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What is a User Interface (UI) Designer?

Last updated on 19 March, 2024 by Web Jeevan

“UI” stands for user interface—the graphical portion of an app, website, or device that a human user interacts with. UI designers seek to make these layouts and interactive elements intuitive, accessible, and inclusive.

When you access a website or an app on your phone, there’s usually a graphical interface that allows you to navigate and hopefully achieve whatever it was you set out to do. UI designers create the elements and layouts that facilitate your actions.

Creating visually pleasing interfaces is important, but UI extends beyond the aesthetic. When you’re using an app, it should be intuitive. You should also have a good idea of what will happen if you push a button or flip a toggle switch. UI designers use visual cues to help guide a user through the interface.

It should also be accessible and inclusive. Users should be able to operate and understand the interface regardless of their ability, age, race, gender identity, or background. This might mean choosing a font that’s easy to read and translatable into different languages, or selecting colors that colorblind users can differentiate.

Let’s take a closer look at what UI designers do, how this differs from UX designers, why you might consider this as a career, and how to get started.

The vocabulary of UI design

Spend some time reading about UI design, and you’ll likely come across some terms you may not be familiar with. The world of user experience (UX) and UI design has its own vocabulary. Here are a few terms to familiarize yourself with.

  • User interface: The means by which a person interacts with an application or hardware device
  • Typography: The style and appearance of written material; the art of making type legible, readable, and appealing
  • Color theory: A series of concepts and guiding principles for the visual design effects of colors and how they mix, match, and contrast
  • Prototype: A sample or simulation of a final product used to test and gather feedback
  • Wireframe: A layout displaying functional elements of an interface
  • Breadcrumb: A way to show website users where they are in a website hierarchy (and how they got there)
  • Accessibility: The concept of whether a service or product can be used by people of all abilities, irrespective of their situation
  • Affordance: A feature or property of an element that help a user understand how they can interact with it

UI tasks and responsibilities

As a UI designer, you’ll be tasked with designing what digital products look like and how users will interact with them. This encompasses a range of tasks and decisions that might include:

  • Designing layouts and properly spacing page elements on a page
  • Improving and modernizing existing design environments
  • Ensuring designs can adapt to multiple device types (adaptive design)
  • Visualizing interactive elements, like buttons, sliders, toggles, icons, drop-down menus, and text fields
  • Choosing color palettes, fonts, and typesetting
  • Making style guides for consistent brand identity company-wide
  • Creating wireframes or high-fidelity (hi-fi) layouts to show what an interface looks like with visual elements and branding included
  • Communicating with developers to make sure features are implemented as intended
  • Analyzing the impact of design and usability changes

“A big part of being a UI designer is that you are part of a team,” says Michael Worthington, founding partner of L.A. design studio Counterspace and faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, “and your creative solutions have to work in concert with a lot of other concerns from other team members: back end issues, marketing strategies, UX feedback etc. When your work gets better from these interactions is when teamwork is really working.”

Essential skills for UI design

As a UI designer, you’ll take your creativity into a digital environment and use technical skills to translate your ideas onto the screen. Effective UI designers rely on a broad skill set. Chances are you already possess some of these key skills. 

1. Empathy: Creating a product that’s easy and intuitive often means seeing things from a user’s perspective. If you can empathize with the people who’ll eventually use your designs, you can begin to tailor your design decisions to their needs.

2. Collaboration: Product development is a team effort. You’ll likely work closely with UX designers and user researchers to transform their basic wireframes and information architectures into fully-designed prototypes. You’ll also work with front-end developers to translate your designs into functional code. Sometimes you may also be asked to present your designs to stakeholders.  

3. Design and prototyping tools: The exact tools you use may vary depending on the company you work for, the product you’re designing, or your own personal preference. Some popular UI design tools you may want to familiarize yourself with include Sketch, Firma, InVision, Balsamiq, Axure, and Adobe XD. 

