How Do You Transition Into a Design Career?

By Ram Castillo

Career conversations from our Twitter feed, @AIGAdesign.

Do you have any advice on transitioning to a design job from a similar field? (I’m transitioning from animation to design). I definitely have some skills that transfer but I’m wondering about building a portfolio. —Anonymous

This is such a relevant question at the moment, and I’m so glad you asked it. It’s on the mind of many people, not only from other animators looking to transition to design, but also from people in roles seemingly dissimilar. This includes psychologists, account executives, marketers, engineers, writers, illustrators, photographers, fine artists, and coders.

As someone who started as a formally trained print-based graphic designer who moved from marketing communications to advertising, art direction, and branding, then digital design, experiential design, and now, more than ever, service design, I can certainly relate to your situation.

What Is a Designer, Really?

The important point to highlight upfront is that being a designer, fundamentally, is made up of three equal pillars:

  1. Visual crafter
  2. Problem solver
  3. Business thinker

It’s more than technique and execution. It’s more than “telling stories.” And it’s certainly more than aesthetically pleasing outcomes.

Part of design is making the complex simple and that’s not always an easy task. There’s a constant tango of discovery that demands the designer to participate in multi-layered conversations. This intertwines closely with having a never-ending appetite for curiosity. Asking tons of questions must be second nature, such as:

  • What does the world need?
  • What is the opportunity?
  • What is the value proposition (of the person or organization)?
  • What are the aspirations?
  • Why is it relevant?
  • Why should people care?
  • What are the barriers?
  • How can it be made possible?
  • What are the actions or systems required to enable change?
  • How are we measuring its success?
Contextualizing the Transition

Look at the three pillars listed as your guide for where to focus on building your foundations of minimum competency. There's no escaping that.

You can leverage your animation experience to demonstrate your “design eye” and creativity. However, even then, you’d likely need to up-skill on the programs you weren’t spending most of your time on such as Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. And if you were spending a significant amount of time on those programs, I wouldn’t assume you would be using them in the same context.

Take a well-trained Olympic shot put thrower as an example. If they were to transition into javelin, the objective would be the same—throwing the object as far as possible—yet the techniques, strategy, process, preparation, and delivery are completely different. They would eat differently, train differently, grip differently, and think differently, too.

Where To Start

1. What type of design are you looking to transition into?

This is a not-to-be-missed question for the simple fact that if we don’t know what we want, we don’t know where we’re going; leaving us vulnerable to being reactive rather than proactive and intentional. Decide and commit to the design stream that most interests you.

2. Speak to those that are doing what you ultimately want to do

Ideally you would find a mentor or some type of role model, instructor, or coach. A topic itself that I know can be tricky to navigate through.

However, at the very least, connect with designers of all types. Ask about their worldview, their perceptions, their learnings, their goals, and advice. Yes, face-to-face is a powerful way to solidify relationships and build rapport, but don’t limit yourself to that. Something as little as a tweet, Instagram comment, or Snapchat message can light a flame. This is the time to cultivate useful information to guide your decisions.

3. Go to class

Online or offline short courses are what I recommend. If you can’t find anything aligned to your desired design stream in your local area, then I would first start with CreativeLive. Others in my opinion worth looking at are, General Assembly, and Udemy.

4. Read or listen

“I don’t have much money and lack the time.” Don’t make that an excuse to not move forward. Use what you can with what you know. Zero dollars and ten minutes a day? Read a blog post or listen to a podcast (or even just part of one). Thirty dollars and one hour a day? Buy a book (paperback or audio) and digest a few chapters.

The fact is, embedded in our need for fulfillment is lifelong learning. We usually resist learning when we don’t fully understand its impact or if we’re learning something that just doesn’t interest us. Curate your content consumption, trust the learning process, and know that these methods are fast-tracking you. There’s no point reinventing the wheel on a subject matter that has already been proven effective. For example, listening to the episode with Kevin Lee, global vice president and head of design at VISA talk about designing experiences, on the Giant Thinkers podcast is, dare I say it… priceless; cramming 20+ years of gold nuggets in an hour-long conversation.

5. Start designing

If you’re waiting for the right time or the right amount of knowledge before diving straight into a design project, then it’s never going to happen. Don’t wait for perfection. Perfection never comes around; therefore if you wait for it, you never get anywhere. Try to either source a design brief to practice on from a mentor or colleague, volunteer your services to a charity, or make up your own brief and go through the motions as a dummy project. The key is to make, iterate, experiment, and get practical as fast as possible. No amount of theory will replace living, breathing, visualized artifacts.

6. Get your portfolio up ASAP

We know that our portfolio is the result of our best work and proven abilities. It’s an extension of who we are and our potential. Because design is broad, your portfolio must reflect the job you ultimately want. Know that your portfolio will constantly evolve so don’t be too precious about it. Project pieces will go in and out as time passes. Just focus on steering the projects you work on (whether they’re through classes, courses, or self-initiated learning) to your desired design stream.


There isn’t a “one size fits all” cookie cutter approach to transitioning into design. There are however ways to succeed faster by working hard in the right direction. Know your strengths and leverage them. Know your weaknesses and take them to a level of employable competency (at the very least). Be nice to people—your attitude plays a big part in career progression. Skills can be taught, but attitude, belief systems, and behavior are much more difficult to teach. Above all, enjoy the journey and be patient. You’ll get there.