Making the switch from graphic to UX/UI design

Another week, another few design meetups — it’s lovely chatting with other designers in the flesh.

Today I met a graphic designer looking to make the switch to “UI/UX design.” They certainly weren’t the first, nor will they be the last; I found myself answering the same questions I’ve answered in hundreds of previous meet-ups.

This time, I’ve written a few thoughts down so that next time, I can point the graphic designer here.

Q: There’s just so much to learn, I don’t know where to start.

A: Start by hanging out where interaction design (IxD) people do. Hands-down the best part of the IxD field is the community. It’s jam-packed with kind, generous people, willing to pitch-in and help others learn. So jump in and spend some time with these communities.

You can easily start with online communities:

  • UsePanda covers a good chunk of sites: Designer News, Hacker News, Dribble, Sidebar, and Product Hunt are great places to start. Skim the comments, but don’t get absorbed: too many trolls, haters, and prickly people on sites like HN and DN.
  • Speaking of Sidebar, sign up for their daily newsletter goodness (signup form on the bottom of the site.)
  • Be active on Twitter, following designers you admire or want to learn more about, but keep list small < 100 so you can actually get to know them. Need suggestions? Check out the people I’m following for ideas.

When you get a chance, you should hang out in-person for a completely different experience. Join and search for local groups that do “interaction design”, “web design”, “UI design”, “user experience”, “product design”, and “front end development”.

  • Make sure the Meetup groups you join have at least one or two events coming up in the next 30 days that you can commit to.
  • Most meetup groups host larger events of 50+ people, and usually follow the same pattern: 30 min pre-game and food, 45min presentation, followed by 30m of drinks + networking, and in some cases they wrap up with a pub crawl. Don’t fret: bring a friend (or quickly make a friend.) Aim to make at least one new friend. They’ll help you connect with others.
  • If you can, try to find the smaller meetup groups. They usually meet up for coffee or drinks, and they’re groups that can range from 6 to 20 people. These are the best because you get more serious face time with people.
  • Make it happen. Show up. Say hi to people. Ask questions.

Q: Sweet! I’ll try to meet other IxD people soon… but in the meantime, how can I learn and practice the skills I need?

A: Nothing beats experience, so start working on a side project. Here are a few ideas:

  • Take an app you use everyday, like text messaging, email, Facebook, etc. and find one thing that annoys you. Thinking about how you’d make it better. Write about it, sketch it, mock it up, and maybe try putting together a prototype to show your idea.
  • Look for local “hackathons”. These are short (usually 24–48 hour) events where people come together to build software to solve problems. Teams are formed on-the-fly, with people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences, so you’ll fit right in. It’s the perfect place to work on an idea with real people in a team-setting. Check out to see if there’s anything nearby. (Note: don’t feel like you need to be a developer to attend. The fact is, most hackathons are absolutely STARVED for designer love.)

Q: Perfect, I’ve got an app idea I’ll start working on, and I’ll find a Hackathon to join! So how do I learn the actual skills + tools needed to be an interaction designer?

A: There’s a wealth of online tutorials, in-person courses, books, and resources to help you get started. Let’s start listing them off:

As far as online courses, Hack Design is a great, free online course that covers an insane amount of IxD material. Treehouse has great design content for a relatively cheap membership.

In-person workshops or classes, like General Assembly, are sometimes pricey, but can be fantastic! Word of caution: I’ve heard mixed reviews, and they’ve always hinged on the teacher, so be sure to ask around about the class/teacher before you sign up.

Book-wise, definitely check out “Dont Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. After that, check out this popular list of UX/design books you can run through.

When it comes to tools, Figma app is where it’s at. Familiarize yourself with Figma and pick one of the beginner-friendly prototyping tools (Invision or Marvel would be a good choice.) A second choice would be Sketch app since it’s been around longer, and has a stronger community base. I highly recommend the book Design+Code for uncovering Sketch’s abilities.

As far as resources go, the IxD community has a generous helping of useful bits. Immerse yourself in interface design patterns by visiting:

Finally, this may sound intense, but studying guidelines proposed by major tech companies (e.g. Apple and Google) are great ways to pick up a foundation for interaction design patterns like navigation, buttons, and forms. Apple has their Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) and Google just released their Material Design spec (for both web and mobile.)

Q: Wow, plenty to get started! It sounds like you’ve talked to other graphic designers who have made the jump. What were the most difficult part for them?

: Unlike graphic design, there is no finished piece. Designing for screens (the web, mobile apps, other interactive mediums, etc.) is incredibly flexible.

Just when you would think the work is over, you’ve really only just begun. A great deal of learning only happens after you’ve put out your first iteration. Collecting feedback (from analytics, interviews, etc.) will give you the opportunity to continue iterating, honing your design to better solve the problem you’re chasing.

Learn to give up total control. Your work as an interaction designer can always be improved.

On the flip side, you can’t keep polishing forever. Interaction design produces work that’s meant to be used. Software and websites need to be “shipped”, to make it into the hands of your users, the people you’re hoping to solve a problem for.

Learning when enough is enough will take time, but with enough practice you’ll get it.

“What screens want needs to match up with what we want.” — Frank Chimero, What Screens Want

Q: Thank you so much for your help! Any last words?

A: One last piece of advice: tell the world what you want to do! Change your title on LinkedIn to “Interaction Designer” or “UX / UI Designer”. Don’t be scared of putting it out there. You have design experience, you’re learning IxD principles, and I bet you’ve even taken a few stabs at sketching or mocking up a website or app sometime in your career. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to lie about experience. Sure, you can give yourself the IxD title, but when looking for a job, be honest about your experience.

Don’t worry, the world is craving Junior-level interaction designers, so you’ll fit in just fine.

After LinkedIn, do the same on your other social networks. When you introduce yourself to someone in person, explain you’re an interaction designer, and try to explain what that means. The more you roll these thoughts around in your mind, the clearer they become.

Besides, you should know that behavior change is belief change. Half the battle of becoming something is believing you can. I know, I know… it feels weird; you might feel like an imposter.

But trust me, I get how awkward it can feel. I spent years hiding behind “Oh, I’m just a web developer…” It wasn’t until I took a stand and affirmed in public “Yes, I am a designer” that it took hold. Don’t wait as long as I did. Start now.

That sums it up. Two final notes: 1) If you want help preparing a UX-focused portfolio, check out this portfolio guide. 2) If you’re seriously considering the leap to UI design, please do send me a message. I’d absolutely love to help answer questions, or try to connect you with one of the many, many companies looking for interaction designers.

Go forth and make ♥