In August 2014, a month before I became chair of the graphic design program at California College of the Arts, I was invited to a mysterious event: an evening with the celebrated Google Glass designer Isabelle Olsson at the Battery, a members-only club in San Francisco for tech elites. According to the invitation, the gathering was part of “Facebook’s Women in Design Event Series”, which “aims to celebrate the community of Bay Area female design professionals.”
I will never forget stepping off the elevator and into the Battery’s lavish penthouse, handing my backpack to an extremely beautiful person, and staring into a sea of unfamiliar faces. This was the Bay Area’s female design community? I didn’t recognize a soul. As I worked my way through the room, I met product designers, interaction designers, and experience designers. I met content strategists and UX researchers. I met many people who identified as designers but had no interest in aesthetics. I did not meet a single person who called themselves a graphic designer.
In a way, it was a perfect introduction to my new role, where it would become my job to grapple with the question: What is the future of graphic design practice? And my job to support students who were asking their own question (and inadvertently answering mine): How do I get into tech?
Design for tech is not monolithic. For this piece, I spoke with nine young designers who recently graduated from traditional graphic design BFA or MFA programs and have since pivoted into tech jobs. The designers I interviewed are working at small startups and large legacy companies, in-house and at agencies, as contractors and full-timers, as product, UX, visual, or brand designers. Despite their different roles and different contexts, they encountered many of the same experiences in their journeys from design schools to tech jobs, and had consistent advice for those seeking a similar path.
In my previous writing on portfolios, I argued that shifts in contemporary design practice would require designers working in tech to find “new tools and tactics for sharing their work.” Despite that, for young designers seeking tech jobs, the portfolio is still crucial. Morgan Itterly, a senior digital designer at Pivot, explains, “The portfolio is a really big thing because that’s what gets you into the interview.” Rhea Jain, a UX designer at RealSelf, agrees, “Ultimately, it is a portfolio that gets somebody hired.” Rhea applied to RealSelf soon after she graduated from RISD’s graphic design program. Though the company was looking for someone with 3–5 years of experience, they hired Rhea because her portfolio demonstrated the storytelling skills and in-depth thinking of a more seasoned designer.
Depth before breadth
A portfolio that can catch the attention of a tech recruiter looks different from a traditional graphic design portfolio. When Valerie Trisnadi, a brand designer at Lime, was applying for a summer internship after her junior year at Parsons, she was encouraged to “create a portfolio by picking ten small pieces that come from different design subjects, one branding, one illustration, one product, one motion, and so on.” She believed this tactic would show she was a well-rounded designer with a range of skills. She did manage to land an internship at Wix, but her mentors there suggested she scrap her generalist portfolio. Instead, they recommended she only show UI/UX work when applying to tech jobs. Her current portfolio site reflects that approach. Maya Eapen, who is starting a visual design job at IBM Germany later this summer, got similar advice: “Everyone told me to focus my portfolio entirely on product design.”
Tech design portfolios tend to include just a handful of projects and go into a lot of detail about each of them. Valerie Trisnadi has five projects in her portfolio. Rhea Jain had three UX projects in her portfolio when she started applying to jobs. Grace Lee, a senior UX designer at IBM iX, credits one project, from a service design course she took at CCA, with helping her break into the field. Maya Eapen’s UI/UX portfolio has six projects. Maya’s mentors encouraged her to “make sure that each piece goes into detail about the process behind each product design.” She modeled her case study for Conscious, a project from a web/mobile design course at Parsons, on the structure of the course itself, explaining, “It’s almost like each week is a section of the webpage.”
Despite the advice to only show product design in their portfolios, many of the designers I talked with believe there is value in including some non-UI/UX work. When Grace Lee presents her portfolio, she always starts with “a single slide with thumbnails of all my graphic design work to show the breadth of skills and experience I have,” and then presents one UX project in detail. Maya Eapen’s portfolio leads with UI/UX work, but she has kept other projects in it, including some of her paintings. When she was applying for an Adobe internship, her interviewer had a fine arts background. Their conversation about Maya’s paintings helped them form a connection and got her to the final round of interviews. Rhea Jain includes some animation work in her portfolio because it is relevant to UX and shows her creative side. Arthur Kim, a product designer at Ladder, has kept his degree project from RISD in his portfolio because it’s “more representative of my thinking process than any of my other work.”
Reframe and repackage
Design school projects can get a second life in a tech design portfolio, but they may need to be reframed. As an MFA Design student at CCA, Juan Pablo Rahal made a lot of “weird, less commercial” books, exhibitions, and objects. When he was applying for brand design jobs in tech, he presented those projects as identity systems. Juan Pablo explains, “It’s all about the framing. When I’m talking about a book, I talk about the identity of the book instead of the typography.”
When Mukul Chakravarthi, a senior product designer at Fidelity Labs, was seeking product design roles after finishing his MFA in Graphic Design at RISD, he completely repackaged his student projects. Mukul made his work more attractive to product design recruiters by applying the trappings of UX design to it. He selected and transformed student projects using strategic questions like, “Can I translate this into a bunch of screens and mockups on a cell phone?” Mukul acknowledges that this process reinforced the disconnect he felt between his grad school work and his professional portfolio: “It was comical. You end up having two portfolios: one for other designers and one for work mode.”
Shift language, shift focus
The language of design for tech may be different from that of design school, but many of the core concepts are the same. Grace Lee recalls, “In school, who we were designing for was taken very seriously. That part of my workflow hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s called a user now, but it’s the same framework and design mindset.” When Morgan Itterly reflects on the design process she learned as a student at SAIC, she realizes she was thinking about the user and performing competitive analysis, but she “didn’t really have the language for it.”
Paying close attention to language can also reveal the differences between a graphic design and a UX design perspective. A typical graphic design case study might present a project as: initial concepts, refinement, final outcome. For designers looking to recast branding projects as UX projects, Morgan recommends shifting the language they use to identify the stages of a project. She suggests presenting a project as: “Problem, solution. Frame the problem and who it’s for, then show the solution and why it works.”
These simple changes in language can help designers radically reorganize their storytelling. They can also surface gaps in a designer’s skill set. Many graphic designers like to focus on the story of the thing that got made, which can come at the expense of methodically laying out the problem, going deep on the user’s perspective, or proving why the design solution was successful. This bias toward making comes from design school, where students learn to value craft, aesthetics, creativity, and personal expression. Meanwhile, business acumen is rarely taught.
Denise Kan, a Visual Designer at thredUP, struggled when she tried to present student work from CCA to potential employers in tech. The work showcased her creativity, but recruiters “were more interested in the stats,” and she couldn’t answer their questions about “how it shipped, how many impressions it had.” Maya Eapen faced a similar challenge when she was applying for internships at tech companies. Her interviewers commended her for the quality of her visual design, but questioned the lack of user research and product testing in her portfolio. They told her that her “design looked aesthetic, but because it wasn’t designed for a user, it wasn’t entirely intentional.” Fortunately, there are many ways to address these knowledge gaps, like taking a course, doing an internship, participating in a mentorship program, or reading up on the subject.
Despite the gaps that the designers I interviewed had to overcome, none of them regretted going to design school. Morgan Itterly is glad she got a well-rounded education rather than specializing early. She explains, “With a broad skill set, I have the ability to specialize in what I want, and I also have the ability to change that later.” In Grace Lee’s experience, “not a lot of UX designers have a trained eye for visuals.” She considers going through a graphic design program to be “our own very unique superpower in the field.” Mukul Chakravarthi credits his graduate education with teaching him to approach the tech industry with criticality and open mindedness.
Maybe one day, I will be at another swanky design event in San Francisco full of not-graphic-designers. I will introduce myself to them and they will tell me they are product designers or content strategists or UX researchers. Maybe they went to design school or have a PhD in Psychology. But regardless of their backgrounds or their titles, I will know that they represent some of the many futures of graphic design practice.