Image Credit: Patrick Leger
6 minute read

Here’s a potentially unexpected thought exercise: as a product designer, what would your job responsibilities look like if you completely removed “product design” from the equation?

I’ve been in the industry for 8 years, and in that time I’ve designed for a variety of users across enterprise, e-commerce, and ticketing software. At Slack, I work on our Slack Connect product with an amazing cross-functional crew of designers, engineers, and product managers. We’ve got the slightly daunting, but exciting task of making it just as easy and secure to use Slack with someone outside of your organization as it is with someone on your own team.

Now subtract the product design specifics from that last paragraph, and here’s what I do every day:

  • Empathize with other humans’ problems
  • Collaborate with team members to complete projects
  • Consider problems critically, from a variety of perspectives
  • Apply strategies deliberately to achieve specific outcomes

That list boils down to two categories: soft skills and critical thinking. I’m happy to say I actually developed both of these long before I started work as a designer, in undergrad programs that had nothing to do with product design. And if you’re reading this, I’m probably not alone! Here’s two ways to leverage your non-design education to be the best designer you can be.

1. Identify the soft skills your non-design studies have helped you develop.

I majored in Theatre in undergrad. In that program, I learned how to outline beats, which identify how characters are affected by events throughout a play. Story beats can be trivial, like another character’s entrance, or something more intense, like another character’s death.

Outlining beats meant I spent a lot of time in other people’s shoes, figuring out what made them tick. Sure, those people were fictional, but continuously practicing empathy made it easy for me to transition into the user-centered mindset of product design. In anticipating a user’s reaction to a user flow, I’m exercising the same muscle I used to use thinking about why and how my character might react to something another character does.

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None of this feels much different from getting directorial buy-in on a lighting vision — negotiation is negotiation.
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My experience producing theatre has also proven invaluable. As a lighting designer, I collaborated with the artistic team to present a shared vision, using lighting to help tell a story. I negotiated budgets for moving lights, juggled highly subjective feedback, and made sure everyone was satisfied with my work before a non-negotiable deadline: opening night.

As a senior product designer, I’d say I spend about 65% of my time doing similar work. I get stakeholder buy-in on design concepts, navigate cross-team initiatives, present work to leadership, and debate timelines and scope with product partners. None of this feels much different from getting directorial buy-in on a lighting vision — negotiation is negotiation. (That said, everyone at Slack is typically operating on a lot more sleep.)

If you studied anything in school that made you more empathetic, a better team player, a better negotiator, or a better feedback recipient, you’ll absolutely be a better product designer for it.

2. Apply critical thinking frameworks you developed in non-design disciplines to product design.

Until midway through my junior year of college, I didn’t even know that product design existed, let alone that it was something I would be interested in pursuing full-time. A year and a half out from the job hunt, I had one design class under my belt and exactly zero portfolio projects.

Instead, I had the ability to analyze English literature and poetry in bizarrely specific ways. (Thanks, IB classes!) I was taught to approach every detail as if it might confer additional meaning, from a particular turn of phrase to the use of punctuation. I’ve written paragraphs comparing the emotional impact of dashes versus semicolons.

On the surface, this seems like it would be irrelevant to my job now. No one at Slack needs me to speculate about why e.e. cummings uses the styling “noone” instead of “no one” in “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” (My best guess: the poem is actually about the relationship between two characters, “noone” and “anyone.”) But going through each sentence with a fine-toothed comb to identify the effect those sentences produce when combined? That’s literary analysis, but it also sounds a lot like an app critique.

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Just as writers deliberate over plot arcs and word choice, designers create user flows
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Just as writers deliberate over plot arcs and word choice, designers create user flows and think critically about spacing and font size to craft an ideal user experience. Users can ask similarly specific questions of their software, like why does this layout feel so spacious? and why did this experience ship instead of other options? The distance from “how space affects poetry” to “how space affects software” is closer than you might think.

The best designers I know have great instincts. Their ideas seem rock solid right off the bat, because they’re immediately able to identify a problem, select the right strategies to solve it, and articulate why those strategies are effective. But the ability to nail cause and effect is not one that’s developed exclusively by studying product design in college. Anyone can get better at this skill with practice.

So if you’re coming from a field of study that also requires this kind of nuanced analysis, congratulations! You’ve already got a huge head start on the critical thinking that will make you a great product designer.

Being a product designer means building expertise as you go

Product design is still a relatively new field, and a lot of schools have only recently started offering formal majors and programs. That means there are plenty of designers that have come to this industry from untraditional backgrounds — and that’s a strength, not a weakness. Figuring out how to integrate what you learned elsewhere is only going to make your work in this field better. Good luck!

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