Aug 28, 2022
88 tips for young product designers
Portfolio & interviews (1–25)
1. Ditch the case study and show your core skill
Most case studies take 99% of the content to finally present a disappointing solution. Most of the interviewers don’t care about case studies either.
Make it easier for interviewers to immediately understand your core skill set.
Write your core skill set(s) upfront and use the portfolio to prove that you’re good at it.
2. Don’t quote quotes
Don’t quote quotes in your resume or portfolio. Or, really answer, “I want the recruiter to understand ________ about me with the quote I’ve put here.”
3. Throw in a bonus with your application
At the time of applying, do things others may not. If you’re applying to an e-commerce company, send along a document with a heuristic evaluation of the purchase journey you experienced. If you’re applying at a SaaS company, do a hygiene usability test and send a well-formatted document along.
Doing things other applicants might not be doing gives you leverage. You’ll also build atomic content for your portfolio.
4. Even a thoughtfully written email is an eligible portfolio
Introduce yourself, lose the pompous big talk, tell your story, describe the work you’d want to do, and check if there’s a fit. Being crystal clear about your capabilities, work, and expectations increases your chances.
5. Creativity is a moat. Showcase it in your portfolio.
Great at doing digital sketches, comics, music, lettering? Great, show how you can also bring that creativity to your work. Good recruiters look for folks who exhibit clear signs of a creative mind and apply it at work.
However, be cautious… if you choose to put your “other” interests in your portfolio, ensure they’re the ones you love. Just like your work-focused portfolio, focus on quality, not quantity.
6. Move away from the cookie-cutter portfolio template
As designers, we’re supposed to design for our users. Your portfolio’s primary consumers are recruiters, and recruiters skim through a lot of portfolios every day.
What’d make them pause at your portfolio?
Similar looking case studies, few button animations, icons and illustrations, and few fictional brand identities thrown into the mix? No.
7. Don’t try to be the entire team. People want specialists.
Recruiters are hiring visual designers, graphic designers, growth product designers, marketplace product designers, merchandise producers, and such.
When they read all your mastered skillsets listed in the resume — from problem-solving, user research, UI design, UX design, to UX copywriting, and micro-animation, it confuses them. It signals that the person is mediocre or bad at everything and is better at nothing.
8. Make your portfolio for someone, not everyone
You may apply at fifty companies but ensure that the portfolio is built keeping 1–2 companies in mind. If you want to apply at SaaS, don’t design concept fashion apps for your portfolio. If you’re interested in content streaming companies, don’t design for concept food delivery apps.
Focus on a few, and walk away from the rest.
9. Fresher? Do this instead of concept problems to build a solid portfolio.
Pick two of your favourite apps. No social media or instant messaging apps.
Identify 3 things the app is supposed to do really well.
Ask 3 friends and relatives to do those three things using the app.
Observe how they go about doing the 3 things and make notes.
Were they able to find the stuff to do the things easily? Did they interact with what was required to do the things? Were they able to understand clearly what was happening?
You’ll have enough input to make your own app version and put it up as a case study.
10. Use other designs to build your portfolio muscle
Take 10 screenshots of 10 different apps.
Identify one element of improvement in each and design your version.
It could be text size, visibility of important CTA, copy, graphics, anything — but one change.
Put before and after with your reasoning for change.
11. Do a concise portfolio
Save recruiters time by clarifying what they should see once they land on your portfolio. You wouldn’t want them to drown in an ocean of case studies trying to figure out which work sample best resonates with hiring requirements. Be concise.
12. Who is this case study for? Recruiters or other designers?
A 10-page case study might be helpful for another designer who’s trying to learn the “how-to”, not a recruiter. Most recruiters are looking for:
a) relevant work,
b) the work was done by you, and
c) the work was done thoughtfully by you.
13. Not an essay writing contest
Use visuals to communicate the most.
If you’re struggling, use bullet points and short sentences.
No one’s reading your long paragraphs.
14. Don’t be boring
Don’t be boring at an interview or your application.
Boring people can’t design exciting stuff and don’t drive excitement in the team.
15. Open up
Interviews are the best opportunities to open up about your latent hobbies, interests, the kind of work you enjoy doing, any unpopular opinion you hold.
