Ask DN: I can't move past amateur. How do I effectively teach myself product design?

over 5 years ago from

I'm currently working a 9-5, and I try to dedicate the majority of my free time to reading, researching, sketching, designing, but am not making much progress. I'm hoping at some point down the road to transition to a career in product design -- I truly enjoy it.

I've read all of the most commonly suggested books on product design, follow the works of many talented designers, and have "designed" many products myself, but I'm not seeing any progress. I feel I'm missing some huge components -- frameworks of thought, education in graphic design history, developing the right level of discretion -- and more and more I feel I can't really go far without having a formal design education, or at least years of work experience in a design role. And yet, I see many of these young and super talented product designers who've not been formally educated, and I question whether I'm cut out for this. I hope I am.

How do I get better at this? How do I lay solid groundwork for myself to build upon? Are there any step-by-step courses or books you recommend? Are there other design fields I should invest heavily in learning (e.g. graphic design & history)? Is there a curriculum I can follow? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.


  • Jordan KoscheiJordan Koschei, over 5 years ago

    Hi John!

    Great question. I don't have a complete answer, but I do have some thoughts.

    First, it's possible that you're better than you think. The more you learn, the more you realize you still need to learn – that's true at any stage, not just when you're an amateur. I think most of us have experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point, so make sure you're not being too hard on yourself.

    There are plenty of designers (probably most of us) that don't have a background in design history and couldn't name the difference between Bauhaus and Neofuturism. (I'm one of them). You can't read your way into being a good designer – you just have to keep doing.

    Keep designing things. Show them to as many people as possible and gather feedback. Use tools like [Five Second Test](fivesecondtest.com) to get your work in front of strangers. Don't know how to code? Build prototypes in InVision or Keynote and see how your designs work while wired together.

    All the while, you can be building up a portfolio. Use it to demonstrate your thought process, not just the final product – lots of designers can make pretty pictures, but far fewer can defend their choices.

    I suspect you're a much better designer than you think you are. You're certainly asking the right questions, and it's obvious you're hungry for knowledge. Keep engaging with the community, here and on Twitter, and I'm sure an opportunity will come up.



    31 points
    • John Mason, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Jordan; it's sincerely appreciated, as are all of the other wonderful comments. Since yours is the highest voted and similar to the others in message, I'm going to respond to them all here.

      I fully understand and agree with the need to just keep building products, and I definitely intend on doing so. My concern is that maybe I don't know how to build products properly, that I'm going about it the wrong way, which is why I asked for resources that could perhaps help me build my own framework. I'm not asking for a manual on how to be Picasso, but rather a guide to learn the process (a la "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"), if there is one. I often worry about whether I'm asking the right questions, or if my designs are addressing the right issues, etc. I know these are skills you hone and refine with practice, but I feel I don't even have a starting point from which to improve. I do come from a science-heavy background where flowcharts and diagrams rule, so maybe I'm just feeling discomfort in a new field that isn't as rigorous as I'm expecting it to be.

      4 points
      • Chantal JandardChantal Jandard, over 5 years ago

        Hi Jason,

        So I come from a Psychology background, so I can relate to the, "but what are the rules?" feeling. It was really stressful for me as well.

        For how to build products, I recommend "Lean UX". It gives a great framework on how to make sure you're solving the right problem, how to research, how to decide which features are important, etc.

        For type, "Thinking about Type" was great for introducing the basic rules.

        For layout, I liked "Making or Breaking the Grid".

        For general visual look and feel... That got a bit trickier. But what I'm doing right now is drawing things in the style of illustrators I like. I use their stylist choices as my constraints. By doing many images in many styles and exploring what choices others have made, you'll get a sense of the options available to you, pros + cons of each, etc.

        Hope this helps! It gets easier. :)

        3 points
      • Benjamin KowalskiBenjamin Kowalski, over 5 years ago

        Making more products is definitely good advice, however making without any kind of feedback/validation is not worth it. You need to find a mentor you respect, or a group of other designers you respect, people who have time to look, listen to your rationale, and give executable feedback on a regular basis.

