What’s it like to be a digital designer in 2019? While the answer will be different for everyone, Brainstation’s Digital Skills Survey reveals some surprisingly strong trends—and sheds some light on the day-in, day-out of a typical designer.
Maybe you’re wondering if you’d be a good fit for the role. With roughly 75 percent of managers indicating plans to double the number of UX designers on their teams over the next five years, there’s never been a better time to brush up your skills and make the leap.
How to Start in UX Design
But what does a designer do, exactly? The lion’s share of their work ends up online, with an overwhelming 84 percent of our respondents saying they designed primarily for the web. We asked Kyle Deming, a web strategist at Wojo Design in Chicago, what drives this focality. “We view web design as different and distinct enough that it’s more important for us to concentrate on being great web designers, rather than to branch out and try to do everything.” In other words, designing a great website is a field unto itself.
One of the surprises in Brainstation’s survey data was just how attached designers get to their role: design was the only field in which a majority of respondents (63 percent) began their careers. Maybe it’s because designers love their work too much to ever leave it, or maybe it’s because the work is so challenging, only someone who truly loves it would stick with it.
Deming, who has been working in web design since co-founding his firm as a high school senior 15 years ago, suggests another possibility. “It’s an industry that you can break into very early and very young, doing things on your own—building your own websites and so on—and experiment even before you get into the workforce.” Perhaps it’s this ability to test the waters that lets people know if design is their calling right from the beginning.
Or perhaps it’s the camaraderie. More than three-quarters of designers work in small teams of 10 people or less—and almost half work in teams of five or less. Whatever the reason, it seems that designers are especially attached to their work.
Research Is Fundamental to the Design Process
Our survey asked designers which phases of the design process they personally had a hand in, including research, ideation, wireframing, prototyping, design building and, finally, user testing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, design per se was the area most respondents—92 percent—said they routinely work on. “Design is the meat of what we do,” Deming says, “where the actual project gets done.”
But first comes research—a phase 57 percent of respondents said they participate in. “A lot of the time, research is done at the proposal preparation phase,” says Deming. “Research is about 10 percent of the work we do, and probably half of that is done before we officially begin working on a project. It takes a good research foundation to do a good proposal.”
What Designers Use for Ideation
After design, ideation is the phase designers participate in most frequently (75 percent). “Ideation is where we think at a very broad level,” Deming says, “so things continue to evolve pretty substantially as we go through the process. The thing you get at the end might not look anything like what you started with.”
Because ideation is such an open, freewheeling process, designers are quite split on how they like to do it; ultimately, it comes down to finding the methods they’re most comfortable with.
Almost all designers rely on old-school tools at some point—88 percent still use pen and paper, and 58 percent hold whiteboarding sessions—but a large majority (72 percent) incorporate digital tools as well, and fully one-third use a more structured methodology, such as design sprints.
Wireframing and Prototyping
If ideation is throwing everything at the wall, wireframing and prototyping are how designers see what sticks. A small majority of respondents are routinely involved at this stage, where the ideation phase’s outcomes are refined: 58 percent in wireframing and 57 percent in prototyping.
“Wireframing is very critical to our design process,” Deming says, “because it helps provide a structure for the website. Once you have a really solid outline or framework, applying great design to it becomes fairly straightforward.” Using wireframes, as opposed to a fully prototyped site design, “allows us to iterate pretty quickly,” he says, “and to make sure everybody on the project is happy with the direction we’re headed.”
There are some clear favorites when it comes to wireframing tools: Sketch (66 percent) and Illustrator (44 percent) are the pack leaders, with Invision Studio (25 percent), Adobe XD (19 percent), Axure (9 percent), Figma (8 percent), and Marvel (5 percent) rounding out the list.
What Design Tools Do Designers Use Most?
When it comes to the design phase, respondents’ tool preferences followed a similar pattern, with Sketch (64 percent) and Photoshop (43 percent) on top. Adobe XD (21 percent), Invision Studio (17 percent), Figma (9 percent), Framer (5 percent), and Marvel (3 percent) also held steady.
How to Advance Your Design Career
While anyone can begin playing around with web design, Deming advises aspiring pros to develop a wide base of software and design knowledge before entering the workforce. “You need to have a basic knowledge of Photoshop; hopefully you also have knowledge of Sketch, and some other tools as well,” he says. “A number of different tools are used over the course of a project, and if you’re trying to learn that all on the job, that can be tricky. We really love it when potential employees come to us with experience across multiple different toolsets.”
Just as important are the softer design skills. “There can be a bit too much focus on just making things that look pretty, without thinking about how things function,” he says. “Designers should have an understanding of color theory, but also of how the sizing of elements matters to focus and comprehension, and so forth. At the end of the day, the site also needs to be high-functioning.”
While getting into design can be easy, climbing the ranks from beginner to intermediate to senior designer can be more difficult. Deming points to the pattern identified above—where almost all designers work on the design phase, but fewer are involved in ideation, and fewer still in the crucial steps of wireframing and prototyping. “I mentioned how pivotal the early stages of a project are,” he says. “Improving your ability to use your research and ideation skills is important to moving ahead.”
Beyond exerting more influence over the crucial early stages of the process, intermediate designers can set themselves apart by honing the kinds of specialized skills that take a perfectly decent design and turn it into something truly eye-catching. “Having those extra elements—animation, interactivity—can really bring things to the next level,” Deming says. “That’s becoming increasingly important.”