Alisha Ramos, 24, graduated from Harvard with degrees in sociology and history, and got a job as a consultant… and then she quit to learn how to be a front-end designer. She used savings to help support herself during six months of learning and also started taking on freelance work to build up her portfolio. “It’s incredibly scary to leave a job you may feel comfortable at, especially if it’s to pursue a job in a completely different industry,” she said. “But, if you have the passion, grit, and determination, you absolutely will not regret it once you reach your goal.”
Ramos also notes more advanced learning can occur after you’ve made the switch. “One common misconception is that you have to be absolutely amazing at what you do in order to make the career switch, but I quickly realized how many people and companies were willing to take on a fresh, young designer. If you show aptitude and willingness to learn, that will take you very far.”
Use The Power Of The Internet
Immersive programs aren’t right for everybody. Many disciplined designers are self-taught, thanks to free or inexpensive online resources. HackDesign offers free tutorials on using design tools and lessons on design process. If you’re interested exclusively in programming, Codecademy and Khan Academy are two popular sites that offer completely free lessons. Treehouse, Skillshare, and the aforementioned General Assembly also offer online tutorials for design and development. Design+Code offers a comprehensive guide to learning Sketch, an affordable Photoshop alternative growing in popularity amongst practicing designers. I also recommend bookmarking Designer News, which aggregates links to things like source files (which can explain how designers achieve certain visual effects), tutorials, thought pieces, and even Q&A’s on topics like salaries and freelancing.
Alice Lee, 22, is a business school graduate who previously worked on Dropbox’s design team and is now a freelance designer and illustrator. She cites the Internet as one of the resources integral to her learning, as well as a venue for exposure. Lee adds, “Because I started out being completely self-taught, I tend to self-initiate my own personal projects, which means more practice and even potential exposure, which in turns eventually leads to more related professional projects down the line.
The majority of online resources and tutorials for designers focus heavily on honing technical skills, such as using Photoshop or Sketch. These skills are important, but technical execution is only half the job. The more challenging aspect of software design lies in making creative decisions to improve the user experience of a product. This skill is mostly developed through experience, but there are books that will introduce you to the basics of usability and designing in favor of it. Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience is a great primer, and Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is required reading in most university design programs.
There’s another great resource already in your hands: your phone. If you’re interested in mobile design, become familiar with the design patterns for specific platforms, such as how things look and function on Android versus iOS. Next time you’re using a mobile app, take note of the layout, the visual treatments, the way you navigate between sections, and the location of important actions. Do this for all the apps you use often, and you’ll begin to form a familiarity with the design language. If you have an iPhone, grab your friend’s Android phone (or vice versa) and a laptop, and compare how a popular application like Instagram or Foursquare looks and functions on all three. Testing different devices and operating systems will give you a good sense of the design decisions practicing designers make for each platform.