After navigating the South African music industry for a full 10 years, I’ve started slowly but steadily switching lanes into graphic design, copywriting, film, social media marketing, branding, and now UX design. On this not-so-smooth-sailing journey, I’ve had the privilege to chat with inspiring business owners, startup founders, and industry professionals who have given me incredible advice for breaking into the tech world.
Just a heads-up, when I speak about UX design, I’m actually referring to all product-building and creative work in the startup and tech industry, as well as standard UI and UX design in bigger companies. This might be an oversimplification, but for the purpose of this blog post, I think the advice learned applies to many of the roles mentioned above. Apologies if I’m incorrect in some places.
And in case anyone reading this doesn’t know what UX/UI is:
UI – User Interface (the visual elements of app-design: fonts, colours, visual themes, buttons, very “design”-centric)
UX – User experience (everything about the user, their pain points, the user journey on your app, testing, research. Also including design thinking as above).
The land of opportunity
In a way, I feel that I was born too late to make real waves in the music industry. I just missed the last boat of “normal” fan engagement and now feel quite unsettled in the land of social media and influencers. But for prospective UX designers and product builders, now is prime time to be entering the tech industry.
There are no academic requirements, no real gatekeepers, and the demand for problem-solving brains, whether you’re a developer or product builder, is huge. We are living in the tech age, and for now, it is growing at a cliff-hanging pace.
Also, journeying into UX design and the startup world doesn’t have to be a straight and narrow road. I chatted to Davydd Parry (senior product designer), who studied BA and then Marketing & Advertising at Red & Yellow. He found out about UX design because of a final year graduate program, and with no design experience whatsoever entered the UX industry at age 32, where he now thrives.
Build, build, build
The piece of advice that kept popping up in all my conversations was this: build stuff. Even if you have to create fake projects, just make stuff. Do research, create wireframes, or redesign an existing app. “When looking at CVs, I don’t care about a person’s history, it’s ALL about the portfolio” – Marike Sorgdrager.
Marike started her journey with graphic design and got an opportunity to work for a tech startup early on in her career, which launched her into a multitude of roles, including product design and head of design. She did hardcore UX design for 3 years after that, and now is leading a product design team overseas. Woo-hoo!
At one point whilst creating my own portfolio I got stuck because my MacBook is too old for Adobe XD (the Adobe UX program). Marike reminded me that it’s not about which program you use. Whether you’re showing people a polished app that’s sitting in the Appstore, or a mock-up that you made with free software (eg. Figma), what matters is that you’re busy solving problems – and that’s what people want to see.
It’s all about empathy
This is such a cool story. Back when Davydd (the senior product designer) was studying at Red & Yellow, ABSA came to the college with a UX/UI graduate program. At this point, he had no design experience, apart from seeing his colleagues’ designs when working in teams.
To get into the program you had to submit some kind of UX/UI work, and everyone around him submitted beautiful wireframes, polished mock-ups, or even real apps. Davydd had no experience and had never used a design program before, so he submitted a little animation video instead, and didn’t expect much.
He got called up and went into a meeting with the guys at ABSA. They loved his way of thinking and could see that he had lots of empathy for the end-user. In short, they hired him because he ticked those very important character/personality boxes. “In the end, you can teach a monkey to use a computer program, but you can’t necessarily teach someone to be empathetic.”
Show your thinking process
“The key thing everyone looks for when you’re applying for UX, is are you able to describe what problem you had, what your goal was, what research you did, how you solved the problem, and how you measured it afterward?” – Marike Sorgdrager
As is evident from Davydd’s story too, people want to see your thought process. How you gather data regarding the problem, how you solve problems, how you approach challenges, how you adapt when something unexpected happens, etc. Your portfolio needs to showcase your thinking, not just your mock-ups and impressive design skills (unless you’re only applying for UI).
To Short Course or not to Short Course
Marette Theron (Junior UX designer) also took a sideways route into UX. She studied BCom, which included informatics systems and some front-end HTML data analysis. In her final year, the program offered an introductory week-long UX design course as part of her modules, and she instantly loved it. In her words “It’s about bringing a complex system to the user, but making it less scary and simple”.
After much deliberation, she then decided to do a full-year course in UX design at one of the top Cape Town creative colleges, in order to upskill herself even more. However, her advice to me was to save my money and rather spend time – wait for it - building stuff! (And spend time on YouTube if I needed to teach myself some extra skills).
What she did get from the course (and highly recommends anyone interested in UX to practice), is how to follow a brief, work through a case study (going through all the steps), learn all the different kinds of research methods, and get comfortable defending your design choices to a client (which comes from following all the steps and doing the research).
You might have to start at the bottom
Another invaluable piece of advice from Davydd is especially relevant to those of us who are entering the industry as 30-, 40- or 50-year-olds. You might have to take a step back and swallow your pride a little. Coming into the tech world has its amazing growth potential, but you still have to start somewhere. This means potentially working for a much lower salary, landing a junior position, taking design advice from your 20-year-old teammate, or even working for free in an intern program.
This is where your character will truly be tested. Stay gracious, be grateful, work hard, and show how committed you are to excellent work. Employers pick up on that energy and value people who aren’t afraid of experimenting and trying again when they mess up.
The upside to being a newbie in any given industry is there’s less pressure to perform perfectly. Imagine the stress when you’re not able to deliver high-quality work, knowing that you have all the right degrees and short courses behind you! The imposter syndrome gets real. When you’re a newbie the imposter syndrome turns into a back-robber syndrome. “Everybody down, this is a hold-up! I’m coming in hot and I’m not afraid to mess up!”.
The UX portfolio
So, in conclusion, spend time solving problems around you. Build those solutions and showcase your way of thinking. Here’s a summary of what needs to go into your portfolio:
Introduction (what do you do in a nutshell, what do you care about)
Your mock-ups (show your wireframes and user journey using Figma, Illustrator, Adobe XD, or just hand-drawn)
For each project show your thinking process (describe the problem, your goal, research, how you solved it, any unexpected surprises, how it worked in the real world, user feedback)
Links to your LinkedIn and CV
And here are some links to amazing UX design portfolios for some inspiration:
The guy that redesigned the Microsoft brand
The girl that redesigned Instagram, and improved it
Thank you Marike Sorgdrager, Davydd Parry, Marette Theron, and Carl Kritzinger for allowing me to pick your brains and steal some of your time for all my questions!
Oja, and here's my portfolio too :)