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Choosing a UX Design Career Path

Four takeaways from Blake Wheeler’s Beer and UX presentation.




In May the Beer and UX community was joined by Blake Wheeler for a conversation on career paths for UX designers. Blake got his own start in UX as a student frustrated by one of the digital products a professor was using. Along with some friends, he decided to design a better solution and suddenly Blake’s career trajectory shifted away from his intended path of finance. Today, Blake is a consultant that specializes in education.

This presentation was a true conversation, as it included only nine slides. With his guidance, the group compared and contrasted the experiences of working in-house, at an agency, and as a freelancer. In addition to outlining the challenges and opportunities of advocating for human-centered design principles in these three contexts, Blake also offered some tips on how to approach finding or starting great projects. While the insights and takeaways were seemingly endless, we are sharing some of our favorites below.

Let’s dive in:


Start with policy and culture

When assessing fit for a new role or considering a career change, it is important to consider both policy and culture. Blake suggests thinking about it like pairing an organism (you) with the right ecosystem (a company or context). Conside

r not only the work itself, but also the work environment. “Look for places with projects that excite you, cultures that energize you, and people that inspire you,” he explained.

Policy refers to the deliberate structures in place to guide decisions and achieve desired outcomes. Policy determines:

  • how decisions are made,

  • where company resources are invested, and

  • how performance is measured.

Culture on the other hand is about behaviour and norms within an organization. Put another way, culture explains how individuals and policies interact. Culture accounts for:

  • what time people sign on or off,

  • what percentage of the day is spent in meetings, and

  • how people speak about their work.

Like Marcio mentioned, it’s important to ensure that as a designer, you actually have time to the things you need to do. Most notably, Blake highlighted: design and eat lunch. Regardless of whether you are an in-house, agency, or freelance designer, Blake highlighted the importance of limiting how much of your day could be swallowed up for meetings. In his own calendar, Blake restricts his availability for meetings to the hours of 10–4.

Autonomy and creative control

Freelancers tend to enjoy more creative freedom and more ownership of their work ecosystems. However, that independence and autonomy can also result in isolation for some, Blake noted. For freelance designers who value collaboration, it is important to build and nurture a network of design practitioners to bounce ideas off of. Blake suggests joining Meetups, Slack groups, and making friends with other practitioners.

While in house designers are likely to enjoy more collaboration working as part of team, they may also find themselves navigating existing processes and internal politics that can limit creative freedom. Agencies tend to offer broad creative freedom, while working with more constraints from their clients.


Lead generation

Along with more creative freedom, freelancer have more and different responsibilities than designers working in-house or at an agency. In addition to the work of actually designing, freelancers have more administrative and sales related responsibilities. For those who enjoy variety and wearing many hats, this is considered a bonus. For those who wish to only design, it’s something to be wary of. One tip Blake shared for aspiring freelancers: it’s easier to sustain your business and win new work when you have already formed relationships in the industry. Typically, he explained, it is easiest to transition into freelance designing after you’ve worked in-house or in an agency context because you have established some relationships. You will also be better positioned to demonstrate your experience and share past work with potential clients.

Depth, breadth, and variety

While in-house designers typically work on a single product, they enjoy a rare opportunity to develop a deep product knowledge over the course of their tenure. This depth of product knowledge (and ownership) is unlikely to be obtained by freelancers or agencies brought in only on a project basis. Conversely, designers working in-house or at agencies enjoy more variety in their work.

In-house designers tend to encounter more process and politics while agency designers should prepare themselves to encounter a variety of personalities and different client cultures. At an agency, designers enjoy more variety and have opportunities to work in different industries and on different product types. Both breadth and depth are an asset, but it’s important to consider whether variety is something you’re looking for in a UX design role.

Be honest with yourself

When choosing a career path or contemplating a change, it is important to consider who you are and how you like to work. Are you good with time management? Do you want to be on a team? Do you like interfacing with clients? How comfortable are you with uncertainty? Honesty and self-reflection are crucial for choosing roles that are a good fit. Remember: here is more to consider than just the work itself.

We would love to know, what were the key considerations that led you to your current role? If you haven’t already, be sure to RSVP for our July 2021 event: How to get a job in UX with Christopher Centers.

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