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Hacking Your Design Career


hacking_design_webThe information in this guide is based on an in-depth research process interviewing four Apprentices at Fresh Tilled Soil, as well as on my own experiences. Each of us have no formal design degree, yet we all share similar experiences. We have all made many mistakes, but have also successfully hacked our own design careers. There are many ways to get into design, and there is no right way. Follow this guide, and you’ll be on your way to Hacking your Design Career.

Master the process

Mazel Tov! You want to be a designer… welcome to the tribe! But before I lay down the moves to get you going, let’s first make sure you know what “design” is. Design is the process of defining and solving a problem. While the end result is all that people see, it is the research, sketching and prototyping that really define the product. As a designer, you need to formulate your own process, and determine what works for you. Design has constraints. Its purpose is to fill voids and gaps in our everyday lives. Design is not art. If design is not thought out and supported, it can feel arbitrary. Focus on the process and the problem, and the design will manifest naturally.

Is design for me?

How do you know that design is for you? It’s not all potpourri and teddy bears. I hate the answer “you just know”—that’s not what I’m saying, even though that is somewhat true. Throughout my career, I’ve always been involved with building and creating. I worked as a model builder for an architecture firm, and then as a project manager for a general contractor. Both jobs had a direct impact and relationship to creating something from nothing.

Designers constantly criticize why things are made the way they are. They’re irritated by dysfunction, to the point where they start crafting solutions in their minds. If this sounds like you, it’s generally a good sign that you enjoy solving design problems.

Let’s take a real-world scenario: the interaction of opening and closing doors. You walk up to the door and attempt to push it open and you’re quickly denied access. You then realize you need to pull it open. This scenario would frustrate anyone. However, if you take a look around to investigate the handles, signs, and materials, then you’re showing a depth of curiosity beyond what most people would consider normal. As designers, we do this constantly, and with everything in our lives.

Design is not just about understanding how humans act, but also how your materials behave. In our world at Fresh Tilled Soil, our materials are pixels and lines of code. Grasping the strengths and limitations of tools and technology is critical to becoming a well-rounded designer. That’s why we study a broad range of technical and theoretical subject areas: color theory, JavaScript, HTTP performance.

Design can take many forms. Do not limit yourself to just designing web experiences. Design your life – Mat Budelman


I encourage you to immerse yourself in this learning process. I fully immersed myself in learning, making many mistakes along the way. While mistakes are important to the learning process, you can save some time by learning from my screw-ups instead of making them yourself.

Get out and talk to people. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid. Be humble. – Xin Xin


While reading blogs, news, opinions, and books is important, it can also distract you and become overwhelming. At the beginning, I read so much that the articles seemed to blend together. I didn’t take enough time to analyze the content and formulate opinions of my own. Learn to take in the information without getting overwhelmed, and be able to form your own opinions based off what you read, and on your own experiences.

Books teach theory, people teach process, so go find someone to learn from. – Mel Choyce


More often than not, new designers focus more on reading than they do on executing. I am certainly guilty of this. I picked up a lot of industry jargon, but was short on portfolio pieces. Focus on honing your skill and crafting a process that works for you—one that you can show people to receive feedback. Demonstrate that you can clearly identify a problem, apply a research process to that problem, and effectively articulate a great design solution based on your research.


Probably the most important (yet least adopted) learning technique, and one that accelerates all the others. I learned this very quickly at The Starter League. Find someone you want to emulate—someone you respect and aspire to work for—and then let them know it. You do not need to be a formal “apprentice” to have a mentor. Create your own apprenticeship. People are surprisingly willing to help you when you take a humble and honest approach. Demonstrate your passion, and show why they should be taking a few hours out of their week to help you.

Find someone to mentor you. Someone you like. Build a network – Sean Smevik




About the Author

Dave Levine is a design apprentice with Fresh Tilled Soil. He is also a teaching assistant for Fresh Tilled Soil’s Labs HTML & CSS course. His entrepreneurship and business background, matched with his design and technical coding skills, yields for a unique type of designer. Dave’s passion for great design helps bridge the gap between business strategy, technology, and solving meaningful problems.

Author Dave Levine

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