The Ultimate Guide to Becoming A Designer Without Going To Design School

A step by step walkthrough to help you become a UX/UI designer without going to a 4-year design school.

Andrew Wilshere
Andrew Wilshere
Nov 4, 2017
Min Read

In another article, we discussed the options for getting trained up as a professional designer without going to design school.

In this installment, we’re taking a look at what comes next: how to present a portfolio and what to put in it, as well as how to identify job opportunities that are a good match for your interests and skills. We’ll also cover some of the bigger questions about embarking on a professional design role—above all, what your goals are.

1. Figure out your goals

One of the things that interviewers pick up on, probably subconsciously, is when you’re just not that into the job you’re interviewing for.

It’s happened to all of us: we need a job, so we apply for every opportunity that looks feasible, without giving much consideration to whether we actually want the position. But it’s better to focus our energy on putting together outstanding applications for jobs we really want, even if that means we apply for fewer positions.

Before you even start building a portfolio or searching for jobs, it’s worth spending as much time as you can figuring out your goals – not only in the short term, but in the longer term too. Whatever kind of training you’ve just completed – whether it was mainly self-study or a larger design bootcamp or university course – the experience will have given you lots of information about the kind of work that you enjoy, the stuff that you don’t, alongside as new insight into your strengths and weaknesses. We can always work on our weaknesses, of course, but we’re also well advised to play to our strengths, particularly when job-hunting. 

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • What strengths and transferable skills do I have from my previous career? We tend to underestimate these – even things we take for granted, like good communication and email etiquette, are important skills that we had to learn at one point.

  • What strengths did I discover on my course? These could be technical strengths in a particular area of design, or strength in a softer skill, like time management. Being a great time manager could mean you’ll be at your best when working in a fast-paced environment, meeting tight deadlines.

  • What kind of work do I really enjoy? In your training, you might have found that you love brand and logo design, or that you want to just focus on user interfaces.

  • What kind of things do I really not enjoy? Maybe your hate working on print layout, or perhaps find working in a highly social studio environment too intense.

  • What are my big ambitions? Where do you want to be in 1, 5, or 10 years? Do you dream of heading up your own branding agency? Let long-term goals guide your job search, and drive what goes into your portfolio. If you start off by applying for work that fires you up, it will be so much easier for an interview panel to choose you for the job.

At entry level, it’s important to be realistic: a big part of life as a junior designer is starting at the bottom and learning from the experience of those around you. But there are different working environments out there, including freelancing, agency work, in-house design at startups, in-house design at corporations, and growth/innovation teams. It’s worth considering your preferences before starting the job hunt.

Whatever your goals, take time to set them out, reflect on them, and identify the kinds of position that are most likely to lead you to a fulfilling career.

2. Build a portfolio

Once you’ve analyzed your goals, it’s time to start thinking about how to present a portfolio. Treat your portfolio as a design project – in fact, as a very difficult design project. 

There are two main types of portfolio when it comes to job-hunting. The first is the “general purpose” portfolio, that almost certainly takes the form of a website. This needs to present an overview of the kind of work you want to be hired for. If an employer or recruiter stumbles across your site, it needs to be able to tell them rapidly who you are, where you are, what work you do, how good your best is, and how they can contact you.

The second type of portfolio is one that is put together for a specific position (though this is aless common requirement for junior positions). For example, if a job ad for a UI design position requests that applicants send in a PDF portfolio, it’s crucial that the PDF doesn’t just contain the exact same work as is on your website. The projects you present need to be tailored to the position, and the specific skills it asks for. Alternatively, perhaps the PDF focuses on explaining process, and presenting projects as case studies.

Remember that when people are reading your website or PDF portfolio, you don’t have the luxury of being able to present it personally, or endear yourself to those reading it. Therefore, visual presentation – how polished and professional it looks, whether it contains any typos, how the typography is working – will have a huge effect on how you are perceived as a designer.

3. Get a mentor to help

In Part 1, we explored the value of mentoring when learning design. But mentors are just as valuable – maybe even more valuable – when it comes to your job search.

The stuff you learn during a design course is mainly about well-documented design principles and processes. But when it comes to job applications, many of the rules are unwritten, and being in contact with industry insiders can help you to avoid common mistakes when writing applications, presenting portfolios, and attending interviews.

