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Making the transition from visual to product design

In the current design market, we often interact with visual designers trying to make the jump into product design. Whether you want to make the switch for the challenge, the compensation, or the opportunity to create a user-centric design, the move can often be a very rewarding one.

Making a career change isn't always easy, but already having a background in graphic design or UI offers many transferable and relevant skills for product design. Product design connects users’ needs and business goals through a process of research, testing, and refinement (reiteration). While traditional visual design focuses on visual appeal only, product designers concentrate on visual appeal, usability, and feel of a product.

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When hiring for a junior product design role, hiring managers can be open to designers with visual-leaning backgrounds, as UX and design processes can be taught. In order to stand out while having little experience, it’s important to convey strong drive and ambition in your portfolio and throughout the interview process. Pete Petras, Head of Design- Financial Products at Uber says that “a designer’s level of initiative is is a crucial aspect managers consider in deciding whether or not to invest in a potential candidate.”

We recommend focusing on the following four areas in order to ensure a smooth transition from visual to product design:

Practice

They say practice makes perfect, and that’s especially true when it comes to developing and improving on your UI skills. Ensure you ask the right questions before diving into a design, keeping in mind the problem you are attempting to solve. Participating in Daily UI challenges can be a great way to stretch your creative muscles. Additionally, Petras recommends “redesigning an app that you use frequently, and putting it in your portfolio as a personal project.”

Build up your portfolio

Dedicating time and effort to your portfolio is essential for remaining competitive while applying for junior product design roles. “Deep dive into 2-3 meaty projects and include some additional visual work to showcase your design aesthetics,” says Petras. There is no need to overload your portfolio with every design project you’ve ever worked on. “Keep the portfolio simple and concise,” he says, “and update it only with your most recent work.”

Find someone who’s “been there, done that”

Not everyone can speak to a Sr. Manager of Product Design like Pete Petras whenever they need advice. However, to truly learn the design thinking behind product design, having the right mentor is crucial.

To find the right mentor for you, try taking a product design course, or engaging with a network such as Designed. Reach out to individuals who are already part of your own network who may have taken a similar career path, or simply let your current or new manager know your desire to make the switch. Asking for candid feedback can feel vulnerable, but it is a great way to truly improve your design skills.

Try looking internally

Some designers have an easier time making the switch from visual to product design internally. Building your product design skills in this space means you have time to exercise your UI thinking while gaining the confidence and expertise to succeed elsewhere. 

Looking to hire designers? Contact Jocelyne Liu by emailing her at jocelyne.liu@robertwalters.co.

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