I don’t have a degree in product design, yet here I am — a product designer

Aaron James
8 min readSep 1, 2021

This is my career journey. I want to give you a glimmer of hope at the risk of dating myself.

Listen to this article
Myspace profile images of me
My Myspace photos from yesteryear. You’re welcome.

My origin story begins on Myspace, where I was a high school “hacker.” If you were a power user of this social network like I was, may your angsty emo teen heart live on forever, and your selfies remain buried deep within Myspace’s servers XD.

I’ve already done you the favor of digging up my most embarrassing Myspace photos. See banner image. Yikes.

My Myspace “hacker” skills consisted of creating custom profile themes for my friends and family using HTML, CSS, and the occasional pinch of Javascript. I was self-taught and became so good at creating profile themes that you wouldn’t even recognize the profile as being one from Myspace. From fantasy sci-fi themes to minimalist designer themes, I was known as “that guy” to everyone in my high school — for better or worse. These themes sparked my passion for design, and I look back on those days fondly (and cringe).

After high school, I graduated from Myspace themes and began creating simple websites, concert flyers, CD artwork, and concert posters for local bands in my community. I’m still self-taught at this point. My designs were mediocre at best, yet people still showed an interest in my designs, and I was always in demand. I knew that I could create a business out of graphic design someday. I just had to get a graphic design degree, and I’d be set. Look out, world! Here I come.

I moved north to attend the Art Insitute of Portland and decided to become the best damn graphic designer to ever attend that school. I was so indecisive, you guys — not even a year later, I changed my mind and decided I wanted to become a package designer. There’s no way I’d change my mind this time… I then immediately decided to become a photographer instead. I experimented with every design discipline. I was a mess. My mom knocked some sense into me and convinced me to finish my degree in graphic design.

I was a mess.

I was still “hacking” away on websites the entire time I was in college. I became better and better at web design on my own. But, again, I’m still self-taught, and my passion for web design was a late-night hobby. It never occurred to me that these lessons learned from all-nighters spent fixing bugs would be the ones that would shape me into the product designer I am now.

During the last two years of college, I interned at various agencies around Portland. I took on all sorts of projects without the faintest idea of what I was doing. Jobs ranged from production gigs, print gigs, photography gigs, and cold-calling potential clients. I tried everything at the agencies I interned at. Did I mention I had no idea what I was doing? They put way too much trust in me as an intern.

Then one day, I overheard the agency owner speaking with a client on the phone about a web design project. He expressed to the client that he didn’t have a web designer on staff who could take on the project. So I walked over to him, and I said I could do it. I convinced him that I had the skills needed to create a custom Wordpress website, and he believed me. He took a chance on me, even though I never shared my web design work with him before. He believed that even if I didn’t have experience, I could learn on the job. I’ll never forget this.

A few months of hard work flew by in a blink, and I successfully launched my first real website, and I was hooked from that point forward. That was the tipping point in my career.

If you spotted those two book references, you’re a nerd, and I love you.

My internship ended, and I graduated college the following semester. Guess where I landed a job after I graduated? Apple. I’m not kidding. I was instantly successful. That’s it—the end.

Except that’s not entirely true. I still wasn’t a product designer by this point — especially at Apple. You’ll be disappointed to learn that I worked in an Apple retail store as a specialist for my first job after college. I was selling computers to students, business people, and grandmas. The Apple Store is where I found my love of teaching others, and it opened my eyes to the importance of high-quality product design. Apple became my biggest design influence from this experience.

What the heck, why is this story so long? Ok. Let me get to the part where I become a product designer overnight.

My good friend from college reached out to me about a job she’d landed at a small startup. She was so lucky to join a small team at an app boutique that created photo tools for Instagram. I was equally as lucky because she asked if I’d be interested in joining too. Because of Instagram’s overnight success, this app boutique saw an opportunity to leech off the success. It took zero convincing to get me to join as I saw how big of an opportunity this was for a n00b like me. I was already sold the moment she asked.

That app boutique was a slog. I kid you not; I created 30+ mobile apps within a year. All slight variations of one another — none of which met a high-quality bar. The silver lining here was that I learned mobile design even though it was trial by fire. My Photoshop skills could only drive me so far before I burned out. After that, I was done and ready for a new job. Unfortunately, I’m not very proud of the designs I created at that chopshop, and they will forever be locked away in my Dropbox. I’m seriously this close to deleting the entire archive. So let’s move on, shall we?