Graduates from Designlab's UX Academy program are enrolled into Career Services after completing the curriculum — a rigorous job coaching program designed to help our students find their first design role. Each graduate works intensively with a Career Coach to finesse their work, improve their portfolio, and craft excellent applications for positions that match their skills well.

Your own training path may not have included a career coaching program like this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a mentor to help you. This does depend, however, on being an effective networker, and identifying individuals who might be appropriate mentors as you embark on your design career. And, of course, be prepared to pay people for their time – they are professionals, and the money you part with to engage a good mentor will be amply repaid by landing that first job. 

Check out sites like re:create, Design Mentors, and Designer Hangout to make new connections. 

Mentors are also great to have around when there are setbacks. We all get our hopes up for jobs that we love, and naturally we feel deflated if we don’t get an interview. Sometimes it can be an even heavier blow if we do get an interview but then don’t manage to attract a job offer.

Sharing these lows with a mentor can give you the benefit of their experience – how to learn from failures, how to take the positives from a disappointing outcome, and ultimately how to move on optimistically to the next opportunity. There are countless stories out there of industry-leading designers who were knocked back 20, 50, 100 times before they landed their first role. Colonel Sanders pitched his fried chicken recipe to 1,009 potential clients before someone said yes.

4. Apply for jobs

It’s tempting to feel dejected by the fact that, at any given moment, there are usually more job applicants than jobs in a particular sector. But things aren’t quite that simple. For example, in the UK, hundreds of thousands of job vacancies go unfilled each year due to structural unemployment – which means that the skills of the available labor pool didn’t match the needs of employers. 

a. Keep your eyes open

While many sectors are indeed very competitive, keep your eyes open for positions that are an excellent match for your very particular set of skills and experiences. Focusing on those openings will give you an immediate competitive advantage. 

Don’t just focus on big job boards. For opportunities that are a little off the beaten track, check out AngelList,, We Work Remotely, Dribbble, Behance, Creative Circle, and local Slack channels.

Opportunities can also present themselves in email newsletters, where companies sometimes include a “P.S.” when they’re hiring. Responding to opportunities like this that are advertised less formally means that a) you’re probably already interested and know something about the company (you’re on the email list, after all), and b) this might be the only place the job was advertised – so, by force of numbers, you could be up against fewer applicants and find it easier to stand out from the crowd.

b. Do your homework

You will be able to put together a better application that speaks to the people hiring if you’ve taken the time to research their company and understand their needs. Actually, just like with your portfolio, think of a job application as a user-centered design project in its own right. 

The end user of your job application is the hiring manager, and your job as the applicant is to put together a submission that meets their needs (tells them about you, your work, and why you are a good fit for the position), and ideally also delights them visually. If nothing else, taking this level of care over an application will leave them wanting to know more about you, so at least they’ll keep reading.

Sometimes you will only be able to research the company by reading through their website, finding out about their current projects, and checking out some of their past work. Other useful resources are sites like Glassdoor and Crunchbase; also try searching Quora, Reddit and Medium.

There are times when it’s appropriate to dig a little deeper, for example by contacting someone at the company to ask some questions about them and what they’re looking for. This can be a tricky one to judge – you’ll need to make a judgement call based on the size of the company, the tone of the job ad, and whether a named contact was provided in it.

Give some thought to your existing network as well. You might even know someone with experience of the company in question, and they might be able to give you tips on the kind of application that works.

c. Customize each application

In the same vein, don’t send the same portfolio of work to every job. Ideally, customize your portfolio, resume, and cover letter to respond specifically to the post you’re applying for. Each post is different, and places emphasis on skills differently. For example, if you’re applying for a UX design job that you know would involve a lot of UI and interaction design work, present projects that show off your skills in those specific areas.

Remember that in many companies, fair recruitment policies require panels to shortlist the candidates that are best qualified for the post in terms of skills and experience – your portfolio and cover letter might make them like you, but if your application doesn’t allow them to tick all the boxes on the person specification, they won’t be able to invite you to interview. Make sure that everything you have to offer is clearly spelled out.

