more work, your contact information must be easy to find. This is basically your call to action. Include your email address and, optionally, links to your social media accounts.

Final thoughts and tips

  • When selecting case studies, start with the 2 that you are most proud of, and make sure that they also show off your conceptualization and problem-solving skills. Add more if you have experience, but try to stay within a 2-8 project range — clients and potential employers don't have all day to look at all your life's work.
  • Tailor your portfolio to the company or person you're applying to. For example, if you're trying to land a job designing apps, pick case studies that mostly feature apps, etc.
  • Create a visual journey so that your work flows from one piece to another. Your portfolio isn't just a bunch of projects stuck together, but rather your representation as a designer.
  • You might think that you only need to update your portfolio when looking for a job but it’s better to add new case studies as you finish them. Since case studies involve explaining your process, it's best to do them while the project is still fresh in your mind. This also allows you to improve and iterate continuously. Adding one case study at a time takes much less effort than creating a portfolio on short notice.
  • Get inspiration from other designers. Have a look at this list of impressive UX Designer portfolios from Format.com or Google search the role you want to land + "portfolio."
  • When ready, get feedback from a more experienced colleague or a mentor whose expertise you value. While getting input from as many people as possible might sound like a good idea, keep in mind that you will probably get contradictory advice that could further confuse you.
Chapter 8

Be a design enthusiast

Having enthusiasm for design is like having the flu — you can't hide it, and it can even be contagious to listen to you talking about the latest trends in design or your achievements in this field. Authentic interest in design demonstrates you're genuinely passionate about what you do. Even if no one had paid you for this job, you'd keep doing it.

Referencing the Collins Dictionary, an enthusiast is a person who is very interested in a particular activity or subject and who spends a lot of time on it. Thus, being a design enthusiast implies being passionate about design and treating it not as a job but as a lifestyle.

Design enthusiasts accept the fact that design is not just about moving elements in Figma or selecting typefaces for a project. It's about looking at the world around you and noticing how things work (and how they can be improved).

What do design enthusiasts do to keep this feeling alive?

Look at experts' solutions

Consume design every day in large doses everywhere. Explore new apps, websites, and features updates on existing products, paying attention to all details from microcopy to typography choice, from selection controls to form design, and ask yourself questions: "Why did they choose this solution? How do users benefit from it?" It's always a good idea to look at how experts do their work, analyze, and adopt their best approaches to your own projects.

Consume design in numerous ways

Design is everywhere and exists in different forms. Look for inspiration from architecture in your town, visit museums, read fiction and non-fiction, or watch movies and documentaries. Find things around you that make you gasp in amazement, amuse you, or entices your attention in an unexplainable way.

Look at the things around you with the eyes of a 3-year-old, or as if you're a visitor from another planet and ask yourself questions: "What makes me buy this product? Is it its colors, illustrations on a package, typography, or something else? How does this new toaster work? Is it intuitive enough or does it require reading instructions? What makes those road signs be so noticeable and helpful? Would I notice them if I go on a high speed?"

Train your designer eye

Look at other designers' work on Dribbble or Behance, brainstorming on how things can be done better. Become a member of design communities and help other designers by giving feedback on prototypes or ask other people's opinions on your ideas. You can train your designer eye by taking on challenges on various topics and evaluating your skills. You can also use Uxcel’s Arcade for more designer eye training opportunities.

Constantly seek new information and new ways of looking at things

Each time you're designing a solution, fight the urge to take the most evident path and try to find alternative ways. When you implement similar tasks every day, like prototyping or analyzing user interviews, you stop noticing unusual things and tasks become routine. To break this pattern, develop new routes of doing your usual work.

For example, you can ask your colleagues, family members, or friends and listen to their take on the problem. Search for new viewpoints away from your desk. Go for a walk or a run, physically distancing yourself from thoughts about work, and the inspiration might strike you when you don't expect it.

If you're indeed attached to the idea of becoming a good UX, product, graphic, or any other kind of designer, train yourself to never stop learning new things and doubting traditional ways of doing things around you. The legendary designer Milton Glaser, best known for the "I ❤️ NY" logo, believed that certainty is the worst advisor for those who want to create. "I think what I feel fortunate about is that I am still astonished—that things still amaze me. And I think that that's a great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears; where you basically have to admit you never learn it."

Stay open to new ideas and develop a habit of learning at least one new thing every day. It's a great trait for designers to understand that each failure isn't a failure at all; it's an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve.

Chapter 9

Getting your first design job

Now that you’ve learned the design fundamentals, got a few practice projects under your belt, and created your CV and portfolio, it's time to look for your first UX design job. A job search can be overwhelming — especially if you don't know where to start.

In this article, we'll walk you through all the vital steps.

Decide on the type of job you want to pursue

Freelancing vs. full-time positions

Ah, the eternal question of freelance vs. full-time positions. The choice will depend on your working style and life priorities. In general, freelance work offers more flexibility and creative freedom. On the other hand, an unstable workload means unpredictable income. A full-time job guarantees a fixed salary, benefits, and career advancement. However, it may be impossible to decline projects that you aren't excited about.

For designers, this choice also determines whether you will work independently or as a part of a team. Freelance designers usually work alone, and they alone are responsible for the success or failure of a particular project. Great results will improve your profile, but failures might lead to reputational losses or not getting paid.

