Design Foundations

Design Foundations

Cover Photo


A brief introduction to Design Foundations, including what it is, who it’s for, and how to get the most out of it.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it's this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs, The Guts of a New Machine by Rob Walker, The New York Times (Nov 30, 2003)

Welcome to Design Foundations — a free resource for product design. We’ll explain the core concepts across visual design, interaction design, product management, and user research. It’s intended for:

  • people with no design experience considering getting into product design;
  • graphic and print designers looking to make the move into product design;
  • people working in related disciplines (like product or engineering) who want to complement their existing skill sets; and
  • existing product designers looking to improve their skills.

You’ll learn what product designers do, how they do it, and how you can do it too. These days, this is typically learned at universities and private colleges. However, these are often cost-prohibitive for those just dipping their toes in the design pool. As a self-taught designer working at one of the world’s largest tech companies, I know first-hand that you don’t need a formal design education to become a product designer. My hope is that Design Foundations can provide a more accessible alternative for those exploring the field, or who lack the time or means to commit to a full-time course.

On Product Design

Perhaps the biggest misconception about product design is that it is primarily an artistic pursuit. Whilst visual design is certainly an important aspect of product design, it rarely comprises the bulk of the role. Visuals are important, and can contribute significantly to establishing user trust in a product. However, visual design is typically more the icing on the cake than the cake itself. As Steve Jobs quipped, Design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Further, Product Design is not a subjective discipline. It typically has measurable business outcomes, and given those outcomes, has an objectively-measurable “best” solution. Whilst we may never know the precise best solution, as it is often a moving target, our role as designers is to increasingly push our products closer through ongoing measurement and iteration.

Product Design Skill Sets

A generalist product designer will typically work across four skill sets:

  • Visual Design;
  • Interaction Design;
  • Product Management; and
  • User Research.

The exact mix varies significantly depending on the nature and scope of the particular role, plus the size and complexity of the product. Designers working independently will often find themselves working evenly across all four areas. Yet designers working on larger, more mature products may focus more heavily on one or two areas. Some companies with large design teams even split these roles into discrete functions, allowing designers to further specialize. However, even in such cases, it is advantageous for a product designer to be “T-shaped” — that is, have a solid understanding of the disciplines adjacent to their speciality.

How to Use Design Foundations

How to get the most out of Design Foundations depends on your prior knowledge and end goal. It’s structured along a curriculum with the intent of providing a comprehensive overview of the product design landscape. However, it’s not strictly sequential, and aside from general subject matter groupings, each article can be read in isolation. That said, the following are the recommended modules for each audience:

People with no design experience considering getting into product design:

Graphic or print designers looking to make the move into product design:

People working in related disciplines who want to complement their existing skill sets:

Existing product designers looking to improve their skills: