So you want to become a UI designer?
Then you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll consider the state of the UI industry in 2021—and whether now is a good time to become a UI designer. Then we’ll cover everything you need to make your career change happen. Ready? Let’s go.
Hi, I’m Eric, course designer for the career-change UI Design Program here at CareerFoundry, and long-time UI designer. In fact, I’ve spent the last 10 years learning and practicing User Interface Design, so I’d like to think I know a thing or two about the industry.
Just after this introduction, you’ll find a free video tutorial explaining how to get started in UI design from my colleague Elizé. If you prefer to read, here’s what we’ll cover in this article:
- Is now a good time to become a UI designer? (2021 update)
- What is user interface (UI) design?
- What exactly does a UI designer do?
- What skills and traits do you need to become a UI designer?
- Why I became a UI designer
- What challenges might you face?
- What are the best ways to learn to become a UI designer?
- What are the next steps you should take?
- Key takeaways and further reading
If you want to skip ahead to a certain section, just use the clickable menu. And, as promised, here’s the first of five free video tutorials that give you a practical start in the world of UI designing your very first app screen. To get the remaining four tutorials, simply sign up here, or subscribe to the CareerFoundry YouTube channel.
During the last decade I’ve had the opportunity to work with startups, talented entrepreneurs, designers and developers on numerous exciting applications and products. The variety of the work is something that really attracted me to the role and makes every day truly unique.
My experience ranges from designing mobile games to social networks to communication tools and I can honestly say it’s been an amazing journey! In this post, I want to share with you some of the most important things I’ve learned about launching a career in User Interface design so that when you decide this is the career for you, you’re fully prepared to take that next step into a formalized education like the UI Design Program I have written for CareerFoundry.
So how do you become a UI designer? What do you need to know and where do you even begin? And, perhaps most importantly, is now a good time to become a UI designer? Let’s get started with a look at the state of the UI industry in 2021.
1. Is now a good time to become a UI designer? (2021 update)
There’s no denying that 2020 was a challenging year, and it’s fair to say that we’re all going into 2021 with a certain degree of trepidation. If you’re considering a career change, you’re most likely wondering if now is a good time to do it. Above all, you want to ensure that your new industry can offer job security—especially in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Before we look at why and how to become a UI designer, let’s first consider whether UI designers are still in demand, and how COVID-19 has impacted the industry.
Are UI designers currently in demand?
In a world where social distancing and remote work are the new normal, we’re relying on digital products and services more so than ever—from online meeting tools to fitness tracking, from e-commerce platforms to healthcare and wellness apps, and everything else in between. The digital experiences that make up our day-to-day lives have been created, in part, by user interface designers; the people who make sure that these products not only look great, but that they’re also intuitive, accessible, and inclusive. The demand for UI designers is evident just by looking at the world around us and the myriad interfaces we engage with on a daily basis.
In their 2020 annual salary and hiring guide, Onward Search identifies their “Top 20 for 2020”—a list of the most in-demand creative talent for the year. UI designer comes in at number four, putting it right up there with UX designers, product designers, and content strategists (and above data scientists!). Of course, a lot has changed since 2020 dawned—so will the demand for UI designers continue into 2021 and beyond?
According to a recent LinkedIn report, user interface designer is among the top ten jobs with the fastest-growing demand, showing a 74% month-over-month increase in job postings. This is no doubt due to the increasing demand for high quality digital products and experiences, a trend we expect to see continuing through 2021.
So: Despite a rocky 2020 for the economy in general, the future looks bright—and stable—for UI designers. If you’d like to gauge a more specific overview of the job market in your local area, just search for UI designer roles in your city or state on sites like LinkedIn, glassdoor, and indeed.
How has COVID-19 affected the industry?
One of the most notable changes since the coronavirus pandemic is the rise of remote work. It’s reported that remote work is up 300% compared to pre-pandemic levels, and this is definitely something you’ll need to factor into your job search when the time comes. Fortunately, with the right tools, UI designers are perfectly able to work remotely—and, if you learn UI design through an online program, you’ll already be well-versed in remote collaboration and project management. This will serve as a huge advantage when it comes to applying for remote jobs. Whether or not remote work is here to stay remains to be seen; however, you should expect to work remotely on at least a part-time basis if you’re job hunting in 2021. You can learn more about what it’s like to work as a remote UI designer in this guide.
