Essays & Articles
How To Find a Job or Graduate School in Design or HCI
(Updated June 2023 from an earlier essay on finding a job.)
I’m frequently asked how to find a job or a place to study, either in design or Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Rather than answer it anew each time, let me summarize my answer here. (From now on I use “design” to mean HCI or any subset of design (e.g.: graphic, interaction, UX, industrial, …).
The basic question goes something like this:
“I am a student (or someone who is very excited by this field, but without experience) and I want to now how to get started. How do I find a job? Do I need a graduate degree? If so, where? …”
The answer is simple: You either need real work experience or a graduate degree, or both. Good advice has to come from someone who knows you, who knows your interests, training, and skills. I cannot acquire that in an email message or two. So, seek out knowledgeable mentors where you live. Seek professors that you trust. Go to meetings of societies (see below). Read magazines and journals to learn who is doing what, where: then write to those people about their work.
To get real work experience, you need a job, and most jobs will require you to have had either real work experience or a graduate degree. The technical term for this situation is “Catch 22.” Sure, try to get a relevant job. But think strongly about getting a master’s level degree.
What If you do not have a design degree?
There is yet another catch: Most design jobs or graduate schools require previous design experience and a design portfolio for admission to their graduate programs. But if your training has not been in design, how do you acquire a portfolio? And what can you do about your lack of training? Ah, the secret is to turn this apparent lack of design skills into an asset.
A secret about portfolios and traditional design training is that everyone looks the same. So don’t even attempt to compete. Instead, say HOW you are different, WHAT your skills are, and WHY this makes you a unique and well-qualified person to be a unique asset in a design job or school. You are different, so make that difference your strength.
Even if you have a traditional design background, emphasize the components that make you different. Some weird activity you did, or studied, or enjoy. Some wonderful experience you had that made a difference for you or others — even if it appears to have nothing to do with design. Why? Because those unique experiences make you a better person, which in turn makes you a better designer.
What if your skills are in literature or finance or civil engineering? Or languages or .. anything not normally considered design. Brag about it. Say you are different. Point out that you are selecting design because this is where you want to be, where your unique background offers new insights. Yes, you need to learn more about design, which is why you are applying to a design school (or what you will learn on the job). But meanwhile, you bring a fresh, new perspective.
When you describe your assets, find the most exciting project you have ever worked on or the most exciting course or life experience, and make that into a short, but engaging story. (SHORT! Just a few sentences: see below: reviewers do not have any time to spend on any one person’s application.)
Read — devour — relevant design websites: SIGCHI, HFES, IDSA, Core77:
There are many other sites, but these are the ones I use the most. You can search for others. And by all means, use the AI based search engines (ChatGPT at the time I am writing this). Although the ones I listed are all based in the United States, all have pointers to international organizations. And, mind you, there are many other relevant organizations: use your internet search tools to find them. Use your friends. Use anyone. Network.
Find local societies and join them. Attend their meetings. Attend design conferences. These are good places to learn, to meet people, and to search for jobs. Many allow students to volunteer and thereby attend the conference for free.
On each site, look for the list of local chapter meetings: Those are excellent places to meet people, to ask or advice, and possibly to find your first job.
Schools and non-degree programs
The best way to learn about educational opportunities is to ask others where they acquired their skills. Talk with faculty, staff, and students. Trust the students a lot more than the other sources.
There are numerous excellent non-educational sources of learning. Here are two i recommend (beware: I am heavily involved in both, so I am biased)
The Nielsen Norman group https://www.nngroup.com/training/
The Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) https://www.interaction-design.org/
The problem with these two is that they do not provide in-depth, substantive hands-on experience. IxDF is entirely virtual instruction. NNgroup offers day-long sessions, in person, which are good starting points. Many other courses (boot camps, they are sometimes called) offer courses that last days, weeks, or months. Obviously, the longer the course, the more feedback and assistance you will get.
