A Guide to becoming a Product Designer - Part I

Learning efficiently

by Gavin Johns

In the following series of posts, I will lay out my personal experience and suggestions for transitioning careers into digital Product Design. The intended audience are designers in any other discipline.

Before we begin let me tell you why I’m writing this: there is a shortage of designers in technology. The ability to think like a designer is highly valued and currently underrepresented in the tech industry.

It’s important for designers with different backgrounds enter the digital Product Design discipline. There’s a tendency for tech industry design to become an echo chamber that reinforce current trends. If more diverse design backgrounds transition into software, our digital products will become even more interesting and culturally relevant. This is why I want to lower your learning curve and lay out a plan to transition into Product Design.

It took me about 5 months from start to finish to learn and build a body of work to get my first full-time job as a designer in tech.


With that out of the way, let’s begin learning efficiently. This post will go over four main things you should find to start off:

  1. Community
  2. Focus
  3. Mentorship
  4. Reading list

Everyone learns differently and at their own pace, but I suggest that you learn with a sense of urgency. I decided to immerse myself, quitting my job and working my ass off as efficiently as possible. The goal is to learn efficiently, not fail quickly. So do whatever you need to do in order to retain knowledge. For me it was to:

“Create as much as possible; as fast as possible; everyday.”

Here are the steps that I followed and should help you learn efficiently:

1. Find community

  • Find a Meetup you find interesting
  • Commit to going to the next meeting
  • Go

Find a network of people that will help you learn and accelerate your transition. Here are a few types of networks that you should explore:


  • Meetups are social gatherings of professionals that are truly passionate about what they’re doing. The energy is infectious and will get you really excited!
  • Meetup.com (There are thousands of meetups everyday — it’s the goto resource for getting out there and meeting people.)
  • Designers & Geeks (Amazing speakers, but doesn’t happen that often)
  • Architechie (A meetup that friends and I created in San Francisco. It’s geared toward architects interested in becoming designers in the tech industry. We accept non-architects too!)

MOOCs (massive online open courses)

MOOCs are a great way to get an introduction to specific skill-sets within product design. You’ll get a grasp on what people find important and pick up broad concepts.

  • Hackdesign.org (A ton of different lessons and resources for beginners.)
  • Udacity.com (Really great Product Design course created by Google — will highlight the basics and lay foundation for building a portfolio.)
  • Udemy.com (Super broad scope.)
  • Coursera.org (Super broad scope.)

Online bootcamps

  • Designlab (Great online bootcamp — start here.)
  • Bloc (Haven’t participated, but looks interesting.)
  • Zurb University (A little more corporate feeling, but a good resource.)

In-person bootcamps (San Francisco)

I joined a startup school & agency called Tradecraft. Any other “bootcamp” is worth considering as well. This obviously isn’t a requirement, but it allowed me to learn faster than learning solely on my own. Research your own city and see if something shows up.

  • Tradecraft (Competitive admission & full-time.)
  • General Assembly (I recommend their part-time courses over full-time.)

2. Focus on a role

  1. Search UX and Product Designer job postings
  2. Focus on UX Design or Product Design
  3. Write down common skills required for that role
  4. Focus on one skill
  5. Buy one book from the Reading List on that skill

Let’s list a few of the current design roles within a startup or tech company:

UX Designer, UI Designer, UX+UI Designer, Visual Designer, UX Engineer, User Researcher, Motion Designer, Interaction Designer, Information Architect, Product Designer.

What the hell is the difference between all of these?

This is a somewhat contentious topic since there is significant overlap among all of these roles. Also, depending on the size, age, and type of company, they will have different definitions and responsibilities. The three roles that are most ubiquitous are:

UX Designer (First half)

Focuses on task flows and high level design decisions. concept, interaction flow, technology, interface, user research.

Visual Designer (Second half)

Focuses on the finished aesthetic. graphic design, grid system, typography, style guides, dribbble, brand.

Product Designer (Whole)

You can’t be a product designer without being a UX and Visual Designer first. The product designer focuses on high level and detail of the design (More of a generalist.) Here’s a good definition of Product Design. Hybrid of all the roles, development, PM, innovator, prototype and execute, sometimes required to script. I’m focusing on this since it’s where the industry is going.

3. Find a mentor.

  1. Find someone with the role you want through meetup or friends
  2. Offer to buy them coffee to talk about what they do
  3. Repeat in two weeks

Finding a mentor will allow you to:

  • Have a sounding board
  • Get a feel for the role you want
  • Guide your decisions as you develop your career

Make sure your mentor has the role that you want to be in next. Your mentor shouldn’t have 10 years experience (namely because you want someone who has relevant experience to help you in the near term).

There are so many ways to find a mentor:

  • through friends (The best and preferred method.)
  • LinkedIn
  • Weave
  • Meetups

Reaching out There’s an art to reaching out to someone you don’t know and asking for their help. Contact multiples, have an ask, follow up, etc.

Follow up and keep them informed. Don’t let it go by the wayside.

Reading list:

  1. Pick up that book you bought and read
  2. Open usepanda.com and read at least one article a day

Tech Industry

  1. Pmarca Blog Archive (My absolute favorite reading to get into the tech industry mindset. A must read for anyone interested in Silicon Valley startup culture.)
  2. Zero to One (Great thought-piece to get into the tech industry mindset despite his current political leanings.)
  3. Rework (A contrarian view to Zero to One.)

Design Process

  1. UX for Lean Startups (Funny, concise, and practical. This lays out a great process to follow while you develop your own methodology.)
  2. The Design of Everyday Things (Written a while ago, but it’s a great way to get into the product design mindset.)
  3. Designing for the Digital Age (This 600+ page door stop is super comprehensive. Don’t read it cover to cover, but have it as a reference.)

User Experience

  1. The Elements of User Experience
  2. The User Experience Team of One
  3. UX Strategy

User Interface

  1. Don’t Make Me Think (Classic and required reading)
  2. Interdisciplinary Interaction Design (Another 600+ page door stop that’s super comprehensive. Don’t read it cover to cover, but also have it as a reference.)
  3. About Face (Another 600+page door stop that’s super comprehensive. Don’t read it cover to cover, but also have it as a reference.)

Visual Design

Visual design is probably the most difficult skill to build if you don’t already have it. That said, it’s totally doable — but requires understanding graphic design fundamentals and new trends. These are some good starting points:

  1. Design, Form, and Chaos (Very basic design methodologies.)
  2. ITTEN: The Elements of Color (Very old, but thorough guide to designing with color.)
  3. Typography: Macro and Microaesthetics (Nitty gritty details.)

Information Architecture

  1. How to Make Sense of Any Mess (Good intro to IA.)
  2. A Practical Guide to Information Architecture (Good intro to IA.)
  3. Card Sorting (Designing Usable Categories)

User Research

  1. Rocket Surgery Made Easy (Essential first read for usability testing.)
  2. Just Enough Research (Just enough reading too.)
  3. Quantifying the User Experience (Practical statistics for user research — discusses metrics & …)

Daily news & inspirational sources

It’s important to stay up-to-date with news and trends regarding your new discipline!

  1. usepanda.com (collection of several dozen sources in a dashboard)
  2. muz.li (Similar to userpanda dashboard — with slightly different sources.)
  3. Designer News (Good source of news, and included in both of the dashboards mentioned above.)

Other reading lists:

  1. InVision (This is a great reading list with a few duplicates from mine.)
  2. WashU (Mainly a visual design reading list. Gets very granular.)

Follow me and check back in next week! I’ll be posting Part 2: Designing a product.