Go beyond travelling and book reading.
16. Learn to ask great questions
Don’t ask generic questions about design processes, the meaning of design, or how vital is design at this company. Go through the company blog, design blog to gain deeper context and generate thoughtful questions. Few examples:
Last few projects the team has worked on
What kind of projects would you work on if given the opportunity
A project and how design created an impact
17. Don’t show excitement in solving problems
I don’t know of a single designer who wakes up in the morning and tells themself, “Yayy, what a great morning to start solving problems!”. Yet, 99 of 100 applicants write this as their introduction and talk about it during interviews.
Try these instead:
“I like designing interfaces. Here’s how I do it.”
“I enjoy solving user problems. Here are some user problems: how I solved them using copy, flow change, making the button bigger, etc.”
“I like talking to people. Here’s how I have used that skill to interview users.”
18. Design f*cking cool stuff. Everything else will follow.
We’re all designers at the end of the day, and we owe it to ourselves.****
19. One at a time
Don’t let social media and YouTube gurus fool you into believing that you need to learn everything right now to be a designer. You’ll end up doing a lousy job in all. Don’t be a Buridan’s ass. Start with one (or two) focus skills, and pick the rest along the way.
20. Design what no one asked you to
Go beyond the conventional for your portfolio. Design whatever tickles your curiosity. Even a Terms & Conditions page.
21. Don’t design your portfolio for trends
Flooding your portfolio with 3D illustrations without understanding lighting, material, finish etc., isn’t going to help you once you’re designing something for a real app in production. Learning Blender for the sake of it without learning Photoshop enough isn’t going to help you create outstanding graphics for the app you’ll really be working on.
Don’t skip the basics for trends.
22. Don’t join cohort-based courses
Most designers you want to be like, didn’t take one.
“How-to” for design tools, theory, case studies, methods, and frameworks are free online. To practice, you need to take existing apps, talk to users, and sit down to practice design. No shortcuts.
The above is sufficient for you to build a convincing portfolio to get a job.
23. Don’t look for mentors
I have had 100s of mentors in my 12-year career, and 99% of them don’t even know I exist. They’re all the folks whose free courses, tweets, feedback, books, and content helped me become who I am today. They’re all the authors, podcasters, tutorial creators, founders, peers & colleagues.
You don’t need a “mentor”. If you still feel you do, ask yourself what you need the mentor for and google those questions.
24. Don’t go to design conferences
Ask yourself, “what for?”. If it’s for learning something unique and new, YouTube it. If it is for networking, use Twitter. If it’s for job opportunities exposure, LinkedIn. Spend the time and money on SkillShare, or equivalent.
25. Read this book
If you think you need to read a book to get into product design, just read Don’t make me think by Steve Krug. Every other UX design book essentially corroborates the same idea in different ways.
Becoming a better designer at work (26–60)
26. Learn to use google sheets
Believe it or not, the older you get in this field, the more you’ll find communicating, managing stuff better with sheets.
Tip: Learn to convert most of your design use cases into truth tables using sheets as a starting point.
27. Go beyond minimal. Become great at designing interfaces.
Minimalism is often the best excuse to not design better. Designing interfaces is the absolute basic thing you’ll be evaluated on in most small to medium-sized teams. This is one of the fundamental skills that give you compounded benefits.
28. Presentation is everything
A good presentation can save you 10s of meetings. Get good at it. Really good.
29. Learn frameworks from engineering, and apply those in design
Re-usability, modular coding, APIs thinking gave us Design Systems, Tokens, Components, Style Guides. Read about these, apply them in your thinking and execution.
My favourite: DRY — Don’t repeat yourself.
30. Communicate using prototypes, motion
The way a real user is expected to use your designs.
31. Wrap by simplify things
Before calling it a day, spend 30m to remove stuff from what and how much you designed.
32. Sweat the details
Design less horizontally and more vertically. Make fewer screens and spend spend obnoxious time in sweating the details of those screens.
33. Learn frameworks, systems over processes
34. Practice first principles
35. Get better at writing copy
Read instruction manuals of home appliance products, kids’ DIY toys.
How it works or visual dictionary coffee table books.
