Complete Novice to Full-time Product Designer in 1-2 Years

In this post, I’ll talk about the path that I would take to go from a complete novice, to a full-time product designer—all within a year or two—and land a job that pays at least $90,000/yr.

A few disclaimers:

  1. This isn’t a life hack article. Below, you won’t find a list of hacks, but a list of real work that must commit to.
  2. I’m not trying to sell you anything. This post is not the intro to some paid course that I’m trying to up-sell you on. I don’t want/need anything from you in return. (That said, if you do end up becoming a product designer, I’d love to hear your story).
  3. The path outlined below offers the fastest way (that I know of), for anyone to change careers, and become a product designer. Follow these steps, and you’ll save a great deal of time, and money with your transition.
  4. This is obviously not the only path, but this is the path I would take if I were starting over from scratch, with zero experience as a designer.
  5. Paying for education to become a product designer is NEVER something that I’d recommend. This statement will likely offend some (especially those who have paid for design school), or those who sell expensive design courses, but please trust me when I say that you do not need a degree to become a product designer. We’ll talk about this in more detail below.

Why listen to me?

In short: I’m a seasoned designer. I’ve worked at a handful of successful startups. My experience runs the gamut:

  • I’ve worked as a design team of one.
  • I’ve been a full-time contributor within a larger team.
  • I’ve been a part-time manager, part-time contributor.
  • I’ve also been a full-time creative director, managing up to 34 other designers.

In total, I’ve been a designer in various positions, at various startups for over 18 years.

What are the responsibilities of a product designer?

Throughout any given day, a product designers responsibilities might include:

  • The need to understand who’s using your product
  • The need to understand what users are trying to do.
  • The need to understand what scenarios the UI will handle
  • The concept brainstorming stage
  • The concept fleshing out stage
  • Interactive prototyping
  • Usability testing
  • Feedback throughout the design process
  • Reviewing PR’s
  • Writing front-end code
  • Writing back-end code
  • Optimizing for speed
  • Visual design
  • UI design
  • UX design
  • Print design
  • Crafting the layout
  • Responsiveness
  • Writing product copy
  • Writing marketing copy
  • Typography
  • Colors
  • Page hierarchy
  • Interactions
  • Motion
  • Growth
  • A/B testing
  • White space
  • Adding personality
  • Telling a story
  • Communicating various feedback states
  • Accounting for error states
  • Accessibility
  • Small delightful details
  • Internationalization
  • Retina considerations
  • Writing specs
  • Decisions vs. options
  • QA
  • Browser testing
  • Device testing
  • Brand advocacy

If you’ve stuck around this far, you’re probably thinking,

Wait… What!

That list is daunting. How on earth am I ever expected to learn all of that in a year or two?

This must just be a link-bait article… This Dave Martin guy is full of crap.

Just hang tight. I promise you, we’re getting to the good stuff!

It’s all about focused learning, and then specialization

The secret is to be strategic about what you learn first, and where you focus your time. Will you know half of the stuff in the list above when you land your first job? Nope. But don’t let that deter you.

Throughout the rest of this post, I’ll show you in detail, how you can get in the door of a startup as a Jr. designer. Once you’ve landed a job, you can then learn the rest of this stuff on the job (i.e. rather than pay to try and learn this stuff, I’m going to show you how you can get paid to learn most of this stuff).

Below, I’ll outline a step-by-step path you can take to short-circuit the system and land a product designer job as quickly as possible.

How do you get there?

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Keep your existing job
  2. Start with just three basic skills
  3. Start waking up early to work on side projects
  4. Land your first jr. design job
  5. Choose a specialty
  6. Transition to a product designer role

Let’s talk about each one in detail:

1) Keep your existing job

Your current job—no matter how much it sucks—is your lifeline. Keeping your existing job buys you all the time you need to learn some new skills. If you’re just starting your career switch—with zero experience, and no portfolio—the chances of you landing even a jr. design job are close to zero.

But don’t let that deter you either!

The demand for product designers has never been greater

Don’t take my word for it. Have a quick peek for yourself:

Dribbble jobs
Linkedin jobs

At this point, you’re semi-convinced. You’re thinking to yourself:

Okay, I’m up for this grand career change, I guess I need to go back to school, right?


We’ve been trained as a society to think:

I’m starting a new career, I guess I’ve got to go back to school.

But if you want to become a product designer, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Side note: I’ve got a whole separate rant on this topic if you’d like to hear more of my thoughts.

Your next step is to try and learn a few skills.

2) Start with just three basic skills

Forget about that big long list of skills that I shared with you above. At this point, it’s irrelevant.

The only three skills that you need to focus on are:

– SketchApp

These three skills will form the foundation of your new design career.

There are loads of free resources out there to help you learn all three of these skills. Here are just a few examples:

Needless to say, you shouldn’t have to spend a dime to learn these three skills.

3) Start waking up early to work on side projects

The best way to learn how to be a designer is to practice, and the best way to practice is to work on side projects.

I don’t care what stage of your design career you’re in, I’m a firm believer that you should alway work on side projects.

Working on side projects is also the easiest way to start building a portfolio of work that you can share when you apply to your first design job.

But my life is already too busy, I don’t have time for side projects

Truth be told, I don’t know your circumstances, but I’m guessing that there is a block of time that you can carve out, if you just choose to prioritize it.

Personally, I’ve got a full-time, and a family with 3 young kids. I have every excuse to say that I don’t have enough time. But for the past year or so I’ve been in the habit of waking up between 3-5am each morning.

I typically work on my own side projects for a couple of hours before starting work (you can see a list of my side projects in the left nav of this blog). I used to do the late night thing, but the early morning thing works really well for me.

What on earth can I accomplish in just 2 hours per day?

Let’s take a look:

Say you worked on a side project for 2 hours every weekday, and took the weekends off.

Well, that’s:

  • 10 hrs in one week
  • 520 hrs in a year (or a total of thirteen 40 hr work weeks)
  • 2600 hrs in 5 years (or a total of sixty five 40 hr work weeks!) That’s over a years worth of work!

That’s insane. If you were able to commit to building side projects just 2 hours per day, 5 day per week for 5 years, what could you accomplish?

A whole heck of a lot, that’s what!

What side projects should I work on?

That’s the cool thing. It can be whatever you want. Work on stuff that interests you. Work on tiny projects. Work on big projects. But work on projects that help you polish up new skills, and expand your portfolio.

I’m entirely self taught. I studied Chemistry in college. The vast majority of new skills that I’ve picked up have come as the result of something that I needed to learn for a side project.

Once you have a small portfolio of side projects, and after you’ve started feeling comfortable with some beginner HTML/CSS, and Sketch skills, it’s time to look for your first design role.

4) Land your first jr. design job

For your very first design job you can probably expect to pull down anywhere between $45-75K/yr.

There are two things that you can do to help yourself stand out when applying for any job:

1) Go above and beyond with your application. The more effort you put into it, the better chance you’ll have of standing out from the rest of the applicants.

2) The other thing that can drastically increase your chances is to know someone who can give you a positive referral. Sometimes you have to get creative, but a positive review from someone who already works at a company, or from someone who knows the hiring manager can go a long way towards at least getting you an interview.

What do design managers look for in applicants?

In all of my time managing designers, I never once cared about education. That may come as a shocker, but when reviewing resumes, I wouldn’t even look at the education section of peoples resumes. Honest! The one thing that matters more than anything else is your portfolio. And what’s the best way to build a portfolio from scratch?

Side Projects!!!

Great. You’re getting the hang of this. 😉

Now that you’ve got your first design job, it’s time to figure out where you want to shine!

5) Choose a specialty

After you’ve landed your first jr. design position, you’ll rapidly start learning a bunch of new things.

The key to making the leap from a jr. design role to a product design role is to avoid being a generalist. It’s time to focus and get really good at one specific skill.

There are loads of specialties to choose from. It’s really up to you on which you choose. But here are some of the ones with the highest demand:

  • Visual design – If you decide to become a rock solid visual designer, you’ll always have a good paying job, and you’ll alway be in high demand
  • Growth designer – Most designers want nothing to do with data informed design. As such, you can do very well for yourself making this your specialty.
  • Interaction design – Animation and interaction design are here to stay, and they are in high demand
  • Design manager – If you’re an extrovert, and you thrive in an environment where you’re helping other designers shine, you’ll always be able to find a great job
  • User research – A lot of startups preach being user focused, but when the rubber hits the road, and features just need to ship (yesterday), this is often one of the first things that gets put on the back burner. If you can learn to excel at speaking with users, and interpreting their needs, you’ll do well here.
  • Design engineer – If you love the code side of things, you can do well by picking up JavaScript and being a bit of a cross between a designer, and a front-end engineer.

Again, there are a ton of other areas where you could specialize, but these are just a few of the areas that I’d recommend looking first.

6) Transition to a product designer role

You’re almost there!

Frankly at this point, you probably no longer need my help. 😛

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! What an exciting time!

Now is the point where you can start being picky about the companies you choose to join.

From this point on you can expect to make anywhere between $75k/yr, all the way up to $180k/yr depending on where you live, and the skills that you bring to the table.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did, please share the love via the social links below. 😻


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