Liz Hamburger, Digital Product Designer

Looking back over your career, have there been any particular milestones where you thought “I’m a better visual designer now”?

The first time I experienced feeling like I had improved was probably in the first six months of my first proper design job. I had been asked to update an email that I had designed a few months before. Once I’d opened the file, I just thought, “wow, that typography is awful”.

What surprised me was at the time of designing the original email, I was like, “This is great, and I think my creative director is okay with this”.

It was a moment of clarity. Looking back at that email and its typography, it was terrible, and for me to notice it was now bad made me realise, “Oh, so I have improved”.

Generally, though, I think it’s tough to know, especially with visual design, where you’ve improved. It’s not like a tick box exercise where you think, “I’ve done this part now, and that’s good, so it means I can move on to the next bit”. I’m always finding areas in my work that I consider are not very good when I go back to work I’ve done a few months before.

How long was it between when you first worked on the email and when you looked at it again?

It must have been six or nine months. It was not a considerable amount of time. I was a junior designer fresh into my career, and I think the learning curve is naturally quite steep, and you learn quickly. Therefore the change in ability is relatively quick to notice.

When I left university, I had no real technical or graphic design skills. I went to Central Saint Martins, a very arty University, all about conceptualising and coming up with an excellent idea, very exploratory about who you are as a designer. Once I finished and got out into the working world, I was not ready for it because I couldn’t do anything productive. I got into the internship, and I didn’t know how to use Photoshop or Illustrator. The learning curve for me was super steep because I had so much to learn in terms of the tools.

I have found it easy to see where I had progressed. Things just started getting more straightforward, and knowing that “Okay when I set up my file now, I need to use a grid and I should set up a type scale”, and those kinds of things become second nature. Before, I didn’t know the processes, and it’s not just how my work visually looked, but also what I started putting in place to help me get stuff to look good.

Can you tell me more about the learning curve from university to your first job?

The first place I worked as an intern was not a good fit for them or me. I was headhunted from Twitter and took the first opportunity that was given to me. In hindsight, I should have tried to find something else, but I was so excited to be given a chance to work that I took it.

It was a huge company, and I don’t think they had a formal internship programme focused on educating people. It was more about getting someone to do small tasks and work, and that transition from a university setting where it’s only you and you make the briefs to being the smallest voice on the team was hard as I didn’t have the technical skills to contribute only ideas. So yes, I struggled there because what I expected an internship to be and what it was, were two different things. That said, I could have tried to be more engaged, but I was out of my depth. Going to my next agency, I shifted my attitude and focused on doing the best I could, and I spent a lot of time researching and looking towards other work that already existed.

Do you still look towards other work to learn?

Totally, I will look to what exists already and try and break down why I think that thing looks good, and I think that’s one of the things I struggled with early on in my career. It was like “I know this looks rubbish, what I’ve made, but I don’t know how to fix it”. I know what looks good out there in the wild, I know my work isn’t as good as that, but it’s so frustrating when you don’t know how to fix it. There’s the inability, and that’s frustrating to deal with.

By questioning something that you think looks great, it forces you to discover why these things work together. You might find it’s because they use an 8px grid or that all their type is based on the golden ratio or they only used a maximum of 4 colours. All of these little pieces and decisions another designer has made can be found through analysis of their work.

As you’ve worked in agencies, how much do you think the variety in work helped you learn visual design?

Working in an agency has 100% helped me with visual design, as you get to be flexible. So I would say I’m a generalist designer. I’m a product designer now, but I’m from a branding, marketing, and web design background, and I still love all those things. I’ve been dabbling in product design for the last four or so years, but I think having a graphic design background helps. It wasn’t taught to us at university about the actual structure and how you make something look good, but it was clear to us where to start looking, with like the colour palettes and typography, grids, that kind of thing. I think becoming a good visual designer means learning the core elements of design and having a solid foundation.

I had a conversation with a mentee recently and they asked, “how do I get into product design? What do I do first”. My instinct was to tell them, “get your design skills down first, learn about grids, learn about type, look at what colours work together”, because once you’ve got that, the rest is going to come together, I think. We spoke about design thinking and wireframes, but if you want to become a UI designer, you need to understand good design basics.

How intentional have your efforts been to improve in visual design? And how much do you only notice in retrospect?

I’ve had feedback in the past that my visual skills aren’t as strong as my product design or strategy work. And being from a graphic/visual design background, comments like that get me down because I feel like I’m a visual designer rather than a product designer, and that’s where my strengths should lay.

So I’ve tried to look at what I can do to upskill in that area. I spent some time doing the 100 days of UI challenge and tried to design a single button 50 times. I was forcing myself to look at how I could be more visually creative with a standard button. As you can imagine, I didn’t get far with that, as it was a bit meaningless for me.