Short explainer video transcripts.
36. Create more time for design explorations. Improve your speed.
37. Ditch the double diamond mindset
IRL, it’s messy and chaotic.
38. Create more focus for your projects
When you get assigned a new project, immediately time block your calendar through the week(s) for the project. Keep the project name as the title of your time block.
39. Proactively improve with every project
At the end of every project, write notes on what went good, what you want to do better in the coming projects — share it with your manager.
Follow a simple format that you can populate under 5 mins:
Start to end time
What went well
What didn’t go well
Action steps for next project
40. Create a “working with me” document
Start with your communication channel preferences, work hours, strengths, weaknesses, areas you want to improve on, and areas you can help others with.
If you’re starting out, include things that interest you and want to learn from others.
41. Write. A lot.
42. Maximise 1:1s
Beyond the usual general chat, take honest input and feedback on your method of working, how you’re approaching a problem, brainstorm, and whiteboard together. Do this with both your peers and oversights.
43. Ask more questions than giving ideas
44. Save time in design reviews
When you’re at 50% stage of project progress, sharing an explainer walkthrough video (loom or equivalent) will save you and others a lot of time in gathering feedback.
45. Make better choices after a bad design
Bad design doesn’t mean you’re a bad designer. In most cases, a bad project (or design) is a series of choices you made with genuine intent to make something good happen. If it didn’t cause good, learn and move on.
46. Eliminate busy work
Making elaborate plans, processes, hours long meetings to “discuss” and brainstorm. Stop these. They give you the perception of actual work but are simply busy work.
47. Say PM. Deliver AM.
I read this 10+ years ago in a blog by Seth Godin and it immediately made sense.
48. Be reliable and predictable
Teams seek out someone who consistently show up and keep the promise of delivering the work they said they would. Share updates regularly and proactively. Close open loops. Share minutes of meetings.
49. Give your best in every project
Nine of 10 times, you’re as good as your last project
50. Become efficient and productive to stay excited
Inefficiency leads to more working hours, leads to frustration, leads to frustration.
51. Improve your taste
You are what you consume. Consume great, simple designs and practice. Your taste should be 50% ahead of your current ability.
52. DRY: Don’t repeat yourself
If you find yourself repeating certain things at work more than twice, record them.
Do so by recording (or writing) walkthroughs, feedback, questions, inputs, feedback, ideas, processes, frameworks, or checklists.
53. Apply 80/20 everywhere, in everything
54. Identify and be in good meetings
Choose to go to meetings where you or your work will get expanded, amplified, and come out better. Choose to attend meetings that will expand your worldview at work.
55. Overcome frustration
Frustrated at work, with work? Force yourself to do cool stuff to vent out. I draw concept vehicles, doodles, and random mind-maps. I also go for a quick 10min walk. One time, the team rejected a widget design idea I had. I designed about 20 concept widgets to get the widget-designing-craving out of my system.
56. Work harder and smarter than everybody around you
57. Stay curious
Install and try out apps from Product Hunt, App store features. Note what you like, ideas you got, delete and try the next app.
58. Execute. Execute. Execute.
At the end of the day, you’ll be held accountable for design execution and quality delivery.
59. Build core interests outside of work
If you want to produce interesting thoughts and creative work. Cross-pollination of ideas that come from various interests is underrated.
60. More time ≠ better design
Two designers had four weeks to design one flow.
Designer A designed one complete flow every week for 4 weeks, tested 4 times, and in the end had a refined, shippable version ready. Designer B created one entire flow at the end of 4 weeks. Don’t be designer B.
Design your career (61–74)
61. Make yourself dispensable
Convert your knowledge into checklists, documents, presentations, and walkthroughs.
The faster you do it for your role, the more you open yourself for newer things.
62. Everything is an opportunity
If you’re really curious and open-minded, even the Terms & Conditions page is a design opportunity. Don’t be content too soon.
63. Develop the ability to pre-filter
We consume and generate 100s of ideas, notions, inspirations, and inklings daily. But when the right context and moment comes, it becomes very difficult to stitch that perfect combination and apply at our work. Successful designers do this well by constantly by getting it out of their heads and putting it in a document, a design file, and such.
