How to go from graphic designer to UX designer: The best career move you can make
November 2nd, 2021
Every graphic designer we’ve ever met has had an emotional connection to their work. Yet, while we all want a career that provides meaning and purpose, the emotional connection of graphic design can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it’s what makes you great at your job. You genuinely care about your work. Your designs are a representation of who you are.
But at the same time, it’s what might be driving you away from graphic design.
Few stakeholders or clients recognize (or respect) the work you put in. And putting your blood, sweat, and tears into a design only to get overly subjective feedback (i.e., “I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”) can be heartbreaking.
It’s for those exact reasons why we see so many people switching their career path from graphic designer to UX designer.
UX design allows for creativity, but without the headache of subjectivity. UX gives you the tools to deeply understand who you’re designing for so you can back up your decisions and create the best work possible!
What’s the difference between graphic design and UX design?
Despite sharing the word ‘design,’ graphic designers and user experience (UX) designers play different roles and have additional responsibilities. But before we get into those differences, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about UX (user experience) design.
Simply put, UX design is the process of making a product or service–both physical or digital–useful, relevant, and meaningful for users.
As a UX designer, you become the advocate of the users throughout the entire product design process. UX designers research, observe, and talk to users to understand their journey and identify pain points to improve the experience.
Is it usable? Easy to navigate? Can users find what they want without thinking about it? Do they enjoy the process of using it? Is it accessible to different types of users?
Once you’ve found those pain points, you research some more and develop prototypes to test until you know you’re going down the right path.
At first, this might sound similar to what you do as a graphic designer. You also think about the users, test ideas, and create an enjoyable experience.
So what really separates UX from graphic design? Here’s our breakdown:
As a graphic designer: Your primary responsibilities are to help craft a cohesive and enjoyable aesthetic (or brand) and visually communicate your company’s message. Your tools are colors, typography, text, images, and illustrations. Graphic design is what most people think of when you say ‘designer.’
As a UX designer: Your goal is to discover and solve your users’ core problems. This means you’re responsible for more than just the look of a product. Instead, you need to consider your users’ pains, motivations, and needs. Your tools make up the UX process and range from user research to information architecture, business analysis, and content strategy. UX design work is collaborative and often ‘invisible.’ When you do it right, a product ‘just works.’
3 reasons to switch from graphic design to UX: Authority, opportunities, salary
Due to the nature of their work, UX designers often take on a wider array of responsibilities than graphic designers. However, to flip one of our favorite comic book quotes, with great responsibility comes great power.
A bigger seat at the table: UX designers get ‘under the hood’ of the product they’re working on. You become the authority on what your users actually need. Your choices have a larger impact on both user actions and business success. If you’re tired of just ‘making things pretty,’ mastering the UX process gives you more responsibility, authority, and impact on business goals.
More job opportunities at exciting companies: Graphic and visual design is still a vital part of any product or company. However, many companies have shifted their focus from visuals to the overall experience and usability. One study from hired.com found a 289% increase in UX designer positions in the past few years. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find a designer job posting that doesn’t ask for some understanding of the UX principles.
Higher salary: While we believe authority, opportunity, and personal satisfaction are the best reasons to switch from graphic designer to UX designer, there’s no denying that UX design pays well! Crowdsourced data shows that the average UX designer salary in the US is close to $100,000. While for graphic designers, it’s closer to $50,000.
Switching your career path from graphic to UX design can put you back in control, and potentially double your salary. But most importantly, it can help you take your skills and creativity to an entirely new level.
The 5 transferable graphic design skills that will make you a great UX designer
The good news is that there are overlaps between graphic and UX design.
Not only is the design thinking process that many graphic designers use incredibly similar to the UX process, but you’re already well-versed in harnessing creativity, thinking outside the box, and collaborating with developers, PMs, and other teams.
In fact, it’s safe to say your background as a graphic designer is a value-add when moving to UX design.
Here are a few of the key skills you can bring with you through any graphic design career change:
Empathy: Whether you work in-house or at an agency, your job as a graphic designer requires understanding your audience. You need to know who you’re designing for to create a visual aesthetic that builds trust and authority with them. UX design takes this empathy to the next level. You’ll be conducting lots of user research throughout every stage of your UX process and getting to know your users' goals and needs.
