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You don't need school to become a designer

I regularly receive pings from friends and family for advice on how to get started in a new design or front-end coding career. The emails usually read something along the lines of:

Hey Dave,

I was hoping I could hit you up for some advice. I’ve decided to switch careers to become a designer. I’m thinking of either applying to this [ENTER_NAME_OF_2_YEAR_UNIVERSITY] course. There’s a [ENTER_NAME_OF_PRERECORDED_VIDEO_SERIES] that looks good, and only costs $X00. There’s also this [ENTER_NAME_OF_HIPSTER_DESIGN_TRAINING_SCHOOL/COURSE/LEAGUE] which lasts X weeks, and costs $X000. I’m undecided. Which would you choose?

Thanks,

After a deep sigh, my answer is always the same, “I wouldn’t pay for any of that“.

Here’s my reasoning:

The best way to become a designer is to just start designing (same for learning to code)

It often takes a couple of emails back and forth before they really hear what I’m saying, “Don’t waste your time/money with these programs, just pick a project that you want to build, and build it. Then keep doing that until you’ve got a small portfolio of things that you’ve built that you’re proud of.”

Your quickest path to becoming a good front-end coder or designer is to just start coding or designing. Please forget about school, or paying for a single thing. Seriously!

You don’t have to pay anything to become a great designer or front-end coder

There is so much info available for free these days. You can easily learn everything you need to know without spending a single dollar!

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”. With regard to careers in design and coding, this is simply not true. In fact, it’s a lie.

The unfortunate bit is that this mentality has lead us to ever increasing student debt levels, which now exceeds one trillion dollars nationally.

Given the option between

1) racking up student loans, wasting time writing stupid papers, and doing countless hours of busy work, or
2) spending your time just building stuff you’re interested in, learning as you go, building a portfolio which will earn you more over time, and potentially charging people for work, or getting a job (where they’ll pay you to continue to learn)…

Hands down, I’d go with option two, every single time. :-)

For many, I think the decision to go back to school actually comes down to some amount of uncertainty and fear.

Unfortunately the fear doesn’t go away just because you attend school

Deciding to build something is intimidating. I get that. You feel like you don’t know enough. Or maybe you legitimately don’t know the least thing about designing.

When it comes down to it, you’re afraid to fail. But truth be told, we all are. This fear is not unique to you.

It’s better to try and conquer your fear now – by just diving in, and deciding to start building something – instead of delaying the inevitable (and racking up more personal debt in the meantime).

Okay… So, where do I start?

Here’s my recommendation:

1) Find a mentor – It could be a relative, a neighbor, someone from church, or a parent from your kids school. Find someone who already does what you’re hoping to do, and ask them to mentor you. Tell them that you’ll try not to bug them, except for times where you really get stuck. This person becomes your lifeline whenever you hit a wall.

2) Find a project – It could be a website for a hobby, or for a relative, or for your church, or for something that is completely made up. 37signals, used to make up projects years ago, before ever releasing their hugely popular Basecamp project tracking software. It worked well for them, and it can work for you.

The focus of these projects is to both build up your portfolio, and to learn as you go.

3) Once a project is complete, return to step #2. Then, repeat this cycle until you have a portfolio you’re proud of.

And that’s it. It really is that simple.

Comments

I don’t do comments on this blog, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at designpro@gmail.com.

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