        Also, I personally do believe you need to learn graphic design if you want to be a better designer. Graphic design handles the roots of typography, grid, layout, communication techniques, and so much more. You'll only ever be as good as what you can know from the web if you continue on your current path. However, if you look to the past, learn from design history, you'll definitely progress. It's hard to listen to someone else tell you not to do that when they themselves have not done it.

        I've been educated formally in design/art/history and wouldn't trade that back for the world. I'm a more well-rounded holistic thinker because of it.

        Visually you'll get better if you learn more about why typography works the way it does across all medium. Same goes with color, scale, texture, hierarchy, etc.

        Redesigning other ideas, or making up your own will only get you so far, which it sounds like you've reached that point. Work to round out your education, graphic design is the best place to start. http://www.designersandbooks.com/ There is a great number of book lists on that site, of which many are fantastic.

        Best of luck with your continued education. Don't get caught up on dribbble, most of that work is shown without context and is rarely executed upon.

        2 points
  • Julian LloydJulian Lloyd, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    Hi John,

    "Are there any step-by-step courses or books you recommend?…Is there a curriculum I can follow?"

    You’ve given yourself away.

    I fervently believe in self teaching, particularly with something as mystical as creativity—but before I say more, let me first just say that every time I’ve hit a wall with any discipline, it always precedes a breakthrough.

    Also on a more personal note, you don’t ever need to waste time worrying over thoughts like these:

    "And yet, I see many of these young and super talented product designers who've not been formally educated, and I question whether I'm cut out for this. I hope I am."

    There’s little use in comparing yourself to others, and at the end of the day you said it yourself… you enjoy it. Don‘t doubt yourself or quit, just keep practicing. Favor progress over perfection, and let time well spent manifest itself.

    A little nudge…

    The beautiful gift of vision, for a price. Yin yang. When we create, we also cast a shadow between our inspiration and manifestation. It’s this shadow that blinds and confuses us, misdirecting our energy towards the mighty and illusory perfection.

    I have a suspicion that we will all chase perfection until we understand the beauty in our work as raw, imperfect and a part of our greater creative narrative.

    It’s up to you to simultaneously develop your own style and taste, alongside a skill set you actively grow.

    If you want to do product design, there’s probably something nagging you that you feel particularly weak at—maybe it’s JavaScript stopping you from making prototypes, or maybe it’s Sketch and creating high-fidelity UI styles. Perhaps it’s a better process, or maybe understanding color and typography.

    This target practice never stops. Hone your blade; there is no curriculum, and don’t worry too much how other designers slice it.

    I believe as you approach mastery, your targets will become experimental, and you will begin to define yourself as an artist. But alas, the path is beautiful, treacherous, and lifelong…



    Do It

    9 points
  • Joe Blau, over 5 years ago
    1. Build a product.
    2. Try and get people to use the product.
    3. Listen to people when they critique your product.
    8 points
  • Ali Rushdan TariqAli Rushdan Tariq, over 5 years ago

    Great answer by Jordan. John, as someone who is more or less in your shoes, I'm going to offer some thoughts too. I apologize if some sound presumptuous, but I'm not fully aware of where you stand so I've had to make some broader assumptions based on my own experiences (which I still go through).

    1/ You mention that after working really hard you don't seem to be seeing any progress. I would have to ask: how do you know? What is your definition of progress and what are you measuring your progression against? If you don't have a strong and measurable answer to this then you will never really know how well you're doing, and in the presence of uncertainty, doubt will take hold. In my case, I had this constant doubt that I wasn't a finisher. I had scores of half-finished or barely-started projects that I never saw through. At the beginning of this year, I set myself a goal to ship something new every month for 12 months. 8 months in, and I've created something new every month, except one. Qualitatively I'm still not sure whether I've improved, but quantitatively, I'm happy with my progression. This is enough for me, for now. I can't remember where I read this line, but to paraphrase, the only measure of progress you should be comparing yourself to is the version of yourself from yesterday.

