Issue 1: What are common areas of weakness among junior designers?

How important are cover letters? What is the ideal number of case studies?

Welcome, designer.

This is the first issue of what I hope to be many more. I hope this is valuable to you and that my advice is not only sound but actionable.

The primary goal of this newsletter is to answer questions from you as thoroughly and honestly as I can. So if this is a form of mentorship you would be into, feel free to submit as many questions as often as you’d like. I’ll take anywhere between 1-3 per issue, depending on the length of my answer.

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This week, I tackle:

  • What are common areas of weakness among junior designers?

  • What do you think about cover letters in application submissions? Is it better to include one?

  • How many case studies are ideal to include in a Design Portfolio? Do they all need to be client/work projects or can there be some student work included too?

P.S. Many thanks to the 85 people who stumbled upon this newsletter before I publicized it in any way. You subscribed and submitted questions before I even proved this was worth your time. I really appreciate you.

Q: What are common areas of weakness among junior designers?

Straight away, a tough question. It goes without saying that every designer is different and that generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt.

More importantly, everything I will mention makes up the baseline from which everybody starts at so if you identify with any of these, you are not alone. What often sets junior designers apart is not how few weaknesses they started out with but how they went about overcoming each.

That said, let’s dive in.

1. Junior designers don’t create with enough intentionality.

Designers early on in their careers often focus their efforts on the pursuit of craft, which usually come in the form of polished visuals, flashy animations, and innovative interaction patterns. However, with too much emphasis on pixels and not enough on intentionality, they can end up producing superficial work, something our industry has coined “the dribbblization of design.”

And unless they fully understand why they’re making certain decisions, junior designers won’t find themselves ready to handle the truly complex nature of building products.

🧐 Examples:

  • A designer chooses a hamburger menu for navigation because she’s seen it used on other mobile apps and she’s excited to try it herself. However, she fails to consider tradeoffs such as accessibility, discoverability, and scalability.

  • A designer proposes a series of animated illustrations to lead users through an onboarding experience because it will be attractive and delightful. However, he doesn’t take into account how the increased length of the flow may impact conversion rates and whether it actually has additive value to the user’s understanding of the product.

🌟 How to improve:

  • Pay equal attention to the unsexy parts of design such as dealing with constraints, addressing edge cases, and aligning cross-functional perspectives.

  • Ask everyone questions, not only to other designers but also cross-functional partners. Why did you choose a modal instead of a banner? How will we know this work was successful? What did we change from doing that user research? Why are we prioritizing this work over the other?

(I can write entire essays on each of the improvement methods above but kept it brief for the sake of focus. Tell me to hone in on any in particular for the next issue.)

2. Junior designers lack self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.

Ideally, every step forward in a designer’s career means they are closing the gap between what they want and what they are good at. As a result, this self-awareness can greatly affect career trajectory, even from the very start: from applying to the right jobs to picking projects on a team to asking for a promotion.

However, junior designers, by definition, don’t have enough experience yet and so find it hard to know how their skills are being perceived. And unless they work to build this self-awareness early on, this could lead to self-doubt and, at worst, create a roadblock in their careers.

🧐 Examples:

  • A designer is surprised by how strikingly different her peer feedback is compared to her own self-evaluation and was not aware of how her coworkers and manager perceived her abilities. This causes her to doubt her own competency and whether she has a future at this company.

  • A designer who hopes to pivot from a marketing background struggles to answer his interviewer on how that skillset helps him now as a designer. He views himself as restarting from a blank slate and so his interviewer rejects him as being too junior.

🌟 How to improve:

  • Get as much feedback as possible, and be specific. For example, use your self-evaluation as a hypothesis to validate: “I think I’m good at X. Do you agree?”

  • Pair with a mentor to build a landscape of your career options. You may uncover a role that requires skills you didn’t know you had.

(Tell me if you need me to expand on these methods of improvement for the next issue.)

3. Junior designers don’t fully measure impact.

Too often, junior designers sign off their work with just user interview summaries and quotes as their proof of success. Occasionally, they produce quantitative results but only within a small sample size (“5 out of 7 participants liked this design more.”).

This narrow view on impact usually leads to a lack of credibility for their work because these results can be regarded as subjective, inexact, and hard to scale. At worst, it can also provide a false sense of success to the designer when in actuality there are hidden flaws to be uncovered.

🧐 Examples:

  • A designer suggests overhauling the landing page, touting a number of customer complaints against the current design. He fails to make the case about how a redesign can improve conversion or usability metrics. As a result, leadership can’t see the return for this effort and de-prioritizes it as a nice-to-have.

  • A designer ships a new feature that received generally positive feedback in focus groups. However, when the feature performs at scale, she finds copious edge case behaviors that did not come up with her participants. This results in a negative experience for an unexpectedly large portion of her users.

🌟 How to improve:

  • Introduce yourself to data analytics and business thinking so that you can see the impact of your work within a bigger picture.

  • Learn how to narrow down and iterate on ideas by using experiments, one of the most famous being the A/B test.

(Tell me if you need me to expand on these methods of improvement for the next issue.)

Q: What do you think about cover letters in application submissions? Is it better to include one?

Yes, you should include one. Cover letters tend to fall on the extreme ends of the spectrum for recruiters: being either very loved or totally inconsequential. So to maximize your chances, I would recommend having one.

The content of the cover letter should always be short and sweet. I would encourage writing in bullet form where possible. In fact, here is my cover letter from a few years back.

Q: How many case studies are ideal to include in a Design Portfolio? Do they all need to be client/work projects or can there be some student work included too?

I’ve had a hiring manager give me a bunch of positive feedback on my portfolio and case studies (I chose my 4 best case studies). But despite that, the hiring manager told me they were looking for someone with more product design work and a bit more project experience. 🤷🏼‍♀️

To answer your first questions:

  • No more than 4 case studies, since recruiters will only pick 2 or 3.

  • Ideally, all are client or industry work. But given no other alternative, student projects are okay. Make sure they map as closely to real-world work as possible so that the recruiter has faith in your ability to translate theory into practice.

Now to the additional context. It sounds like that feedback means your work was not relevant enough to what the company was looking for.

“Someone with more product design” could mean:

  • You over-indexed on showing a less relevant skillset such as brand or systems design, or

  • You didn’t show enough core competencies expected from product designers, which are product thinking, visual design, interaction design, and (sometimes) user research.

Finally, “A bit more project experience” could simply mean your student work didn’t build enough confidence in the hiring manager that that experience was translatable to a full-time position.

That all said, it’s really difficult to reverse-engineer the vague feedback we often get from companies. Don’t let it stop you and just keep applying. You only need one to be successful. Good luck. 🙏

What I’ve been reading, etc

  1. UI Breakfast #159: Designing for Analytics 🎙
    A fantastic dive into how dashboard designs frequently suffer from charts and numbers that look nice but do not ultimately serve a purpose.

  2. The recipe for developing your career as a product designer 📚
    A breakdown of what it means to be a high performing IC.

  3. The ultimate guide to proper use of animation in UX 📚
    A holy grail of best practices in motion design.

If you’ve enjoyed this issue, consider subscribing. I strive to release one every 2 weeks. Otherwise, feel free to send me feedback on how helpful this was to you and any suggestions on improvements.

Special thanks to Sam Kaner, Kevin Ma, and Julia Fernandez for their help on this issue and the overall launch of the newsletter.

Until next time, 👋

— Lily