Collaboration: Graphic design is a collaborative discipline. On any given day, you’ll work with developers, marketers, support agents, and sales reps to create the assets they need while also maintaining your company’s brand. The soft skills you’ve developed working with this wide range of people will become even more useful as a UX designer. UX design is all about communication.
Industry-standard tools: As a graphic designer, you’ve probably dabbled in every design and prototyping tool imaginable, from Photoshop to Figma to Webflow. Many of these are the same tools used by UX designers. Just knowing how to use them will give you a leg up. It’s like learning a new instrument and already knowing how to read music.
Design trends and conventions: As a graphic designer, you already know the theory and principles that go into great design. As a UX designer, this will let you quickly identify why users might be having a problem. You’ll be able to see where an experience is visually ‘stuck’ or confusing without needing to do as much in-depth research.
Creativity and aesthetics: Last but certainly not least, your creative spark and ability to think outside the box is the greatest graphic design skill you can bring to UX design. Graphic designers need to produce fresh takes on old designs. While UX designers often need to find new and interesting ways to tackle conventional user problems.
Of course, there are a few key differences that can potentially get in the way of your transition if you’re not careful:
Static vs. responsive designs: Graphic designers tend to focus on a static deliverable. That’s especially true for print design. Whereas UX designers have to work with responsiveness in mind. They have to adapt their experiences for each major screen size so their solutions are usable to everyone.
High-fidelity designs vs. iterative problem-solving: Graphic designers spend more time in high-fidelity. What you show users is as close to ‘done’ as possible. In comparison, UX designers test early and often with low-fidelity wireframes and prototypes. You’ll need to get used to letting go of your solution-first approach and dive deep into the problem instead.
How to switch from graphic design to UX design: A step-by-step guide
For some people, the transition from graphic designer to UX designer happens suddenly. They take on a new role and need to learn on the job or decide to switch and join a UX design bootcamp. While for others, it’s a process that happens gradually over the years.
That’s the case of Naomi Menahem, who over the years went from Creative Director to a Lead User Experience Designer at Salesforce.
You can watch our full interview with Naomi here:
If you’re here, you’re most likely looking for the quickest route to a new career. We’ve put together this step-by-step guide to transitioning your graphic design career.
Take stock of your skills and be open to learning
Changing any career starts with understanding what skills you have and which ones you need to work on.
As Naomi explains:
“Even though you’re still in a creative role, UX is a whole new world. You need to be humble enough to say that you’re a beginner again. Yes, you have this added value as a graphic designer, but there’s still so much to learn. It’s like learning a new language.”
Use the list below as a starting point to catalog your current skill set.
How confident do you feel in your:
Empathy and ability to understand and advocate for users?
Collaboration and other soft skills like communication and presentation?
Mastery of common design and prototyping tools?
Understanding of design trends and conventions?
Overall creativity and problem-solving skills?
Next, go through the six core disciplines of the UX process and write down what you know about each:
User research: Conducting user interviews, usability studies, and all sorts of other user research methods.
Business analysis: Understanding business goals and strategies.
Information architecture: Design navigation, creating sitemaps, and organizing information logically through schemes and structures.
Content strategy: Using text and structure to guide users.
Interaction design: Creating storyboards, sketches, wireframes, and prototypes.
Visual design: Creating style guides, applying color theory, choosing typography, and designing the final user interface.
This can be a lot to cover at once. And you’ll probably quickly notice that there’s still a lot you don’t know. But be gentle with yourself.
Switching from graphic designer to UX designer is a process. Know where you’re starting from before you can choose which way to go next.
Pick your path: Bootcamp, university, or self-taught
Depending on how you feel about your current knowledge, there are a few different options for filling in the gaps:
UX design bootcamp: Bootcamps are short, intensive programs that guide you through the UX process and give you hands-on help from industry veterans. They’re the ‘just right’ option of in-depth education and structure without the extreme cost of a university program. We cover the most popular UX bootcamp options in this post!
University: While you won’t find many four-year ‘UX design’ undergraduate programs, there are plenty of university programs that can help you become a UX designer. This is the longest and most expensive option.
