So you’re about to graduate

(This is a follow-up to my blogpost as I’ve been invited to give one of the keynotes at the Umea Institute of Design’s Degree Show  in Sweden next month.)

So you’re about to graduate from an interaction design degree. Welcome to the rest of your life in the industry of design. Here are some harsh realities you’ll have to face:

  1. Noone has used ‘interaction design’ in about 10 years. Don’t look for interaction design as a job description on job search sites. Noone uses it. Just like information architecture has become ‘UX/UI’ and user-centered design has become ‘UX/UI/CX/service design’. Noone has ever used HCI or physical computing either. The terminology of your academic life doesn’t apply to the rest of your life.

This is a fairly normal byproduct of academia being its own industry. People make a living from using those terms to apply to doctoral positions, post-docs, heads of departments, etc.

So you’re going to be applying for ‘product design’ positions where the word product usually means digital product. The halcyon days of a variety of sizes of companies recruiting multi-disciplinary graduates to work on hardware/software products are mostly over. Why? Because the product/engineering design sector is now servicing the smallest startup to develop a connected product so they don’t have the internal knowledge to train you up across electronics engineering, supply chain management, marketing etc. They don’t have much funding so they need you to already bring deep knowledge to the table which, sadly, your education won’t have provided you (if you’re graduating from an interaction design course).

If you’re pretty good at CAD or coding you might find something sooner than your peers who aren’t. Why? Because ‘hard skills’ are valued more by startups and small companies than the ‘soft skills’ that agencies might value. But it does mean you’ll start your career with mindless technical work. That’s ok, it’s better to start somewhere and build from that, than not to start at all and retrain (many of my B.A. peers did).

The good news if you’re not particularly technical is that the world of design agencies is perfect for you. It has changed and shrunk so you’ll be mostly applying to dull 20-30 year old companies like IDEO, Smart, Frog, Fjord (EY) Seren (EY), Method, Native and the ‘big 4‘ which are the large accounting consulting firms who now offer design services.  These businesses have internship programs and will have structures in place to let you grow within a team, drowning in a flurry of post-its and powerpoint presentations. This may also be a disappointment, but hey, it’ll pay the bills for a few months.

2. You’ll have to work for nothing sometimes The fact is that the most interesting interaction design work is now firmly in the arts. You’ll find endless opportunities to work with artists building fantastic AR/VR/wearable/whatever  with absolutely no budget. This can be a good side hustle to an agency position. You’ll have the power to learn across multiple sectors but no money so you’ll be inspired to do this for the right project or because there’s a technology stack you want to learn about.

3. You may have to keep studying Yes there are plenty of large consumer smart product companies out there but they’ve mostly been absorbed by even larger groups (Google, Philips, Microsoft). Those companies have super interesting research going on but your BA or Master’s might not be enough. Any PhD will open all sorts of strange doors, especially in interaction design work. You also might want to try applying to MIT for eg. which will open further doors when you graduate no matter what you want to do. You’ll find a PhD gets people in Google Creative Lab, Microsoft Research and others very interested. You don’t have to go into a PhD straight away of course, but some topics (ethics in #iot for eg.) are not industries yet. Some topics in interaction design are firmly, still, academic in nature or worse, policy/government-based. A PhD can get you to keep exploring, perhaps do a practice-based PhD if you hate writing, and engage with corporates in very different ways than with your M.A. begging bowl.

4. You’ll definitely have to write, sell yourself on social and generally become entrepreneurial. I know social media doesn’t exactly inspire many young people, but how do you compete with someone who has 10 years of career under their belt? You show your work (dedicated URL so I can find you with search engines), you share your ideas about your work (start blogging on your own site and cross-post to Medium and Linkedin), you share what you value, what you think is interesting, what your opinions are (try twitter with plenty of muted words).

You should try giving talks as soon as possible (I gave my first conference talk 6 months after graduating) perhaps at your local chapter of PechaKucha or TEDx. Try organising a meetup around the design issues you value. Do every bloody thing you can to avoid being another CV someone won’t read (especially if the robots are reading it first).

Start your own business, take small clients who are friends of your family, start wherever you can if you feel like the options above are unpalatable. But keep in mind this is the hardest path. It’s the one with the most psychological ups and downs and rewarding in lots of ways, but incredibly seasonal. But it’ll be different from what most of your peers end up doing. I’ve made a career almost entirely this way.

5. Keep your interests diverse This all sounds quite stressful I realise. Work in design is like work in most industries. It’s full of sexism, ageism, politics, ego, and the odd toxic workplace. What helps is family, friends, sports and hobbies. They will act, collectively, as a safety net against the tides of your work life and make your a more rounded, sane professional. Also, always have enough money in the bank to afford to quit your current job/client and survive for 3 months. That’ll give you lots of inner power.

Good luck and if you have questions, ping me on twitter!

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designswarm

Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London, Head of Bulb Labs till May 2019.