How to pick a design specialty

A new designer's guide to understanding the differences between job titles in the design industry

I’ve seen this question appear in places like Tavern, Quora, and I’ve also been asked by designers new to the field how all the various job titles interact with one another. Where do they overlap, what skills are different, what’s the difference between an interaction and UX designer, and so on. I want to weigh in on this confusing question to attempt to bring some clarity to the matter.

Design is the layer between customer and business

When I speak of Design with a capital D, I’m referring to the process of design in the broadest sense. All designers are working on the same thing: to make the experience of a product, service, or marketing message the best that it can possibly be. The experience is the layer — the glue, if you will — between the customer and the apparatus created by engineers and business people. The boundaries of this experience encompass everything from marketing communication to the experience of using an API and searching through documentation.

The way designers describe what they do is impossible to understand outside the context of the product they’re producing and the audience they’re producing it for. A product designer who designs medical devices for the elderly will have an entirely different skillset than a product designer for a consumer ride-sharing startup.

Specialists versus Generalists

Website Redesign, 2015 Edition

Static site generated using gulp, jekyll, and SCSS, hosted on github.

Every other year I go through a molting cycle where I shed my old website and build something new. With each iteration, I try to make it a little cleaner, a little easier to use. It’s an opportunity to re-examine my toolbox, and experiment with things I’ve been meaning to try. One of the best discoveries this cycle has been a really fast, powerful setup for building static marketing or blog sites.

This post is less about the design decisions I made and more about the technical tools I used to turn the design into something real. The main engine behind the entire setup is jekyll, a tool for taking a collection of markdown files and reusable template code and outputting flat, vanilla HTML.


A CSS Experiment

The orrery at the top of this site is an experiment in CSS 3 animation. (You might need a more modern browser to see it in action.) It uses data from to accurately represent how planets rotate around our sun.

For performance reasons, I’m only showing the first 6 moons (Luna, Phaebos & Daemos of Mars, and Io, Ganymede, & Europa of Jupiter). They are revolving accurately, but have been all been significantly slowed by an arbitrary amount in order to render them visible in the animation.

A couple years ago, I participated in the Global Hack for Good for REFUNITE, and got the opportunity to further develop the winning idea in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya last month.

It was an incredible journey. I got to spend a week working with the amazing and talented RefUnite team, and was happy to help them in a small way. The goal was to test out our messaging wizard in an attempt to connect more refugees with loved ones who’ve been separated by war, famine, and disease.

For a more detailed account about the project, read about my trip on REFUNITE’s blog.

This was originally published on Medium.

As the sole product designer for a tiny startup called Samahope, I often require design critique from my non-design teammates. Getting formal critique is important to iteratively improve the product, but we’ve had to improvise without an in-house design team.

By providing a bit of structure with 3 simple rules, I’ve found my team to be awesome critique partners. The critique sessions look a little bit different than getting a bunch of designers together (fewer turtlenecks, for instance), but the outcome is just as good.

Hi, I'm Zac Halbert. I'm a digital product designer and lifelong learner living in San Francisco, California with my Wife Sheena and sheepdog Rufus. I currently run the Product Design & UX track at Tradecraft, where we train smart people to succeed in traction roles at high-growth startups. I also own independent product design consultancy Scout Hawk Product Design Studio and Foliotwist, a portfolio and marketing SaaS company for visual artists. I also advise a number of companies on the intersection of user experience design, product management, and Lean Startup driven rapid prototyping.

My background is a mixture between formal design and fine arts education, and self-taught UX, UI, and entrepreneurship. At age 12 I began learning to blend HTML, CSS, and UI elements created in Microsoft Paint to create hideous, late 90's geocities sites. I was instantly hooked. I kept practicing, and got my first full time web design job at age 15 designing and developing product pages for an aeronautics supply company. I built freelance websites all through highschool for snowboarding money, and all through college for backpacking money (where I had a penchant for extended, shoe-string, hair-raising adventures through China and SE Asia).

I eventually strung my freelance gigs together into a proper independent consultancy based in Boise. During this time I also co-founded a lifestyle business and learned entrepreneurship "the hard way" (e.g. learning through failing). Fast forward to 2015, and I'm still in love with the energy, vision, and sense of social responsibility that many startup people have. While living in San Francisco isn't necessary for a product designer, it does afford me an unreasonable number of opportunities to rub elbows with insanely smart people I can learn a lot from.

In the future, my ambition is always remember how fortunate I am to have had access to the web from such a young age, and to use the thousands of hours I've put into honing this craft for the good of others. I believe that technology can make things better, but it's also important to acknowledge that it can make things worse (for instance, rapid overgentrification by overpaid 20-something DINKs, and the heartbreaking sexism prevalent in some company cultures). It's incumbent on us to fix these problems since we're responsible for them. In any case, the process of solving them with smart people is both a joy and a privelege.

Here are just a few great companies I've had the pleasure to work with.