Transitioning from a Graphic Designer to a UX Designer in 2018

Source: Freepik
It’s 2018. You’re tired of speculative work and the endless revisions from that client who doesn’t like that font or colour choice on your design. Maybe it’s time for a career switch! In this article, I’ll be sharing how I transition from a graphic designer to a UX designer. Hopefully, you’ll find this article useful in helping you prepare for a new career in 2018.

Several months ago, I went for a discussion session, ‘Life of a UX Designer’ conducted by General Assembly(GA), Singapore. At the event, the moderator did a quick poll to find out what industry and jobs the audiences were from. From a quick show of hands among the 60+ participants, there were engineers, developers, graphic designers, marketers, salespeople, and many from different careers. Not surprisingly(or purely based on my bias assumption), the majority of the participants were graphic designers. In addition, among the 4 speakers, 3 had a graphic design background.

It was equally fascinating to note that many people of diverse backgrounds are equally interested to know more about UX.


My journey to be a UX designer

My background was in graphic design and I spent 6 months preparing for a job as a UX designer. This includes learning new skills that were required for the role and preparing a design portfolio and a blog to demonstrate my writing and thinking skills. Despite the extensive preparation, I was not ready by the time I sent in my first application. In the end, I decided to turn to a career accelerator programme, User Experience Design Immersive at GA.

In my portfolio, I have included 2 recent web UI projects with several branding, print, advertising campaigns, and an art installation. I have also assembled a blog with sample writings, teaching readers about digital marketing and WordPress design.

Now, I would have assumed that I will make a pretty good candidate for a UX design role. It turns out that it wasn’t sufficient for the jobs that I applied for. Potential employers are quick to label me as a UI designer as I was clearly a newcomer in UX design.


Increasing interest in UX design

With the rise in tech, UX and UI design is in high demand to develop innovative products that relate to consumers. On one hand, big organisations are developing products that will simplify internal tasks; On the other hand, startups are creating new products to disrupt the industry. Many graphic designers are willing to make the switch to UX design roles.

UX Designers earn more than Graphic Designers

Source: Payscale US

Let’s be honest here, multiple reports suggests that a UX designer typically earns more than a graphic designer. According to PayScale, the average salary for a graphic designer in the US is $42,000, while an average UX designer receives $74,000!

According to PayScale, the average salary for a graphic designer in the US is $42,000, while an average UX designer receives $74,000!

Furthermore, in the article by Forbes, 29 Best Jobs for Work Life Balance, UX designers receives a rating of 4.1 ranked 2, while UI designers receives 4.0 rating at the 5th place. Not only does UX designers earn more, they typically work a lot less than a graphic designer! Rather than waiting for a promotion to get a pay rise, switching a career route and starting fresh may potentially pay better.

UX designers are in high-demand

From mobile gadgets to smart appliances, plugins, dongles, and paraphernalia, tech has become an essential part of our lives. With these, comes the need for UX and UI design. Interfaces may be found on almost every gadget and appliance; to display the time and music selection on smart watches; or to display the ingredients that can be found in a smart refrigerator. With the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoTs), the design of interfaces have become a specialised design discipline in recent years.

Tech startups that prided itself on ‘disrupting’ and ‘shaking up’ the industry, often attribute their success on UX design. Many hope to ‘give consumers back their rights’ by entering markets dominated by the ‘unfair practices of large organisations’. This user-centric model is the basis for UX design where services and products are shaped from how users interacts with them.

As UX design is closely related to business strategies, companies prefer to keep the (UX design) job within the organisation rather than outsourcing them.

Traditional large organisations too are catching up with this digital transformation by hiring in-house UX/UI designers and engineers. As UX design is closely related to business strategies, companies prefer to keep the job within the organisation rather than outsourcing them. These organisations may also hire UX designers from consultancies to reduce headcount in the company.

UX Designers as Leaders

Multiple tech giants are often quoted to be headed by designers. Among them includes the late Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, and Airbnb co-founders, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky.

In the article by Co.Design ‘The CEO Of The Future Is A “Designer-In-Chief”’, the traditional role of a CEO is described to have evolved into a ‘designer-in-chief of corporate culture’. He/She is a mentoring figurehead who leads and shows by example, inspiring employees to create the next great technology and innovation.

This is done through ‘instilling them with the qualities that designers have: the ability to recognize problems or opportunities, propose fixes, and iterate those fixes until they’ve found the one right solution.’ In other words, this is the practice of design thinking and UX design.

While not every designer will become a CEO, corporations are recognising designers as leaders, promoting them up through the ranks. The ones who can think and create value to the company will be recognised, not the pixel-pushers.

No more Spec Work

Perhaps the greatest motivation for UX design is the end of mindless spec work. UX design looks beyond aesthetic, empathising with users, and designing based on what works, rather than what looks good.

UX design looks beyond aesthetic, empathising with users, and designing based on what works, rather than what looks good.

On the other hand, graphic design work often requires pitching and unpaid speculative work. Decisions are largely influenced by client’s tastes and preferences. This often results in unnecessary stress to deliver, which can be physically and emotionally draining over time.

