3 Tips for Moving From Print to Product Design

October 16, 2020

My design career has come full circle — prior to joining Foundry in March of this year, my first job in the design field back in 2013 was in the then less-mainstream discipline of "responsive web design." I started my design learning by doing experimental media-based installations in art school and building some poorly coded “responsive” websites. Even though I thought of what I was doing as some version of "graphic design," I was very much thinking through a user flow I needed people to have with my pieces — arguably doing UX work before I fully grasped what that was. When I got my first print job later on, I was nervous, thinking I didn't have enough of a "print background."  After years of working mostly on print, I felt the same thing when starting at Foundry — worried that my portfolio was no longer "digital" enough. 

However, I've come to realize that bringing interface design to print gave me helpful insights, and my years of print experience have also given me useful approaches and foundations to bring to my product work at Foundry. At first, print and digital felt like such different worlds to me, but the truth is they inform and enrich each other if you let them — here's what I've found to be helpful to keep in mind when trying to bridge that imaginary gap. 

1. Embrace the learning curve and trust what you know

If you think through a design lens — thinking intentionally and envisioning the full life of what you're building through its intended function and past that — the format you're working with doesn't have to be an obstacle. You're designing something; all while knowing that you're going to lose control over it eventually. But if your design is strong, what you've built can adapt beyond the point where you're able to touch it, and you can be confident in its ability to take off on its own beyond the limits of your vision for it. This is true in fine art spaces and, of course, more concretely true when designing products. If you think UX seems intimidating, start with the basics and keep building. In print, when you think of the user, you often think of hierarchy and scalability: Where does the eye go? What do they need to read first? The same can be applied when you’re designing a digital product. How does a user interact with a feature? Where do they have to click first? As you’re building products, get feedback from peers (designers and non-designers alike), provide context, ask questions, and take notes while you’re problem solving. 

2. If you don't know something, ask

In my experience in the design world, there can be a lot of competition and ego, and it's easy to feel afraid of sounding dumb or revealing you don't know something. In healthy tech, as in healthy design spaces, humility and admitting that sometimes you need to Google things is fine, and even a positive. Part of becoming good at something is embracing what you don't know, and being open to learning and admitting what you don't know is a crucial practice. If you're shifting from one kind of work to a less familiar one, it can feel extra anxiety-inducing to admit you don't already know something; it's 2020, we're all familiar with our personal tendencies toward imposter syndrome. But it's good to remember that asking questions, being open about where we can learn more, and enthusiasm about opportunities to learn from others' expertise are healthy practices in all disciplines, no matter how experienced we are at them.

3. Prototyping gets even better

When you work in print, prototyping can look like printing fifty 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper and spending six hours trying to roughly mock up a how a seven-foot-tall paragraph would look on a wall; there's something really fulfilling and fun about that, the experience of physically building your concept with your hands and watching it take shape, tiny flaw after tiny flaw. Prototyping a digital product you designed and seeing people interact with it offers a joy a lot like seeing the paragraph you spent a bunch of hours kerning to perfection blown up on a wall — you get to see your designs take form in the real world, and you learn something new about the product by having users interact with it; it makes you a better designer. It offers a unique level of satisfaction and growth — you get to see and work through the product's function and utility, always aiming to design for a seamless and pleasant interaction and always aspiring to perfect it even more. Plus, it kills way fewer trees than printing 50 sheets of paper.


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