Ask DN: How to shift from agency work to Product Design?

9 years ago from , Designer

Hey everyone.

I am currently a designer ins a small agency where most work is comprised of banners, landing pages, and microsite redesigns. Along with that I like to do freelance web design projects and videos when I can.

I am fluent in adobe cc, sketch etc and know how to code html css and a bit of jquery. I stay on top of most new apps and trends that pop up within the design community.

My question is how can i start making the move to product design? Or how can I better position myself to font those roles?

my personal portfolio for reference to past work: http://www.erickdelarosa.com


  • Will BakerWill Baker, 9 years ago

    Start designing products!

    The popular route to take these days is the ol' unsolicited redesign (ugh), but if you have some code chops, the best thing you can do is dream up and build your own stuff. It doesn't have to be some elaborate web or mobile app—you can make some pretty compelling static pages that demonstrate UX and UI savvy with just HTML and CSS.

    And any interactions you don't have the chops to demonstrate with code (say you're designing an iOS app and can't develop it), you can just mock up in AfterEffects or whatever.

    Every product design role I've had, I've gotten on the merits of my personal projects. Every product designer I've hired, I've hired on the merits of his personal projects. When you're just starting out in a field, it's less about what you've shipped and more about what you want to ship.

    12 points
    • Patrick SmithPatrick Smith, 9 years ago

      Thanks Will just for the extra motivation for my own side projects! That’s cool that it could help me find work too as well as the fulfilment of making them, seems like a smart gamble.

      1 point
    • Julian LloydJulian Lloyd, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

      Apps could be viewed simply as a collection of flows… and I think it could be as simple as demonstrating one (or three) well designed flows to show off product design chops.

      For example, you could try:

      • Creating an account and inviting friends
      • Writing and leaving a review
      • Making a purchase
      • Etc.

      Even basic flows, if you nail them—design, interaction, art direction, clean code—could be very impressive.

      2 points
      • Daniel FoscoDaniel Fosco, 9 years ago

        Great advice, I should push more for doing these small flows and experiments myself.

        0 points
      • Erick De La Rosa, 9 years ago

        This is great, I never thought of it in that way. Seems much more approachable when you are only thinking about a particular flow vs a whole application.


        0 points
    • Erick De La Rosa, 9 years ago

      Thank you! That last part really has me feeling better about the whole thing. I love to work on my side projects , but am always skeptical that potential employers wouldn't see too much value in them.

      1 point
  • Malte NuhnMalte Nuhn, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    In terms of transitioning, the advice from Will and others here is right - there's nothing like actually designing and building apps.

    In terms of positioning, you can also take a few practical steps.

    I'm currently hiring for a product designer, and have screened probably 50 portfolios recently. What I look for in a portfolio is actually quite simple:

    • Relentless user focus - i.e. evidence you're regularly talking to users, getting their feedback, testing things. The ideal candidate shows me they enjoy this and really understand the value: failure on paper > failure in photoshop > failure in production.

    • Humility at concept stage, pride in the execution. Strong 'artistic' streaks in a portfolio concern me, because they suggest creative vision trumps usability focus. Great for visual design, awful for UX.

    • Experience designing actual user interfaces Landing pages don't count - show me that you understand information architecture, affordances, relative prominence, progressive disclosure. And that you really get the value of using components that users understand intuitively because they're omnipresent. I love a good paper prototype for this

    This is for a high-impact role in a startup (with product ownership) - but I don't think the baseline changes a lot for a role in a larger organisation, unless they're so big that they divide the UX/UI roles

    So, what would I do?

    1. *Emphasise UX and UI components of your work. * Your past work wasn't all UX and UI, but you've got some examples in there. I'd highlight those.

    2. Find 'UX-y' approaches to non-UX work - and document them. Sketching, user interviews, design studio & participatory design - all work really well even for marketing assets, landing pages etc.

    3. Build some clickable paper prototypes, and share them. Bonus points if they're on paper - it's faster (so you can practice more), and you already can proved you can do the visual design. Start with re-imagining apps you use a lot (so you are the user), and then move on to ones you don't get at all.

    4. Build an alternative UX portfolio.. Start with the user (i.e. the hiring manger), and understand the IA that makes sense for them. Nothing's sacred here - maybe writing you're also a videographer actually puts people off? Or convinces them?

    Good luck, and let us know how you get on!

    6 points
    • Martin LeBlancMartin LeBlanc, 9 years ago

      Great answer.

      0 points
    • Erick De La Rosa, 9 years ago

      WOW. Absolutely blown away by your response. There is so much great in here. Thank you for taking the time.

      I will definitely take your advice on constantly speaking about the user rather than the final product. The why rather than the what.

