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Fundamentals

Design basecamp – Where the journey begins.

Early career designers face a flurry of roles, expectations, and technologies they are expected to understand, consider and internalize.

"Should I just keep making things? Is there something else I should be learning?"

"What about learning to code? Write? How about learning 3D? Business?"

It can seem like there are endless things to learn, and time is limited. While opinions vary, there is a path that many designers recommend starting with.

A quote to get us started:

In the beginning, just focus on improving your craft and execution skills.

This means that you should be able to design clear, interactive flows that also look visually attractive. My strong opinion here is that you need to be good at both interaction design AND visual design. If you can only do one, you’re at a disadvantage...

If you can get to the point where everything you make looks great and makes sense, you will not have trouble landing a design job.

— Julie Zhou, The Beginning of Your Design Career

Don't treat your work as precious

Get feedback early and often, and be willing to change your approach and explore alternatives. Don't be offended when you get feedback that work isn't good, or the direction you like the best isn't the one that works. Get used to accepting feedback on your work – this is a skill you need to grow in your career.

Critical feedback is vital to develop your skills

When constructive, critical feedback is one of the most important things you can receive from others to develop your skills. If you feel hesitant about asking for feedback about something, that is almost always a sign that you should go get some feedback! Ideally not from the person that always tells you your work is great.

You will get better feedback by sharing work in progress

Get feedback early and often, and be willing to change your approach and explore alternatives. Don't be offended when you get feedback that work isn't good, or the direction you like the best isn't the one that works. Get used to accepting feedback on your work – this is a skill you need to grow in your career.

Here are three valuable times to get feedback:

  1. When you first develop an idea
  2. After you have explored at least 3-4 directions (never share only a single approach at this stage!)
  3. Following a deep dive on a promising direction

If you get feedback at these three points, you will most often receive actionable feedback rather than receiving feedback that is irrelevant or too late to be helpful.

The best designers I know get feedback early and often from their peers, both on a 1:1 basis and when available, in a formal critique setting.

You become a better designer by putting in the work

Improving your design skill is like building muscle. Practice every day, and train the right skills. Without putting in the work, it is impossible to get better.

There are no shortcuts—Put in the work consistently, and you will get better. The designers you look up to have put tens of thousands of hours into improving their craft.

Improving your craft

As Julie says above, balancing core design skills while early in your career will help you build an excellent foundation and set you up for success.

One exercise to help you practice is recreating apps or websites you like in your design tool. It's ok to copy them pixel for pixel, as long as you don't try to claim them as your original work. These exercises will help you learn how designers layout screens, help you become more proficient in design tool, and help you become faster when working on your projects.

Choosing your toolkit

It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tools and the mixed messages coming from all sides on which tools to learn.

Remember, the goal of a tool is to help you create better work – when learning a tool becomes a distraction from making work and solving problems, consider taking a step back and thinking through if you need a new tool.

A core tool kit for a designer starting to build products is:

  • One design tool (Figma, Sketch, XD)
  • One prototyping tool (Protopie, Figma, Origami Studio, Framer)
  • One presentation tool (Keynote, Google Slides, Figma)

Additionally, the following may be helpful:

  • One notes & sheets tool (Notion, Google Drive, an Office suite)
  • One image tool (Photoshop, Affinity Designer/Photo)
  • One motion tool (After Effects, Final Cut, Premiere)

It may be cost-effective to initially align yourself with a family of apps in the beginning. For example, the Affinity tools (Designer, Photo, Publisher) have only an upfront cost, not a continuous monthly subscription.

I generally try not to push anyone in the direction of any one tool; however, Figma fulfills three essential tool roles and has a large, helpful community behind it. It has great real-time collaboration platforms and no upfront cost.

I'd highly suggest learning at least Figma and picking up anything else you might need beyond it afterward.

Should designers code, write, _____?

All of these things are valuable, yet their value is significantly less than strengthening your design craft.

Don't get lost in pursuit of every new skill you hear designers tout as important. Focus on establishing one of the above tools, and invest the rest of your time producing work and getting feedback.

You will have years ahead of you to add to your skillset as you work on a range of projects.

On Code

If you tend to lean more technical and enjoy building your projects, it is worth learning baseline code skills.

Pick up some basic HTML, CSS, and javascript. These foundational skills will teach you about building products and are stepping stones to a whole world of other tools and languages you can learn.

Building your ideas in code is a great way to have a variety of portfolio pieces. Some good places to start: Code Academy's Learn HTML or MDN's Learn web development.

If you don't enjoy it, you don't have to learn to code. It isn't for everyone! Most design roles won't expect you to code, but you will have more options and be in more demand when you can.