Computer Science

Do Ugly Interfaces Make Your Skin Crawl? Here’s How to Become a UI Designer.

Do Ugly Interfaces Make Your Skin Crawl? Here’s How to Become a UI Designer.
Becoming a UI designer is a fantastic job for someone who wants to, as one Google job ad put it, "inject beauty and life into a product." Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry October 8, 2019

Do something about bad interfaces by becoming a UI designer. These professionals—sometimes called digital product designers—keep the software, digital displays, and the web looking not just tidy but beautiful.

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Most of us rarely (if ever) consider the process that brings apps, programming languagesgames, webpages, and other media to our screens. Graphics, scroll bars, buttons, sliders, and web forms don’t just magically appear on our phones, tablets, and laptops. Getting them there requires the work of a user interface (UI) designer.

UI design is a challenging job. UI designers have to translate the user experience (UX) designer’s directives into visual elements, but that’s just the start of it. They also have to make sure every element is in harmony, and that each of those elements makes the end product easier for users to navigate. The work requires design chops (e.g., mastery of color theory and typography) as well as an understanding of how people interact with interfaces (e.g., would a slider or a series of buttons make more sense in a given app).

It is largely a creative job, though employers are increasingly looking for UI designers who can also handle UX work on everything from websites to appliance and automobile displays to mobile apps. That means that you may have to know some programming languages to get a job as a UI designer. As a UI designer, you can expect to make about $80,450 annually, according to Glassdoor, and that’s with just a bachelor’s degree.

If that sounds good, keep reading to find out what it takes to become a UI designer. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What UI designers do
  • What makes UI design and UX design different
  • Where UI designers work
  • The skills and traits you’ll need to become a UI designer
  • The education you’ll need to become a UI designer
  • Do you need to learn programming to become a UI designer?
  • Is becoming a UI designer the right career for you?

What UI designers do

UI design is about more than making websites and applications pretty. As a UI designer, your job is to create interfaces that are both nice to look at and easy to use. You’ll spend your days thinking about how to enhance the user’s visual experience and make interfaces more intuitive. This can involve moving and resizing elements like text, input boxes, and buttons, or selecting checkboxes, buttons, fonts, list formats, colors, and graphics. As part of the process, you’ll create layouts (known as wireframes) and detailed mock-ups.

While UI design and UX design are different (more on that below), both require an understanding of human behavior (i.e., human-centered design). The best interfaces are those that are so intuitive they make taking action feel almost effortless.

UI designers are responsible for thinking up and creating the visual cues that guide users to take actions like tapping, swiping, filling out a form, or reading specific text. Think about the smoothest onboarding experience you’ve ever had when you downloaded a new app. A UI designer helped make the process effortless using patterns, spacing, boxes, and colors. When the job is done well, you complete your account registration or login creation without thinking about it.

When you become a UI designer, it will be your job to:

  • Create a color palette that is harmonious and makes sense for the application and brand
  • Select fonts that are appropriate for the application and convey hierarchy
  • Work closely with the UX designer to build a product that meets user requirements
  • Create and optimize wireframes, prototypes, and style guides
  • Design buttons, icons, and other standard interface elements
  • Put together layouts that highlight key features or guide users to take desired actions
  • Retool designs to minimize the number of actions possible in each interface
  • Decide where essential controls will go
  • Think about how you can reduce user burdens in each element of the interface
  • Look at every project with brand consistency in mind
  • Test interfaces to make sure they’re intuitive or hand off interfaces to QA for usability testing


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What makes UI design and UX design different

Some people consider user interface design to be simply a part of UX design because both are concerned with creating the best possible experience for users. Muddying the waters further, some employers lump UI and UX design (and sometimes front-end development, too) into a single role. UI design and UX design are fundamentally different, however.

UX design is concerned with the sum total of the user’s experience (i.e., human-computer interaction). Can the user accomplish what they set out to do, whether that’s ordering a movie ticket at a kiosk or customizing a character in a mobile game? Can they locate the information they need? Is the path from action to action clear and easy to navigate?

UI design is focused on the visual elements of the interface that users see and interact with, full stop. UI designers want to make the interface as beautiful and as easy to use as possible, but they’re not concerned with what’s in the underlying database or how quickly a website loads.

Ken Norton, partner at Google Ventures and former product manager at Google, summed up the difference this way: “I like the restaurant analogy I’ve heard others use: UI is the table, chair, plate, glass, and utensils. UX is everything from the food, to the service, parking, lighting, and music.”

