Side projects are what lead me to discover my interest in product design in the first place.
When I was 18 years old, I had the idea to build a tool that allowed people to create their own Snapchat geofilters, which had just been released by Snapchat, at the time.
I had some graphic design experience — knowledge on how to use photoshop and illustrator, but zero exposure to product design.
After attempting to design my first side project, I realized that I enjoy the process but was clueless about how to properly design a real product.
I ended up hiring a designer to finish what I started, and they did a slightly better job…
This project led me to continue designing side projects for any and every idea that I had. Whether I had plans for my project to be developed or not, I would still design it as though it would be.
Working on side projects helped me develop the skills that other designers who aren’t focusing on the entire product experience, are skipping. I would have to take into account all of the states to make my product complete.
I’ve always pushed myself to come up with ideas for products and design them out as much as possible. I’ve created a bunch of products for fun that have never left a Sketch file on my computer.
Having a side project not only shows that you have initiative and can create a product on your own accord — but it also allows me to display my authentic design style.
It showcases a creation that came out of my creative exploration, with no one else’s fingers in it.
Anytime I download an app, sign up for a website, do online shopping, change my password, or literally do anything — I pay attention.
It’s easy to mindlessly sign up for apps or go through digital experiences without giving much thought to them. But it’s when I pay attention that I notice all the attentiveness to detail that went into constructing such a seamless flow.
By paying attention to what design decisions other, often much more established companies have made, it allows me to draw inspiration.
When I was starting, I knew little about product design, but the best place to learn was from the experiences that I was already having on a day to day basis. If every app I use has a “Sign Up with Facebook” button, then maybe there’s a reason for that.
I would often and still do, screenshot mobile app interfaces that I like and use them as a point of reference later.
Interviewing, in my opinion, keeps me sharp. It is a confidence boost when I get an offer and an opportunity for evaluation if I don’t.
I’ve interviewed for design roles at several companies; this does a few things to help me improve:
- I can learn what skills employers are seeking
- I have to be able to articulate what I am capable of and what I know — so I need to know what I’m talking about
- I’m often asked challenging questions about product design which can reveal what I don’t know
- Companies frequently have design challenges which require out of the box thinking
- Companies often require a design presentation which improves my presentation skills
In one interview process, I had to complete a design challenge and then present my work explaining how I landed on particular design choices step by step.
In the interview, I was fielding dozens of questions challenging why I used specific colors, what kind of grid I used, why I established the hierarchy the way I did, etc.
Having my work challenged and critiqued is uncomfortable, but it helps me develop the soft skills to defend my design decisions and accept feedback if I agree with it.
At one point in the interview, a lead designer asked me why I didn’t do something that was, in my head, a lousy suggestion — so I explained and gave my reasoning. Later on, in the interview process, he admitted that he had given that suggestion to see if I would roll over and accept it or defend the decision that I made.
It’s crucial as a designer to be able to stand on your own and reject feedback if you have a better solution.
Similar to what you’re doing right now — I spent time scouring the web to gain a further understanding of how product design works. When I read, it allows me to think and acquire other people’s thoughts, opinions, and knowledge.
I read the standard design books like Lean UX and The Design of Everyday Things. Although I learned a lot from those books, I would say I learned more about UI design, specifically from articles.
I gained a better foundational understanding of UI design through design system documentation. Reading the rationale behind different components and how to use them had a significant impact on how I approach product design in my work.
By reading through the rationale behind particular design decisions for companies like Google, it can allow regular designers like me to utilize their findings and practices in my day to day work.
Some of my favorite design system documentation that I recommend checking out:
I will also frequently browse resources at DesignSystemsRepo.
When I started as a UI designer, I’d come from a graphic design-ish background working on Fiverr, mainly doing simple illustrations.
Fiverr wasn’t the ideal platform for UI design, so I quickly started applying for jobs on Upwork. I showcased my work on Behance, which was primarily side project designs.
In addition to Upwork, I reached out to people in my network to see if anyone needed help with product work. After a while of beating the seemingly dead horse of freelancing, I slowly started to gain some traction, and it had somewhat of a snowball effect.
The more clients I worked with, the more exposure I had to a diverse set of problems and industries, which helped me evolve as a UI designer. It also allowed me to get paid to learn and grow as a designer.
The more I learned, the more I earned. Which helped motivate me to learn more about product design and acquire new skills that I could offer to my clients to get that sweet, sweet money.
Anytime you ask someone how they got good at something; they’ll inevitably say the cliché “practice, practice, practice.”