Keen to try your hand at UI? Check out our round-up of the best free UI design courses on the web right now.
Can newly qualified UI designers still get hired in 2021?
We’ve talked about the demand for UI designers in general, and 2021 looks set to be a promising year. But does this apply to newly qualified designers? As a newcomer to the field with little or no experience, you might think your chances of getting hired are slim—especially in today’s uncertain economic climate. In reality, though, your fresh perspectives are often exactly what employers are looking for.
We recently spoke to Mike McCulloch, Head of Career Services at CareerFoundry, about what it’s like to be a newly qualified tech professional in a pandemic-stricken world. In his guide to job-searching during COVID-19, Mike explains how good employers are keen to invest in fresh designers who are entering the field without any preconceptions. As an industry newcomer, you’ll ask different kinds of questions and approach design problems from new angles—and that’s ultimately what helps companies to innovate.
So, to answer the question: Newly qualified designers absolutely can (and do!) get hired, even in unpredictable times like these. It’s all about how you market yourself and emphasize the unique value you bring. You’ll find plenty of advice on how to do this in Mike’s job-searching guide.
How much can UI designers expect to earn?
Last but not least, you’ll want to know if your new career path can offer you a reasonable salary. At the time of writing, the average salary for a UI designer in the United States is $85,591 USD (based on salary data from indeed.com). Of course, your salary will vary depending on where you live and work, as well as how many years of experience you bring with you. You’ll find a detailed look at how UI designer salaries vary around the world in our UI designer salary guide, together with tips on how to boost your earning potential once your UI career is off the ground.
All things considered, now is a great time to become a UI designer. As we increasingly rely on digital products and services for work, social interactions, and carrying out day-to-day tasks, UI designers will find themselves at the forefront of the tech industry in 2021 and beyond. Excellent news for aspiring UI designers like yourself!
So, without further ado, let’s get your UI career change in motion—starting with a closer look at what UI design actually is.
2. What is user interface design?
No doubt you’ve been hearing a lot about User Interface design – it’s become a hot topic both on and off the tech scene, in startups, agencies and at large corporations alike. Maybe you’re wondering what user interface design is or how UI design is different from UX (user experience) or visual design.
If you’ve found yourself asking these questions then you are certainly not alone. I asked myself the very same questions when I first set out to become a UI designer.
Although you are probably well aware that User Interface design is a hugely popular field that’s growing rapidly, it can be hard, even impossible, to know where to start. What do you do when you get stuck? Without a solid definition, it’s no surprise that it’s so hard to get started!
Let’s see if we can clear things up a bit!
Think back to the last app or website you used. UX design is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product:Was it easy to navigate? Did you ever feel lost or confused? How did you know where to click to get to where you needed to go?
Jennifer Aldrich, UX and Content Strategist at InVision told us:
UX design is about having complete understanding of the user. UX designers will conduct intensive user research, craft user personas and conduct performance testing and usability testing to see which designs are most effective at getting a user to their end goal in the most delightful way possible. The UX designer wants the navigation of a site, the type of user interface or product feel completely intuitive so the user doesn’t feel confused or frustrated while trying to accomplish their goal.
How did it make you feel? Think again to the last application you used. Was there a logical hierarchy to the interface and typography? Was the color scheme consistent? Were there User Interface design patterns that you recognized from other interfaces?
(For your reference, interaction design is when we create engaging web interfaces with logical behaviors and actions and responsive design [sometimes called Responsive Web Design] aims to build websites which provide an optimal viewing and interaction experience. This terminology often gets used when discussing UI design, so it’s good to be clear on what each term actually means.)
Hannah Alvarez from User Testing defined the job of the UI designer as follows:
The purpose of any interface is to help the user accomplish their goals. As a UI designer, your job isn’t just to create something beautiful; it’s to understand the user’s mindset, predict what they will expect, and then make the design as user-friendly as possible.”
UI designers will spend a lot of time creating wireframes, building mood boards and actually designing interfaces using tools like Sketch, Figma and Photoshop. They also conduct user interface testing to ensure the product meets its specifications.
Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX, told us what makes a great UI designer.
The most important thing I’ve learned to become a great UI designer is build a deep understanding of the customer. By conducting and participating in continuous research activities you will learn what motivates your customer, what problems they’re trying to solve and what solutions make the most sense. This may force you to abandon some ideas you might love but UI design is not strictly about aesthetics, it’s about making your customer successful.
3. What exactly does a UI designer do?
If you want your website, desktop or mobile app to be able to compete in today’s market, it’s got to be simple, intuitive and fun. Even if you have a super useful app, it’ll easily get lost in the sea of other ideas out there if it’s considered ugly or hard to use.
Chris Mears from UXr gives the following advice:
A funky interface is nothing more than a vanity project if your users can’t use it. User test regularly and don’t be afraid to simplify for usability.
This is where your role as as UI designer comes in. You’re responsible for the look and feel of an application. It’s your job to ask:
- Do the colors work well together?
- How is typography used to convey meaning and hierarchy?
- Is the app well-designed? How can I improve the UI design of the app? Would flat UI design (sometimes called flat design) work here?
And it’s these questions you’ll be responsible for answering.
As a UI designer you’ll work very closely with UX designers, whose job typically consists of talking with customers to determine requirements, building user profiles and creating user stories to show how a user will work their way through your application.
From this point, it’s up to you to build a clean and functional design based on the requirements they’ve gathered.
Luke Chambers from UXMastery told us:
UI designers have the responsibility of creating touchpoints that directly interface with users or customers. It is at the coalface of most online or app-driven businesses. Although there are clear differences between the two disciplines, let’s not forget there are some overlapping qualities between UX and UI Design. Here are a few, taken from UsabilityGeek’s article The Difference Between UX & UI Design.
Both UX & UI:
- Have a primary objective of improving customer satisfaction
- Focus on the user and his/her interaction with a product/service
- Can be applied to any product
4. What skills and traits do you need to become a UI designer?
Learning to be a UI designer is not easy. Trust me, I’ve been there! There are specific skills and traits that will make your journey into this career go more smoothly and I’ve listed a few of them for you below. Take a look and see if this describes you:
You have drive!
The most important thing to succeed as a UI designer is attitude. If you don’t have a personal drive to learn and grow then you won’t get very far!
You enjoy learning!
Being a UI designer means staying up to date on the latest design trends and changes in the industry. Things change fast! If you don’t keep up it’s easy to fall behind and become less relevant.
You’re a team player!
UI designers often work as part of a team with UX designers and others focused on product developement. This team could consist of other designers, programmers, marketers, salespeople, you name it! So it’s important to be comfortable working with others and communicating with colleagues of all levels. If you find it difficult to take constructive criticism, you might find you have trouble in this field.
You care about people!
User Interface design is all about people. After all, they’re the ones who will be using the interfaces you design! If you don’t care about their needs and wants, you won’t get very far in this industry. If you’re not sure what it means to be user-centered, read this!
As Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users, told me:
It’s incredibly important to be able to talk to people who might use your product – not just to get their critique of your solution, but before you even consider a solution. That’s when you can have the most open mind and learn about their current behavior and the motivations that drive that behavior.
You care about aesthetics!
Do you ever feel annoyed when text is so small it’s hard to read? How about if an advertisement uses colors that clash? Or maybe you notice when interface elements aren’t properly spaced out.
Industry snapshot for UI designers
UI designers are responsible for designing how a user interacts with a computer, in fact they’re obsessed with human-computer interaction! Whether it’s a dashboard computer in a car, a mobile app, a video game, a website or a virtual reality interface, UI designers are the ones that make these interactions possible. So it’s no surprise that UI design is such a stable profession.
And with the average UI designer salary reaching $85,000 per year, when you’re good at what you do it can also be a very lucrative profession!
This field isn’t going anywhere soon. With the explosion of mobile apps, commoditization of hardware, interest in mobile UI design and a consistent need for innovative desktop apps, demand for UI designers is at an all time high.
