I have been asked for design career advice from a number of college students. One of the questions that keeps coming up… Do I need to learn to code?

A lot of times, I’ll say, “it depends.” This week, I changed my answer.

I told a college senior, “no.”

I said “no,” in part, because it was provocative. Because I wanted to grab his attention and strongly stress my next two points.

Here are those two points, a bit more fleshed out since I described them over the phone earlier this week.

1. Before you think about skills and tools, you need to ask yourself – “What problem am I trying to solve?”

First off, this problem is clearly a multi-parter.

At the highest level, the issue is that you lack a design job but want one. THIS is what you need to focus on.

Specifically, you need to determine what KIND of design job you want. You need to narrow the scope of the problem.

There are a lot of ways to drill down here. Two come to mind as most important.

Figure out what type of firm and industry you want to join. Do you want to design for a startup or large company, marketing agency or design agency, non-profit or the government? Do you want to work in the media industry, tech industry, or defense industry? …What? You don’t care? Fake it till you make it. Think about your personality and interests and hypothesize. You can always move to a new job or industry later. But you need to start somewhere. And you need potential employers to believe that you care.

Figure out what type of design position you want to apply for. That’s right. Nine times out of ten, especially at the larger companies, you won’t apply to become a “designer.” You’ll apply to work as a “UI designer,” “UX designer,” “front-end designer,” “graphic designer,” etc. A specific type of design position. Yes, there is some overlap in tools and skills, but there are also key differences. Domain-specific knowledge is a real thing. I have passed on a lot of “front-end design” candidates who were great at “graphic design” but had little to no experience with front-end projects involving HTML, CSS, and JS.

Okay, let’s say you arrive at a conclusion. You decide to apply for entry-level UX design positions at big tech companies.

Finally, a decently narrow problem.

And now we arrive at my second point.

2. Learning to code is like learning to write a novel. Stop talking about it. Code! Write!

Don’t spend your time focusing on tools and skills. Work on projects. You will never be able to figure out what you need to know until you face real problems. You’re on the right track when you’re trouble-shooting and reverse-engineering to accomplish specific goals. When you end up spending a bunch of time Googling to uncover possible solutions.

Projects serve a double purpose. 1) They help you learn skills and tools. 2) They help you land jobs. The key to #2 is to make sure your projects show an employer that you can 1) think well and 2) produce great work. If you’ve done school or paid projects, post those. Obviously. If not, create your own. If you’re applying for UX design positions and don’t have much experience, do critiques of existing sites and digital products and post them on your portfolio. Tackle each one like it’s a paid UX design project. Conduct competitive analyses, create personas, and talk to users. Maybe even whip up some wireframes.

A few more general tips on design portfolios…

Only post your best work. Only post your best work. Only post your best work. Seriously. Like 5-7 pieces is plenty.

As much as possible, make sure your portfolio contains projects that are directly related to the position for which you are applying. If your portfolio has a decent amount of indirectly related content, call out the directly related pieces in your cover letter. Link to this content. Make it dead simple for the employer to find your best, relevant work. HAND IT TO THEM.

If you want to see examples of great portfolios, seek out the personal websites of designers at the top agencies or tech companies.

Beyond that…

Read articles on Medium. Follow designers on Twitter. Watch panels and interviews with designers on YouTube. Go look at the job listings. See what those type of companies are looking for in terms of skills.

For even more tips about applying for design jobs, check out this other post I wrote.