Switching Careers, Part 1 – From Graphic Design to UX Design

Taking the first step and changing your future as a designer.

This is a multi-part series around a designers leap from being a visual designer to a product designer. Hopefully sharing this amazing journey will be helpful for those thinking of also making that change to their careers.

After making the leap from a comfortable 12-year stint in graphic design, I’m now in my 5th month as a UX designer. This is something that I had been dreaming of for a little over two years. It started at my previous company, which allowed me to work closer with their product designers on an almost weekly basis. This was partially because I was the only graphic designer in the company, and also because it helped bridge a gap between marketing and product.

If it wasn’t for that exposure and understanding what product design was from an incredibly talented team, I never would have paid it any attention and just continued up the path in my marketing & branding career. But I became obsessed with product design – the process, the tools, the thinking – everything about it was fascinating. I began to understand what UX really was, where UI played a role, and more importantly I realized the power product design has.

Don’t get me wrong, I love marketing & branding and I was becoming pretty damn good at it too. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for them, but product was where the real impact was in my eyes.

Side note: I’ll often refer to UX as “product design” and vice versa. That’s an entirely different article to write about: which is what when it comes to UX/UI, Product, Interactive, etc. In the meantime, I’m curious what your thoughts are around that debate?

I had some experience by being involved as a brand liaison for things like mobile app design, website redesigns, and thanks to the collaboration with the product team I worked with in years past – insight on the process and importance of user-centered design. However, making that leap from graphic design to product design is not easy and seriously terrifying.

Why make the change?

One word: impact. To me the most impactful thing you can do for a consumer is creating the actual thing they’re going to use every day. Yes, marketing plays a key role in driving consumer behavior, and developing a brand is a key component in keeping someone infatuated with your product – but the actual product itself is what keeps the consumer hooked. I wanted to have a bigger impact on people’s lives. I wanted to design the product they were using.

How do you prepare to make the switch?

Understand your skills: As a graphic designer I was involved in digital & print campaigns, but the digital ones were more of an “experience” design than anything. You need to think of what you can use in your current experience as a lesson in user-centered design. Spoiler alert: good visual design IS user-centered design, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding skills that cross over into UX.

Passion projects: The next thing that helped me was passion projects. If there isn’t much work you can look at with the eyes of a UX designer, then create some projects that help you grow those skills. I did that with a few things, mainly pie-in-the-sky product ideas for the company I was working at. Not every project saw the light of day, but it got me into the habit of following a good design thinking process.

The Internet: Do I really need to point this out? There’s a plethora of information out there around product design. Whether it’s blogs, books, online training, or podcasts – you can easily get into the mindset of a product designer by diving into the endless information around what it takes to design products people love.

iphone headphones
Podcasts are still a thing, and you should listen to some UX ones.

The Invision blog is a daily read for me, and helped me really understand what matters the most in the product designer’s world. Books like “Hooked” and book series from A Book Apart are a great reads to dive into the nitty-gritty of UX design. Search for “UX” in any podcast app and find a boatload of great series there. Finally, use tools your company may even offer. The company I’m with now gives every employee a subscription to LinkedIn Learning, and holy moly does it have some great sessions on UX design, UX research, testing – the works!

Ask for advice: I even went as far as to ask for advice from Stephen Gates, the fantastic host/creator of The Crazy One podcast. Aside from asking about advice on how to break into product design, I also wondered if passion projects would hurt or help the skills I needed to build out more. His answer: just get started because there isn’t going to be a better way to learn. He’s right! If we are always waiting for the right opportunity, it may never come. Sometimes we need to create those opportunities.

Tell your boss: The final big push was support from my own boss. At the company I’m with now, we were encouraged to create Personal Development Plans – “personal” because it doesn’t always have to relate to work (mine did though). I created a 12-page document around three different paths I wanted to grow in as a designer. Product design was at the top of the list, but the other two were a close second and third. I then took that plan to my creative director and had an open conversation with him.

We had every intention of me pursuing a path in marketing & creative, but because I was clear about my passion in product, he knew to keep an eye out for any new opportunities that came up on our product team. Sure enough, a few weeks later the UX designer position was posted. Though he didn’t want to lose anyone from his team, he still passed along the information and encouraged me to apply. I figured the worst thing that could happen was I wouldn’t get the job but would at least have insight and experience on interviewing for the position. Long story short: I applied, interviewed, and got the job.

I’ll pause here for now. In the next post I’ll share how to truly understand what you’re getting into, what it was like to actually go through that process of applying, and how to build out a UX-worthy portfolio.

Read next: Switching Careers Part 2 – Preparing Your Portfolio

Featured Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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