Instead, I started up a design partnership on the side of my day job with my partner. I was doing logos because it seemed everyone wanted logos and tiny marketing websites for small businesses. I think that forced me to flex my visual design skills and give me space to experiment and improve my creative visual design skills. I’m a big believer that your job doesn’t have to fulfil all of your needs, and doing other things outside of work can help you grow as long as you don’t get burnt out.

I also decided to do freelance work as the clients we have at my current job seem to have a solid UI style already or fall into the classic techy, like a fintech brand. It’s all very standard, like slightly rounded corners on buttons, the floaty cards. They’ve already got the look, so I don’t feel like you can push too far, so that’s why I started my own business, and I feel that it’s helped me become more confident and improve my skills.

I’ve started to be intentional about how I feel about my work as well. I’ve started asking myself, “Have I produced something that I’m proud of?” or “Am I happy with what I’ve made today” and finally “Is what I’ve made 80% good enough”. Most of the time, I have a bit of a perfectionist approach anyway, and I’m overly critical of myself, and what I make, so negative feedback can easily send me into a spiral. I can think nothing ever looks good enough. Still, if I ask myself those questions, it doesn’t matter if someone says, “actually, your visual design could be better”, because I think it’s more important if I’m pleased with it.

What have been the hardest areas of visual design to learn?

I don’t know if this is an area, but keeping on-trend or pushing what visual design is in product design. I see product design as very logical and helping a user get through a process. Then there is this extra layer, which I don’t currently really get time to do. It’s this whole delightful aspect of “How can we make this more of a branded experience”. There’s a bit of a gap between being user-focused and then focusing on the brand aspect. It can be challenging to get to that next level of visual design, and I don’t feel like I’ve done much of that, yet maybe the right client and the right project will mean it’s possible.

Maybe I’ve done a good project, it looks okay, making the client happy, but it is not like, “oh yes, this looks amazing”. But I don’t know if that’s ever possible with product design. When I’m designing dashboards and things like that, if it looks amazing, I start to wonder, “Is that actually distracting for the user?” I don’t know. I’m constantly questioning myself and what I make. I am always in a flux of what I think, but that’s okay as it’s good to be curious.

If you wanted to go and achieve a branded experience, how you would go about it?

More time would be a good start. I’m in an agency and not in-house; a lot of our projects have a quick turnaround. We don’t have the luxury of saying, “okay, let’s spend a couple of weeks on the onboarding phase”. Instead, we turn the client’s idea into a clickable prototype in less than two weeks. You don’t necessarily get the chance to say, “here’s the base level experience. How can we make it look even better and even more engaging”.

It sounds like even in an agency setting, there’s not much time to do visual design. What do you think has to happen at these companies for visual design to be a real focus?

I suppose it depends on the project as some projects do have a visual design focus. For example, when I work on a sprint, taking an idea to a UI prototype in two weeks, there is a bit of mood boarding done, and we make it look good. In those cases, it might be for an investor pitch, so the functionality is sometimes jeopardised. There’s a bit of a balancing act all the time, between making something look good and making it super useable.

What do you think about the idea that some people naturally have an eye for visual design?

I think some people do. Some people don’t. You see it out in the wild, even where I live, there are small shops, and they’ve made their own signs, and you’re like, “where did that come from” because it makes no design sense. But I think everyone can learn design.

I see design as almost equivalent to a builder. I see us both as labourers. A client comes to us, wants something, and we use computers to build or create it. I don’t think it’s this mysterious thing; I believe that people can learn it over time.

It’s also about priorities, whether someone cares enough about whether something that looks nice. If you think about how people decorate their houses, some people don’t care too much about the décor, and they’re okay with that. It’s the same with visual design. Some of us care a lot about it, and some people don’t, and that’s okay.

Do you think you naturally have an eye for visual design?

I would always say I’ve been more creative than academic. I am very logical, though, so I suppose that’s why I got into product design because I really enjoy processes and research.

I do enjoy stuff that looks good, but I’ve got to a stage, maybe because I’m a bit older and I’m quite a few years into my career now, where I’m okay with not being the best visual designer. I’ve noticed that I’ve started to get excited when people in my team make something that looks amazing, and I’m okay with knowing that I probably couldn’t have made that.

It’s great to see other designers create great work and be supportive because I know that my skills lie elsewhere. If someone asked me to do an illustration and I knew I couldn’t do it justice, I would go and find the right person to do that. But I think it’s only after time, once you get a bit more experienced and you’ve been in the industry for a bit of time, that you’re okay with that.

Do you rely on any resources to keep your designs sharp?

I’d probably say Dribbble, but I know that probably everyone hates it. I see Dribbble like London Fashion Week. This sounds so daft as I’m saying it, but you know London Fashion Week has all the catwalk models, and they’ve got absurd outfits on, and no-one’s ever going to wear that. But then there are snippets of that outfit that filter down into the mainstream and become normal that would be sold in Urban Outfitters.

