What skills do you need to become a UI designer?

I’ll make a couple of big assumptions here:

  1. You’re interested in both visual design and product thinking
  2. You aren’t currently a designer of some other kind (communication designer, industrial designer…)
  3. You want to work in tech

That being said, here’s a crazy high level onion view of a good UI designer, starting from the outer skin.


I have to respectfully disagree with Tyler here. Taste can definitely be learned, so don’t let that stop you. I’ll spare you the proof, but let’s just say that before design school I was a rampant Papyrus user. That’s the infamous Papyrus (typeface) if you’re truly n00b ๐Ÿ™‚ The way I learned beauty was to go into sensory starvation.

Beauty is effortless and efficient. It’s the difference between a ballet dancer and that dude or gal who’s trying too hard on the dance floor. No matter how hard something is in reality, it has to look easy.

But designed beauty is not merely beautiful. It serves a purpose. You are creating contrast and hierarchy. You are leading someone’s eye. Beauty can make someone spot your poster. Hierarchy makes them read a headline and then see the date and details.

So start with the basics. We had a saying in school, “simple things done well”. It’s way harder to make something beautiful with only a few elements. There’s not much to look at, so you notice all the mistakes. Make yourself conscious of details. Pay attention! Part of being a good visual designer is being able to see tiny annoying nits that are a pixel off. Why? Those tiny bits of friction add up over time and make your design look sloppy and badly considered.

Exercises to try:

  1. Try designing posters with only black and white, one typeface, and one size. Can you make hierarchy with just spacing? Just indentations? Then try adding one more element, like color or another size. You’ll see it suddenly becomes much more fun, and that you need very little to make a good hierarchy.
  2. Print out classic typefaces and trace them with a compass and ruler to learn their geometry.


All design that is beautiful has scaffolding of some kind. We crave order. It makes apps and interactions easy to understand, books feel like stories and movies feel cohesive. Most designs are built on grids of some kind, and most apps have very orderly grids. While grids are a topic for an entire post of their own, most site are built on very simple, squared off grids.

Exercises to try:

  1. Trace the edges of newspapers, sites, apps you like and reverse engineer their grid systems. Try designing another view or page in their exact style.
  2. Try designing two posters on a very simple 5×5 grid


If you want to be a well-rounded product designer, this is where the juicy stuff is. To me, this is the hardest part to hone because you can be a tolerably good visual designer if you keep it simple and are ruthlessly scientific. The stereotypical emotional crying-as-the-rain-falls thing that creative people are laughed at for really comes into play here.

Recognizing problems requires a bit more humanity, and the study of people. It requires great empathy for other humans. Simplicity is knowing when not to even put down the pixels. In this case, all these other weather apps glorify metrics and have cute illustrations, but a push notification when you’re running out the door is really the most useful out of all of them. It examines why we check the weather in the first place and goes all teeth towards that problem.

This is where design gets really difficult. It’s really hard to find the right problem, and to solve it in a new and clever way. It’s hard to understand entrenched and lingo-filled fields to get to what’s actually going on.

Take medicine for example. Super important, literally saving lives. The knowledge takes years to learn and it’s super hard to change things, with all the regulations and risk.

There are a lot of wicked problems in the world. Hunger, city planning, pollution. There are also many local problems. Transportation, finding fun things to do on the weekends.


  1. Write down three things that bothered you today. “I couldn’t catch a taxi and had to walk home.” Think of at least 20 ways to solve those problems. Don’t limit yourself to an app or piece of media. What if the dispatchers knew the closing times of all bars and drivers were sent to those areas? What if you could hail a car from an app? Maybe we’d call it Uber ๐Ÿ˜‰
  2. Pay attention to when your friends complain about their problems. Or, more notably, when people who exist out of our bubble complain about their problems. You could be unlocking a very special opportunity!



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