    2/ Another thought regarding why you may not feel like you're progressing is that of the Sausage Factory Effect. As a budding product designer, you're privy to the messy insides of what it takes to be a good designer. It takes a lot of work, most of which can go unnoticed and unappreciated by the untrained eye. On the other hand, it's easy to see the final products and works of people on DN, Dribbble, and a host of other similar sites and compare your messy insides to their beautiful outsides. This, of course, hardly ends up jiving well with one's self-esteem. There will always be an influx of talented young designers who may or may not have a storied background (most of the time we'll never really know). My solution to this? I choose not to bother with those platforms beyond perhaps a couple of visits a month. Rather than getting inspired by the awesome designs on them (and risk losing my own design voice), I find myself feeling quite dejected. But that's just me.

    3/ Back to measuring progress, know your goals. Getting better at design should mean that you're getting better at solving problems, not that your design artifacts are looking like others'. Just because your rooms aren't being filled with colourful post-its or your prototypes don't have fancy UI animations or you're not seeing 20% increases in conversion rates because of some colour choices, doesn't mean you're less of a designer than others. Don't lose sight of the big picture.

    4/ Seek feedback. Feedback is the only way you can objectively know you need to course-correct. The feedback could either come from user analytics that you setup on your sites/apps, qualitative feedback from users of your products, or from other designers in your network whom you respect and trust. And remember, as Neil Gaiman says: "when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

    5/ And if you do feel that a foundational course on some particular skillset could help, by all means do it. There are a ton of resources out there in all price brackets, and as designers, we all should continue to invest in ourselves. I'm sure everyone on DN could recommend at least one resource to check out.

    Above all, as Jordan mentions, don't be too hard on yourself. It may well be that you're in fact a much better designer than you credit yourself for.

    7 points
  • Matt WalkerMatt Walker, over 5 years ago

    What everyone has said is solid. I'll leave you with something that pushed me when I was younger and still does to this day.

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

    ― Ira Glass

    The Gap by Ira Glass

    6 points
  • Bryn JacksonBryn Jackson, over 5 years ago

    I don't by any means think I'm a great designer, but I know that I've grown most when I built things and put them out in public. Whether or not they were actual products or just images I wanted to make. Putting them out in public garnered feedback and constructive criticism that helped me change the way I think and improve over time. I've also been lucky to get to know some really awesome designers and have learned a ton from them. Reaching out to people you look up to is vastly underrated.

    6 points
  • Jacob TaylorJacob Taylor, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    I can't really speak to all of your concerns, but this one I find very important:

    education in graphic design history

    I do have a formal design education, and would say I am reasonably knowledgable about graphic design history. And when I look at the work of designers who do not have that awareness of history, it is painfully obvious to me.

    It is important to know why things are the way they are, and why some solutions naturally make more sense than others.

    Design history is incredibly important to being the best designer you can be.

    P.S. To address the basic thrust of your post - If you can do some kind of formal education, whether part time, or a short course, do it. Working with a teacher or instructor will give you a level of real time feedback that just can't be matched online.

    It will also offer you a better opportunity for networking, which is very important for landing a job.

    3 points
  • Aaron Lloyd WhitmoreAaron Lloyd Whitmore, over 5 years ago

    Greatly appreciate the courage to post this question for discussion, as I too have been struggling with what appears to be a lack of progress.

    The responses from Jordan, Bryan and Ali are great!

    The only thing I can hope to add, is that learning "Design" is somewhat akin to physical exercise. At some point you are going to plateau. Or at least what appears to be...

    For me, mixing it up by trying different types of Design outside software UX/UI proved beneficial. For example...

    • Interior Design: reorganizing and decorating different areas of my home.
    • Hand Lettering: studying the work of Sean Wes and Jessica Hische which in turn improved my understanding of Typography.
    • Motion Graphics: specifically Title Sequences in movies, which helped me think differently about UI interactions and typography, to create mood.

    For the past month, I have been working on figure drawing in my free time. Not sure where it will lead me, but my hope is that it will improve my understanding of organic objects and strengthen my confidence to sketch on physical paper. Kind of nice to draw something other than blocky wireframe thumbnails.

    For me, the more I focused on elements of Design outside of my software UX/UI bubble. The more I was able to bring back into my daily work.

    3 points
  • Michal CsanakyMichal Csanaky, over 5 years ago

    It's simple—build a product and ship it to users.