The fact is, if companies are going to compete in today’s market, whether they’re large or small, they need intuitive, well-designed interfaces. This is great news because it means, as a UI designer, you’ll be able to work at large, well-established companies like Apple, Tesla, Google and Amazon, or a small startup of 5 people. It’s up to you!
5. Why I became a UI designer
Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by computers. In my teenage years I became obsessed with learning how they worked.
To be honest, I never did well in math and science. I just didn’t have the motivation to learn. But with computers, everything came so naturally because I was interested in them. Learning became fun!
I would stay up all night reverse engineering websites, browsing forums and hanging out in chat rooms. I devoted all of my free time to learning everything I could. Eventually I started to make my own graphics in Photoshop and code my own websites.
I finally decided I wanted to turn this hobby into a career, so I went to school to learn graphic design. After completing my studies, I started working for a multimedia company. Most of my time was spent designing graphics and coding websites.
This was all in a time before smart phones. But when the iPhone was released, everything changed for me.
I was blown away by the elegance of the interface and I knew that I wanted to design similar interfaces. I wanted to build interfaces that delighted people and made their lives easier. That’s when I began my long journey to becoming a professional UI designer.
How and where I learned UI design
When I set out to become a UI designer, I would spend hours sifting through out-of-date blog articles, reading forums and poking around in the software. For the longest time I just felt lost!
Difficult concepts can be hard to wrap your head around when you’re teaching yourself. So I set out to find other designers I could learn from. I joined communities, started following designers on Twitter and developing relationships with them.
This allowed me to start learning from others by examining their work and bouncing my own designs off of them. Suddenly I was learning a lot faster and felt a lot less frustrated! This is when things started to become clearer to me.
You don’t need to spend boatloads of money on a fancy degree to be taken seriously.
That’s why I built this User Interface Design Program here at CareerFoundry. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned during the last ten years as a UI designer, and compiled it into a short but powerful course that will teach you everything you need to become a UI designer too. I’m living proof it’s possible!
How I landed my first job as a UI designer
I was already working at a multimedia agency when I started learning UI design, so I tried to incorporate my new skills into my daily work as much as possible. I learned a lot this way at first, but the work wasn’t the most challenging and eventually became a bit stale.
A colleague of mine kept telling me about the great things that were being built by startups in Silicon Valley, which sounded really interesting to me. Eventually I realized that that’s where I need to go if I really wanted to grow as a UI designer.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in working remotely. But back then it just wasn’t as feasible. There weren’t many employers jumping on the telecommuting bandwagon. Things are quite different nowadays and I really don’t think that you have to be in Silicon Valley to build a great company.
After making the move to the Bay area, I spent a couple of weeks hunting for a job. My criteria was pretty simple. I wanted to…
- Be part of a small team
- Work with people I could learn from
- Join a company that cared about good design and knows about good User Interface design principles
I was lucky enough to find a startup in downtown San Francisco that fit the bill and was willing to give me a chance.
From the first day I started it was like jumping out of a plane and having to assemble the parachute on the way down!
But it’s in situations like that where you learn the most. Working at the startup gave me the opportunity to work in a fast-paced environment with other talented designers and developers. I was learning more than I ever had before.
6. What challenges might you face?
Switching to a new career can be daunting. I know from experience! There are a ton of challenges that you’ll face, but remember, there’s nothing that can’t be overcome.
No work experience
One of the biggest issues I’ve come across is how do you stand out when other guys or girls have so much more experience than you? You do it by…
- Applying for positions that match your skill level. If this is your first real job as a UI designer, it’s probably best to stick to entry level positions, even if you think you’re the cat’s meow.
- Being persistent.
- Having a great UI designer portfolio. You might not have work experience but there’s nothing stopping you from designing great things.
- Doing freelance work. Use sites like Upwork to get small freelance contracts. They may not pay well at first but the experience, both in terms of design and in terms of working to client specifications, makes it well worth it.
Finding work if you live in a remote area
When I started learning UI design, it just wasn’t a hot field in my small Midwestern town. Telecommuting was an option but those jobs were hard to come by and most employers would run for the hills at the mention of a “remote position”.
Luckily, things have changed in a big way! Remote work is now embraced by companies big and small. In fact, some companies are completely remote. This means that whether you’re in a small town in Nebraska or a fishing village in Alaska..
