How to start a career in digital design



Ah, the 60s.

A time of free love, social reform, Woodstock and the dawn of the age of Aquarius Technology.

Thanks to designers, computers don’t look like this anymore

Great strides were made during this decade, but the technology was largely inaccessible to the general population. You really had to be the proverbial nerd to figure out how to use these emerging machines.

Imagine a world where it took hours to compile code, via punch cards and an IBM 026, only to learn that you missed a pip and had to start all over again. This is the environment in which the first computer scientists worked. They were the real pioneers.

When NASA sent a man to the moon, it did so with computers that had 32,728 bits of RAM (just bits, not bytes, and no kilo-, giga-, or tera- prefix), and only 72 KB of ROM. The computer mouse was still new, having arrived a year ago, and Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were still nearly five years before they were introduced by Xerox. To put that in perspective, the average iPhone today has at least 4GB (34,359,738,368 bits) of RAM and up to 512GB of ROM, plus a smooth OS / interface and features much more convenient than the computers used by NASA during the Apollo missions.

Reasons abound as to why we can wield such power in the palms of our hands now. But what really bridged the tech divide, what made it accessible to the less technical among us, was the improved functionality through design. Without pioneers like Alan Kay and the Xerox team, Steve Jobs and Apple, and so many others, we might not have had the intuitive, easy-to-use technology we rely on today, because we gladly hand over our phones and tablets to our little ones and marvel at how easily they navigate youtube to watch the latest Ryan ToysComment unpacking.

It’s the power of design. So simple that a baby can use it.

In a previous post, I wrote that design is the look and feel of the technology we use. As such, technology needs both form and function to remain relevant. Without the designs and interfaces that make it easy to interact with technology, only rocket scientists and mathematicians would use it regularly, as they did in the 1960s. So while the five areas of technology are of equal importance , the design may be slightly larger, as it is strength that makes all other areas more functional or, at least, more accessible.

Have you ever visited a website and thought to yourself, what were they thinking? Or: damn, this is bad; they could improve it by ___. If so, the design technology may be right for you.

So what are the next steps? How to start a career in design technology? Well, the short answer is, there is no short answer. Design is a technological field with many possible entry points and no preferred means of acquiring marketable skills. Whether you are looking for a traditional 4-year course or want to take a more popular approach, a career in design is not out of reach, even if you don’t consider yourself a visual artist (design is more than a simple how something looks).

Traditional education path:

There are many possible avenues for starting a career in design technology. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has 49 specializations in design and creativity, 10 of which are inherently technology-based, such as graphic design. Other majors, such as art or marketing, can serve as a gateway to careers in design if followed with a minor in technology. Plus, if you want something a little more specific, the University of Colorado-Boulder has a Creative Technology and Design program that offers everything from minor to PhD.

A little caveat on this path: Most colleges want students to be complete and teach a variety of skills, regardless of what program they participate in. In these tech-driven programs, there will likely be at least one or two coding classes (just a warning in case you absolutely hate coding). While not universally necessary for design technology jobs, learning basic coding skills will only improve your employability.

Most colleges offer design degrees and programs that focus on technology. US News is a great resource for researching and comparing degree programs at universities and colleges. Don’t forget to check out the study programs as well, as they provide valuable information on what you will learn and what courses you need to take.

Non-traditional route:

I am a constant handyman. Always learn, always try something new. A few years ago, while looking to create a logo for a never-launched furniture finishing and flipping business, I came across a program called GIMP. GIMP is an open source graphics editor comparable to Photoshop. contrary to

Image courtesy of Jonathan Holland

Photoshop, it’s completely free and has an amazing online community filled with users who are exceptionally willing to share their knowledge.

As you can see from image (right), I am by no means a graphic designer. However, I created something that didn’t exist before. And I learned a skill that served me well; Since then, I have used GIMP countless times in work-related tasks. Additionally, most of the tools in GIMP have a Photoshop equivalent, so the skills are transferable with just a little familiarization.

I bring this up because you don’t need formal training to do it. If you have a design flair and a willingness to learn, there are countless free and very inexpensive resources available to you. All it takes is a little effort and dedication. Money for classes shouldn’t be a barrier to your success.

Graphics not your thing? There are just as many resources for WordPress and web design.

Are you looking for something a little more structured? Try Google or LinkedIn. Both platforms have learning portals. In fact, Google is currently offering a free trial of its Grow With Google training programs. There is even a to classify in User Experience Design by registering now. LinkedIn also has several learning aids ranging from full lessons to 10 minute design videos.

If design interests you, don’t be afraid to explore unique ways to learn and find out what works for you. There are several ways to land a job in design technology. Whether you prefer a formal training or the DIY route, design careers offer a great way to explore your passion while earning a living.

One final note, most people working in design careers, especially freelancers and consultants, need a portfolio of past work. Make sure to create stellar examples of your work to attract potential employers.

Still not sure where to start? The AIM Institute offers Technical Navigator service where specially trained college and professional counselors can help you develop a plan that’s right for you.



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