Tips on Landing Your First UX Design job (Part 1)
A lot of people in the industry will tell you how non-linear their path to design was. I share a similar experience as my path was filled with failures, hard-work, sacrifices and (luckily for me) victories. I am not going to go through everything but I will help contextualize where I started, how I broke into the industry, and tips on how it could be replicated.
I just want to clear things out: I am not a 4.0 GPA student, I was an economics major when I landed my first internship, I was not enrolled in an internship program (which would have helped a lot!), and I have never touched to any design software until December 2016 or taken any design courses whatsoever.
I discovered design because of my passion for entrepreneurship and solving problems. Since most of my friends were in computer engineering and computer science, I started working on tech side-projects and participated in hackathons which led me to develop an understanding of technology. I wanted to fit in with the group and design was one of the ways I found to collaborate with them. I was also able to work on my own side-projects and case studies independently.
How I got my first job
I took my first online design course on December 24th, 2016 and I launched the first version of my portfolio on January 18th, 2017. Despite my effort and hard work, I was not able to find a UX Design internship for the summer. I then leveraged my personal network to get 3 freelance part-time design jobs. While I was working, I worked on improving my portfolio and cold-emailed companies. After sending 25 cold emails, I ended up finding a job at a strategic design firm in Kitchener called Overlap Associates. I took a term-off school to do a 4-month internship during the fall term (August to December).
During this internship, I executed design research for service design and customer experience design projects. I worked on projects for UNICEF, Mississauga Public Library, Government of Ontario, and more. This internship helped me in developing a design mindset, learning about organizational transformation and execute as well as plan research studies. After this internship, it became easier to identify areas where I should improve and land job interviews.
1. Networking is key
I highly value networking because it enabled me to unlock opportunities, gain insider knowledge from the industry and get mentorship. Early on, I attended meetups to get advice in terms of guiding my learnings. I then used my network to get my first gig as a designer. Attending conferences helped me get jobs interviews, meet seniors designers who inspired me, and develop a network in the industry. Volunteering at design conferences helped me get closer to amazing designers and gain privileged access to the speakers. Networking negatively affected my academic performance, but in the end, it was all worth it.
Advice such as “focus on process, not visuals”, “learning how to think will set you apart from most young designers”, and “be someone people want to work with” are the main principles guiding my design practice.
Some networking tips:
- Network to get to know people rather than try to get something right away
- Finding common ground will help you connect with people faster
- Be genuine and clear in terms of what you are looking for
- It’s not because you don’t get along with someone that you are a bad networker
2. Quantity is more important than quality
In your early days in design, you might want to show outstanding work and be the “best designer” by following a definition of excellence that is not appropriate to your current strength. Doing that will break the authenticity of your work. A lot of people including myself felt in that trap.
Quality work shows talent, experience, and skills. However, quantity shows passion and dedication. Being able to generate a lot of projects quickly will help you understand your strengths and weaknesses as well as where your interest lies. You will have the chance to practice visual design, understand how the design frameworks work, and tackle different types of problems. This exposure will help you get your first job and move on from there.
Before getting my first internship, I worked on over 15 projects/case studies in the span of 6 months. Having worked on all these conceptual projects enabled me to show passion, dedication and enthusiasm regarding design which got me my first job. Then executing quality work came organically and I was able to develop my own style based on the experience I was gaining.
*I would recommend reading about complex adaptive system!
3. Finding a job is not about who you know or what you know
When I was networking, my first assumption was that I will be able to network my way up to the job just by knowing people. This assumption was false especially in tech because from my own experience, networking was enough to land interviews, but never to get a job.
“It’s not what you know or who you know, it’s about who knows what you know. So every person that you meet is a conduit to somebody else”
— Patty McCord former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix
Design is a field that is changing quickly. There is a clear pattern to this change which can be identified and predicted in some way. The problem is that this information is hard to communicate properly, and therefore hard to access or understand. Unlocking some of the non-mainstream knowledge will help you significantly improve your design practice and connect with more experienced designers. Networking was my main way of unlocking this knowledge and gain knowledge that is not as widespread.