Self-taught: There are tons of resources online to help you learn UX design, from blogs to books to podcasts to free courses like our 7-day UX design crash course. Learning UX yourself is the cheapest option. However, the lack of structure and mentorship can be frustrating.
Each option has its pros and cons that we cover in-depth in this article. However, as a graphic designer, you’ll want to look at each option through the context of your experience and skillset.
You’re already coming into this career change with certain skills and tools that others need to learn from scratch. Picking a UX design bootcamp that spends weeks (or even months) on basic visual design elements or beginner tool workflows will feel like a waste of time.
Whatever path you pick to fill in your UX design education gaps, make sure you spend extra time mastering user research.
Above all else, UX design is user-centric. If you don’t know who your user is or how to engage with them, you’ll never be able to design enjoyable and intuitive experiences.
UX designers use several different methods for learning about users depending on the situation and context. One day you might be doing a competitive analysis of other products, while the next you’re running surveys, conducting user interviews, and creating affinity diagrams.
User research helps you question your assumptions, which is something you can use throughout your UX career. UX design is a discipline that is constantly evolving and changing. And the best UX designers are always questioning their processes, work, and goals.
Brush up on your soft skills (communication and collaboration)
While collaboration is one of the transferable skills you’ll take with you during your career change, it deserves special attention as you start doing UX work.
UX designers are communicators. Much of your time will be spent talking to users, working with stakeholders, collaborating with developers or other specialists, and presenting your findings.
Great UX designers have empathy for everyone involved in the process. They understand what’s feasible from a business aspect so they can better collaborate with stakeholders. And they know the limitations of technology so they can be an ally to developers.
Start practicing the UX process
UX is a practical skill. As much as you can read about the fundamentals, they only really start to make sense when you put them into practice.
And that’s the fun part! You can pick any tools, product, service, or business to ‘try out’ your UX skills on. You might not have access to their internal tools or be able to reach out to users, but you can certainly do your own research, frame problems, and propose solutions.
As Naomi told us:
“I work with a lot of new UX designers from all backgrounds, and one thing I’ve noticed is that people often think it’s some sort of magic trick. That they can do a course for 3 months and then get going. There’s so much to learn, but also you need to apply it to real life. I’ve been doing UX for 15 years and I’m still learning. Know where you are on your journey, accept and embrace it, and keep on learning.”
The more you go through the process, the more it will make sense. Plus, as a graphic designer, you’ll be able to present your solutions in a beautiful and exciting way!
Build a standout UX portfolio
Every designer needs a portfolio of work, and UX is no different. However, UX portfolios can be hard to get right. Yes, you’re showing a finished product, but you’re mostly trying to explain your thought process, research, and methods you chose (and why!)
It’s a lot to capture. And unfortunately, not many people get it right. As someone who has gone through hundreds of UX portfolios, here are the three elements that Naomi says are missing from too many UX portfolios:
Personality: Too many UX portfolios look and feel the same. Instead, you need to show what makes you, you. Embrace your graphic design background. Craft a beautiful portfolio that shows what you care about.
An in-depth explanation of your why: Your portfolio is really just a collection of decisions. Hiring managers want to understand why you made the choices you did. What data did you use? Who did you speak with? What research methods did you take advantage of? Why?
Showing the process: UX portfolios can’t just show the finished product. Instead, you need to describe the process you took. This doesn’t just mean listing the fundamentals of the UX process but rather explaining your process. What did you do? Which steps did you have trouble with?
UX design can be overwhelming when you’re just starting out. There are so many frameworks and terminologies you could learn. And each step of the UX process–from user research to information architecture to interaction design (UI)–requires years of focus and hard work to truly master.
Transitioning from graphic design to UX design means getting comfortable with what you know and what you don’t. Ultimately, you’ll get on a team that supports you and helps you grow. But to begin with, it’s important to not get too overwhelmed with the path in front of you.
As Naomi explains:
“Especially when I was just starting out, there were moments where I felt I needed to know it all or figure it out on my own. But as a UX designer, you have a whole team. With true collaboration and teamwork and communication, you can find the answers you need.”
Ready to make the leap from graphic design to UX design?
We truly believe that UX design is one of the best and most exciting career paths out there, especially for graphic designers.