Working full-time, especially as a new designer, usually means joining a team. Your colleagues can provide feedback on your work and help you bounce off ideas. This is especially crucial for beginners in the field who need such guidance to become pros.

One more argument in favor of full-time positions is that big household brands like Disney and Marvel are unlikely to turn to freelancers. So, if you want to create for such brands, working at an agency is your best bet.

Agency vs. corporate design positions

Full-time positions come in 2 flavors: working for a design agency or a corporate company. Each has its upsides and downsides, so your choice will depend on your needs.

In short, a corporate position will allow you to specialize in and get familiar with one product. Such companies usually have an established workflow and processes with assigned supervisors or mentors to learn from and grow.

A design agency can be a better option for beginner designers. An agency offers a variety of projects, which will allow you to exercise your creativity and practice different skills. You can also expect a lot of communication with clients, building connections, and developing communication skills. Keep in mind that not all clients are easy to work with. You need to be patient, ready to accept criticism, and make peace with clients making changes to your work after accepting it.

Apply to relevant jobs

How to determine which jobs are relevant to you? Well, job postings are typically broken out into several parts. Here are some clues on what to look for in each.

Job title

For your first job, look for keywords like "internship," "junior," or positions without level labels — for example, a "UI designer." At this stage, you won't be qualified to fulfill the requirements of middle or senior positions.

Qualifications or requirements

This section describes the accomplishments and skills you should have. It's not a deal-breaker if you do not have all the qualifications listed. Essential requirements are usually listed first. Pay attention to words like "must," "necessary," "proficient," etc. For example, "must have experience with Adobe Creative Suite."

Meeting requirements like "detail-oriented" or "team player" will give you an edge compared to other candidates, but they are usually optional. You can learn many things on the job — for example, master a specific tool you don't have experience with. So, go ahead and apply for the job even if you only meet 50-60% of those requirements.

Responsibilities

This section describes what you would do at the job. Take a close look — would you enjoy this work? Apply if you are familiar with and interested in most of the listed responsibilities.

Benefits and pay

Make sure the salary and benefits match your expectations. At the same time, be skeptical of companies that don't mention compensation in their listings — this can be a sign that they don't pay competitively.

Experience level

Many job listings require experience, which you, as a beginner designer, probably don't have. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't apply. Of course, you most likely won't get accepted to a job that requires 5+ years of experience. However, if the company is looking for someone with 1-2 years of experience and you match most of the other requirements, go ahead and apply.

Take skill tests to verify your skills

One of the challenges for employers and recruiters is assessing whether potential candidates actually possess the skills they claim to have. Having your skills confirmed by assessments and skill tests will give you an edge. It tells recruiters that you have at least the basic knowledge of the skill. It's especially important when you are just starting in a domain and don't have much experience.

For example, passing an HTML skill test proves that you know the basics of HTML, but it doesn't tell the recruiter if you know how to code in HTML. They can assess it further down the road in the interview and when checking references. If you’re not sure where you stand in terms of your design expertise, check out Uxcel Skill Tests to self-validate.

Practice interviews

Research the company and practice before going to interviews. You might be open to considering any job, but for employers, it's important to know why you want to work for them. Prepare arguments to justify why they should hire you and how you will benefit their business.

Look up common interview questions and think of how you can answer them. Have a friend or a colleague ask you these questions to get comfortable answering them. However, don't over-practice. If you do, your answers will sound forced.

Make a list of questions you want answered during the interview. It may include questions about work processes, tools, benefits, etc. Asking questions also shows your interviewers that you've done your research and are serious about getting the position.

Be prepared for design tasks

Sometimes, you might get asked to do an assignment during the hiring process. For a new designer, it's an opportunity to show off your skills, as you may not have many good projects in your portfolio yet.

When deciding on whether to take up the assignment, consider the following factors:

At which stage of the interview process is it offered?

Some companies give candidates assignments before the first stage of the interview. They argue that they want to assess the candidate's abilities to think creatively on a project.

However, value your time. When the request comes this early, you don't even know if the company is worth your time. If you feel that you aren't invested enough in the job to spend your time doing the assignment, feel free to decline it.

How much time would it take?

A smaller assignment like designing a component is reasonable. However, complex and time-consuming tasks like redesigning the company's home page aren't something that you should do for free.

Is the assignment similar to the projects you already have in your portfolio?

If so, you should consider why. What would the company get out of the assignment that they cannot get from a portfolio review combined with in-person interviewing?

Does the assignment test a specific skill?

Asking for every possible type of design deliverable from wireframes to high-fidelity mockups is a red flag. Reasonable assignments test for specific skills. For example, creating high-fidelity mockups assesses visual design skills, a sitemap tests information architecture skills, etc.

Does the assignment match what the company is currently working on?

Unfortunately, some companies engage in ethically questionable behavior of exploiting design work. If you feel that your work would be repurposed in the company product, feel free to say no — or be cheeky and ask for remuneration.

Final thoughts

Finding your first job takes time. Don't be discouraged after receiving rejections or no answers at all. The design market is growing, and this growth is predicted to continue. This means that there's no reason that inquisitive, creative, and eager-to-learn designers won't find a great job. Besides, when there's a will, there's a way. Follow Uxcel's job board to keep updated with new vacancies - maybe your dream job is already waiting for you. Good luck!