Design skills are transferable

UX design roles are largely inseparable from UI design in many organisations. While some companies may have a role specifically for UX researchers, in many cases, UX designers are required to have design, prototyping, and front-end coding skills.

Graphic designers who are already skilled in Photoshop and Illustrator can transfer those skills to the new role. Many also understands the principles of design thinking and placing users first. Although additional skills are required for the role, these can be picked up through learning and practising.

UX designers are the cool geeks in town

Step aside, graphic designers, as geeky UX designers are cooler (and richer). Graphic designers are often labelled as eccentric and often hard to work with. On the other hand, UX designers are the total opposites; they possess social skills as they seek to work alongside different stakeholders. Often, UX designers are highly skilled not just in design, but also in coding and other tech skills. Their research are value more as it affects not just sales, but also how the company operates. To me, this feels like a power up of a graphic design role.

Demand for multi-skilled UX designers

While more companies are now aware of UX design, their level of understanding is at the minimal. Often, they attempt to hire UX designers who are also skilled in UI design, coding skills, and experience in ‘agile’, and mobile app development. Fortunately for graphic designers turned UX designers, we’ll be able to stand out from other candidates. In 2018, companies will continue to hire more UX/UI designers rather than designate a particular role for UX.


Transitioning from a graphic designer to a UX designer

Step 1: Learn

New job roles come with new demands in skillsets. Learn UX with an open mind to have a greater understanding of what is to be expected in the new job role.

#1 Learn human-centred design

Among the skills needed for UX design or research includes skills in conducting user interviews, usability testing, information architecture, creating personas, customer journey mapping, etc. Theses skills will be required for pure UX design roles.

Start by trying out Coursera’s interaction design specialisation course. While the certification requires payment, users may opt to audit the course and gain access to all video tutorials and most learning materials for free.

Audit a Course on Coursera

To audit courses on Coursera, click on an individual course (not the specialisation) and click enrol. At the bottom of the pop-up, look for the text link, ‘audit the course’.

Similar courses can be found on sites such as Udemy and Lynda. Most require a course fee or a monthly fee on their platforms.

#2 Attend a UX Design immersive program

Online tutorials can only teach you that much about UX. UX is largely an applied skill and requires practical application and tests conducted with real people.

I enrolled for the course at General Assembly and it was the best decision I did in 2017. GA, based in many major cities across the globe, teaches tech-related skills. The course stretches across ten weeks, aimed at preparing career switches to take on the new job role. This is done through multiple individual and collaborative projects that help students to learn UX skills while developing their portfolio.

These immersive programmes also provides career placements, tie-ups with industries and alumni, and discounts on design softwares.

Besides GA, check out other schools, boot camps, or programmes available in your city. As these courses may be costly, check if there are any training grants that are available for these programmes.

#3 Attend Workshops and Events

Take part in local UX workshops and events in your city and sign up for them. Many of these events are usually free and meant to allow participants to interact and network with other participants.

Take this chance to get to know new people and exchange contacts. Your next job may be through a referral from an interaction with the event speakers, organisers, and participants.

#4 Learn Prototyping

Related to point #1 and #2, a core component of UX design requires prototypes. Extra emphasis is usually placed on low-fidelity paper prototypes rather than on high-fidelity ones. Recruiters and potential employers usually check for these samples in a portfolio to determine a candidate’s suitability for a job.

Graphic designers who are looking to take on job roles that cover both UI and UX should also learn to produce high-fidelity prototypes. Create static screens with Adobe Photoshop and use a tool such as the new Adobe XD and InVision app to link different screens together.

Other than the 2 above, check out Sketch, Figma, UXpin, Axure, which are the standard professional softwares used by most organisations. InVision will also be introducing the new InVision Studio coming January 2018.

Source: InVision Studio, coming out in January 2018

#5 Read UX articles

A good place to access UX articles is Medium, which seems to be a niche site of choice for many UX practitioners. Since you’re reading this, you’re probably already following various UX publications. If not, subscribe to Muzli, Prototypr, UXdesign.cc, UXPlanet.org for user-submitted UX articles.

Other sites to learn about UX includes IDEO, UX magazine and Smashing magazine’s UX section.

#6 Get Up-to-Date with UI Trends

Be in touch with UI design trends by following designers on Dribbble. Dribbble is a social design portfolio platform that is similar to Behance but showcases a niche segment in illustration and user interface design.

Search for a Dribbble Invite under ‘Recent’

In order to post your works on the platform, users have to receive an invitation from other fellow users. Do a search for ‘invite’ and toggle to ‘recent’ for new posts by users. These users usually hold a mini ‘competitions’ to review their works before forwarding an invitation.

Alternatively, check out Uplabs, Behance Interaction gallery, Awwwards, and the FWA.

#7 Browse through UX Jobs

Search for UX related jobs on LinkedIn, TechinAsia, and other local job boards and find out the skills necessary for these jobs. This can help you to prepare for a related job when you are ready to apply for one. UX job titles may include UI/UX Designer, UX Designer, UX Analyst, UX Researcher, Interaction Designer, Product Designer, etc.