When you set off on your journey to become a UI designer, there are several paths you can take, both online and off, free and paid. The level you’re currently at, and your ambitions for the future will determine which of these will be the appropriate course for you to take, though many people find that a combination of different resources meet their learning requirements most effectively.
7. What are the best ways to learn to become a UI designer?
Self-taught, free ways to learn UI design
The internet has become an amazing resource for learning UI design online. And it’s certainly possible to teach yourself a new skill without spending a dime. However, if you’re looking to launch a career in User Interface design, you’ll most likely find gaps in your knowledge if you stick with an unstructured, self-taught program of learning. As a starter though, it’s a great way for getting a feel for the subject.
- YouTube – With billions of videos and viewers, YouTube had grown into a legitimate content platform. Searching for “UI Design” on YouTube will give you hundreds of thousands of results to choose from. With so many videos, it can be tough to separate the high quality content from the low quality.
- Blog Posts – Blog posts can be a great way to learn from others, especially if that blog is a targeted UI design blog. Like YouTube videos, there are a lot to choose from so finding the good ones can be challenging. I personally think that whether you’re a seasoned UI designer or just starting out, it’s important to always be reading content from other designers. It helps you stay on top of the best UI design techniques (as well as the most recent) and changes in the industry.
- Tutorial Sites – Tutorial sites can be super helpful in teaching you how to accomplish specific results in your designs. One drawback, however, is that UI design software changes so rapidly that User Interface design tutorials can quickly go out of date. That’s why I always recommend searching within the last year or two when looking for design tutorials or UI design tool tutorials.
- Books – OK, not entirely free, but books can be an inexpensive way of learning a great deal of information. It might seem old-fashioned to read books these days, but there has been a great deal written and published on UI design, especially in recent years. It’s also good to get a break from your computer screen from time to time.
Formal, offline ways to learn UI design
There are a number of benefits to learning in a structured, offline environment. Having regular contact with other students, a learning routine and daily interaction with your teachers. Feedback from your teachers can also help keep you motivated, ambitious and focused throughout your studies. The downside to this type of learning is both the cost and the restrictions of your location, both of which you’ll need to bear in mind when you’re researching what’s available in your local area.
However if you do prefer studying in an offline environment there are quite a few options out there that could work for you:
- University. Attending a formal university means a more traditional education, which typically takes 2-4 years. While the courses are generally well structured and thorough, the cost is typically high, and getting higher every year. Unfortunately, this high cost coupled with the time investment make this option impractical for many aspiring UI designers.
- Technical School. The biggest advantages to attending a technical school is speed and specialization. While universities often put emphasis on general education, technical schools put more emphasis on developing skills and preparing for your career. They can still be pretty expensive but are sometimes be cheaper than attending a traditional university.
- General Assembly. GA is one of the new kids on the block in tech education. It began as just a coworking space in 2011. GA offers both online and on-campus courses for specialized skills like web development, user experience design and data science. While the program is very high quality, at $13,500 a course, this web development, UX and UI design school is still very cost prohibitive!
Formal, mid-priced, online ways to learn UI design
If you’re looking for high quality programs but are on a tight budget, online programs can be a great path to explore. Many of them allow you to learn at your own pace, but don’t take years to complete. You’ll also find that many offer one-on-one mentoring, peer-to-peer learning, or video content to keep you motivated and focused as you study.
- Thinkful. Thinkful offers a variety of high-quality courses ranging from engineering to design to mobile development, focusing both on mentorship and portfolio development throughout the course. One thing I’m not a huge fan of is how they’ve combined both UI Design and UX Design into one course. Most modern teams tend to divide these roles into two, with one person focusing on the experience, and the other on the interface. By working this way, each role is clearly defined.
- CareerFoundry. Similar to Thinkful, we focus on mentorship and making sure you have a solid portfolio to show by the time you’ve finished the course. We know how much this helps when wedging your way into the job market. But our courses move a lot quicker. A dedicated full-time student can make his/her way through a course in as little as three months, though typically students take around six months to make the most of the course materials.
