How to *Actually* Become a Product Designer

Three practical things you need to do to land that job

I get a lot of questions from friends and students about becoming a Product Designer.

“Is this Expensive Fancy Boot Camp worth it?
Do I need to go back to school or take The Big University Extension class?
What do you think about The Tech Company’s Conference?”

There’s a growing number of educational options promising everything from certificates to six-figure salaries. It’s a struggle to navigate what’s worthwhile and what’s a waste of time. Where do the different types of classes fit in with what it really takes to become a product designer?

Before you choose a school or course, here are the three things you *actually* need to break into product design or grow as a designer. See how the various classes or degrees you’re considering fit into these three critical buckets to help you get to your dream career.

1. Know your tools

Like any good tool, your UI and UX drawing programs are an extension of you. Whether you’re using Sketch, InVision or something else, knowing your tools means knowing where the buttons are, and how to use them. Be able to place, pull, resize, export, crop, and erase. But also be ready to use shared styles and symbols. A good place to learn the basics includes YouTube tutorials, or sitting next to a designer friend and watching them work. As long as you’re becoming more comfortable and adept at a quality drawing program, it’s working.

Another important part of knowing your tools is having a good workflow. Workflow is how you organize your files. This includes everything from what to name them, how to set up your folders, how to export assets, even how you name and sort layers within a file. Without a clear workflow, other designers, managers and clients won’t be able to follow your organizational train of thought. It’s easy to get lost in subfolders and poorly named PNG’s. There isn’t one right way to setting up a workflow, and lots of designers at lots of companies have all different ways of doing it. At Google, I would ask to see other designer’s sketch files and have them explain how it was organized. The key thing is that you have a way to organize your files that makes sense to you and people you’re working with.

Bottom line: Know how to functionally use the programs and keep your files organized. 
Learn from: YouTubers like
LevelUpTuts and Sketch Together, sitting next to designers, Sketch help page, studying the iOS and Material Design templates in Sketch, and taking Peter Nowell’s SketchMaster.com

2. Articulate your process

At Google, I sat through dozens of interviews with potential hires. Every single one included a question about process. I’d say “Tell me about your design process,” always looking for the same thing. Do they have a systematic way of working through a design problem, and can they explain it? Designers who aren’t able to articulate their process don’t have the design backbone to backup their choices with data and discernment. At the best big companies, you’re required to manage yourself and your process. At startups, you have to set a process or you’re just going to be told what to do all the time. And if you’re the one in the interview hot seat, try to find out if your future boss cares about the value of process. It matters.

It’s not just about talking at a high level and doing some hand-waving… That’s for PM’s 😂. In every interview, we wanted to see specific examples of the process put into action. Shiny Dribbble accounts might help in a UI interview, but they don’t take you very far in product design. Being able to talk about how you arrived at your design and why your design solved a problem for real-life people is paramount because that translates to dollars and cents for a business.

Some good places to learn about how to regularly design using a reliable process include Udacity, the courses from the legendary Norman Nielsen Group, and my online course Product Design Pro (based on the Google Ventures Sprint methods). It’s important that wherever you are learning, they teach you how to understand your users, iterative prototyping, and testing.

Bottom line: Explain how you systematically solve design problems
Learn from: 
UdacityNorman Nielsen GroupProduct Design Pro

3. Build your portfolio

I’ve critiqued more than 100 portfolios in the last 5 years. From Google interviews to portfolio review days at my alma mater, from friends looking for jobs to students applying for my classes — let’s just say, TONS of portfolios. In light of all that, there are three things I’d recommend.

First, work on the type of project you want to get hired for. It’s really hard for people to use their imagination and just *imagine* that you’ll be great at building medical device software if your portfolio is all emoji-sticker packs. Tailor your portfolio to include the type of work that matters where you’re applying. The downside to a lot of these boot camps is that every students work ends up looking the exact same. A friend of mine was struggling to hire a designer because it was hard for him to tell who had good work and who was just copying the teacher. In the Product Design Pro course, students work on individual projects with totally different solutions. What’s great about this is the student’s work reflects what they care about. Instead of cloning AirBnB or Uber, student’s can set themselves apart AND have real conviction about the real-life problem they’re solving through design.

Second, have at least three solid projects. It doesn’t matter if they are paid projects or not. What matters is that it solves a problem and meets the requirements. It’s really hard to take an applicant seriously when they only have one piece. Each piece should be like a really good short story, drawing the listener in to find out exactly how that paywall redesign ended up bringing in more revenue to that business. Trouble finding work to build out your portfolio? Start with something or someone you care about, and see how you can design a solution using your tried-and-true process (as recommended above). Read more from Charlie Hoehn on how to do free design work for a person or business you care about.

Third, use your portfolio as a place for you to get better at visual design. If you don’t think a piece looks good enough aesthetically, but you know it functionally solves the problem, then take this opportunity to make it shine. Enroll in something like DesignLab’s Typography course to better understand basic design principles like hierarchy, balance, color theory and scale. Ask a designer friend to give you feedback on your work. Once you you can talk about the process of your work and how it solves a problem, it’s time to refine the visuals and give it that polish that looks so good on hip design sites. I keep folders and folders full of screenshots to visually reference as I’m designing that I think are inspiring, fun, or just super good-looking. In the spirit of Paul Rand, don’t try to be original, just try to be good.

Bottom line: Have at least 3 tailored pieces you’re proud of
Learn from: Other designers you admire, like
Jessica HarlleeGabriel Valdivia, and Ash Huang. Learn more about visual design with DesignLab’s Typography Course and Learn Design Principles.

I would interview any designer that knows their tools, can articulate their design process, and has a cohesive portfolio of at least 3 pieces. So go ahead, take that online class, sign up for that night course, or try a part-time gig. If you understand where it fits within these three areas of a product designer’s skillset, it’s a worthy investment.