5. Handling interviews

Some people love interviews. Most people don’t. Even if you’re naturally an outgoing, sociable, and confident communicator, most interviews are very contrived, unusual situations, and it’s rare for anyone to feel truly comfortable in them (including the interview panel!). They create a strange power dynamic, and they are also kind of embarrassing, since it’s just about the only social situation in existence where it’s not only allowed, but obligatory, to sit there and tell everyone else how great you are.

It’s the same for every other applicant, no matter how calm and collected they look. On the day, remember that you are also there to audition the company; it’s tempting to treat a job interview like a parole board hearing, but really it’s more like a first date. 

There are also a heap of practical steps you can take to prepare for any interview.

a. Anticipate the questions

You can’t foresee everything that an interview panel will ask you, but you can probably foresee at least half of their questions. For example, you’re very like to be faced with some of these:

  • Tell us a little about yourself.
  • What led you to apply for this position?
  • Why do you think you would be a good fit for this job?
  • What would you say are your strengths?
  • What would you say are your weaknesses?
  • Where would you like to be in 3 years’ time?

UXBeginner have a great article on the 4 types of question that people interviewing for UX design jobs are likely to face. Spend some time brainstorming all the questions you think they might ask you – both general ones, and on specific points from the job description. Being well prepared goes a long way to soothing your nerves. 

b. Familiarise yourself with the person specification

You’ll have worked through the job description in detail when putting together your application, but if there are any areas where you are weaker or lack experience, the interview panel will be looking for signs that you’re aware of this and that you have ideas about how you will address those gaps if appointed. Overall, be prepared with something to say about each of the specific requirements set out in the person specification. 

c. Prepare questions for the panel

Make sure to ask at least two intelligent, thoughtful questions, perhaps including something that the panel wouldn’t expect. Make sure you have something to ask – saying “no” when asked if you have any questions will make you come across as unimaginative at best, and disinterested at worst.

d. Pay attention to the small stuff

  • Be early. Triple-check the time of the interview, arrive an hour early, find the front door, then prepare calmly in a nearby park or coffee shop. Arrive at the venue 10-15 minutes before the interview start time. And go to the bathroom!

  • Take your laptop, and save all the files you need offline, as you may not be able to access wi-fi once you arrive. If you’re using the laptop to present anything, make sure to turn it so that the panel can see properly what you’re showing them.

  • Dress appropriately. If you’re not sure what level of formality the panel are expecting, simply ask – they will be impressed that you care. You might also be able to check out the company’s Instagram to research their culture and dress code. Pro tip: even if you’re interviewing via telephone, still dress appropriately – what we wear affects how we behave, and how confident we feel.

  • Take photo ID and any other relevant documents, like visas and qualification certificates. The last thing you need is difficulty getting into the building, or being unable to provide papers requested by the panel.

  • Take these things into the interview room: a bottle of water, pen, paper, and brief notes or bullet points, if you think they will help.

  • Plan how you will walk into the room, but be flexible if your plan can’t be executed. For example, it’s a good idea to smile and make immediate eye contact. If their body language invites it, shake each panel member’s hand, and introduce yourself by name. Use common sense, but wherever possible, use open and positive body language.

  • Establish good posture at the start of your interview. You will probably be given a moment to compose yourself – take your time. Once you’re ready, sit assertively upright (but not bolt upright, which can seem aggressive or dominant).

  • Say thank you. However you feel the interview went, explicitly thank the panel for their time. Final impressions aren’t as important as first impressions, but they still count.

6. Get feedback

When an interview is unsuccessful, ask for feedback. Although no-one likes to dwell on disappointments, listening to critique is the quickest way to improve.

Above all, remember how musicians treat errors: mistakes are information. Mistakes made in rehearsal tell performers which parts they need to work on. They then focus their practice on those areas of difficulty, rather than simply going back to the beginning of the piece and hoping it’ll be better next time. To put this idea another way: if musicians don’t correct their mistakes in practice, what they’re actually doing is practicing their mistakes.

It’s impossible to create a “perfect” job application, since everyone has different ideas about what that means. Feedback on even a very good job application can feel quite harsh, but the harsher the feedback, the more information you have to act on. 

Ultimately, once you’ve digested the feedback and learned what you can from it, remind yourself that some things are simply beyond our control. Sometimes a company turns out not to be a good match for your particular talents and personality, and that’s okay.

Interested in changing careers? We offer short courses and an intensive UX Academy program. Find out more

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Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.