All of these paths have produced both successes and failures. It’s up to you to decide which path is right for you. But you shouldn’t make this decision lightly. Student loans can take years to pay off and cause tons of stress. On the other hand, cheaper courses might offer less in terms of quality. So think long and hard before you make your decision! Think about the following questions before signing up for a course:
- Am I learning for a hobby, or to get a job?
- Do I need someone on-hand to motivate and help me, or can I learn happily alone?
- How much time am I willing to commit to this?
- What is my budget for learning?
- What skills do I want to have when I’ve finished studying?
- How important are things like student community and extracurricular activities to me?
8. What are the next steps you should take?
So once you’ve finished studying UI design, what do you do next if you want to become a UI designer? How the heck do you get a job without any work experience?
Build a great portfolio
You can have all the credentials and references in the world, but if you can’t show examples of great work, no one is going to want to talk to you about any potential job openings in UI design.
We realize this here at CareerFoundry, so we focus heavily on making sure you have a well-rounded portfolio when you’ve completed your course.
If you haven’t had a chance to develop a portfolio, then it’s time to get to work. Got an idea for an app or website? Design it! It doesn’t matter if it’s a real world project or not, it’s all about showing potential employers that you’ve got design chops.
Get work experience
If you need experience to be taken seriously by employers, how do you get an interview when you have no work experience? This is the question every new UI designer asks. The answer is actually really simple.
Head over to UpWork, Freelancer, PeoplePerHour, or Guru, build a portfolio and start bidding on UI design jobs. At this stage, it isn’t about the money. It’s about proving that you know your stuff. So take any jobs you can. The aim of this exercise is to get good work experience and positive references. Within just a month or two you might have enough under your belt to spark the interest of potential employers. Either way your confidence will certainly grow as you gain more experience in the work and dealing with clients.
You can even search for contract jobs on Craigslist. Head over to the Gigs Creative sections and see what’s there! You just might find something that turns into a lucrative contract.
Build your network
This part is absolutely huge. Your personal network will be extremely useful when you’re looking for your next gig.
I had an extremely modest network when I started my first job as a UI designer. Since then, my personal network has grown substantially and it’s been crazy useful. If I was ever looking for a short term contact between jobs, or just looking for extra money, I’ve been able to call on my network to find work in as little as one week.
Seriously, I can’t understate the power of a personal network.
Here’s four quick tips on building your network:
- When you start your first job, be friendly and get to know your coworkers. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, etc. You never know when that relationship will come in handy!
- Pimp your LinkedIn profile, fill out every detail of relevant experience and upload a well-shot photo of yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to approach experts in the field asking for advice. This could be the start of a very fruitful working relationship (for you both). Just be sure to always say thank you and to give something back.
- Attend events in your area, get to know other professionals in the field, remember names and give out your business card. Meeting people face-to-face is your best networking tool and will always beat an online ‘friend request’. Follow up these introductions in the following week.
You can learn more about how to network effectively in this video.
Build your personal brand
But what exactly is a personal brand? It’s what others see when they Google your name. It’s the color scheme you use on your Twitter and your website. It’s an emotion that’s evoked when someone sees your persona online.
Your personal brand starts with your social network. Make sure they are all as consistent as possible. Use similar color schemes and themes to evoke similar emotions across different networks. The same goes for a personal website. Keep a similar voice and visual feel as your other social assets.
9. Key takeaways and further reading
I hope you’ve enjoyed this write-up on how you can learn to become a UI designer. I’ve shared with you everything I can. It’s up to you to take the leap. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, “I can only show you the door, it’s up to you to walk through it”.
If you’re serious about starting a new career as a UI designer, we’ve developed an amazing UI Design Course here at CareerFoundry that will teach you everything you need to know. From day one, you’ll be matched with an experienced mentor who has real world experience. They’ll be there to help you through any issues you run into and give you feedback on your work.
So… are you ready to begin your new career as a UI designer and begin your UI design training? Then it’s time to get started with your course! We also offer flexible course schedules. Why? Because we understand how hectic it can be working on a new career while balancing life’s obligations. At CareerFoundry, you’re free to work through your course on a part-time or full-time schedule, it’s up to you!
Looking for more articles about how to get into UI design? I recommend you take a look at these: