Curriculum vs. career: What I’ve learned as a UX designer post-grad

Charlie Bowles | 08/11/2022

I’ve been designing for EY for almost a year now. In that time, I’ve worked on tons of projects, creating UI, prototyping wireframes, helping with research, presenting work, sending emails, and joining vibrant meetings, working sessions, demos, and more.

However, anyone in the studio who’s spoken to me since I started has probably listened to me talk about my experience in school. I enjoyed every minute as a design student, and loved studying UX even more. With that being said, no number of syllabi, midterms, or finals can truly prepare you for what to expect in your first few months as a UX designer.

You can arrive too early for a virtual meeting

Odds are your clients and team members will be busy. Much busier than you will be during your first few weeks as a designer.

I had the privilege of graduating college in the middle of a pandemic. It’s safe to say I’m no stranger to virtual meetings. I remember joining the class Zoom link about 10-15 minutes before it officially started, and we’d discuss all things jobs, coursework, and design trends with the professor. These “before class” sessions were one of the few things that brought a sense of normalcy in 2020.

However, something I caught on to very quickly working as a designer is that your clients will not be joining the call early. In fact, if you do join the call early, not only will the video-conference system email or otherwise alert everyone how early you are, but you may also get a few frantic messages asking if the meeting was supposed to be at an earlier time, or clients asking why you’re in their “waiting room.”

In my experience, if you and your computer are prepared for a meeting at 11, it's perfectly fine to show up at 10:59.

You don’t always need a polished slide deck

After four years of studying presentation rubrics, preparing note cards and designing custom slide decks with animations and engaging transitions to wow my professors, it became second nature to want to present my work through a well-rehearsed presentation.

After about two months on the job, however, I had my first opportunity to present wireframes to a client, and I was quick to make a slide deck for it. A mentor on the same project told me not to bother with a presentation, and instead, just screen-share my Figma file.

I never would have thought showing my working document with artboards everywhere, random screenshots, and notes full of incomplete thoughts would be professional enough to share with a client.

It turns out it’s very effective. I’ve discovered that everyone loves to feel part of the design process. Sometimes a slide deck can come off as cold and “corporate.” But a Figma or Sketch file with tons of color, mistakes and exploration makes a designer come off as very transparent — and that’s a good thing.

Sharing a working file also makes presenting your ideas more collaborative. Instead of taking down notes when receiving a critique, you can do quick iterations of your work for project-mates to see in real time. You can make things bigger, change the location of a button, etc., which helps you better understand the client’s needs and arrive at a solution quicker.

You should learn to talk about your work without using design language

In school, we were responsible for knowing the difference between leading and kerning; referring to Helvetica as a typeface, not a font; and using words like “mental model” or “cognitive dissonance” in our presentations. This is understandable because, well, it’s school. But the ability to effectively articulate your design decisions is better than having a large vocabulary.

In an environment where you’re explaining your designs to multiple clients with an array of backgrounds, that kind of jargony language is less effective if no one knows what you are saying.

For example, if you’re needing to justify negative space in your designs, you might explain to a designer that you used certain padding in a card to accommodate different headings, and you opted for larger margins to accommodate different screen sizes.

To someone unfamiliar with design, you may want to explain that by increasing the negative space between different elements, you’re creating visual groups on the screen that make it easier for users to scan and find what they are looking for, even if more negative space means they must scroll.

What I have found is most important to communicate when presenting a design is:

  1. What research I used to justify my designs
  2. What UX principles support my designs if there was no research to pull from
  3. What key features make my design a better user experience than the current state

If you practice touching on these points in a way that’s easy to understand, it will help you communicate your work much more efficiently.

It’s OK to break the rules of design

As any type of designer, there are always going to be guidelines, best practices and rules. But for every best practice, there is also a limitation. This is true when designing for print, fashion, architecture — and even a digital experience.

The world of user experience is complicated. Designers are responsible for a lot of factors converging into one deliverable. There are research findings, UX principles and accessibility standards. But there are also budgets, deadlines and development capabilities — three challenges you usually don’t face in school.

But the good news is you can be a professional UX designer and still break UX guidelines. Because sometimes you have no choice but to break the rules, and how you work around those broken rules is what makes you a strong UX designer.

Overall, I have had a wonderful experience since graduating. EY Design Studio is a great place to grow, and has allowed me to collaborate with people all over the world. It’s important to highlight that all clients are different, and you’ll always have to adapt to working with new people on new projects. But if you’re a new designer, hopefully, you’ll be able to find a few takeaways from what I’ve learned so far.

Illustration by Charlie Bowles