A Few Learnings From My Transition Into Design

I transitioned into design a few years ago and here are some things that I learned along my journey.

It’s been 4 years since I quit my Product Manager job and officially embarked on the journey to become a Product Designer. I am not going to lie — my transition into design was scary, messy, and confusing a lot of the times, and to say that I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next would be an understatement. Although I have absolutely no regrets about making the leap, I do wish that I had more resources and mentors to lean on. If you are looking to make the transition into design and/or are trying to get your first design job, I am hoping that this article can help make the journey a little easier.

Rena Kuai
Jul 6, 2020

Position yourself based on your strengths & background

When I first started applying to design roles, I kept trying to present myself as the classic designer archetype: creative, artsy, etc. While I liked to think that I was artsy, I also knew that my background wasn’t one of a classically trained designer and that it would be really tough for me to compete with someone who went to design school or someone who had extensive design experience under their belt. After applying to a bunch of roles and getting no responses back, it became apparent that I really needed to sit down and figure out what my strengths were and how I could tie that back into design.

I came from a Product Management background so I was fortunate to have already had experience with some of the more discovery-esque part of design: conducting user interviews, wireframing, stakeholder management, analyzing analytics, etc. I also had a Bachelor of Science degree in business / marketing so I felt like I had some business acumen under my belt. With those two things in mind, I hypothesized that I could potentially get some hits by reframing myself as a junior level designer who was adept at discovery, kicking off projects, and UX thinking, but needed some more training in actual design work. I think that reframing and being honest about my strengths and weaknesses turned out to be the right move because I ended up getting my first role in design not soon after.

Improve and practice your design skills

Before I even embarked on my design journey, I knew that my biggest weakness was going to be my visual design skills. As a Product Manager, I did a lot of wireframing, but I never had the opportunity to create high-fidelity designs. I learn best by jumping right in and doing things, so that was what I decided to do with design!

I was working at a subscription box startup at the time so I decided that my first design project would be to design an e-commerce mobile app for women’s clothing. I ended up having a lot of fun using Sketch and creating an interface for the first time, but the end product was pretty ugly. I also realized that I wasn’t really following a design process — I had jumped right into designing without asking any questions, understanding user and business needs, etc.

It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good. You have to try a lot of things and fail in order to make the next discovery. - Paula Scher

For a few months, I spent time trying to establish a better design foundation. I remember analyzing designs on Dribbble, reading about design fundamentals, and looking through design systems to try to establish some guiding principles in my mind. I also spent a lot of time putting those design learnings to practice through competitions on 99designs and creating products based on real interview prompts from Google, WeWork, etc.

At the end of a few weeks, I saw an improvement in my work, but I still had a lot of room for improvement. Currently, I still feel very self-conscious of my visual design skills and am always trying to improve, but I also feel happy when I think back and see how far I’ve come.

Put together a thoughtful portfolio

I had two primary questions when I first started putting together my portfolio:

  1. How do I get content for my portfolio?
  2. How do I present my projects in my portfolio?

I had zero sample projects when I first started my design journey. My plan at first, was to design some screens for a fantasy product and post those screenshots on a website. After doing some research into other design portfolios however, I saw that a good portfolio didn’t just contain screenshots; I needed to spend more time articulating and presenting my design decisions and considerations.

I ended up filling my portfolio with projects based on interview prompts from other companies. It was nice to use interview prompts because it was fairly easy to benchmark my approach and designs to others who had shared their solutions on Medium. I also picked up the book Solving Product Design Exercises, which I highly recommend to every junior designer. It does a great job at breaking down the thinking required when approaching a design problem, listing out good questions to ask, and explaining what makes a solution “good” one vs “not so good”.

Seek out mentorship & guidance

When I first embarked on my design journey, I relied solely on books, Medium articles, and other written resources to help guide me. While those things were all super helpful, in retrospect, I wish I had made the effort to seek out the guidance of more seasoned designers. Besides adding clarity to a role and providing tips and anecdotes of experiences, mentors can also help you feel less alone and stressed during the more difficult moments of transitioning.

The wonderful thing is that there are so many ways to access mentors these days. Whether it be by joining formal groups such as  #BUILTBYGIRLS and DesignLab or informally reaching out to other designers on Slack (Hexagon UX, Women in Tech, etc.) or Medium, I highly encourage taking the leap and reaching out — most designers love giving advice and answering questions (I love hearing from others who want to transition into design too)!

In addition to seeking outside mentorship, I also think it’s preferable for junior designers to join companies that already have a designer or design team in place. Although I loved my first role as a designer, I was the only designer at the company and spent a lot of time doing things wrong and not having the support and feedback of other designers on the team.

Be kind to yourself & understand that luck is involved

I remember having sooo much difficulty getting interviews when I first started applying to design jobs. I already expected it because I had no design experience whatsoever, but I still couldn’t help myself from getting frustrated and feeling bad about myself.

I did eventually land my first design role at a sports analytics startup and although I did put in a lot of effort, I also know that I was extremely lucky to have met a hiring manager who believed in me when no one else did. I wanted to emphasize that getting a job offer is difficult and sometimes things just happen based on luck or being in the right place at the right time. If things aren’t going your way, just keep pushing and eventually you will get there!

I hope that these learnings can be helpful to those of you who are embarking on your own design journey. If you have any questions, are looking for a mentor, or just want to talk to another designer, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Written By

Rena Kuai

Rena is an ex-product manager turned product designer who currently resides in Dallas, TX with her husband and cat, Tony Montana. She's passionate about helping others transition into design and mentoring women and minorities in tech.

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