Excellent UI design and UX design should go hand in hand, but be aware that’s not always the case. A website can work beautifully but be ugly. Likewise, an appliance can have a beautiful interface that’s hard to navigate, or an interface may be attached to an application that simply doesn’t work very well.

Where UI designers work

UI designers work on a full-time, part-time, or contract basis, and are employed by organizations of all sizes. They work at:

  • Digital advertising agencies
  • Multimedia companies
  • Graphic design studios
  • Web services companies
  • Web development companies
  • Software development companies
  • Data analytics firms
  • Retail companies
  • Video game development companies

The skills and traits you’ll need to become a UI designer

You need a keen eye for design to become a UI designer, but that’s not all it takes. You need to be a team player, because this role involves frequent collaboration with project managers, stakeholders, computer programmers, marketers, and of course, the UX designer. You can’t take criticism too personally, because you’ll probably be making numerous revisions to your designs on every project you tackle.

You also need to be empathetic. Interface design is all about making products better for people. UI designers have to care about people’s motivations, preferences, needs, and wants. They must be able to put themselves in the user’s shoes.

Two other traits you will need are creativity and curiosity. Creativity because this job, despite its technical aspects, is largely artistic, and curiosity because there’s no straight A to Z degree path that aspiring UI designers need to take. The most essential elements of your education—both now and as you advance in your career—will be internally driven. You’ll need to stay up-to-date on the latest design trends and the newest software or risk being left behind.

The education you’ll need to become a UI designer

You can receive a lot of the training you need to become a UI designer from stand-alone online courses. This means you don’t necessarily need a bachelor’s degree (or a master’s degree) to become a UI designer. In fact, the specific technical and design skills needed to become a UI design don’t always align with courses offered by colleges.

Before you reject the idea of going to college, however, take a look at job ads for UI designers. Some don’t require applicants to have a degree, but some state a preference for candidates with a bachelor’s in graphic design (preferably with a focus on digital design), interactive design, interactive media, or a degree in a related field.

Some of the best graphic design programs can be found at:

There are also UI designers who enter the field with a fine arts degree or a computer science degree. Some job listings specify that candidates without a degree who show equivalent experience will be considered. Others indicate that a strong portfolio is more important in the selection process than a formal degree.

That said, there is never a time when having a bachelor’s degree is a detriment. You’ll almost certainly end up needing supplemental learning no matter what your degree path. There are many books that aspiring UI designers should look into, along with courses (many of which are relatively inexpensive). These courses are hyper-focused on interface design. They include:

To become a UI designer, you also need to learn how to use the tools UI designers use. These include:

  • Sketch
  • Axure
  • Justinmind
  • Balsamic
  • InVision
  • Adobe CC
  • Zeplin
  • Figma
  • Mockplus and Mockplus iDoc
  • App Cooker
  • Flinto

These tools include interactive wireframing software, prototyping tools, and collaboration applications specific to UI/UX designers and engineers. This list does not represent all the tools you will use when you become a UI designer. The tools that are relevant at the start of your career will probably look very different from those you’ll use many years from now. The best way to determine which tools you should prioritize now is to check out job listings for UI designers. They will list the most popular tools today.

Besides getting a degree and learning the tools of the trade, aspiring UI designers should consider finding a mentor. An engaged mentor can do a lot for your future career, from coaching you on best practices to making valuable professional introductions. Finding a mentor is daunting. Just remember: the worst that a potential mentor can say is no, and their no is never a reflection of your potential.

Do you need to learn programming to become a UI designer?

When you take a look at job listings for UI designers, you’ll see that a lot of employers bundle UI and UX. That means that you’ll be a much more attractive candidate if you know:

  • HTML5
  • CSS3
  • JavaScript
  • XML
  • jQuery

You may also discover that your job as a UI designer is simply easier when you know some programming. That’s because your interfaces will be used with web applications or databases. Your familiarity with the programming languages used to make them will allow you to manipulate your ideas to fit the application programming.

Is this the right career for you?

As with all careers, there are pros and cons to consider when you’re thinking about becoming a UI designer. When you design interfaces, it will literally be your job to sweat the small stuff. As in the tiny stuff, from icons to controls right down to individual pixels (especially if you’re working for a company that doesn’t have a separate visual designer role). That doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to create the designs you want. There will be plenty of times when you have to make sacrifices on the design side to accommodate the needs of UX designers and engineers—or even the whims of the board of directors or a fussy client.

That said, it’s a fantastic job for someone who wants to, as one Google job ad put it, “inject beauty and life into a product.” If that sounds like something you’d love to do, then this might be the right career for you.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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