I think Dribbble is the same as that. There is stuff on there where you think “that can’t even be built, what are you doing”. But then there are little gems that make you think “actually, that’s a really cool technique” or “I really like how that’s done”.

There’s also that guy, Steve Schoger. He does the Tailwind UI stuff and has a book about UI design, Refactoring UI. I feel that’s a good resource, but I don’t take it as gospel because I think it doesn’t work for every instance, but it’s a good starting place.

Looking at other designers, like what work they are producing, why do I like what they’re producing, why do I think it’s good. It’s a case of questioning everything. Rather than being passive and consuming the good design, start digging into why it’s good.

Do you have any ways that you practice?

As I said before working for myself and finding the type of work I’d like to do helps. I mainly redesign websites and improve brands for small businesses, mainly in Essex, mainly by women who have got terrible websites because they have had bad experiences with someone’s friend of a friend. They’ve been charged a couple of grand and it looks diabolical. That annoys me as well, people overcharging for stuff that’s poor quality.

I build websites for them, and I see it as a kind of trade. They get an excellent website off me, but it’s been a chance for me to experiment and so I can try stuff out and push designs a bit more where my day to day clients wouldn’t allow.

I struggle to design without a brief or any restrictions like you know when people say do what you want or do a side project. I hate that, I need some limitation or challenge, I suppose.

How do you find those clients, if you don’t mind me asking?

Facebook, mainly. I’m part of a Women’s Business Group, and lots of people are on there asking does anyone know someone who can make a logo or a website, then I’ll say, “Hey, I’m happy to help you out or give you some advice, or even feedback”. Usually, in those first calls, we have a chat, and then they’re like “oh actually, can you do this for me?”

One was a friend of a designer friend actually. It’s mostly word of mouth. It’s very rare that someone just googles you and says “hey, can you make me a website”.

I really enjoy marketing websites and branding, I like to keep those skills fresh as I would like to remain within branding a bit. I don’t know if there are many other designers or product designers like that, but I really enjoy brands and visual identities, and I feel like there’s more of that can be brought over into product design, but I don’t know what role that is.

Are there any professional visual designers whose work you follow?

I don’t think so, actually. Other than Dribbble. A lot of designers that I know are in-house, so it’s the product that they’ve been outputting. I enjoy looking at that, but I tend to find, when I’m looking for inspiration and stuff, I will be looking on Dribble, on Pinterest, Instagram maybe, but there’s no-one specifically I admire.

Also, I think it’s important not to look too much at an individual, especially when it comes to the brand work that I’ve done. If I look at really good individuals work, I sometimes don’t feel like my work is as good as theirs, and so I feel really crap about it. So I’d rather not compare or start looking at other designer’s work in too much detail, because I get hung up. I’d think “oh my God, they’re only 22, and I’m 30” and they’re like smashing out all this amazing work, and I find it a bit depressing. So I’ve been trying to focus more on appreciating other designer’s work but not comparing myself to them, which is tough.

If you learned visual design again from scratch, how would you approach it?

Mm, interesting. I might do more work around colour theory and that kind of thing. When I was at university, I tried to write my dissertation on good design, and I never concluded it.

It’s changed over time. Maybe I’d try having more mentors. I think the times I have improved the most are when I worked with a creative director for our web design agency who had maybe 8 years’ experience over me. When I was at another agency and someone came in who was my peer, that was a wakeup call, because I felt that they were much better than me.

So I think making sure that I was in places where I consistently had someone more senior than me who would be willing to teach me. That’s what I didn’t have with the internship. No-one was willing to teach me. It was like “you are here as an intern, but actually, we need you to do the work”, which was a bit like, “er, where am I meant to be learning then”.

So I think having someone around you who you can learn the ropes from and you can ask them questions directly and say “well why have you put that button there or why is it that colour”, I think that’s really helpful.

How did the situation with the senior creative director work in practice?

It was kind of a slow process. It was a really small team where a husband and wife and then their best friend all worked together, and I was the first person to join the company from outside.

It started off really small because I was junior, and I would just assist on stuff first. Say the creative director was making a pitch or a logo design, they would be like “okay can you do these small tweaks”. It was gradually over time, giving me more and more responsibility, but they were still there to check what I was doing.

I learnt loads from that creative director, which was great. For example, with the website design, over time, I was initially just tweaking the pages that she’d created, or maybe she’d made four of the templates and then she’d say “make a fifth template now” based on all the designs that had been done already. So it was just copying and doing the artworking almost, I wasn’t setting any creative direction or that kind of thing.

So that was literally doing the work, and then over time she’d say, “okay, you can take on this project. How do you think it should be done visually?”. She was still right there with me to say “okay, this looks good, but how about we try this” and “how do you think this could look” or “do you think there’s any issues around what you’ve done there”. She was just a really good creative director.