There are many great schools. For HCI, try Carnegie Mellon’s’ Human Computer Interaction Institute. For modern design, there are the Hong Kong Polytechnic, London’s Royal College of Arts, The Technical Universities of Delft and of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Oceania all have excellent schools. Many specialize in working with the indigenous cultures of their land. Chin and India are increasing their emphasis upon modern design. (I’m an honorary faculty member and advisor to Tongji University and the Design innovation Institute, both in Shanghai. I also am advisor to a number of design programs in India. The University of California, San Diego’s Design Lab has unique instruction but so far, only offers design minors for both undergraduate and graduate students. BDes, MDes, and PhD programs are being planned. (I was founder and first director of this group). (“Des”in the degree name stands for “Design.”) Do not seek a BFA or MFA degree: FA stands for Fine Arts. Design is not art, and especially not a “Fine Art.” Designers do things for others. Artists are trained to express their own emotions and feelings. That makes for great art, which is extremely important to the world. But it is not design.
Don’t stop with this list: There are far too many excellent schools for me to list. There are specialized schools in design, industrial design, experience, and interactive design, and graphics design. Usually these are in stand-alone schools or in Schools of Design in traditional universities. Human-computer interaction is usually found in departments of computer science or psychology in traditional universities.
Note, however, that traditional schools of design concentrate upon the skills of the craft, but today, for many uses of design these are not as essential as they used to be.
Today, design is a way of thinking, applicable to any discipline. If you wish to help society and work in helping the world, the environment, social groups, and cultures, traditional design skills are less important than knowledge about public health, education, finances, history of societies, social sciences, etc.
We need more designers in executive positions on companies and academics. To rise to the top of an organization requires a broad base of skills: business, finance, history, societies, cultures, languages, and politics. Learning how to deal with people is essential, especially difficult, bothersome people. Being a leader requires the skills of a psychiatrist.
If you want to design a city, or a health-care system, or even a medical device that requires integrating technology, interfaces, and an understanding of how it is to be used and by whom, then you need education in these areas. (See my essay on Design Education.)
Schools are expensive. Most graduate master’s programs take a minimum of two years – some take three if you start without a design background. A PhD degree can take 5 to 7 years, plus or minus a few. But a PhD is NOT required if you wish to practice design. It is required for most design schools, especially those in major research universities. You might note that a number of the world’s best designers did not receive any formal training in design.
It isn’t easy to get started. This is especially true in design where the discipline is not yet well established, and many companies do not yet understand why they should be hiring designers and then, who to hire. Consider these hurdles to be positive signs: You are entering at the beginning of a new era in design. You will have to struggle to get established, but you could end being a leader.
Your portfolio and résumé (and LinkedIn)
Take your most interesting work – with an interesting photograph or figure, and make that the first thing on your portfolio or résumé.
The purpose is to get an interview. The hiring manager will spend 10 to 15 seconds on each application, so you must catch their attention in a positive way immediately. Do NOT use fancy fonts or colors. Use something relevant, or if you like, so extremely weird that the person has to stop and say, why is this here? (And make sure that the answer to that question is in the very next place the person will look. Make it short, brief, and powerful.)
Do NOT say that you are thoughtful, industrious, creative, etc. Would anyone say they are not thoughtful, industrious, creative? When you describe yourself, make it short and powerful. Stress unique projects or experience.
LinkedIn is the social network for professionals. Join it. Read the articles and postings. Read the portfolios of people you respect. Learn what makes them dull or interesting, relevant or not. Use it for networking. Connect to people.
And make a portfolio there. This is where professional recruiters look. And read this article on how to write your portfolio. https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-polish-improve-linkedin-profile
When you write to someone you do not know, first do your homework. Read their writings: study their websites. When you first write, ask some provocative but thoughtful question. You want to start a meaningful conversation, which is what will interest them, and eventually lead to a good recommendation from them. Do NOT say you love their work. Everyone says that.
OIK? Now, go forth and succeed. Do not give up if your first attempts do not get the results you hope for. Be patient. It can take time to develop the right connections and to find just the correct place for you. If your strange portfolio does not interest a company or university, take it as a good sign. If they don’t get excited by who you are, then you will probably not get excited by what they do. You need to find a place that fit you and your uniqueness.