Looking to jumpstart your career in user interface (UI) design? If so, you might be wondering: Do you need a degree to become a UI designer? Let’s find out.
Do you need a degree to become a UI designer? The simple answer? No! While a degree in a design-related field (such as Interaction Design or Design and Management) certainly won’t hurt, it’s by no means a prerequisite.
Unfortunately, not everybody’s got the memo on this yet. There’s a pervasive but outdated belief that employers only want people with degrees. While that was once true, it’s not the case for a large majority of jobs today. Consistently, employers (especially those in digital and tech-related sectors) are calling for industry-specific knowledge and skills rather than a degree. This means focusing on things like creative thinking, teamwork, and hands-on, technical skills.
This being the case, what skills and qualifications do you really need to become a UI designer? In this post, we’ll explore the answer to this question in detail. We’ll cover the following topics:
- Do you need a degree to get a job as a UI designer?
- What skills do you need to become a UI designer?
- The best UI design training options
- Wrap-up and further reading
Ready? Then let’s find out how to kickstart your career in UI design.
1. Do you need a degree to get a job as a UI designer?
Not long ago, it was accepted wisdom that you needed a degree to land your first job; whatever job that was. For young people everywhere, a degree demonstrated prestige, dedication, and evidence of knowledge. For a time, this made sense: a few decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to have the same job for life. That’s not really the case anymore.
As the world adapts to the needs of the 21st century, employers are increasingly seeking those with practical skills over people with a degree. While they’ll no doubt be looking at your academic achievements, too, when hiring new employees in areas like UI design, that’s far from the last word on the matter. This is especially true in digital and tech-related roles. Here are some reasons why:
1. Skills change fast in the tech industry
While many of us grew up with the Internet at our fingertips, the truth is that the digital revolution is only just getting started. Ever noticed how user interfaces constantly evolve and change? Every time they do, that’s down to the hard work of a whole team of UI designers. It’s their job to incorporate the latest technologies and design principles. The pace of change can be dizzying. Consider this: in the three years it usually takes to complete a degree, how many times has your Twitter or TikTok interface been updated? This highlights very well how the skills and knowledge you learn can quickly go out of date. It’s precisely why employers will want to know that your skills are at the bleeding edge of innovation. A short course or certified program is very effective at achieving that. By nature, online or non-traditional courses are faster at adapting their learning materials to industry changes, which is beneficial not only to your learning experience, but also to the people who might hire you!
2. Jobs are being automated
Naturally, while many highly specialized jobs still require a degree (you won’t make it far as a rocket scientist without one!) the reality is that it’s not just the tech sector that’s evolving. More broadly, the entire economy is being reshaped. Advances in technology are automating many jobs and fundamentally restructuring the workforce. This means people from all backgrounds (both from so-called ‘low skill’ jobs to higher-level management roles) are having to reskill and find new ways to stay employed. Once again, rather than committing time and money to a degree, many of these people are opting for the more efficient (and frankly, cheaper) option of retraining via alternative routes, such as bootcamps or certified programs.
3. Companies want people from different backgrounds
An ongoing problem in tech is a lack of diversity and representation. Women and people of color, for instance, are often underrepresented in the sector. This has led to the creation of communities like the Design Justice Network, which brings together like-minded organizations and individuals who want to rethink design processes to better meet the needs of marginalized groups. At present, a relatively narrow cross-section of society is designing the user interfaces that we all use. Tech companies are highly aware of this issue. It’s why they’re actively seeking people from underrepresented backgrounds—whether that means ethnicity, gender, or simply people with different professional experiences. By widening the talent pool, they bring fresh insights and perspectives. In short, your unique experience—whatever that may be—can help you reframe problems and find completely novel solutions. This makes everyone a potential UI design superhero. And that’s pretty cool!
Next up, let’s look at what skills you might need to kick-start your career as a UI designer…
2. What skills do you need to become a UI designer?
While we’ve established that a degree isn’t a strict requirement, what skills do you actually need to become a UI designer? Stripping it down, there are two core requirements:
- Learning the essential UI design skills
- The ability to demonstrate this skillset
Next, let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Developing the essential UI design skillset
Let’s make one thing clear: you don’t need any prior background in tech or design to become a UI designer. While there are core UI design skills everyone needs to make it in the industry, anyone who wants to learn these, can. On top of these essential skills, there are some soft skills and additional bonus skills that will help you stand out while job hunting.
UI design skills
- Design principles and theory
- Research and wireframing
- Branding, typography, and color theory
- Accessibility and testing
- Software like Photoshop, Sketch, and Figma
- Prototyping, branding, and animation
- Critical thinking
- Creative problem solving
- Team working
- Active listening
- Growth mindset (lifelong learning)
- Business or domain knowledge (of an industry, subject area, or both)
- Data analytics
- Some knowledge or experience of broader UX design
How to demonstrate your UI design skills
Once you’ve obtained your new UI design skills and are setting out on the career path, you might stumble across that common paradox: how do you gain the experience necessary to land a job when you need a job to gain that experience?
This challenge can be tough to overcome, but it’s not insurmountable. One thing on your side is that talented UI designers are highly in demand, so at least you’re not entering a saturated market. Whatever you can do to show off your newfound skills, though, will set you apart from the competition. There are several ways to do this. These include:
- Writing an excellent resume and covering letter
- Creating a winning UI design portfolio
- Perfecting your interview skills
Let’s briefly dive a bit deeper into each.