For example, some companies may require skills in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Others may require experience working specifically in mobile development and design, rather than on web development. Hence, it is important to consider these factors while preparing for a portfolio at a later stage.

#8 Practice designing user interfaces

As a graphic designer, working on a design for a product packaging is different from crafting a layout for a book, or compiling brand guidelines. The same is also true when specialising in UI design. Every design ‘category’ requires an understanding of how to approach the project and an awareness of design trends and good practices. This includes software knowledge required for the design, mentioned in #4.

My design for DailyUI Challenge Day #01 — Sign Up Page

Challenge yourself to designing interfaces on Daily UI. The site will send you a daily task to complete over a period of 100 days. Subsequently, upload the finished product on Twitter or Dribbble. You may also do a search for designs from fellow design participants on Dribbble for inspiration.


Step 2: Preparation

Now that you have started learning about UX, proceed to the preparation stage to carry on with your journey to be a UX designer.

#9 Prepare a UI/UX portfolio

A huge mistake that I made in my portfolio preparation was to spend too much time documenting my advertising and graphic design works. At the point of time, I was unsure about the career direction I was planning to take. I wanted to have a backup plan to continue to pursue graphic design as a senior designer or an art director.

Often, recruiters and potential employers do not have the time to browse through all the projects in a portfolio. Having 3 quality UX design documentation is sufficient to show a good general understanding of UX.

Pick 2 web and 1 mobile app (or 1–2) and document the UX process in your portfolio. Write and elaborate on the steps taken to build the app/website. For graphic designers without prior experience in UI, create an app concept or a redesign of an existing site.

At the minimum, build a website with WordPress, and use it as a landing page to navigate to projects that are hosted on other social portfolio sites such as Behance, Dribbble, or Medium.

#10 Write about UX design

UX writing is an important aspect of UX research as it shows the ability to think and present ideas to various stakeholders. Post your articles on a blog or submit it to Medium.

Writing can also help to promote your work, such as including snapshots of apps/sites you have worked on as an example to support your article. You can also get noticed by including a link to your portfolio and building followers on the platform such as the links that I include at the bottom of this article.

(Writing) places you in a position of an ‘expert’ rather than a beginner for a particular topic.

Writing is also the best career hack that applies to any job. It places you in a position of an ‘expert’ rather than a beginner for a particular topic. By teaching others, it also reinforces your own learning by phrasing ideas with your own words.

#11 Promote your Work

UX designers love feedback. If you do not actively promote your work, no one will know how good/bad you are.

Promote your work through social media by putting them up on sites such as Pinterest, Dribbble, Behance, and LinkedIn. Other than putting them up on a website, promote your works to receive feedback and get your works out there. Put up images of your mockups and place a link to the website source to drive new traffic to your portfolio. Different platforms also help to get your work to different audiences.

Step 3: Apply for a Job!

Give yourself a good timeline for steps 1 and 2 before applying for a job. Changing a career direction isn’t easy and often requires training and learning on your own free time. Make sure you plan early, before quitting your current job as the job application process can be equally mentally draining.

#12 Send out your Application

Now that you have learnt what you need to know and prepared your works to demonstrate those skills ( I took 7 months!), start applying for jobs. Generally, I tend to pick large organisations first as they will usually take a longer period to access suitable candidates. A friend of mine says that Google takes up to 6 months to decide on one!

Before applying, read the job description carefully and consider the type of relevant work experience you have and the projects that you have done. Some companies may require people with prior experience in UX design, but I’ll usually give it a go too. Let the employers make that decision whether you are suitable for the job or not.

#13 Practice for interviews

Practice how you will introduce yourself and the work you do to a potential employer. These are usually standard questions that will be asked in a typical interview. Consider the projects that you will most likely share with the employer.

In addition, make a search online for other possible questions that you may be asked at an interview. This will help to avoid stumbles and the loss of confidence and interest during an interview session.

#14 Set a realistic salary target

The salary question is bound to come out at a certain stage of your interview. Be well-informed about what the industry is giving in your country, and set a realistic salary that does not undervalue or overvalue your work. Don’t be tempted to price yourself too low, just to get a particular job. That will hurt your motivation in the long run.


Rounding it Up

To graphic designers, I hope that you find my article useful and you’ll have a good start in your search for a UX design job in 2018. Contact me if you will like to discuss the points that I have highlighted in this article. Good luck!

To employers, please be more accepting of us. We have had valuable work experience and ethics that can help us perform our jobs. Give us a chance!

If you are interested to find out more about my work, check out my portfolio and my digital marketing blog. PS: I’m currently on my own job hunt and I’ll love to explore opportunities!


About the Author

Hou Teng is a current student at General Assembly, Singapore, User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) programme (21 Nov 2017–09 Feb 2018). Before attending this programme, he has worked as a graphic designer at an advertising agency and launched an e-learning startup.
His design works can be viewed in his portfolio, and digital marketing writings are available on his blog. Also, check out other UX-related articles and projects on his Medium profile.