I recently gave a talk during my summer internship at frog about the struggles of being a student trying to break into the design industry and what designers in the industry could do to help us be competitive for design internships and jobs. I shared my perspective as a recent grad who did not attend a traditional design school, but rather, pursued UX and interaction design through the College of Engineering and Information School at the University of Washington.
At the end of this article, I include some calls to action — these are efforts that I believe designers and companies can take to reduce the barriers students often face while trying to land their first design job.
Why does this matter?
The design industry has a diversity issue. Design Week’s careers and salary survey from January 2016, revealed that the design industry is predominantly male and overwhelmingly white, based on responses from over 2,000 respondents in the UK. The solution starts with investing in the pipeline by supporting the growing population of diverse students pursuing careers in design.
So without further ado, here are some of the challenges that students in non-traditional design programs face while trying to break into the industry.
1. Late exposure to design as a career
“Because I don’t go to a traditional design school, there are very few resources on campus to help people explore design” — Kevin C. (rising senior studying design at Columbia)
Many of my classmates pursuing UX have a similar story to mine as to how they found their way into design — somewhat by chance or by process of elimination of other tech-related jobs. They entered college intending to study something completely different and decided to take the introductory computer science class which then sparked an interest in a tech career.
In my case, I enjoyed my first college CS class enough that I was convinced that I’d declare CS as my major and consider a future career in tech. When I met with the CS advisor regarding applying to the competitive CS major, she suggested I also check out two related technical degrees offered at UW: Informatics and Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE).
I had not heard of these majors prior to coming to UW and as a freshman, I had no clue as to what they entailed. There was no introductory course to HCDE at the time. I learned what Informatics was by talking to students already in the major. I had a general interest in pursuing a career in the tech industry but I did not know UX design was a field until I started my major courses in junior year.
What was missing was outreach about careers in design & UX to potential students.
Communities for exposing students to design
I wish I had the opportunity to talk to a designer who worked at a cool company earlier on. Just knowing that UX design was a career option when I was a freshman or sophomore would have helped me focus on exploring that path of interest rather than going the elimination by trial route.
As a young woman who was initially considering computer science, there were a lot of diversity initiatives and resources available to help explore software engineering as a career. I attended quite a few women in tech events and got involved in Girls Who Code as a teaching assistant for two summers, where I learned alongside the high school girls in my class while being immersed at a big tech company.
I really appreciate what Girls Who Code and similar initiatives have to offer and I believe they are necessary initiatives for closing the gender gap in tech. However, I almost felt pressure to stick to pursuing a technical developer role after going through these programs. After hearing about the gender gap in software engineering, I felt some sense of responsibility to help close that gap and be one of the future female software engineers making a change in the industry.
I felt like I was pursuing computer science because I didn’t know there were other types of roles in tech that I would enjoy more. Once I took enough design classes to be able to compare to my experience in coding classes, I realized I enjoyed design significantly more.
I think outreach and diversity initiatives like Girls Who Code should also exist for design. These programs should be accessible at the high school level so that students can not only start exploring their interest in design earlier, but also research college design programs that will support their goals. At the university level, companies with design teams and universities with design majors could do more to get the word out about design as a career option to first and second year students. The value in offering an opportunity to learn about creative roles in tech with a community of people is supporting a more diverse pipeline of talent, which will help address the issue of diversity in the design industry.
2. Gaps in design curriculum
“I wish we learned how to communicate with stakeholders that are often non-existent in school projects.” — Cody R. (Rising senior at Savannah College of Art and Design)
In school, we learn how to design in a vacuum with other design students. In most of my UX-related classes, my professors encouraged us to brainstorm ideas as if the sky were the limit and to not worry about implementation or feasibility since we would not be building out our projects. These types of projects and classes are useful for learning the design process and working on craft, but they don’t teach you how to communicate with key stakeholders such as PMs, engineers, and the client.
Whether the project was implemented, how collaboration with engineers or the PM went, and what the success metrics were are some of the most common questions brought up by interviewers during job interview portfolio presentations. I’m unable to present a lot of my class projects because they aren’t good examples of cross functional collaboration.
Capstone projects, where we are encouraged to have teammates with varied skill sets and strengths and have the opportunity to do an industry sponsored project, are the closest experiences I had in school to having to deal with stakeholder constraints.
Design students should learn how to communicate effectively with engineers, understand how to measure quantitative success metrics, and work with stakeholder constraints (even if they are somewhat contrived) to help prepare for industry.
Starting a student design community
In my last year at UW, some friends and I felt like we needed additional support outside of the classroom to prepare for upcoming design interviews. We started a group called UW DXP (Design, Experience, Product) that had bi-weekly meet ups to do white board challenges, give each other portfolio feedback, work on portfolios together, and talk about all things design.
Having a group of fellow designers to work on interview prep with and support each other as we put our portfolios together helped fill in some of the gaps where our classes could not help.
3. Tech design programs lack corporate ties to the design industry
“It’s hard to find people who are willing to have a continued relationship with our program… we’re unsure how to reach out and begin building those relationships” — Daniel H. (Informatics, University of Washington ‘18)
I don’t wish to make general statements for all tech design programs across universities, but I will speak to my experience as an HCDE and Informatics student at UW.
UW has a design career fair where companies can come to recruit students from the Industrial Design, Interaction Design and Visual Communication Design majors. This career is exclusive to students in those majors due to limited space for attendees. Unfortunately for me and my HCDE/INFO design classmates, this meant we are unable to attend that career fair.
There are two sides to the issue here. On one hand, the university should recognize that programs like Human Centered Design & Engineering and Informatics (Human Computer Interaction track) are design programs. HCDE sits in the College of Engineering and doesn’t have as many corporate ties to the design industry as the Division of Design (made of up the aforementioned three design majors). If HCDE is recognized as a design major, students should be able to access the design career fair.
On the other hand, industry needs to acknowledge that there is talent in tech design programs (such as HCDE and INFO at UW) and should make sure to consider and recruit students from these programs for internships in addition to traditional design schools.
4 . Design internships and entry level roles are few in number and extremely competitive
“I’m actually considering graduate school so that I can access UX design internships” — Jessie Z. (Informatics, University of Washington ‘17)
The “easiest” way to land an entry-level design role at a company is to first get an internship there and get a return offer for a full time role. But landing a design internship in the first place is no easy feat.
Because engineers greatly outnumber designers at most companies, there are generally more software engineering internships out there than design internships. Last summer at Nordstrom, I was the one UX design intern while there were about 40 software engineering interns. In situations where there is only one spot with likely multiple other qualified candidates, it really feels like it comes down to luck.
Internships are great learning opportunities for those who are able to land them, but there are so many qualified candidates that aren’t as lucky. How might we create opportunities to learn more about the design industry for the hundreds of students that are unable to land an internship?
Call to Action = Engage with students
To wrap up, I want to share the most helpful ways I have engaged with designers in industry with the hope that more designers will be willing to volunteer their time to outreach efforts.
Students that don’t come from traditional design schools often lack the network of alumni and rely on online resources and the relationships they can build through social media to get their foot in the door and land that first internship.
If you are a designer in industry, here are some ways you and your company can help student designers —
As an individual/designer in industry:
- Mentor with Out of Office Hours: an initiative to support newcomers to the tech industry where students can sign up to have a 30 minute video chat with designers, engineers, and PMs in industry
- Post on social media about the design culture at your company and what it’s like to be a designer there
- Participate in design career panels hosted by student organizations at a college campus near you
- Respond to LinkedIn messages from students
As a company:
- Sponsor hackathons/designathons
- Host mock interview sessions and portfolio critique
- Sponsor university design capstone projects
- Host design competitions/challenges
- Recruit from non-traditional design programs for internships
The design industry will benefit if more students come out of their design programs ready to hit the ground running and be competitive for entry level roles. Having fresh talent with diverse perspectives in industry will be critical as we start to develop and design complex technologies like AIs, where inherent biases can be linked to teams that are not diverse enough.