Issue 6: How do you market yourself as a low to mid level designer?

And is it necessary to have a computer science background for UX/UI design?

Welcome, designer.

These past weeks been tough. A lot is going on in the world right now and I know how difficult it can be to process it all while trying to stay sane and productive. I know I personally needed a distraction, which is why I dedicated some time to write this next issue. But needless to say, please take the time you need to unplug, practice self-care, and check in on the ones you love.

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This week, we answer:

  • How do you market yourself as a 'low-to-mid' level designer?

  • Is it necessary to have a computer science background for UX/UI design?


How do you market yourself as a 'low-to-mid' level designer?

Srivatsa: I’ve noticed a lot of open positions: jr. product designer, sr. product designer, lead product designer, etc. but when it comes to a “product designer” position, I notice that they have variable experience expectations such as “must have 3+ years/ 3-5 years experience / 7+ years”. How does a designer with say 2 years of experience apply and standout for such positions?

Varun: If I could add to this, what sort of skills should a person with around 2 years of experience, be focused on building? Since we’re no longer ‘new’ to the field..

Whoa, tons of interest in this question! Let’s tackle it.

To quickly address Srivatsa’s point, yes there are tons of variation in matching years of experience (YoE) to seniority. That’s because 1) YoE is not a guaranteed measure of skill, so the line can often be arbitrarily drawn and 2) every company looks for a different skillset in what they mean by “designer” which then affects that YoE requirement.

So if you are a designer with ~2 YoE, what is expected of you and what should you focus on growing in?

Craft and Execution 🎨

Expectation

Your craft and execution should be rock solid by now. You have a strong grasp of composition, typography, color, and other design fundamentals through a mastery of design tools. For business interfaces, you demonstrate a sense of clarity, professionalism, and crispness. On the consumer side, your designs may convey delight. Either way, your work should feel at home within the visual language of the product, even if your team doesn’t have a design system.

Growth Area

Depending on the needs of your company, additional growth here may be more of a nice-to-have and even start you down the path of being a specialist in visual or motion design. However, you can still push the envelope by designing new experiences for which there is no precedence to lean on and paying attention to hard-to-find edge cases.

Interaction Design ↪️

Expectation

Your portfolio should demonstrate a strong history of translating complex flows into familiar behaviors and patterns. You should be able to design for the most important user action on each page/screen and identify opportunities to further simplify a complicated interaction.

Growth Area

You may still be developing in dealing with multifaceted and more nuanced constraints. For example, you want to build on top of an existing feature but it currently behaves differently for iOS and Android. You don’t have enough engineering resources to achieve parity between both devices and another team plans to leverage your interaction flows for their decisions so you’ll want to optimize for their intentions. How do you go about designing the best user experience?

To start, rather than designing in a silo and then asking other people to poke holes, try to fully understand the constraints before starting your designs. Then work closely with your cross-functional partners to catch additional or new constraints as early as possible and iterate your designs.

Product Thinking 🤔

Expectation

Your product thinking may still be developing and could be an area of growth for you. You should have already started to think about how individual features in the product solves real human needs (How might users discover this feature? Do they understand how to use it? Will they think it’s valuable?).

Growth Area

You’ll want to widen your product thinking skills to system-level problems over time (How do I address this unique need without breaking the existing system? Is this design vulnerable to bad actors? Could this feature cannibalize something else on the platform?).

You can start by understanding how your PM measures your product for success and step up to be part of that conversation. You should begin to realize how your designs move the needle for the company and how your work fits into a larger ecosystem of priorities and solutions. As you gain that 30,000 foot view, you’ll be able to identify all the levers that make up the product and design for them.

Soft Skills 👥

(Don’t underestimate the enormity of skills that I’ve grouped under here. If anything, soft skills often separate senior designers from junior designers and so will become a huge growth area whether you stay on IC track or lean into management.)

Expectation

You have strong communication and collaboration history with 1-2 partners from each cross-functional team (product, research, content, engineering). You understand how each of them work and the short-term needs they have of you. You might still be working on how to articulate your rationale but you receive criticism well and actively work feedback into your iterations.

Growth Area

You may need to gain experience in leadership, which is demonstrated by proactively identifying larger-scale initiatives (ex: more efficient documentation, better standards for handoffs, bigger feature bets) and being a key stakeholder when your team prioritizes work. You can position yourself to gain that experience by expanding your communication to the entire cross-functional teams you work with, not just the 1-2 immediate partners you speak to day-to-day. Work with the managers of those teams, understand their goals, and actively share in-progress work and context that team may be interested in.

Wrapping Up

So, going back to Srivatsa’s question, how to stand out from your peers who may have more YoE? Two ways:

  1. By meeting, at the minimum, all of the “Expectation” criteria detailed above and then going above and beyond on 1-2 of them (aka meeting criteria within “Growth Area”). For example, you can meet the baseline expectation across the board but stand out by having exceptional product thinking skills. This is called being a “T-Shaped Designer”.

  2. By meeting all of the “Expectation” criteria above as well as having an adjacent skill such as user research, data science, coding, so on. This would stretch you out more in breadth rather than depth but is extremely valuable for companies that need you to wear many hats.

Of course, you should always understand the unique needs your company or potential employer may have. They might ultimately value one skillset over the other so the two ways above aren’t a guarantee. But they’re generally how designers grow within their first few years.

And to answer a follow-up question in the same thread:

Anonymous: Also should we consider academic work/projects part of that experience? (for example, completing a 2-year masters program as part of 2 years of experience)

You should be prioritizing work gained from real world experience. However, if you don’t have the appropriate projects to cover each of the “Expectation” sections detailed above, fill the gap with academic work.


Is it necessary to have a computer science background for UX/UI design?

How has a background in computer science helped you now as a designer? I often think of computer science and design as opposite ends of a spectrum. I am curious how you used the skills you learned as a computer science student to transition into a career in design.

A computer science background is great for a number of things:

  • You can stand out from other candidates by having deep expertise in a practical, adjacent skill

  • You can ground your designs by understanding technical feasibility and optimize handoff to engineers

  • You can take your designs to the next level by creating high fidelity prototypes (Framer, HTML/CSS/JS, native Android/iOS, etc)

  • You can build and ship your own designs, saving enormous eng cost

I leveraged my computer science degree when I pivoted to design because it happened to be my background. I made my story work for me by being prepared to list out all of the advantages above during design job interviews and actively working on the fundamental design skills I needed to make up for.

However, a computer science background is not a requirement to be a designer, unless you are specifically looking for a technical design position like UI Engineer. A CS background is just another way to do the things you love and make yourself more marketable as a job candidate but you can certainly pursue other valuable skills to accomplish the same thing. For instance, you may want to focus on building design systems, which is becoming an increasingly sought-after role. You could also specialize in motion design, which is highly technical in its own right.

So to summarize, no, you don’t need a computer science background.


Bookmarks

Getting Noticed at Work by Work Chronicles
A short comic about the importance of getting your work recognized. Every promotion starts at self-promotion and the discomfort of bragging about yourself (gracefully!) is always outweighed by the benefits of career growth.


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Until next time, 👋

— Lily