I aimlessly ping-ponged around the Portland design scene for two long years. Taking on freelance gigs here and there. The entire time I was building up my product design portfolio and readying myself to interview at a big tech company one day. This time in my life felt like I was lost in the Oregon wilderness with no end in sight. My only goal was to build a design portfolio I was proud of. Then, finally, companies began to notice me, and recruiters reached out more frequently. I think I was onto something but was unsure.

Another company was willing to take a chance on me and allow me to learn on the job.

I finally worked up the courage to apply to companies I felt were out of reach for my skills and experience. I was always prepared to fail. Then I sent my updated portfolio to Hulu, and they called me back! Frick yeah! I still get fired up about this moment in my life. Finally, yet another company was willing to take a chance on me and allow me to learn on the job. I was surrounded by many people infinitely more talented than myself, and I loved it. Not to mention, I was working on a product I actually used daily—bonus points.

I wasn’t at Hulu for very long before I caught the “I want to work at a unicorn startup and make mega millions” bug. Many friends who I worked directly with at Hulu left to join a hot new startup called Cyanogen. I was like a fish and Cyanogen, a shiny object luring me in. My friends begged me to join — to leave my new stable job with the promise of a golden lottery ticket. I was a sucker and left Hulu, breaking off many meaningful connections with people I respected for an uncertain future at a startup.

Let’s pause here for a moment so you can learn from my mistake. Never join a startup for the moola. If this is your primary motivation to join, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Join a startup because you believe in the mission.

Although the implosion of Cyanogen was my biggest career failure, I learned more at that startup in 2 ½ years than anywhere else prior. I wore every design hat imaginable. I learned how to collaborate, pitch my vision, organize a team, run workshops, build resilience, and most importantly, I learned what poor leadership looks like. I was laid off just before Thanksgiving and was devastated. Telling my wife and newborn son that I’d be job hunting over the holidays was sobering for me. I exchanged a Hulu for a dud.

The most beautiful things can come from your biggest failures.

I revamped my portfolio and began my job hunt once more. The recruiting rescue boats paddled out to the sea of LinkedIn and saw the public implosion of Cyanogen online. They began to survey the wreckage for survivors. These recruiters were passing out emergency life jackets to everyone who was laid off. I just so happen to post my portfolio to LinkedIn, and a Facebook recruiter reached out to me for an interview. I didn’t hesitate and booked my interview for the next day. I was employed once again, just before Christmas.

Facebook is where I’ve spent the last 5 years sharpening my skills. I’ve made life-long friends there, had immense product impact, and l learned to lead as a designer. It’s a magical place to work. There is no other company like Facebook, and very few designers ever get the privilege of designing at such a massive scale. So if you ever get a chance to work for Facebook, don’t hesitate.

Life had been stable and relatively easy for me at Facebook, but you know what? I felt a bit stagnate and became jaded over the course of 5 years. The pandemic wasn’t helping matters either, and I needed a new challenge to rekindle my passion for design.

My next adventure will soon be at Netflix. A company I admire and have desperately wanted to work for forever since I was a wee young lad at Hulu. That adventure is unwritten for me, and we’ll see how the future plays out.


Here’s what I hope you’ve learned from my story:

  • You don’t need a degree to become a product designer, but you need immense drive and enthusiasm to level up your skills. It’s not easy, but you can do it. School isn’t a bad option either if you require structure.
  • You can expect your early years as a designer to be a grind. It’s incredibly rare to land a dream job out of college. So expect to put in hard work to succeed.
  • Everyone’s career path will be different. Some will struggle more than others. Some will outright fail. Build resilience to increase your chances of long-term success.
  • Don’t choose a job for a big payout. Instead, choose a job because you believe in the mission of the company.
  • Take risks and apply for jobs you’re not qualified for.
  • Your network is where you’ll find your next job. So connect with as many designers as you can. Share your work and look out for one another.
  • Finally, your portfolio is a living creature. Take care of it by continually updating it and seek feedback to help you improve it over time.

Follow me on Medium or LinkedIn