    Not even 100 books on colour theory will teach you as much as if you change the CTA colour on a live product used by many. You don't even have to write a line of code these days, just search github—many cool projects need some design work—get in touch with similarly ambitious dev. Or start your own project from scratch—there are plenty of no-coding-required solutions these days. The main thing is—design a real thing.

    Good luck

    3 points
  • joe andersonjoe anderson, over 5 years ago

    Build something you're interested in and live user test it. You will see patterns that are very good to use and learn about what is flawed in your thinking.

    2 points
  • Cihad TurhanCihad Turhan, over 5 years ago

    Very short answer: It seems so but you're doing. If you read, learn, experiment new and different things, your every action adds new values and experiences.

    2 points
  • Bevan StephensBevan Stephens, over 5 years ago

    Hi John

    I got into design with no education or experience 10 years ago. The thing that helped me more than any online course, book etc... was doing an internship at a great design agency. It was hard, and they didn't pay much but for me it was the best way to learn some of the more theoretical areas of design that you mention (as well as a load of practical stuff too).

    So, surround yourself with great people and you will learn a lot :-)

    1 point
  • Lucas ColussoLucas Colusso, over 5 years ago

    Do you work with other designers or alone?

    1 point
  • Daniel De LaneyDaniel De Laney, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    Good news—you become a fully qualified product designer the moment you design a product. There is no official body overseeing your work or its results. None of those Medium articles entitled You’re Not a Real Designer Until You Master These Twelve Arbitrary Skills carry any authority. Nobody’s going to chop your head off if you can’t explain progressive disclosure or identify a ball terminal.

    If you want to get better at product design, I have even more good news. People have been designing things for a long time, and there’s a sizable literature on design, as well as “folk knowledge”, or oral tradition. Just about any design problem you might encounter can be informed by past solutions.

    To know where to start, look at the products you’ve designed. How well did they perform? Were the users able to achieve their goals? Did they have a positive experience? If not, why not? Once you identify a problem, you’ll know what you need to study. You could just blindly read everything there is, but that’s entertainment, not problem-solving.

    With that said, here are a few books on a wide variety of design topics which I enjoyed, and apply to most or all of the projects I work on:

    If you want to become more conversant in everyday design language, engage with the community. Keep hanging out here. Head over to the UX Stack Exchange and participate. Find design meetups in your area, and share work with people. Hit me up at hello@danieldelaney.net anytime—if you’re looking for a good book on a particular sub-discipline, if you want to share what you’re working on to get another pair of eyes on it, whatever.

    0 points
  • Jorn van Dijk, over 5 years ago

    Keep making things. And then make more things. And more.

    PS: When in doubt? Make.

    0 points
  • Rahul Srivastava, over 5 years ago

    Hi John,

    I hope this might help you to get started.

    First, to become a good designer you need to be a good observer. Design is the experience which one's feel when they use the products, it can be good or bad experience. But when you closely observes your daily life products you'll find that there are some products which amazes you and some which make you think that something is wrong in that. So keep observing. Because by doing this practise continuously, soon you'll realize about the elements which are effecting your experience and when you dig deeply into it you'll find your own solution for it. This is how you'll get into the habit of realizing the problems around you and then what could be the possible solution for it. These our just the mental exercises which help you to get into the track of product designing.

    So start your exercise from tomorrow, when you wake up in the morning till you get into the bed at night. Observe all the products carefully you come across suppose your shower, toaster, mobile, car, office elevator, etc.

    Do let me know if it works for you... :)

    0 points
  • yang xiaodong, over 5 years ago


    0 points
  • leon king, over 5 years ago
    0 points
  • Sam Pierce LollaSam Pierce Lolla, over 5 years ago

    There are no good books for this yet, so the best thing to do is put yourself in a position where 1) you have to repeatedly perform and 2) where more experienced people will mentor you. It's pretty much to only way to get really good.

    The way to do that is to earn the respect and interest of people who hire designers and explicitly, repeatedly ask for a job.

    And the way to earn their interest is to dedicate yourself fully to a project and share it with a design community. Your demonstrated skill will be secondary to your potential, intelligence, and energy, so showcase those without holding much back.

    Good luck!

    0 points