What Is a User Interface (UI) Designer? [Updated 2021]

Written by Coursera • Updated on May 10, 2021

“UI” stands for user interface—the graphical portion of an app, website, or device that a human user interacts with. UI designers seek to make these layouts and interactive elements intuitive, accessible, and inclusive.

A female UI designer with glasses on sits in front of a computer while sketching on a piece of paper

When you access a website or an app on your phone, there’s usually a graphical interface that allows you to navigate and hopefully achieve whatever it was you set out to do. UI designers create the elements and layouts that facilitate your actions.

Creating visually pleasing interfaces is important, but UI extends well beyond the aesthetic. When you’re using an app, it should be intuitive—you should know how to do what you’ve set out to do without any explanation. You should know where you are within a site or app. You should also have a good idea of what will happen if you push a button or flip a toggle switch. UI designers use visual cues to help guide a user through the interface.

It should also be accessible and inclusive. Users should be able to operate and understand the interface regardless of their ability, age, race, gender identity, or background. This might mean choosing a font that’s easy to read and translatable into different languages, or selecting colors that colorblind users can differentiate.

Let’s take a closer look at what UI designers do, how this differs from UX designers, why you might consider this as a career, and how to get started.

The vocabulary of UI design

Spend some time reading about UI design, and you’ll likely come across some terms you may not be familiar with. The world of user experience (UX) and UI design has its own vocabulary. Here are a few terms to familiarize yourself with.

  • User interface: The means by which a person interacts with an application or hardware device

  • Typography: The style and appearance of written material; the art of making type legible, readable, and appealing

  • Color theory: A series of concepts and guiding principles for the visual design effects of colors and how they mix, match, and contrast

  • Prototype: A sample or simulation of a final product used to test and gather feedback

  • Wireframe: A layout displaying functional elements of an interface

  • Breadcrumb: A way to show website users where they are in a website hierarchy (and how they got there)

  • Accessibility: The concept of whether a service or product can be used by people of all abilities, irrespective of their situation

  • Affordance: A feature or property of an element that help a user understand how they can interact with it

UI tasks and responsibilities

As a UI designer, you’ll be tasked with designing what digital products look like and how users will interact with them. This encompasses a range of tasks and decisions that might include:

  • Designing layouts and properly spacing page elements on a page

  • Improving and modernizing existing design environments

  • Ensuring designs can adapt to multiple device types (adaptive design)

  • Visualizing interactive elements, like buttons, sliders, toggles, icons, drop-down menus, and text fields 

  • Choosing color palettes, fonts, and typesetting

  • Making style guides for consistent brand identity company-wide

  • Creating wireframes or high-fidelity (hi-fi) layouts to show what an interface looks like with visual elements and branding included

  • Communicating with developers to make sure features are implemented as intended

  • Analyzing the impact of design and usability changes

“A big part of being a UI designer is that you are part of a team,” says Michael Worthington, founding partner of L.A. design studio Counterspace and faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, “and your creative solutions have to work in concert with a lot of other concerns from other team members: back end issues, marketing strategies, UX feedback etc. When your work gets better from these interactions is when teamwork is really working.”

Essential skills for UI design

As a UI designer, you’ll take your creativity into a digital environment and use technical skills to translate your ideas onto the screen. Effective UI designers rely on a broad skill set. Chances are you already possess some of these key skills. 

  • Empathy: Creating a product that’s easy and intuitive often means seeing things from a user’s perspective. If you can empathize with the people who’ll eventually use your designs, you can begin to tailor your design decisions to their needs.

  • Collaboration: Product development is a team effort. You’ll likely work closely with UX designers and user researchers to transform their basic wireframes and information architectures into fully-designed prototypes. You’ll also work with front-end developers to translate your designs into functional code. Sometimes you may also be asked to present your designs to stakeholders.  

  • Design and prototyping tools: The exact tools you use may vary depending on the company you work for, the product you’re designing, or your own personal preference. Some popular UI design tools you may want to familiarize yourself with include Sketch, Firma, InVision, Balsamiq, Axure, and Adobe XD. 

  • Color theory: Some of the most important choices you’ll make as a UI designer regard colors and color palettes. This isn’t just about what looks good. Colors can also hint at function and support brand identity.

  • Typography: More than 90 percent of information on the internet comes in the form of text [1]. Since it plays such a key role, typography can make the difference between good UI and bad UI.

  • Design patterns: UI design patterns offer general solutions to common design problems. Familiarity with these common patterns and components will save you time and allow you to focus on more specific user problems.

UI vs. UX design

User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design often go hand in hand, but the two fields have some important differences. While UX encompasses the overall experience a user has with a product or service, UI focuses on the graphic design and interface.

