If you’re forging your own path as a designer without a formal design education, there are actionable steps you can take to help make the lack of a degree into an afterthought to potential employers. Below, we interviewed designers who participated in Bridge, our professional development program for designers, and found five essential pillars for building your own design education.
1. Know your creative process
You will have multiple stakeholders looking to you to deliver results, and it’s essential that you learn to take care of yourself and set up your own schedule in order to maximize your learning and productivity. The key is self-awareness. If you go to design school, you get run through the ringer when it comes to deadlines and harsh criticism. If you go your own way, you’ll have to make up for that with a lot of real talk with yourself.
“We live in a time and in an industry where it’s easier than ever to focus on everything but your work. Yet the best designers I know work with singular focus. They use these vast resources to empower their work, while not getting swept up in it,” says Daniel Scrivner, the self-taught Creative Director for Square.
Take time to understand the ins and outs of your creative process and build out a routine from there. Know when you are most productive. Write down a list of what kind of work energizes you and what exhausts you. Then start experimenting with setting up daily routines. Commit to one of your experiments for at least a week to see what sticks (if anything), then reflect, iterate, and try again.
Also be prepared to face the inevitable creative blocks. Chris Allen, designer at Flipboard, recommends that you take it as an opportunity to do something else entirely. “There are always bad design days. If you find yourself in a rut, switch gears and take care of your email backlog, or spend some time with the support team to learn more about your customers.”
2. Always be working on a side project
It’s important to work on a side project to ensure you’re always practicing the skills you want to learn, whether or not your client demands it. “Although I was well positioned to learn and grow as a designer in my day job as a product manager, I believe I became the designer I am today as a result of all the side projects I built,” says Allen.
“For me [side projects] are invaluable because they’re pure creation. They’re unbounded by outside constraints.” says Scrivner.
Side projects also allow you to avoid the trap of getting stuck in a particular design role and can give you more control over landing your dream job in the future. You get hired for the kind of work you already produce, so if your day job isn’t fulfilling this need, you need to do it yourself. “Starting a new side project is a great opportunity to learn a new tool or design method. If you’re comfortable pushing pixels in Photoshop, try designing in code for your next project,” adds Allen.
So where to begin? Make the time and treat it as precious as any other client work. “Start by scheduling time outside of your current job dedicated to building something and begin by conceptualizing your idea and how it will solve the one ‘job’ your customers will ‘hire’ your product for,” says Allen. “Take your favorite website and find ways to improve the experience. Have an idea for an app? Sketch it out,” says Ernest Li, designer at Hulu. “Pick a singular project and pursue it until it’s complete. Hold your personal work to the same bar as you hold your professional work. And never quiet that voice in the back of your head that nudges you forward,” says Scrivner.
3. Find your people
One of the most essential components of a traditional education is a rich community of peers and mentorship. Stretch yourself beyond your network of colleagues to connect with other diverse creatives who will inspire you. Be active in seeking out a community where you can share best practices. Find mentors. Connect with peers with whom you can grow with and who will hold you accountable for your work.
“Don’t just be open to feedback, seek it out,” says Josh Brewer, previously a Principal Designer at Twitter. “Talk to trusted friends and ask if they would be willing to create a safe space for honest and open feedback where anyone in the group can get some input. If you don’t have other friends who are designers that would do that with you, then I’d start by going to some local design events and trying to make some friends. Eventually see if they might be open to something like this.” You can also do a cold outreach to other designers who inspire you. Grab a coffee with them to discuss design (but make sure the email is good).
Lastly, it’s can be very helpful to have a mentor. Finding one may take some time, so be patient. “The best way to find mentors is finding people who have taken the career path you’d like to take. Then start slow by asking them a question or two over email or a coffee meeting. If you seem to click and you both find the meeting valuable ask to meet again two to three more times every month. Eventually you can build this into a longer standing relationship. Remember that the mentor should get as much out of the relationship as the mentee so look for ways to bring knowledge and inspiration to the conversation,” says Ben Blumenfeld co-director at Designer Fund (and my colleague).
4. Seek out new knowledge
The only way you will be able to maintain your growth as a designer is to stay curious. “Formal training is great for fundamentals. But afterward everyone enters the same endless void of mastery. And in this void the only two qualities that matter are insatiable curiosity and hard, hard work. Because design, like any art, unfolds slowly — revealing itself in an endless succession of revelations,” says Scrivner. “To maintain that curiosity I think you need two things: First, you need to continually fuel the feeling that your best work lies ahead of you. And second, you need to be unafraid to venture outside of your comfort zone and explore the areas around your circle of competence. Because what we often forget is that by better understanding the whole, we’ll be better equipped to execute in our niche.”
Study the work of experts, he adds. “It’s completely healthy to be envious of the work that others have accomplished and use that feeling to push yourself to move above the work you’ve done to date. Be envious. Be jealous even. And use those to inspire and push yourself.”
Expose yourself to tangential disciplines and cultures. “Traveling and exploring the places where most tourists don’t feel compelled to explore is, in my opinion, the best way to get exposed to new ways of thinking,” says Daniel Waldron, designer at Omada Health. You’ll learn a lot about people and culture that way. Knowledge about different people and cultures is key to design.” Waldron also recommends taking courses in topics like psychology, anthropology, and sociology to learn about how people think, act, and react.
Make a decision about what area you want to stretch yourself in and commit. “To venture outside of your comfort zone all you need is the self-awareness to know the things you want to do but currently would suck at doing. Whatever it is, you need only to make the decision to embrace the gap between where you are today and where you want to be, and jump headfirst into the deep end to start getting better at it one day at a time,” says Scrivner.
5. Prepare to be terrible
The final and most essential component of building your own design education is owning the fact that you will be terrible. Leave your ego at the door. You won’t have the cushion of failing on a class project—you’ll be failing in real life. “There are no shortcuts or magic pills you can take. Sorry,” says Ernest Li, designer at Hulu.
“At the outset, I figured if I just failed enough times, if I just got my butt kicked enough, and worked hard day and night that I would be fine. And here I am over a decade later still taking that same approach to my work,” says Scrivner.
“Don’t be cocky, don’t think you’re hot shit, just be humble and get in there and do the work. Be prepared for your work to suck. Then go back and figure out why and make it not suck,” says Brewer. Li adds, “developing a critical eye for your own work is a skill in itself, and will take time and practice. In fact, being able to diagnose why a design isn’t working (apart from just saying it’s bad) is something that’s much harder to attain than just being to recognize good design.
One way to own being terrible is to create a safe space for yourself to fail. Fail as often as you can, as early as you can. “It’s really part of the process to get out all the ‘bad’ ideas before the ‘good’ ideas start getting teased out,” says Li. Put a time limit on your design session to come up with as many iterations as you can without the self-editor telling you what works and what doesn’t. When you’re done, look at what you’ve got. Repeat this as much as necessary.
How about you?
What has been essential to your growth as a designer?
If you’re interested in learning more about professional development for startup designers, check out Bridge, Designer Fund’s professional development program that connects experienced designers with top startups and our community in San Francisco.