      0 points
  • Du HoangDu Hoang, 9 years ago

    Just apply to startup jobs. There's a lot of demand for designers right now, and chances are you will find a startup that will overlook your lack of product design experience.

    Once you got the first gig, you are set for life.

    3 points
  • Aayush IyerAayush Iyer, 9 years ago

    I personally made the same switch, but it was a lot more organic. [Story coming up]

    I used to serve as the Creative Director for Volkswagen’s India business, and whilst managing the digital arm was fun, the campaigns were often a digital afterthought which led to banner production, and well... more banner production.

    So to change that, I started pushing for Digital-Products-as-Campaigns: for example, Volkswagen Live was pitched as an alternative to pushing banners around sporting events, and became a full-fledged, short-run iPad app.

    It’s still within the agency mindset, but you get to practice all the good stuff product designers have to do: attention on users, constant iteration to improve, building logic blocks that are reusable, etc.

    And, side projects: VERY important, and I always kept making things. Even if it’s a product JUST for yourself, it still uses principles of product design (try not designing just for yourself though :D )

    3 points
    • Erick De La Rosa, 9 years ago

      This is a really great idea. I can really see myself trying to push something similar to get away from the banners. For the love of god, banners!

      0 points
  • Martin LeBlancMartin LeBlanc, 9 years ago

    There is a big difference in how you approach design:

    When you work at agencies, your target audience is the client. When you work at a product company the target audience are the users.

    You can get away with creating a good-looking landingpage that doesn't convert for a client and they will be happy. Most of them don't measure performance anyway.

    In a product company you are forced to do what works best for the product, otherwise it will backfire. You'll still be around 6 month later where the performance of your design is very clear. Also, the process won't matter - you won't have any clients to please. You just have to focus on building the best possible product.

    In general I tend to cut down the fanciness of the design when working on product designs. When working for clients, it's important that you impress them and they are happy in the process.

    2 points
  • Murat MutluMurat Mutlu, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    The way i did it was to hook up with the other bored friends in my agency and build products in my spare-time.

    I tried for years to convince agencies to do hackdays and side-projects but it would never materialise. But i knew i had to build products, if i didn't i would just fade away doing pointless work.

    So i just grabbed some like-minded friends in my agency and put that energy into my own ideas.

    Build ANYTHING, even if it's some stupid, fun, pointless idea, just make it, put it out there. Then move onto the next thing, then the next, keep making stuff, you never know , it might get picked up by a big blog, someone recruiting, or just get you a meeting.

    Good luck!

    2 points
  • Chip FreeneyChip Freeney, 9 years ago

    As a designer on a product team, you will spend a lot less time in your design tools (adobe, sketch, whatever), and more time in product meetings, developer scrums, user research sessions, and Google Analytics. Did I say analytics?

    I'd say 90% of artifacts/materials that I produce are sketches and wireframes. I sometimes don't even produce high-fidelity docs to get a feature out the door, because we have a front-end framework in place (similar to bootstrap or foundation, but in-house custom) and developers don't have to worry about how tall the button is, or what color the fonts are, etc. I just hand them a wireframe and they know what to do. That trust and teamwork develops over time. I digress.

    Your code skills will come in handy. Use them to speak intelligently with the development team, earning their trust and respect. In my experience, your ability to work with others will be equally as valuable as your 'design' skills.

    Its been said already in this thread, but in the product world:

    Pretty =! Successful

    1 point
  • Nate NavascaNate Navasca, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    From having made this exact transition very abrubtly, I can say that agency designers have the design theory down much more than product designers. Learn the technical craft and you'll be fine. Apply to smaller startups (<20) and you'll know everything you need to know, plus the grit and work ethic.

    1 point
  • James Sann, 9 years ago

    Like others have said here, spend all of your spare time after your agency day job making products.

    1 point
  • Kyle SzivesKyle Szives, 9 years ago

    I agree with the user that said about personal projects. If you can't come up with unique ideas for yourself, my suggestion would be to look at applications (or products) and try to do a 'redesign' for fun.

    The best thing anyone can do is make opportunities for themselves instead of waiting around for it.

    1 point
  • Beth DeanBeth Dean, 9 years ago

    Totally agree with Will, product design is about designing an end to end experience. Even prototyping some app ideas is a great way to show off your thought and problem solving process!

    0 points
  • Johnny JuiceJohnny Juice, 9 years ago

    Working on personal projects is a great way to start, but that doesn't get you out of your agency job. In the same vein as applying to startup jobs I'd also look at going in-house (client side). Most in-house teams work on their own products and farm out their advertising to agency vendors.

    0 points