Stuart Williams | Freelance Senior UI & UX Designer | CRO Consultant

How I found my niche as a designer

‘Designer’ could mean anything in this day and age, the umbrella is growing ever larger by the day, and it is hard to keep up. Labelling yourself under a specific design niche has become increasingly popular, with more labels becoming ever more inventive, and moving further away from just being the generic ‘designer’ label. What does this mean in regards to finding your niche as a designer? Does a label define the type of job you want, or is there more to it? I try and answer these questions through speaking frankly about my experience finding my place in the design industry.

When I appeared out of University 5 years ago, I was fresh faced and ready to take on the design industry, taking a single way train journey with my belongings to London. I was taught in Graphic Design, a broad creative degree which could encompass a ton of different job paths which were hinted at during my time on the course. The tutors ensured we left with skills in a variety of specific subjects such as web design, print design, typography, generative design, product design, and meant we had the top level skills to catapult us into a career. Our challenge was to decipher the type of designer we wanted to become, and how to make a living from it.

Being a Jack of all trades and Master of none could be taking on too much, as a specialism may increase your employability and career focus.
‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ illustration. Credit: Jordan Paris.

Asking the key questions to establish your niche

It’s important to ask yourself, “do I enjoy this? Can I do this every day for a living? Will this get me up in the morning?” These are all questions I asked myself as I was trying to find my niche in 2014. Upon interviewing around Central London, not many print agencies were looking for recent graduates or interns, although I had interviewed for some 6 months prior to moving permanently to London. By the time I needed a position, there were none available; so I knew I had to look for something else, looking into the digital design area. I had little experience in this though, so I asked myself, “how was I going to sell my work, which was mostly print?”

If I gained enough knowledge across these fields, I would be able to apply informed insight into the solutions I created.

— Stuart Williams

It became apparent that digital agencies were willing to take on graduates on short-term contracts, so I interviewed for as many as I could fit into a single day, which were 5 or 6. This took persistence and lots of planning until I had 2 to 3 days of solid interviews. On the last morning of interviews, a kind senior designer in a large digital agency in Old Street interviewed me and immediately offered a contract. I knew I could succeed here even though I had never worked as a digital designer, as the people on the team saw the potential and inquisitive nature in me.

Make a decision and run with it

In the first month of working there, I had worked on photographic lead projects, branding, User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI) and video editing; it was a joy. But it wasn’t until the last month of the contract when I needed to evaluate my position in digital design in order to land my next job. I thought that this could lead into many more paths such as content creation, branding consultancy, user experience, media production, photography, or even coding! I had to make a choice, and make it fast.

There was no time to hang around, I had to cover my living costs and move with the job market. The 3 months at the first agency flew by, but it became clear which path I wanted to pursue, User Experience. As a constant flow of work at the first agency, I had tasks amending the British Airways booking app, web banner variants and contributing towards a new e-commerce store. These digital projects lead to a deeper intrigue into user focused products, so I set about researching this niche further. But how would this become reality after the contract end?

The ‘why’ in the design niche

This interest and deeper intrigue into the user experience and user interface niche stemmed from a lesson in University, where my tutor Alan Summers presented on “Finding the Why.” Questioning the design problem/brief and how the audience would interact with your solutions would lead to more meaningful and engaging work. But it wasn’t until I had approached the user experience (UX) subject in the industry did I think that the ‘Why’ would become the most important aspect of my design thinking.

UX as a position within companies was relatively new 4 years ago, and many hadn’t discovered the true value in its output, and its potential for extra insight about their customers. I tailored my portfolio to become 80% digital design based, and user focused, ready to interview for my next position in the design industry. This, plus a successful design interview test brief lead to a full-time position in a user experience agency, where I stayed for nearly 2 years. During my time there it became clear that my design thinking of questioning how the user would interact with my work, would become my strongest asset, and enhance my niche subject.

Turning the niche into an asset

At this agency I was labelled ‘UI/UX Designer’, which added a broad label to my output in the company. But it was far from the truth, as there was so much to be learnt and applied. This label didn’t define my niche, but it certainly provided a platform for exploration. On each brief which came in meant a new challenge under the label User Experience. Working alongside professionals in the sector including cognitive scientists, behavioural analytics consultants, user research specialists and conversion rate optimisation consultants, all meant I could delve into each niche and gain useful knowledge across the UX spectrum. I quickly became an asset to the team, and questioned a lot of the projects leaving the door.

Networking with your design niche

If I gained enough knowledge across these fields, I would be able to apply informed insight into the solutions I created. But most of all, would make me highly employable within the UX sector. I started networking around industry events in the user experience field, including UX Crunch, Conversion Thursdays and many more. The value of networking can’t be underestimated as even grabbing the reading list from the speakers meant further research could be carried out, and sharing the list between others in the same situation meant you could swap and gain further insight. Furthermore, integrating myself into the top industry events meant I could learn from the best, and ask them key questions on the subjects. Workshops lead by the event speakers meant we could challenge our design thinking and techniques, therefore increasing the rationale behind our solutions.

‘Why’ would become the most important aspect of my design thinking.

— Stuart Williams

From attending these events, I discovered the argument between the definition of User Experience design and User Interface design, and it soon became one I would need to tread on to achieve my niche. But it was also one which I found that applied to my job in the agency, and became a confusing part of the job between other members. I knew I could explore both subjects, and focus on becoming the best I can be within that niche. Upon leaving the agency, I had amassed a skillset across both UX and UI that interlinked with cognitive science thinking, conversion rate optimisation techniques and analytical thinking behind user behaviour.

The definition of UX vs UI by design inspiration site Muzli
The definition of UX vs UI by Muzli

Persuing the design niche – in conclusion

Finding my niche wasn’t as straightforward as originally thought. It was an accumulation of my broad portfolio coming out of University, the competitive job market and my intrigue into the subject. It took layers of research, networking and interviewing to test and challenge my niche, but most importantly discover what I enjoyed creating.

Deciding to become a specialist in a pocket of what stemmed from my experience in Graphic Design, meant I could now work with and help solve user problems by improving the experience of users across multiple platforms. Now I have 5 years of experience under my belt within the user experience field, I am no less hungry for further knowledge and insight. Maintaining this niche meant I could apply for specific job postings, advertising myself as a specialist in the industry. My passion for the UX niche keeps me constantly on my toes, and gets me up in the morning with a renewed interest into how the industry moves and changes daily.

Photo credit: Pexels.com

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