It's been five years now since I finished grad school, transitioning from a career in academic (psychology) research to user experience and product design. I’ve been chatting a lot recently to people making career changes to UX, so this is the first article in a series on launching your career. I’m assuming you are already coming with some background in UX-- a course at General Assembly or a graduate program-- and you’re wondering what’s next.
One of the keys to producing great work is to produce a lot of work. In order to produce a lot of work, you have to work quickly, which means being comfortable with your tools. This is easy to do, but tedious and the payoff seems unclear. Your tools are your method of expressing your ideas. If you can’t use your tools, you can’t express your ideas and you can’t make cool stuff. Even in intern-level candidates, I’m looking for some evidence of basic proficiency with a professional design tool. Good ideas are the most important thing, but ideas are worthless if you can’t execute on them.
Develop expertise in the Adobe programs at a minimum - Photoshop or Illustrator (ideally, both). Tutorials on Lynda.com are a great first step. My one critique with those is that the design projects are often less than engaging — you are creating things that feel rather dated. If you need a little eye candy, you can switch to Skillshare but the content is less comprehensive. (The instruction is also a mixed bag, but they’ve switched to a very inexpensive plan model so try a few things until you find a class you like.) Dedicate yourself, even to the seemingly useless things you think you’ll never use. The more skills in your toolbox, the more ability you have to pull ideas into your designs later.
I recommend starting with Adobe tools because you’re looking to build a solid, marketable foundation and Adobe tools are the most common. Branch out from there into Sketch app, Omnigraffle, Axure or the tool of the moment that tickles your fancy. Branching out also leads to new ideas you bring back to your main program. I use Fireworks, mainly, but teaching myself Illustrator and using that for a while really upped my Fireworks game.
One of my favorite books on creativity is Twila Tharp’s The Creative Habit: “Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be.” Take the time as you are launching your career to create a foundational skill set.