Community discussion: How to get that first product design job?
Three elements to pay attention: Access, network, portfolio
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Q: Budi, I aspire to be a product designer. How to get the product design job?
There are lots of paths to land your first product design job. In this newsletter, I’ve invited some product designers to share their journey on how they landed their first job. But I like to respond to this question using my working framework:
Access: You need access to a real-life project
Network: People who can vouch for you
Portfolio: You need to tell a story about your experience
If you can have 2 out of these 3 elements, there’s a chance for you to land that first job. There is a small dose of luck play in the force as well.
Two groups of people
When I write this, I realize I’m speaking to two groups of people.
The first group is anyone who has a related background or works in design. Maybe you joined a design BootCamp that allows you to work on a real project. Or maybe you work as a graphic designer and want a transition to a product design role.
The second group is the people who don’t have anything to do with the design. Perhaps you have a full-time job that’s not related to design at all and want to do a career transition.
Obviously, the first group has an upper hand because they have access to a real-life project to start with. If you fall under the second group, you need to find this access first.
Before you can put anything into your portfolio, you need access to a real-life project. Let’s explore a few common ways to get a real-life project:
An internship is the most common path. Through an internship, you experience what it’s like to be a product designer with real scenarios and constraints. As Mila Alief Alya, Product Designer at GovTech Edu, pointed out, “Through the internship, I was able to cultivate my knowledge, develop my skills and enrich my portfolio.” She added, “When I graduated, I realized I have enough experience to confidently kick start a full-time job as a product designer.” (Note: you can read everyone’s full quotes by the end of this newsletter)
Eugene Brigita Lauw, Product Designer Intern, at Gojek expressed how the internship helped her realize that she loves designing for people. “During my time in the university, my senior referred me to a UI/UX intern role at Hangry. The internship changed my whole perspective about life after. Getting introduced to how product designers work in real life makes me realize that I love designing for people.”
Internal move. My friend Russell a Senior Designer at Shopify shared his story, “I originally interviewed for a design position at Shopify, but my skills weren’t where they needed to be. But they were gracious enough to hire me for a design tech support position.” Along the way, he got opportunities to grow his design skill and finally joined the internal team.
Design competition. I guess this approach is a bit slow and old-school. But this was my approach to getting access to real-life projects. I joined a design competition through websites like 99designs or DesignCrowd. As a result, I have a few works to showcase in my portfolio. You can take a look at my old portfolio here.
Passion projects could be interesting access to a real-life project. Elva shared that she helped her friend to build a prototype for the project. They kept working on it together. At some point, this prototype becomes the ticket for her to land a job on the startup.
Co-found a company is probably the least common approach. This is how Randy the Head of Design Strategy at Kraken started his design career, “I got into what we now call product design back in 2006. I co-founded an e-commerce marketplace company,” Randy told me, “and was the only designer. That's how my path began.” Pretty cool.
Fellowship is another access to consider. Ivy Mukherjee, Design Manager at Bumble, shared her story. Back then, she quickly realize that graphic design was not for her. She then applied for a fellowship opportunity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. “I applied, received a full scholarship, and went there for 3.5 months. This is where I first learned about UI, UX, and the start-up ecosystem.”
A real-life project gives you experience, but most importantly, you gain a network. You get to know people in the field, and they can help you land that first product design job.
Joana Patrasc, a Senior Designer at Lever, studied graphic design at university. When she graduated, her supervisor asked her if she was interested in coming on as a UX designer. Then she “learned UX and product design on the job from watching videos, reading articles, and learning from coworkers.”
Tasha Dara, Product Designer at GovTech Edu offers another example of how the network can really help you open the path. “My internship was significant to my self-development.” She added, “It was one of the best decisions that I've ever made because it led me to an unexpected referral to Traveloka, which made me pivot into a product designer.”
If you get temporary access to a real-life project such as an internship or fellowship. It’s important to summarize it into a story to help you land a more permanent job. This is where the portfolio comes in.
Not everyone has the access to a real-life project. But if you can access any courses, you can start preparing your portfolio. A conceptual project could be less appealing than a real-life project, but it’s better than nothing.
AnnChiahui Tai, Senior Product Designer, at Automattic, had a full-time job that was unrelated to design back then. She took an online course out of interest. After connecting with designers, her desire got so strong. “I quit my job to learn and prepare my portfolio.” She added, ”With my portfolio ready, I began applying for jobs in the desired area. I was proactive in sending out emails expressing my interest without seeing any openings. One startup responded positively. I'm forever grateful they took a chance on me, which started my design journey.”
Ivana, Product Design Lead at Sixty Two, was interested in UI/UX and then started doing more UI/UX-related freelance work to build her portfolio. “Until I finally landed a job at my first tech startup and the rest is history.”
You can consider Behance or Dribbble as a way to showcase your work. If you want to build a portfolio that represents your personality, consider Squarespace, Webflow, or Dunked. I have a few tips on portfolio on my blog:
Be intentional in how you structure the portfolio
Ensure it’s easy to access and consider these 8 principles
How to overcome some constraints to create a portfolio
Look for access, build a portfolio, and network with people.
I want to express my thank you to everyone who generously shares their stories in this newsletter. See you next week!
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Russell make an internal move:
I originally interviewed for a design position at Shopify, but my skills weren’t where they needed to be. But they were gracious enough to hire me for a design tech support position that they felt could be a good base for me to grow from.
Along the way, I got a few little opportunities here and there to develop my skills further - graphic design, web design. I left that team, and I joined our internal design team, designing the tools our support team used, which was a total blast - it was basically an internship at the time, with a really tight feedback loop between our users (support), and the product team. From there I just kept honing my skills and got more and more experience within the company, which brought me to where I am now.
— Russell Baylis, Senior Product Designer at Shopify
Mila: Through the internship, I can develop my skills
In my 4th semester of studying computer science, I applied for a UX design internship program out of curiosity. I have a portfolio because previously I explored UI design in my spare time. I would say it wasn’t a good portfolio, but luckily I got accepted to the internship.
Perhaps that’s because I was able to show a strong willingness to learn and evidence that I have potential. After the first internship, I got hooked and decided to apply to other internship programs. Through the internship, I was able to cultivate my knowledge, develop my skills and enrich my portfolio. When I graduated, I realized I have enough experience to confidently kick start a full-time job as a product designer.
— Mila Alief Alya, Product Designer at Govtech Edu
Eugene: The internship changed my perspective
I ended up majoring in Computer Science at Universitas Indonesia. At some point, my senior referred me to a UI/UX intern role at Hangry. The internship changed my whole perspective about life-after-CS-degree. Getting introduced to how product designers work in real life makes me realize that I love designing for people.
Then, I started to involve myself in more UI/UX projects and build my portfolio. Here I am, interning as a Product Designer at Gojek. Throughout both internships, I’m really impressed by the team and their craft. I learned that a problem can be solved using many creative ways of thinking. I find it enjoyable and meaningful to design products that solve real problems and help people’s lives. I'm glad I got into Product Design.
—Eugene Brigita Lauw, Product Designer Intern, at Gojek
Tasha: My internship led me to an unexpected referral
I studied industrial product design back in college, which had nothing to do with tech. That was when I got exposed to basic research and felt like it was something I'd love to explore further. Then I got accepted as an intern in a design consultancy firm.
My internship was significant to my self-development. It was one of the best decisions that I've ever made because it led me to an unexpected referral to Traveloka, which made me pivot into a product designer. Being a product designer allows me to be a great strategist, critical and creative at the same time. Something that I can see myself continuing doing in the future.
— Tasha Dara, Product Designer at GovTech Edu
Joana: My supervisor asked if I was interested in joining
I fell into product design by accident but my journey was pretty straightforward. I studied graphic design at university and worked as a research assistant at a data visualization lab at my school. When I graduated, my supervisor at the lab started working at a data analytics startup and asked if I was interested in coming on as a UX designer. I learned UX and product design on the job from watching videos, reading articles, and learning from my coworkers.
— Joana Patrasc, Senior Designer at Lever
Elva: I asked my friend if I could help with the prototype
I started to learn interface design because I know in order for me to enter the product design industry, I need to have product-related projects in my portfolio. Then, one of my friends was working on an IoT product ,so I asked him if I could help with the app prototype. That's how I build my first UX portfolio.
With that portfolio, I landed a 2 months internship in one of the Indonesian tech companies where I learn more technical stuff and get a grasp on UX designer'’ roles. From that point on, I started looking for more UX design projects. I also took some online courses to deepen my understanding of the product design process. Thanks to that, I managed to get a full-time job as a UI/UX designer not too long after I graduated.
—Elva, Product Designer at GovTech Edu
Ivy: Fellowship open up the opportunity to learn
I was a graphic designer in advertising agencies but didn't like it much because it lacked the motive for me. One fine day, I came across a fellowship opportunity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. I applied, received a full scholarship, and went there for 3.5 months. This is where I first learned about UI, UX, and start-up ecosystem. With time, it became fascinating to me: solving user needs, designing, making prototypes, etc. Then I started applying to a unicorn company back in India and got into Product Design.
— Ivy Mukherjee, Design Manager, at Bumble
Randy: I was the only designer
I got into what we now call product design back in 2006. I co-founded a tech company (an e-commerce marketplace) and was the only designer. That's how my path began. Everything since has been a progression of building on that experience. At each role, what I've done and the success of the products/brands/design teams has opened doors to new opportunities.
— Randy Hunt, Head of Design Strategy at Kraken
Ann: I quit my job to learn and prepare my portfolio.
I had a full-time job back then. I took a product design course online out of interest. I learned after work and spent much time practicing. It was exhausting but rewarding. I tried to build connections with other designers and learned through their stories. The desire got so strong that I quit my job to learn and prepare my portfolio.
With my portfolio ready, I began applying for jobs in the desired area. I was proactive in sending out emails expressing my interest without seeing any openings. One startup responded positively. I'm forever grateful they took a chance on me, which started my design journey. 😊
—AnnChiahui Tai, Senior Product Designer, at Automattic
Ivana: I work to build my portfolio and landed a job.
My first brush with Product Design related work was when I was still working as a Graphic Designer in a digital advertising agency. Little that I aware it’s a UX design process, but I fell in love with it. Then I started doing more UI/UX related freelance work to build my portfolio, until I finally landed a job at my first tech startup and the rest is history.
Ivana — Product Design Lead, at Sixty Two