What advice would you give a young UX/UI designer that is thinking about joining a small start-up as the only designer? Would you recommend it?
Find a mentor.
Even with a mentor it can be tough. Mentors don’t work alongside you day-to-day.
In any field, there's a difference between someone who is trained and someone who is a professional. A trained person essentially has the necessary skills to do the job. A professional has done the job long enough that those skills are second-nature, and for them the real work is putting those skills to work in a cohesive, efficient, and masterful way.
Working as The Lonely Designer affords you a ton of freedom. You’ll be the one to identify design needs, spot the gaps in your own process, and manage yourself to get everything done. For someone early in their career, that can be too much freedom. You may quickly find yourself wishing for some direction, and a good teammate to fall back on.
Mentors* ...there's more than one view of the world, one person is only one view.
It'll be very demanding, and you won't have the luxury of a lot of ideation time, so often times you have to go with your gut, and polish that idea as much as time allows, but don't obsess over attaining perfection.
People like to see designs in progress and give input, even if it's just "Looks great!" so share as often as you can with your coworkers, but take everyone's feedback with a grain of salt, as always. Push yourself to think better, faster. You'll find yourself gaining speed of execution and (hopefully) confidence as you go.
Regarding feedback, learn to hear the message behind the words, as opposed to the words themselves.
Don't let it (the fast, often thankless, pace) burn you out. Take time away to pursue hobbies. In the beginning stages of a startup, that time is very hard to come by in my experience, let alone time for sleep, so take it where you can get it.
Even if you end up hating the startup lifestyle, at least you'll know, and you can move on to something that suits you better.
Source: I was the only designer at my current job when we were just 8 employees.
I've done this quite a few times as the first/only designer.
(Was employee #2 at Twilio which IPO'ed in Late June, the first design hire at Color after their failed / infamous launch which Apple later acquired and I was the first designer / DIR at Science Inc - which just sold one of it's early investments: Dollar Shave Club for $1B)
I did not have a mentor, but I do suggest you find someone that can lend advice as Joe Blau said - agree there.
Here's my take:
You should do it if you are fast. I don't think you have to have immense experience or be perfect, but I do think you must be fast. Overall, It will be demanding. It'll be downright sucky at times. But, you should do it because unlike another commenter here said - you WILL learn something. You'll learn a lot because you'll have to do a lot and the team is counting on you to do it and do it well. I joined Twilio straight out of school and was a total idiot compared to now. Being new does not mean it can't be done.
There are lots of great tips in this thread (don't obsess on perfection, be prepared to get out of product design at times, learn how to prioritize or at least ask often what is top priority, etc).
- It's just you - if it works you get a lot of credit and unmatched experience.
- You'll learn business which is (IMO) a critical skill to product design.
- You'll make lots of stuff, which is pretty fun. It's fun to make a physical thing (like a biz card or t-shirt or design a booth) and get out of digital sometimes.
- You'll get even faster because you have to.
- You'll be core to the team and there's a strong bond there.
- When it's time to build the team - ideally you get to start doing some really cool next level stuff like hiring and managing (which was also tough but a new and fun thing to learn and do).
- It's just you. If you mess up, there's no team to help shoulder that.
- You have to do everything. It feels like getting pulled in a lot of directions.
- It's usually a LOT LOT LOT of work, if you are very motivated though it won't be so bad.
I can back what he says as he said this to me over the phone many times while working at these places (hint: we're related)
1) Their full stack bro will butcher your designs if you're not doing the frontend.
2) Get used to people with no taste shitting on your genius.
Probably not the answer you want, but, don't do it. I started my career that way, I've seen others. You learn, but at an extremely slower rate than you would with other, more senior designers. Not to mention, the team of non-designers around you drastically respects your decisions less because of your lack of experience. Its not a fun place to be. Obviously if thats the only option, you gotta do what you gotta do. But I'd highly suggest at least finding a startup with another designer. Again, just not a fun place to be with not much experience and no support. You get squeezed, people force you to make poor design decisions. Sure you'll learn business sides of things and some product learning, but if you want to be a better designer, thats a recipe for disaster... or at least just slow, grueling, painful growth.
Agreed. It can be a really rewarding experience, but it's not the optimal way to begin a career. If you have a choice between offers, I would recommend going with the established team first, and getting at least a couple of years of experience before trying a "team of one" gig.
If you only read one sentence from this have it be this one: I 100% agree with Jayson, DO NOT DO IT. If you are going to join a startup, join a well funded, series A or B that has another designer. At least you'll have a team.
The following may be incorrect or wrong but based on my opinion these are very common. May of Jayson's points were 100% correct.
You will be on your own and as a young designer, not having a mentor will make your personal growth really slow down. Being surrounded by people who are better than you makes you better but it's important they are in a field you want to get better at. Designers need other designers around them to get the best growth in my opinion. I've been a solo designer for the last 5 years and feel like I've had to work harder to keep up with my peers.
Jayson's point about "respects your decisions less" is true even if you are a seasoned designer. Engineers/Developers/Coders, whatever flavor of the month title they want will think their ideas are better and fight with you frequently on your decisions.
