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I'm thinking about going to design school for a year, studying graphic design.

I want to get work as a UX designer/researcher, with the possibility of day to day activities like user research, user testing, user interviews, analytics, mockups, wireframes, working with clients/stakeholders, content hierarchies, contextual inquiries and so on.

I understand not every role would be this broad.

My background is ~3 years in systems administration/support, ~3 years as a web developer.

I did some postgrad study in UX (HCI) and was fascinated by the field and want more.

Many UX job ads I look at ask for designers first, often with design skills (layout, colour, typography, photoshop and illustrator) and UX skills second (user testing, IA etc).

Further to this, although I have some academic background in UX I don't see research-based roles appear very often. I am looking for work in Sydney. It seems to me that academic qualifications and knowledge don't get you that far.

Two questions:

Is the reality that most UX designers/researchers start in visual/graphic/web design and move into UX?

Does 'design thinking' and process (creative, collaborative) play a significant part of these roles and would you consider it valuable for the role I'd like?

Many thanks for your responses.

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It really depends on the company what is in demand. I've seen many places looking for UX personel with a degree in computer sciences rather than one in media arts. Personally, I think UX has traditionally been more important in computer science, as graphic designers were historically less involved in creating interfaces and folks with computer science degrees created GUIs. Through the progression towards RIA's this has changed in a way that ever more designers and interaction designers have the skill set to deal with these tasks. –  kontur Feb 20 '13 at 7:36
    
+1 for mentioning RIA, since native apps where more standardised from the beginning, designers hadn't much to do with it. But since making appealing websites always has been more of an industrial art RIA was the entrance point for many designers. –  K.. Feb 20 '13 at 7:53
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4 Answers

If you don't have any visualisation skills at all you can still be an analytical Information Architect. I would not recommend this path though. The really good UX designers can visualise scenarios, concepts, ask users, visualise again, create an information architecture, refine the UI draft, based on the IA, talk to visual designers, work with them and next to them or do it themselves, talk to devs, re-fine prototypes again and test all along.

So IA is just one part of it. The classical IA role as you imagine it is so widespread anymore. I think in the end it is about your mindset. Design thinking is very important.

To me it sounds as if you are interested in a classical user research/ usability testing role. This can be a UX task, but very often this is also a separate role.

If you do a graphic design course, then you will learn all the necessary skills. Just do it !

Don't think too long ! In the end you never know how it will turn out!

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Is the reality that most UX designers/researchers start in visual/graphic/web design and move into UX?

I don't think there is a default career route to UX. For example I have ended up doing a lot of UX work but started off as a programmer.

I personally know folk who have ended up in UX and started in variously English, Art, Philosophy, Software Development, Cognitive Psychology, Library & Information Science, Anthropology, Design and Journalism.

Does 'design thinking' and process (creative, collaborative) play a significant part of these roles and would you consider it valuable for the role I'd like?

I would yes. In fact I'd say that the whole generative end of UX & user research is having a resurgence at the moment. The rise of things like Lean Startup and Lean UX are helping companies see the value of the more formative end of the work we do.

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Is the reality that most UX designers/researchers start in visual/graphic/web design and move into UX?

This varies a lot from market to market. In Minneapolis, where I currently work, the vast majority of "UX designers" have backgrounds in visual design. But:

  • As much as anything, this is because there are very few people in this market with a background in UX or HCI.
  • "UX designer" roles in this market are almost always hybrid UX/UI roles, where both UX and visual design skills are expected. (And as you've experienced, the visual design aspect is usually emphasized.)

Contrast this with a market like Silicon Valley, where UX without visual design is a much more common phenomenon. This is mostly just a function of the attitudes of companies in that market towards UX.

Does 'design thinking' and process (creative, collaborative) play a significant part of these roles and would you consider it valuable for the role I'd like?

Absolutely. Understanding the design process is not just a significant part of a UX role, it often is the UX role. When I do consulting work, my job is essentially to work with a company to help them learn how to implement the design process into their product development.

Also, there's a third question that you didn't explicitly ask:

Should I go to school for graphic design if I want to become a UX designer?

I don't think so.

You say you want a UX job, with activities like "user research, user testing, user interviews, analytics, mockups, wireframes, working with clients/stakeholders, content hierarchies, contextual inquiries and so on". Which is all well and good, but none of those are graphic design.

I recommend you find a way to develop UX skills, not graphic design skills. This might mean going back to school, or it could mean developing your own portfolio, working with startups, or getting a development job with a focus on user experience features.

You're right that, unfortunately, "some academic background" won't get you too far. A full-fledged graduate degree might get you somewhere, or at worst would get you the right networking opportunities to find a job. But if you're in a market that wants visual design skills, that may not help.

But consider this: if you do go to school for graphic design and get a job that way, it's going to be a job where you are essentially a graphic designer. Don't settle for that.

tl;dr If you want to do UX, do UX. You might not be able to get a "job as a UX designer" right away, but do something that will build up the right skills, not graphic design skills that aren't relevant to what you want to do.

Source: This is more or less exactly what I went through. Academic background in computer science with a focus on HCI, then software engineering work focused on user experience features, then developed a portfolio and did consulting work with startups independently, now currently consulting for a larger company that actually pays me to be a "UX designer" and no one expects me to touch Photoshop. (Which believe me, is a good thing.)

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Most UX people I know are designers. Mostly information designers or media designers. This probably comes from the fact, that graphic designers are in need of research methods similar to those needed for UX design.

It helps to know about the design principles you learn for making appealing products. You get a whole new perspective on things you have done for years.

I got a bachelor in computer science and media and soon a master in computer science. Since I'm working as a GUI developer at the moment I looked into Human Computer Interaction at my master studies and found out it was pretty interesting. Now I'm thinking about getting a master in interaction design, too.

At the (software) companies I worked for, I had the impression that no one is willing to pay a dedicated UX person. But those were rather small companies. So I got the idea, why not be both, an interaction and computer science person? So I could design products and implementing them myself, without the need to force any dev to do my biddings. (I also guess devs are better paid than designers hurr)

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