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How do I become a designer?

A lot of people have reached out to me over the years asking similar questions:

How do I get into UI/UX design if I don’t have any previous experience? Where do I start? What sort of work should I put into my portfolio?

“Make shit up.” has always been my advice.

I don’t mean to encourage bullshitting about your previous experiences, but rather, find excuses to create & flex those creative muscles if your day job doesn’t give you permission. Find excuses to create only for yourself. Find excuses to take ownership of a side project. Find excuses to dedicate a couple of hours each day to practice your craft. Most importantly, just find excuses to make shit.

I emphasise on the word shit because it’s about setting the bar low. Low enough that you don’t care about what you create, so long as you are creating.

Ignore the insecurities and fear of what others think and create what makes you happy. There is nothing wrong with creating mediocre. All great work requires learning & building on top of the mediocre. People will only remember your best work.

1. Make some shit

Ignore the voice in your head that prevents you from starting unless you’re only going to succeed, because you will probably be shit at it first. Holding yourself to a high standards is toxic when you’re just starting out.

Start with a few personal projects around your hobbies. Enjoy the process of creating at your own pace. Nobody expects your projects to change the world, it only needs to make you better.

These projects, big or small, will build on top of each other and uniquely shape your design career, which I tend to think is a marathon, not a sprint.

It can be daunting to reveal a piece of your heart & soul every time you put work out in the public. But not everyone on the internet is trying to tear your work apart. Learn how to dissociate yourself from the work, don’t get emotionally attached. You are not your work.

2. Share your shit

Share what your learnt along the way with the world. Even if it’s not original, it’s your process that makes it unique, and your story that’s worth telling. If you find value in the content shared by others, so will yours.

3. Curate your shit

Finally, learn how to curate your work. This is step 3 is because without step 1 & 2, you will have little body of work to curate from. How do you know what’s your best work if you got nothing to compare it with? With a large body of work, you can begin to pick & choose the relevant work when looking for your next gig — what work should you curate to make you stand out amongst the sea of designers on the market today?

Get started

A simple exercise I often give students is: Go to a popular website you’ve recently visited, i.e. Wikipedia. Think about why you’re there, what you’re trying to do, and design a better experience for yourself. As you design, document & write about your intentions around the design decisions. Write about the WHYs, not the WHATs. Your design intentions are much more interesting than the pixel-perfect mockups.

Over the years I have had many side projects: Some completed, some still in progress and some bailed. Bailing projects half way if you’re bored is fine, as long as you’ve learnt something valuable from it. Move on an find something else that keeps you creating.

And that is why I think everyone should stay curious and just keep making shit. Keep creating and ignore the fear that it’s not good enough for the world to see. Keep finding excuses to create until you’re confident to curate your best work. Keep in mind that the cream will always rise to the top, so will you.

Journal by Jacky Lee