Well, there’s a lot of truth to that. There aren’t any secrets; besides that, the more you do it, the better you’ll get — guaranteed.
I knew at the onset that it would be an uphill battle, but product design was a skill I wanted to acquire. I was determined to understand this evolving and ever-changing profession.
To do that, I had to become immersed in the world of product design. I had to hang out where designers hung out and spend a good chunk of my time designing, studying, watching tutorials, reading, etc.
By having a side project, it forced me to remain focused on the flow. I would never complete a design and be finished with it — I was constantly thinking of how I could do it better or improve what I already have.
If I were doing the daily UI challenge, it would be easy to slack off and skip days or do a quick UI and then call it quits for the day, never returning to it again. I wrote an article not too long ago expressing my frustration with daily UI challenges and why they are falling short for beginners.
With a side project, I was continually designing new screens and experiences and would become obsessed with the evolution of my product.
By doing UI work regularly on side projects or with freelance clients, I was forcing myself to remain consistent and learn something new every single day.
By staying consistent, I slowly started to see the progression, which motivated me to keep on keeping on.
This is something I wish I’d done earlier, to be honest.
At first, I was ignorant and thought my designs were great. As I got better and gained more exposure to the field, I realized how incredibly incompetent I was and how awful my designs were.
When I realized how far behind I was and how much I had yet to learn, it made me hesitant to share my design work with others. But it’s possibly one of the essential steps in progressing as a designer.
When I can get a fresh set of eyes on my designs and have someone with more seniority than I to evaluate my designs, they can bring them into a whole new light.
Suddenly I’m second-guessing every decision I made — in a good way. They can make suggestions or ask why I made the choices that I did.
Receiving feedback also helped me develop some of the soft skills of being a designer — like explaining my design choices and having a backbone if I don’t agree with someone’s feedback.
If I didn’t have anyone to share my work with in person, I frequently turned to Reddit. Reddit has a few subreddits that will provide design feedback for UI designs. Reddit.com/r/uidesign has been very helpful.
There are hundreds of great UI courses and tutorials available, but I only want to call out two.
On YouTube, DesignCourse has tons of great content that’s always relevant and useful, which makes it super easy to get a grasp on a new concept quickly.
When starting or learning a new tool, I would subscribe to LearnUX for $15/mo. LearnUX has a very comprehensive list of courses that not only teach how to use design tools but also the fundamentals of design.
Watching tutorials or just watching someone else work allows me to see how other people work and learn how I can improve my designs or workflow.
Even if I only learn a new keyboard shortcut, it’s worth watching a three minute Youtube video.
I personally always struggled in product design with being easily distr…Woah, that’s a shiny mailbox!
The predicament is, I’m already learning Framer, but UI animation looks cool, so maybe I’ll dabble with that and try Principle, but as I start getting into that Adobe XD releases an update for auto-animate, so I must give that a try and then…
There are always new trends, tools, design libraries, startups, product updates, and all the other things that I’m sure will make me a better designer.
I had to force myself to stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I had to force myself to pick what I wanted to focus on and reach proficiency before I moved on to the next shiny tool or UI trend.
This is important to my development because having minimal knowledge in an array of areas wasn’t helping me become a better designer.
When I shifted my focus to one thing at a time, I allowed myself to gain a more in-depth knowledge as opposed to a surface level understanding.
I was lucky enough to have two pivotal opportunities in my design career.
The first was working directly with a team of developers to create IOS apps.
This opportunity exposed me first hand to the scrutiny that designs on bootstrapped projects are restrained by. We had to be lean, and we had to work fast to surpass competing apps on the apps store.
This was my first time having daily stand-ups and working with a strategist, a stakeholder, and developers. I learned how to work with a team and make sure my ideas were in-line with their objectives. As opposed to being a freelancer where I would often be given a task and told to do it — with this, I was more or less a part of their team.
The second opportunity was when I interned as a product designer at Skookum, the company that I now work for full time.
This was my first time being on a design team, and the collaboration and team environment helped me progress more than anything else.
Being surrounded by people who were strides ahead of me not only motivated me to get better, but I was encouraged to ask questions and learn from them.
I did my best not to prove that I was good enough but instead to remain humble and ask as many questions as I could to soak up the knowledge in the room.
We would also have design critiques, where I would present my designs, and other team members would ask questions about my design choices. They would provide feedback and force me to rethink UX or UI decisions.
Being a part of a team and being involved in conversations about design or being engaged in creative brainstorming helped me think more deeply about design and how I approached it.