UX/UI is so much more than graphic design. Many startups decision makers will want to be very active in the process to the point where they might start dictating down to you specific interactions they want because they saw it yesterday on Product Hunt and thought it was cool. You will spend the next 2-3 hours mocking up that concept and find it cant work and have to convince a decision maker on why their "idea" doesn't work with the UX/UI patterns are currently in place.
More on decision makers who are driving vision generally don't know what the vision or are still figuring it out. You will be doing a lot of work! The work will be done fast. A lot of work done fast usually equals less than great UX, not the best visual design, and not enough exploration or ideation. Your portfolio may not get filled with visually inspired and impressive work. I could easily get filled with mediocre work that never saw the light of day and in my case didn't leave me feeling truly proud.
To follow up with Jayson's last point "you'll learn business sides of things..." is my experience at every company I've worked at where I was a solo designer. At this point, I'm transitioning my career more towards front-end because I've become so frustrated with not being able to own design because the environments and team personalities. The places I've worked have not enabled me to get the final say on a visual style, UX, or implementation of a solution. Its become more design by committee and I've tried numerous times to change that. Due to time constraints, product uncertainty, etc. the workflow fall back to or become more based on what developers can build in short time frames than what is right for the end user. It has become more based on what the business development guy has been promising than what the end user needs.
That being said, if you like making power points, business cards and updating landing page designs for a startup, this might be good for you! You'll also most likely be under paid salary because your "lucky to work for a startup and the environment is cool!" The amount of equity they give you will to offset the under market rate be minimal at best.
Being a younger & inexperienced designer, your voice may not hold much weight when product decisions are made. The people you work with may relegated you to UI/visual/marketing design work if they are not knowledgeable about the design field. It will be up to you to find out how to communicate and commandeer these situations should they arise.
I was in the same boat as you when I was younger (sans UX), and I would recommend you do it if you are okay with taking the risk of it being a potential shitty work process. After all, what doesn't kill you[r career] only makes you stronger for your future jobs!
Don't do it. Young Designer + Only Designer + Start Up = abuse.
Young designers should have bosses and co-workers. While I haven't been the only designer, I've been the only developer and its tough. When its a 1-person team to create, cultivate, defend and persuade others in design it becomes a very tiring and trying exercise in futility.
The opposite is that its awesome. But if it were awesome I'd imagine they wouldn't have one designer, and wouldn't be hiring a Junior to be the only designer.
"Don't do it. Young Designer + Only Designer + Start Up = abuse." I've seen this too many times.
Read a book on negotiation, and one on rhetoric.
ha!!!! This is the best !!!!
I would recommend it. But be prepared to do a wide range of tasks, not all of your time will be spent on product design. There will be many other things that will need designing, the CEOs pitch deck, marketing material, internal communication, t-Shirts, all sort of things.
Also you'll probably have to do things at a faster pace than if you were a member of a lager team, so youll need to get good at prioritising the most important things, as some things will have to be done later.
One more thing, meet up with other designers regularly to discuss and critique things, and if possible convince your COO to hire in consultants occasionally so you can still learn from others and share ideas.
Yes, just do it. There is no better learning than that :)
I joined fab.com on day one as intern, in 3 years grew to lead whole design team. Worked in New York, Berlin and India. You will always be asked to do new stuff which at times you might not have any idea about, never get scared, take help from internet and mentors, its way more fun
Don't say yes to everything, have the courage to say no to requests that seem illogical, and start with "why." It's going to be a whirlwind, they might see you as the end station that simply puts other's ideas into shape and color. Earn your place as one of the decision makers. Deadlines come to life by promises made by other people, without checking with you first if it's doable. Good luck!
Some commenters are taking context into account, but let's talk about it directly: what are your career options?
I see you're in NYC, which hosts many companies of different sizes, structures, norms, and projects. Woot! That area is relatively amenable to junior designers, and if you have your pick of several career options, I'd recommend an early jr. Designer run with a bigger company (more instruction, clearer paths to grow) and more mature jr. designer take on the smaller company/solo designer for a start-up route (forces you strengthen your development skills, which you'll be in a better position to do if you really have your fundamentals down. Not perfect, but down).
However... if this start-up is your only option, or were you in Little Rock, AR where there are few opportunities open to jr. designers, I'd recommend you take this position on the condition that a thorough investigation of the company and its people raises no red flags. If the choice you face is working at a start-up known to destroy designers versus working at a low-paying job and having freelance stuff on the side to up your skills, take the second option (your skills are more likely to improve, and you're less likely to face serious health issues).
Last note - on mentors: Like others have said, find several mentors, not just one. Recognize the relationships you have with them are largely dependent on your interest in growth and ability to organize your communicable goals, though they're even more dependent on how much time each mentor has to spare. If you can, ask people who have 1 or 2 years more experience than you for mentorship since they'll be more intimately familiar with the problems you're facing.
Don't do it. You need to work with and learn from other designers who are better than yourself. It will help you with presentation, technical ability and design thinking skills. The last thing you want to be doing is defending work alone to people who wont understand where your headed because they don't understand design process. You need other designers to show you the way as well as back you up.
