Becoming a Designer in Tech: A Practical Guide for Frustrated Developers

The tech industry is hungry for smart designers who can solve big problems as well as the small. Plus experience as an engineer makes you an extra special unicorn who can understand the technical implications of your designs.

I studied mathematics and computer science in college. I love solving interesting problems at many different levels, from small self-contained puzzles to huge systems with many moving pieces. When I went to the career fair in my last year of school, my name badge read “Major: Math & Computer Science” and swarms of recruiters from technology companies latched on to the computer science half of my anticipated degree, desperate to fill the need that their companies have for software engineers. Since no one was hiring for “professional problem solver” and I wasn’t particularly interested in grad school, the tech industry seemed like a decent enough way to begin my life after college.

And thus, with only a vague concept of what my day-to-day job would be, I joined a large and established tech company as a Software Engineer Level 1. I was ready to solve problems big and small!

Unfortunately, as a fresh faced engineer on a huge and mature development team I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t solving interesting problems at any level. It wasn’t all bad, of course. There were those moments of zen while coding, solving small puzzles, and hunting down bugs, that I think anyone who has programmed extensively can relate to. But as soon I awoke from my state of intense concentration, I would take a step back and not feel any great sense of accomplishment. I felt like a cog in a machine, executing tasks that didn’t have any real meaning to me. I was frankly really really bored.

I started gravitating to front end development tasks that at least gave me the satisfaction of direct impact on the users (look Ma, that’s my button!). And the more I worked with designers and talked with them about their process, the more I began to believe that design was where the interesting problems really were. The designers were putting together pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle of user needs and expectations, industry standards, creative explorations, and business requirements. And as the developer I was handed a piece of that puzzle to place in it’s determined spot.

I knew I wanted to become a designer. AKA professional problem solver.

My mental image of the perfect and delightful world of a designer.
My mental image of the perfect and delightful world of a designer.

If you are currently a software engineer and this sounds in any way similar to your story, then this guide is for you. The tech industry is hungry for smart designers who can solve big problems as well as the small. Plus experience as an engineer makes you an extra special unicorn who can understand the technical implications of your designs.

My personal opinion is that the true essence of design is the endless pursuit of perfection. If you possess a natural love for patterns, puzzles, problem solving, and sweating the details, then you can be a great designer.

My personal opinion is that the true essence of design is the endless pursuit of perfection. If you possess a natural love for patterns, puzzles, problem solving, and sweating the details, then you can be a great designer.

This guide outlines the steps I personally took to transition from development to design. Hopefully they prove useful to any other developers out there who have the desire to become designers.

Step 1: Test the Waters

I began tentatively looking in to the design profession through a series of articles, videos, and tutorials available through a site called Hack Design.

The site is specifically made for developers and coders who want to learn more about design, so you’ll feel right at home. They also do a great job in their first couple lessons of giving you a sense for what a career in design really means. The very first lesson is simply to watch the documentary Objectified, which does a fascinating job of showing what industrial designers do and how they think and work. The movie includes interviews with very famous designers such as Jony Ive, who helped pioneer the simplicity of Apple products that is so admired throughout the design community. The principles of industrial design discussed in the film I think translate very well to any type of design and should be more often referenced in the tech industry.

After watching Objectified and looking at a few of their other early lessons you can evaluate for yourself if you are still excited to solve these human centered problems or are completely put off by those crazy designers with their crazy pursuit of perfection.

Regardless of whether or not you continue down the path of switching to design, it is a good thing for anyone in tech to learn to appreciate design. Just like learning a foreign language, it’s good to do a little each day. Subscribe to Sidebar or a similar service to get daily articles in your email about design.

If after a few weeks or months of reading articles and observing the world as a designer you are hungry for more, then dive in to the resources in step 2.

Step 2: Self Teaching

Now it’s time to familiarize yourself with the basics and learn to think and talk like a designer. These are the Must Haves in your personal list of design resources and things to learn. You may already be familiar with some or all of them, but I wasn’t when I started out so I make no assumptions.

  • First, you should be clear on the definition of design and what different types of designers in the tech industry do. This Medium article, which I discovered on Sidebar, outlines those definitions pretty clearly and really resonated with me because of the emphasis on design as “systemized problem solving”. You should also research on your own what mobile, web, interaction, visual, UX, and UI all mean in the world of the tech industry
  • Make sure to familiarize yourself with Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design. If you watched Objectified then these principles should ring a bell since Dieter Rams goes through them in an interview for that film. It is a great list to have around and if you don’t know who Dieter Rams is then pretty much every designer you meet will laugh at you. Maybe not to your face, but they will judge you internally.
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a staple of great design thinking. Similar to Dieter Rams, you will be judged for not at least reading the cliff notes. It’s also a great book, and reading it will begin your life as a discontented observer of the world. You’re welcome.
  • To begin diving in to web and mobile design, take a look at Google’s Material Design. Even if you don’t ever touch Android design, the principles outlined in Material Design bring refreshing clarity and structure to the design of web and mobile products. I love Material Design because it attempts to bring order to the chaos that can often plague the design of user interfaces. I’m not advocating for every product to use the same bright colors and flat shapes as Material, but it is a great example of attention to detail and system wide design patterns that can create a great and consistent user experience.
  • If you are a fan of thinking beyond software, I highly recommend The Best Interface is No Interface. Being a designer in the tech industry might look very different in the future and this book does an excellent job outlining some of the great designs out there that involve zero UI.