Writing an excellent resume and cover letter
When applying for any UI design job, your resume and cover letter should be carefully tailored to the company you’re applying to. Sending a generic resume is a guaranteed way to end up in the ‘no’ pile!
Start by researching the company. Find out what their values are and carefully align your practical, personal, and transferable skills to these. Even if you’re not experienced in the field, you’ll no doubt have transferable skills from past roles.
On a practical note, keep these documents as short as possible. Your cover letter should be punchy and to the point, no more than 500 words (and less if possible), and your resume should ideally fit on a single page. It should certainly not take up more than two sides.
Creating a winning UI design portfolio
Believe it or not, you don’t need real workplace experience to start building a UI design portfolio. If you’re applying for a job, especially an entry-level role, companies won’t reasonably expect you to have a burgeoning portfolio anyway.
Fortunately, many certified UI design programs incorporate study projects where you can wireframe or prototype a user interface, or create a sample mobile app. You can also work on a personal pet project or two, focusing on an area that interests you.
The key thing when it comes to your UI design portfolio is to present these projects effectively with some case studies. Find some inspiration from these impressive UI design portfolios.
Perfecting your interview skills
Spending time on your cover letter and portfolio is vital. Attention to detail, after all, is a key skill for a UI designer. Once you’ve landed an interview, though, how can you demonstrate your skills in person (or on the phone, or video call)?
If possible, speak to someone you know who works as a UI designer. Ask them about some of the projects they’ve worked on. A common interview tactic is to provide a short task to test your problem-solving skills. Getting some insight into how a real UI designer tackles the role day-to-day may help give you an edge.
If you have one, it’s also wise to speak to your mentor, who should be able to offer insight into the mindset of a hiring manager. They may even be willing to carry out a mock interview so that you’ve got some answers prepared. Make sure you check out some of the most common UI design interview questions so that you’re not caught off guard!
Take care of your resume, portfolio, and interview skills and you should be able to effectively show off your UI abilities. But what’s the best way to gain these skills in the first place? Find out in the next section.
3. The best UI design training options
As we’ve already established, you don’t need a degree to become a UI designer. You will, though, need to train in the necessary UI design skills. If you haven’t yet, it’s worth checking out our post on how to become a UI designer. We’ll recap the most salient points now, though.
In section two, we mentioned soft skills and additional business skills. These can be developed over time. However, hands-on UI design skills are a fundamental requirement for landing any UI design job, so you should focus on these first.
UI design degrees vs. certified UI design programs
There are many ways of obtaining practical UI design skills. If a degree is your preferred option, that’s a possibility, but it does have drawbacks. For instance, degrees are:
- A big-time investment, usually requiring about two or three years to complete.
- A big financial investment, too; you’re pretty much guaranteed to graduate with debt.
- Slower at keeping pace with changes in the industry, meaning that what you learn may quickly be out of date.
A certified program, meanwhile, can be a more efficient, focused way of developing the skills you need. A certified program is usually:
- Much cheaper than a college or university degree.
- Quicker to complete than a degree, with study fitting in around your other responsibilities.
- Curated by working UI designers with relevant, up-to-date industry knowledge.
- Widely accepted by hiring organizations as a substitute for traditional training.
Free options for picking up basic UI design skills
If you want a formal UI design qualification, a college degree or certified program are your two main options. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up some skills for free on your own, as long as you don’t mind that you won’t receive a qualification. To dip a toe in, we recommend checking out:
- YouTube, which has evolved into a legitimate learning platform. While content quality naturally varies, there are tonnes of UI design courses available.
- Blog posts are ideal if you want to learn from influencers working in the field (or simply prefer reading to watching videos).
- Tutorial sites offer free tutorials for various digital and tech-related topics. Just be sure to check that the content is recent and up-to-date.
- Books for the old school learner! While not strictly free, there are lots of good books on the topic. And it’s good to take a break from the screen sometimes.
We’ve also put together a list of free UI design courses for beginners here.
UI design training checklist
Ultimately, whatever approach you take to UI design is up to you. But here’s a checklist of things you should aim to cover, whether you opt for a degree, a certified program, or some other form of training. Make sure you:
- Have access to a mentor or colleague who can advise you about what it’s like to work in the field, give you feedback on your projects, help you tweak your resume, and coach you for interviews.
- Have access to hands-on tasks that teach you about a variety of user interface design challenges.
- Learn all the necessary skills to thrive in UI design, from wireframing and prototyping to style guides, user research and personas, branding, typography, color theory, and more.
- Check that content is relevant and up-to-date, reflecting the latest design thinking best practices and technological advances.
- Actively seek out additional opportunities to hone other key skills, such as soft skills and wider business knowledge.,
4. Wrap-up and further reading
So, do you need a degree to become a UI designer? Absolutely not. Can having a degree help? Yes, it certainly can. However, a formal degree is not the be-all and end-all that it once was, and picking up the key skills via a certified program is also a credible and worthwhile option.
The most important things to do when kick-starting your career as a UI designer are:
- Developing the right soft skills, business skills, and practical UI design skills.
- Creating a solid resume, cover letter, and portfolio.
- Preparing for any potential job interviews, with support from a colleague or mentor.
- Remaining open-minded to different types of training, whether that’s a formal degree, DIY learning with free online resources, or a certified UI design program.
A career in UI design can be fun, fascinating, and highly rewarding (both financially and intellectually). To learn more about a possible career as a UI designer, check out the following articles: