All original artwork in this post is done by Samuel Ong Sze Hern!
Product designers must be versatile. On top of their creative strengths, they must have an understanding of the businesses they are in and the technical challenges that are unique to their product. This has always been true, but a handful of new standards have forced designers to evolve.
There used to be a barrier to entry. Now anyone can learn how to code online for free, and download excellent user interface kits (e.g. Bootstrap) to prototype an app. Being a rockstar just isn’t as difficult as it used to be.
All product designers solve business problems. Some are passionate about the industry, some are more creative. It’s a spectrum really, but the genus is easier to understand if we separate ourselves into three distinct species.
Learn to code
There is backend engineering, there is front-end engineering, and then there are markup and styles. Designers should learn markup and styles—HTML to code out an interface, and CSS to style that interface.
HTML and CSS are a subset of front-end engineering. Knowing these two languages (with a touch of jQuery to prototype interactions) empowers designers to craft their work all the way from the whiteboard to production.
These languages don’t require the same level of aptitude as programming. It just takes time to internalize the syntax of these languages and understand how they function. It is a matter of discipline, rather than aptitude.
Watch Lynda.com video courses to gain exposure to the syntax, feel, and purpose of each language. Experiment with Codecademy exercises to gain hands-on experience. Read books to add structure to what you’ve learned, and work on ambitious projects to reinforce that knowledge.
This last step is most important. You can do all the Codecademy courses you want, but spend the bulk of your time on your own projects. A great project will push you far outside of your comfort zone. You’ll learn the techniques and tricks you need to achieve your goals. That’s when you start growing.
Lastly, it’s important to drill the syntax of each language. Get the keystrokes into your muscle memory. You must be able to iterate on a design as you code. This means coding has to be something you can do without thinking.
Understand the business
No matter how much creative work you do, you have to think like an entrepreneur. Prioritize every task that enters your queue without mercy, always look for new ways to create leverage, and scope features down to a project you can ship in under two weeks.
This isn’t enough though. In addition to startup thinking, you have to acquire actual business knowledge. I remember when I first started working in tech, I would hear acronyms like ROI and SMB and they would make my head spin.
Ask questions. No one will fault you if the environment is healthy. If anyone shoots you down for asking a question in earnest, quit that day. You’re taking a pay cut to fulfill the vision of the founders. They should appreciate the risk you’re taking to build their company, and invest in you.
Even with startup thinking and business terminology, you still need to learn your industry. This might be legal, financial, or even tax-related expertise. There are so many esoteric, niche industries out there, you should expect a learning curve that is specific to your industry.
Craft the brand
Every startup needs to solve a problem, or it won’t survive. The way a startup solves this unique problem is expressed through branding.
Some brands are more serious, while some are more playful. Good branding communicates the values and strengths of an organization. Design informs branding through site design, case studies, slide decks, and merchandise.
Merchandise cultivates a vibrant culture inside the company. Employees want to show off their pride with t-shirts, hats, water bottles, mugs, stickers, and buttons. All of these trinkets are made possible through graphic design.
Deflect that asteroid
Whether you’re unemployed, or your startup faces extinction, having a diversified skill set increases your chances of survival in the startup world. Early-stage employees must excel in different areas to survive, but it’s also important for designers at later-stage companies to stand out.
You might possess one of these strengths, or be a super dino with all of them. Sketch, Bootstrap and other innovations make design easier than ever. Product designers have to up their game. Now go get skilled.
Thanks to James Seely.