There were a bunch of other books and articles I read during my quest to immerse myself in design thinking, but these definitely stand out. Keep your eyes out for anything interesting and relevant to design. There is no short supply.

Step 3: Design Some Stuff

Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to get your hands dirty designing something.

Start with a platform you are familiar with and an idea you are passionate about. If you are a web developer who enjoys fishing in your spare time, maybe try designing a website to find the best places to fish. If you are an iOS developer who likes musical theater, maybe design an app to show upcoming shows in your area. It doesn’t matter if a solution already exists, design your perfect experience. If you’ve made it this far you’ll know that products succeed or fail based on good design, not just the initial idea.

If you are comfortable drawing, then start your ideation with pencil and paper. Even if you aren’t great with a pencil it is good to get away from the computer for the initial brainstorming stages of your design. After you have an initial concept of what you want to build, you can move to Sketch to start getting your ideas in a digital format. There are plenty of templates available for Sketch, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Much like coding, it is a good idea to start from some sort of base so you can focus on the important aspects of your design and interaction.

Side note: If you are already an Adobe fan, go ahead and work in Photoshop and Illustrator. I don’t want to get involved in that particular religious war. However, if you are new to design tools and trying to decide whether to learn Photoshop or Sketch then please use Sketch. It will save you from a lot of needless frustration.

Coming up with your own idea is great practice. Building it is even better, though not necessary. If you have the means to help make design decisions in your current role as a developer then that begins to count as “real world” experience. It can add to your resume and it’s a great way to learn. So talk with your designers, throw out some ideas every now and then, and if they are receptive then help them to design and build new features.

Step 4: Find a Mentor (or two)

Hopefully there are some designers at your current company who you like and respect. If not, then maybe Step Zero should be finding a new development job at a company where you admire their designs. It will honestly be pretty difficult to pursue all of your design goals completely in your spare time.

Working with and talking to experienced designers is a great way to observe their process and get feedback on your own work. Whether its for a side project or something at work, you should be seeking constant feedback on your designs. A good mentor can provide that feedback and speak frankly with you about the other aspects of a design job, such as how to navigate a design review or the best way to work with the product manager. Meet with them regularly even if it’s just to grab coffee and hear how their week has been.

Step 5: Create a Portfolio

As a designer, you will have to learn to sell yourself. It’s not a very comfortable thing at first, but if you are constantly seeking feedback from designers you trust then hopefully you will eventually create a portfolio you are proud to show the world.


The current standard is to create a website where you can describe your projects and hopefully show demos or drawings. If some of your work can’t be shown publicly then make sure those projects are password protected so you can control who sees them. And remember: quality over quantity. There are many resources out there on the internet telling you how to build an awesome portfolio, such as this Fast Company article. Look at lots of examples and determine what you like or don’t like about how other designers present their work. Then steal the best ideas ruthlessly from your peers.

Pro tip: As a developer you might be tempted to build your website yourself and use a mishmash of the cheapest tools out there for hosting, registering a domain name, etc. Don’t do it. Use Squarespace or something similarly easy to edit and add content to. It will save you a lot of time. And while building your own site might earn you a gold star at some companies, it won’t get you the design job. Definitely not worth it.

Nothing will ever be perfect, so don’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there. Show your portfolio around to design teams you know at your current company and ask what they think is missing and what you could improve. Maybe your hard work and dedication to great design, as seen in your portfolio, will prompt them to offer you a position as a designer on their team. If not, no worries. You can apply to jobs externally as soon as your portfolio is in a reasonable place.

When you interview for a design position most places will ask you to do a portfolio review. This is usually a rather lengthy presentation of your work and so you should definitely freshen up your presentation skills. Practice makes perfect, so make sure to review your presentation many times before walking in to the interview. A polished and engaging portfolio review creates a good impression and sets the right tone for any one-on-one interviews that follow. Relax and have fun in the one-on-one interviews. They are usually just looking for how you work and problem solve. And solving interesting problems is fun!


As a bit of a confession, I got lucky and didn’t have to create a polished portfolio before getting a design job at my current company. The process for me was much more informal since my manager already knew me and my work. But steps 1–4 were crucial for my understanding of design and how to create beautiful, intuitive products. I definitely would not have gotten that opportunity without a solid understanding of design principles gained through self teaching and practice.

Now you are ready to become a designer in tech. Never stop learning and make sure to stay in tune with the latest design news. Even the most experienced designers are constantly refining their craft. Go get ‘em design tiger!

Cori McElwain is a designer and developer in the technology industry.

Becoming a Designer in Tech: A Practical Guide for Frustrated Developers