Written by Designlab on Skilledup.

There’s a migration happening in the tech industry. Fortune 500 and startup companies alike seek not only programming wizards, but those with a background and education in design.​

A common refrain, or even a creed for some, states that as technology and engineering become commodities, design is the difference-maker; design is what matters and sets companies apart. John Maeda, the former president of RISD, once said, “Nobody wants objects or experiences that just do the job – they want something they want to do the job with.” In other words, a product is not just a means to an end or a destination; rather, products should provide experiences for consumers, perhaps even memorable ones.

However, “product design” is still a huge field; it’s a vague umbrella term that doesn’t have much significance. For many who are considering this career path, the question remains — what exactly does design mean within the space of a tech company, and what are companies looking for when they hire designers?

Close the umbrella. “Designers” often possess more specific roles within categorized disciplines: for example, a UX or User-Experience Designer, strives to craft unique consumer-product interactions by focusing on usability, ease-of-use, and overall pleasure consumers experience. Other disciplines include UI or User-Interface design, where designers create goal-oriented interfaces; mobile design, or a focus on apps and smartphones; and graphic design, or problem solving through visual communication.

Skills that Companies Seek in Junior Designers

Regardless of what design focus you want to specialize in, there’s a basic set of skills that companies look for when evaluating junior talent.

Strong Communication Skills

Know why you make certain decisions, understand the tradeoffs in these decisions, and be able to convey these ideas clearly and effectively.

Creative Problem Solving

Be able to anticipate and assess user problems and situations that don’t have readily apparent solutions.

For UI Design, Visual/Artistic Talent

Aesthetics are key in crafting an easily-used and memorable product interface.

Analytical Skills (For UX design)

As a UX designer, you have to balance the company’s business needs with actual user needs. This requires a balance of big-picture thinking, attention to detail, and empathy with users. A strong set of analytical skills will help you appropriately think through the challenges you’ll face on a day-to-day basis.

Expertise with a Creative Tool

Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator are just a few examples of standard tools in the design field.​

A Portfolio of Work

This is perhaps the most crucial! Find a space for sketches, drawings, and mockups you’ve made – in other words, showcase your ability to think critically and design around solving problems.

More than ever, design is not just about print or graphic work — junior designers need to show an understanding of web design and UX and think beyond just “what it looks like.” Consider how a user would interact with the products that you’ve designed.

Breaking In

Finding a covetous junior design position without a formal design education from schools like RISD is possible. Karen Cheng, a designer in San Francisco, broke into the design field by teaching herself design while working a full-time job. On her blog, Cheng writes, “I taught myself design – everyday I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design…I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months.”

Cheng now works full-time at Exec, a start-up based in San Francisco. While initially insecure about her “piecemeal” education, she writes, “over the last year, I’ve learned a lot, made stuff I’m proud of, and gained a lot of confidence in my job…the gap between me and the incredibly talented designers seems insurmountable at times, but everyday I close that gap just a little bit.”

As Cheng discovered, learning-by-doing to build a portfolio provides your goals a heartbeat. Active creativity yearns for a product: a website homepage, an app, a logo. However, creating is just as important; here we find discovery – new approaches, new angles, new ways of thinking and tackling problems. And in this amazing age of technology, this learning can be self-taught.

At Designlab, we took this DIY approach one step further – based on our bedrock belief that active mentorship fuels learning, we have built online design courses to bring together students and mentors. Students work to create and expand their portfolios with hands-on projects while simultaneously receiving active feedback from personal design coaches. Our mentors are the best in the business, working as designers in their own particular industries.

As this migration continues in the tech world, design experience increasingly becomes the hot commodity, the Macguffin that everyone wants. Discover your design heartbeat, learn by doing, and build your portfolio with active mentorship. And like Karen Cheng, you may find that gap between you and industry leaders closing a little bit each day.