This is What a User Interface Designer Does


Whether it’s 2.4 seconds or 24 hours, most of us spend at least a portion of our days using websites and applications. How do these sites get to look the way they do and who is involved in the process of designing them? One of the key players is the “user interface designer.”

Guest blogger Melissa Nguyen catches up with Jimmy La to learn what user interface design is all about. Jimmy is a self-taught, Bay Area-based freelance user interface designer who didn’t follow a typical career path—he designed his own curriculum and used his portfolio to break into the industry. Read on to find out exactly how he did it.

Can you explain what UI design is and how it’s different from other types of design like graphic?

User interface design is the act of establishing the look and feel of a software interface. UI design is a subset of graphic design (in my industry, we call graphic designers “visual designers”).

At a typical tech company, designers are divided into interaction designers (user experience) and visual designers (user interface). Interaction/UX designers design the behavior by creating personas, workflows, and wireframes.

The visual/UI designers take the wireframes and skin them in Photoshop. During this phase of the project, the UI designer figures out the layout, type hierarchy, color palettes, and creates the visual affordances (cues) for interactive components within the interface. Afterwards, the UI designer creates a style guide and preps the Photoshop files so that the front-end engineer can start building the actual interface.

What was the process of becoming a designer in terms of schooling?

For college, I went to UCLA and majored in Art History. During that time, I was more interested in being a fine artist and took painting classes in the fine art department. However, because I was always at the art building, I was exposed to UCLA’s design department, which focuses primarily on digital media rather than print graphic design.

It wasn’t until after college that I decided I wanted to pursue design, mostly because I realized that I needed a job that would allow me to be creative. Being a fine artist is great, but I realized that I was spending more time working on my day job than actually painting and making art.

Not wanting to go back to school and be in debt, I decided to teach myself. I researched UCLA’s design syllabus and modeled my self-education based on that. I did everything I could to learn about design. I read design books, blogs, attended design events, and took classes at the local community college.

I spent about two years teaching myself about design and the industry. I spent almost every night working on my portfolio and then redoing my portfolio. And eventually all the hard work paid off.

Although I decided not to send myself into debt by going back to design school, I wouldn’t recommend the self-taught route unless you are extremely determined and motivated. While design school is expensive, it helps to have an instructor motivate you to work hard and give you advice about your career and portfolio. Also, it helps to have a lot of design friends, because they will eventually find a job and can help you find work as well. Also, some design studios like to hire interns and junior designers from certain schools. At a well-known design agency that I used to work for, they often times hired recent graduates from Art Center and the University of Cincinnati.

How was finding design work after you graduated? What advice do you have for new graduates wanting to do design work?

Because I was mostly self-taught, I thought finding work would be exceptionally hard because on the design blogs, I always read about how competitive the industry was. However, I was surprised at how easy it was for me to find work. Mostly because for the past two years, I did nothing but worked on my portfolio and as a result, my portfolio was extremely strong (though I didn’t know it at that time since I had no one to compare myself to except for the things that I found on design annuals and blogs).

However, over the years I learned that finding design work is really less about design and more about how you sell and promote yourself as a designer. The four things that will help you get a job are: the quality of your portfolio, your résumé (the companies you worked for and the projects you were put on), who you know, and how confident and charismatic you are during interviews.

For those who are struggling to find design work, you can always work as a freelancer for a temp agency like Creative Circle or Aquent. Temp agencies are good for recent graduates who need to build their résumé and don’t have a strong network to rely on. However, they do take a portion of your pay, so it is always good to try to find out what the freelancing rate for a designer should be.

Also, always ask everyone you know if they know of a design position opening. I was lucky. When I first started out, I got myself into a well-known design agency because a family member was also working there.

How important is training and experience for UI design outside of school? What kind of training (like internships or freelance, etc.)?

As a mostly self-taught designer, internships and freelance experience is a requirement. Even with a BFA in design from a top design school, some recent graduates will have a hard time finding a full-time job and will have to rely on working as a contractor. Unfortunately, there is a big freelancing culture in design, especially for design studios. So when applying for work, it is very important to ask whether or not the job is full-time or freelance. During the interview process, employers will try to be vague about it or promise you things they can’t deliver. So always be careful and look after yourself. Otherwise, your client and employer could potentially burn you and leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Internships and freelance work are important but also be selective about your work experience. I got into UI design because I got my start working for an interactive design agency. Afterwards, more interactive jobs kept on coming because my portfolio was filled with interactive work.

Once you have worked for awhile, you will start to be pigeon-holed within the industry. So if you have been working in branding and want to transition into UI design, it might be a bit tough unless you are able to find a job that allows you to do that. To prevent this from happening, most designers leave a place after two or three years to find new work and diversify their portfolio and skill set.

Also, when working as a freelancer and then transitioning into full-time work, you should be aware that hiring managers will question why you want to be a full-timer. While it is common practice to be a freelance designer, many hiring managers in tech companies are not designers or creative directors—so they will not understand why you have been freelancing for so many years and will assume that you will leave after six months on the job.

What do you like best about being a UI designer?

With HTML5 and CSS3, UI designers can create a lot of beautiful things that were considered impossible a couple of years ago. Also, being at the forefront of technology and saying that you worked on an application that is used by millions of people is pretty cool in itself.

Homework time! Jimmy talks about the importance of having friends in your desired industry because they’ll be able to let you know about job openings and other opportunities. Even if you’re not totally sure which industry you’ll want to work in, try to get to know other people in your department or who have the same major. Is there a club or organization you can join on campus to meet other students with similar interests?

To learn more about Melissa Nguyen, visit her website.


9 Responses to “This is What a User Interface Designer Does”

  1. ana

    Darlin’ I believe you have this backwards. UI is user interaction. UX is how it looks – visual design (along with some other things).

    • Tim Heng

      UI is user interface while UX is user experience. UI is how things look (visual aspect of the design) while UX is a much broader term that would describe the user experience while using the product this includes graphical user interface, user interactions, feelings, emotional responses to the design etc.

  2. Brandy Green

    Great write up! Thanks for sharing Melissa! Jimmy La’s story is very inspiring for those who are on the self-taught path.

    • Melissa Suzuno

      We’re glad you enjoyed it, Brandy! If there’s any other topic you’d like us to cover in a future post, please let us know and we’ll work on it!

      • babu

        thanks for sharing all the stuff
        but i want to know .what i need to learn to become a ui desigener,ui developer.

        • Kellen McKillop

          Hi Babu,

          You can find all of our UI-related content here This might help you answer the question of what skills and knowledge you’d need to become a UI designer.

          Hope that helps!

  3. Farah

    It would be very inspiring to see his portfolio …can we get the link to his works?


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