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Why pursue a career in UI design

If you’re passionate about design and interested in product development and web design work, then a career in UI could be a good fit. Working in this field gives you the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment to create solutions to real-world problems. 

“UI design offers a career that mixes the practical and the creative,” says Worthington. “Creative problem solving keeps your brain active and engaged, and frankly makes work enjoyable. For me, a career where you can be creatively fulfilled and be paid for your work is the best reward.”

For me, a career where you can be creatively fulfilled and be paid for your work is the best reward.

UI designer salary

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have a specific listing for UI designers. They do report that the median annual salary for web designers with similar roles was $77,260 in 2020 [2]. More than half of UI designers reported making more than $86,800, according to the 2021 Salary Guide by digital creative staffing agency Onward Search [3].

Job outlook

While user interfaces have been around for as long as we’ve had machines and computers, the role of UI designer is relatively new (and quickly growing). As of March 2021, this role was one of ten jobs with the fastest-growing month-over-month demand on LinkedIn [4]. The BLS predicts that job growth for web designers will increase at a rate much faster than average between 2019 and 2029 [5].

How to become a UI designer

There are many paths toward working as a UI designer. The process may vary based on your experience, education, transferable skills, and the type of company you’re hoping to work for. Let’s take a look at a few of the steps you can take to set yourself up for success.

1. Learn UI design skills.

A career in UI/UX design starts with having the right skills. While not always required to get a job, earning a degree is one way to start building your skillset. Some universities offer degree programs in human-computer interaction, human-centered computing, or human-centered design. Degrees or coursework in web design, digital design, and graphic arts often target skills that overlap with UI design.

Another option is to take courses or attend bootcamps that specialize in UI design. Look for programs that give you hands-on experience with common UI tools so you can put what you’re learning into practice.

“Think about what role in UI you want to have and build your strengths in that area,” advises Worthington. “Are you a hands on UI (graphic) designer? Do you specialize in organization and structure, strategy, branding, overlap more with UX? Play to your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.”

2. Gain experience.

"After learning a few basics, try to work on a real project as soon as possible," recommends Roman Jaster, visiting faculty at the California Institute of the Arts. "Student projects are great (and really valuable for learning basic techniques), but projects 'in the wild' have one important addition: actual users—you know, the U in the UX."

After learning a few basics, try to work on a real project as soon as possible.

You don’t need to wait until you get hired to start gaining experience either. Start by working on the design of your own website, or see if any family or friends have sites or apps that could use a redesign. Pay attention to the design of pages or apps you use regularly, and think about how you could improve the UI.

If you’re working toward a degree, check with your school’s career services office for any internship opportunities. Alternatively, you could volunteer your design services for local schools or non-profit organizations.

As you gain experience, focus on learning the software common to UI jobs. 

“Right now fluency with Figma will really help you visualize your ideas and fit right into a work environment,” says Worthington, “but it's important to remember that whatever software you are using is just a tool. The expertise you bring in how you use the tool is even more important: graphic design skills, creative thinking, and imagination should form the backbone of your skillset.”

Graphic design skills, creative thinking, and imagination should form the backbone of your skillset.

3. Build your portfolio.

Your portfolio is perhaps the most important factor when applying for UI jobs. More than anything else, your body of work demonstrates to potential employers what you can do. You don’t necessarily need your own website to have a portfolio. Online portfolio platforms like Dribbble, Behance, or Coroflot offer a free and convenient place to showcase your designs. 

As you gain experience, remember to update your portfolio with your newest and best work. 

4. Expand your network.

While many designers find out about open positions through public job boards, it’s also possible to find opportunities directly from your network. Start building relationships with other project development professionals (including UX designers and web developers) by attending industry events or interacting online. You never know who you might meet or what doors those relationships might open.

Read more: UX Design Books, Blogs, and Podcasts: A 2021 Resource List

Get started with Coursera

If you’re ready to get started on your path toward a career in UI design, California Institute of the Art offers a UI / UX Design Specialization. Through this series of four courses, you’ll learn from Worthington, Jaster, and other faculty the techniques and skills for designing visually-driven websites and apps. You can also try an introductory course in the Visual Elements of User Interface Design to see for yourself if UI is right for you.

Related articles

Article sources

1. Adobe. "Typography in UI Design, https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/ui-design/typography-in-ui-design/." Accessed March 25, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Web Developers and Digital Designers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm." Accessed May 10, 2021.

3. Onward Search. "Digital Creative Salary Guide 2020, https://www.onwardsearch.com/2021-salary-guide/." Accessed May 10, 2021.

4. LinkedIn. "The Most In-Demand Jobs Right Now, https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/trends-and-research/2020/most-in-demand-jobs." Accessed March 25, 2021.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Web Developers and Digital Designers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm." Accessed March 25, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on May 10, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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