I did this! I recommend it, and wrote about what I'd wish I knew before I started: https://medium.com/@extremelyn/be-the-first-designer-at-a-start-up-60b0984b1e5d#.ksvofvk1h
tl;dr you'll learn a lot, but you if you prefer guidance to thrive or dislike uncertainty, don't do it!
You will be exposed to a wide range of tasks and most likely have a lot of freedom when it comes to making design decisions for the team (also depending on how involved is the rest of the team when it comes to design). It means that you will have the opportunities to learn things outside of one design discipline.
What I struggled with as the only designer in a startup is the lack of structure and support. Structure is something that you can define for yourself and the rest of the team you are working with. It does take time to get to a good balance of quality work vs the quantity of the design output.
The support aspect is probably the most challenging part and it's indeed frustrating to be the only designer at times. Not only you will be swarmed with many tasks being the only designer, you also don't have another design resource (designer) available to help you grow professionally. This is where you should seek outside mentorships or to go design events to make sure you are progressing.
In sum, I would personally recommend joining a startup as the only designer because I believe it's rewarding in different ways. If the startup is projected to grow fast, you'll actually be in a more position where you get to help build a team and that is an unique experience to acquire.
The answer depends greatly on the type of startup it is - what they are creating/doing. Some random thoughts:
A: If it's a company where design is paramount to the success of the product, it can be a very smart choice (see Aubrey's CV for example). More and more startups are trying to differentiate themselves with not just something that looks good - but also has the type of user experience that promotes use/engagement.
B: If it's a company with a more efficiency/business/tech play, more often than not design is not a priority when push comes to shove - no matter how much they say it matters. These startups are driven by tech/results/sales more than how amazing it looks. Prepare to be frustrated when having to turn out inferior MVP designs and office politics. In many cases, companies like this are VERY engineering driven... so make sure you meet the head of that group and feel him/her out. No matter how awesome your stuff is... if their agenda/care/passion/focus doesn't align with yours (or what the CEO is telling you)... be very wary.
C: What is the supporting cast? What companies have they worked for previously? Is there a culture/spirit there that you can get behind? Culture means so much... because you will hate your job at one point or another.... you will be pissed off that some of your design ideas will be cast aside... etc. BUT, if everyone really believes in the product, the company, etc... even in those down-times... you need a solid lunch buddy or a friendly face to chat with about non-work bullshit. Most importantly - do they take care of their people there (happy hours, occasional free pizza lunches, flexible work schedules, etc).
D: Is there a benefit to YOU. I've joined companies in the past because the work I would be doing helped expand my skill set. If there is an awesome opportunity to get your hands dirty doing something new that excites you (example: the opportunity to design a mobile app when you've never done one before) - it can sometimes be worth taking a "hit" in the short run to boost your "long term" marketability for future gigs. Think about where you want to be in 5 years and see if this company would be a solid stepping stone to you getting there.
If the rest of the TEAM is good people - go for it. If you're the only designer AND you wouldn't want to hang out with anyone on the team over the weekend, DON'T DO IT. Team culture FAR outweighs the burden of being the only designer. Do what you love with people you love. Or do what you have to do (even if you don't want to) with people you love.
Just work and learn :)
Should a company have someone learning on the job as their first hire in a team?
Nice point, and why not? Depending on the motivation of the designer hired. Sometimes big challenge leads to great personal success (and in the company). Your thought?
Would you hire a dev working on the job or an accountant that was still learning while your company is at such a crucial point?
My advice to contrast the rest, since I lot have talked about a bunch of major issues is to watch out for the talkers. The Startups/Entrepreneurs scene everywhere, including NYC, is filled with a bunch of people that talk how to run a startup but never give you any meat and real facts nor help. Your mission, among a lot of other things, is to find the /real/ people that want to help, teach and share with you. And remember all these random points... Get many perspectives. Go out and experience the real world. Draw from experiences. Don't be afraid to ask. Challenge yourself. Know your weaknesses the surround yourself with those who compliment you. (PS - I'm in Brooklyn if you ever want to chat, feel free to reach out.)
Ask for equity...even if it's a small amount. Working for a startup is a gamble. You should be able to reap the reward for your risk just like everyone else.
A startup is on a quest for product-market fit. You (and the founders) don't know if the business will work yet, so it's important to validate your ideas early and often.
Talk to as many customers, as often as you can. Test your designs with them, even if they are super-rough.
I'd agree with lots of the other points here about following your Gut and finding a mentor.
One thing I'd add is to make sure to listen. You'll be a part of a small, dynamic team who are embedded deep in the details of the problem you're trying to solve every day. Your peers, your CEO and your own intuition will be giving you certain types of feedback - it's how all companies are - but those are not the most important places to go to find answers when you're designing a product.
Make sure to break out of your comfort zone whenever you can to meet with and listen to the people who are trying out and using your work. Put yourself out there, don't just design from behind your desk. Understanding and empathising with the user point of view, their tools, their thoughts and frustrations will guide your work better than any internal team processes or workflows ever will.