4. Color theory: Some of the most important choices you’ll make as a UI designer regard colors and color palettes. This isn’t just about what looks good. Colors can also hint at function and support brand identity.

5. Typography: More than 90 percent of information on the internet comes in the form of text [1]. Since it plays such a key role, typography can make the difference between good UI and bad UI.

6. Design patterns: UI design patterns offer general solutions to common design problems. Familiarity with these common patterns and components will save you time and allow you to focus on more specific user problems.

Why pursue a career in UI design

If you’re passionate about design and interested in product development and web design work, then a career in UI could be a good fit. Working in this field gives you the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment to create solutions to real-world problems. 

“UI design offers a career that mixes the practical and the creative,” says Worthington. “Creative problem solving keeps your brain active and engaged, and frankly makes work enjoyable. For me, a career where you can be creatively fulfilled and be paid for your work is the best reward.”

1. UI designer salary : The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have a specific listing for UI designers. They do report that the median annual salary for web designers with similar roles was $77,200 in 2020 [2]. According to Glassdoor, UI designers in the US earn an annual salary of $107,635 as of August 2022.

2. Job outlook : While user interfaces have been around for as long as we’ve had machines and computers, the role of UI designer is relatively new (and quickly growing). The BLS predicts that job growth for web designers will increase by 13 percent, a rate much faster than average between 2019 and 2029 

How to become a UI designer

There are many paths toward working as a UI designer. The process may vary based on your experience, education, transferable skills, and the type of company you’re hoping to work for. Let’s look at a few steps you can take to set yourself up for success.

1. Learn UI design skills.

A career in UI/UX design starts with having the right skills. While not always required to get a job, earning a degree is one way to start building your skillset. Some universities offer degree programs in human-computer interaction, human-centered computing, or human-centered design. Degrees or coursework in web design, digital design, and graphic arts often target skills that overlap with UI design.

Another option is to take courses or attend bootcamps that specialize in UI design. Look for programs that give you hands-on experience with common UI tools so you can put what you’re learning into practice.

“Think about what role in UI you want to have and build your strengths in that area,” advises Worthington. “Are you a hands-on UI (graphic) designer? Do you specialize in organization and structure, strategy, branding, overlap more with UX? Play to your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.”

2. Gain experience.

“After learning a few basics, try to work on a real project as soon as possible,” recommends Roman Jaster, visiting faculty at the California Institute of the Arts. “Student projects are great (and really valuable for learning basic techniques), but projects ‘in the wild’ have one important addition: actual users—you know, the U in the UX.”

You don’t need to wait until you get hired to start gaining experience either. Start by working on the design of your own website, or see if any family or friends have sites or apps that could use a redesign. Pay attention to the design of pages or apps you use regularly, and think about how you could improve the UI.

If you’re working toward a degree, check with your school’s career services office for any internship opportunities. Alternatively, you could volunteer your design services for local schools or non-profit organizations.

As you gain experience, focus on learning the software common to UI jobs. 

“Right now fluency with Figma will really help you visualize your ideas and fit right into a work environment,” says Worthington, “but it’s important to remember that whatever software you are using is just a tool. The expertise you bring in how you use the tool is even more important: graphic design skills, creative thinking, and imagination should form the backbone of your skillset.”

3. Build your portfolio.

Your portfolio is perhaps the most important factor when applying for UI jobs. More than anything else, your body of work demonstrates to potential employers what you can do. You don’t necessarily need your own website to have a portfolio. Online portfolio platforms like Dribbble, Behance, or Coroflot offer a free and convenient place to showcase your designs. 

As you gain experience, remember to update your portfolio with your newest and best work. 

4. Expand your network.

While many designers find out about open positions through public job boards, it’s also possible to find opportunities directly from your network. Start building relationships with other project development professionals (including UX designers and web developers) by attending industry events or interacting online. You never know who you might meet or what doors those relationships might open.

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Written by Web Jeevan

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