With enough practice, you can pre-filter all that information for a given context and present your ideas clearly.
64. Do work beyond your OKRs
65. Look for companies with higher contribution delta
Evaluate design’s role. If it’s one of the major influencing factors in moving business numbers or make a significant differentiator, go for it. Not all companies will qualify, evidently.
66. Develop Top of the Funnel mindset
Improve tools, processes at the top of the funnel, they have cascading results downstream.
How hard you have to work to make a project successful is also a function of the scope of the project.
How hard you have to work to pitch an idea is also a function of how well you conducted a research.
How difficult you find to come up with new ideas during a project is a function of how much time you spent in gathering inspirations at the beginning.
67. Become your manager’s +1
Most heads of designs have three core responsibilities:
Attract and retain talent,
Co-build & communicate vision, and
Maintain highest quality of work.
Help them proactively in one of these responsibilities and you’ll get noticed.
68. Give back time to get time
Managers spend more time on folks who give back time.
Managers spend less time on folks who only take time.
69. Don’t go out looking for career advice
Most stories are only stitched in retrospect, including mine. Ask for frameworks, mental models, over answers.
70. Your website is the easiest side-project
You don’t have to come up with the next cool idea to work on for a side-project. Work on your website, blog, or whatever you choose to call your digital home.
71. Specialist → generalist → specialist
If you want to become a generalist without being able to go hands-on good with at least one or more specialities, you’ll not succeed. Develop a generalist mindset but specialise in a hard skill set.
72. The first 5–6 years matter the most
Working your ass off for the first 5–6 years of work will fetch you the rest of the opportunities.
73. Increase your value by writing regularly
We’re digital first in work communication. Those who can express themselves in words that can’t be misunderstood have more value.
74. Increase your value by up-skilling
Product design skill is common. Product design with killer visual design skill is rare.
Research skill is common. Research with business understanding is rare.
Content writing is common. Content writing with research is rare.
Rare makes you valuable, gives you leverage.
Staying creative (75–88)
75. Keep a notebook
To write ideas, thoughts, tasks, whatever.
I always carry a Muji Passport Memo notebook and a click-pen (so I don’t lose the cap).
76. ABC — always be capturing
Capture a lot of inspiration — take photos, screenshots, and screen record.
77. Clean your inspiration frequently
Visit your gallery, Dribbble, IG, Pinterest likes and saves once every week. Delete 50% of them. Keep improving your taste.
78. Practice your inspiration
Re-create at least 1–2 items from your saved inspiration list every week. It could be an app design, some blog ideas, writing inspiration, etc. It’s the only way I know to get better.
79. Learn to build stuff with code or no-code
A personal portfolio, a plug-in, a listicle website, NFTs. It’s never been easier with the tools and YouTube available.
80. Talk (aloud) to yourself — a lot
Talking to yourself, aloud, about an idea, something you plan on telling someone, etc. helps you edit, and refine your delivery at the time of actually speaking.
81. Create a chat with yourself
Voice record your ideas and thoughts. Send yourself notes. This is the easiest method of idea logging since we’re always with our phones
82. Study speeches and scripts
Scripts and speeches are one of the best ways in which long-form content is consumed. I download transcripts of YouTube videos, movies and read them.
83. Read graphic novels, or picture books
They explain complex stories and topics in simple language using graphic design, typography, images, etc. Something we try to do every day with app designs.
84. Do crazy-8s daily
This pen-and-paper, Design Sprint method is one of my favourite ways to generate volumes of ideas in short time. Remember, paper is more patient than people.
85. Create checklists
Creating printed checklists will offload routine tasks from your brain.
Keep heuristics principles checklist, design hand-off checklist at your work desk.
Keep travel checklist inside your trolley.
Keep content publishing checklist at your home desk.
86. Generate a lot of ideas
Cross-pollinate topics and themes.
Read a book.
Write a lot of bad ideas.
Enter an unfamiliar territory at work.
Keep a beginner’s mind.
87. Create evergreen notes
Pick any topic of your choice. Do enough research and study to write an explainer in your own words. The idea is to never have to google to learn about the topic again.
88. Get better at Googling (searching). How? Google it.
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