What Is a User Interface (UI) Designer?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Take a look at what UI designers do, how this career differs from UX designers, why you might pursue UI design, and how to get started.

[Featured image] A UI designer with glasses on sits in front of a computer while sketching on a piece of paper.

A UI designer designs the graphical user interface of an app, website, or device that a human interacts with. For example, when you access a website or an app on your phone, there’s usually a graphical interface that allows you to navigate and achieve your goal. UI designers create and optimize the interactive elements that facilitate your actions, such as buttons, menus, breadcrumbs, progress bars, and accordions.

Creating visually pleasing interfaces is important, but UI extends beyond the aesthetic. Using an app or website should be intuitive, meaning you have a good idea of what will happen if you click a button or flip a toggle switch. UI designers use visual cues to help guide a user through the interface.

A site or app 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 colours that colorblind users can differentiate.

The vocabulary of UI design

In researching UI design, you’ll find important terms specific to this field. Here are a few terms to familiarize yourself with so that you can deepen your understanding of UI design and make an empowered decision about starting a career as a UI designer.

User interfaceThe means by which a person interacts with an application or hardware device
TypographyThe style and appearance of written material; the art of making type legible, readable, and appealing
Color theoryA series of concepts and guiding principles for the visual design effects of colours and how they mix, match, and contrast
PrototypeA sample or simulation of a final product used to test and gather feedback
WireframeA layout displaying functional elements of an interface
BreadcrumbA way to show website users where they are in a website hierarchy (and how they got there)
AccessibilityThe concept of whether a service or product can be used by people of all abilities, irrespective of their situation
AffordanceA feature or property of an element that helps a user understand how they can interact with it

What does a UI designer do?

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 colour 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 an easy and intuitive product 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. 

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

  • Typography: More than 90 per cent of information on the Internet is text [1]. Since typography plays such a key role, it 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 graphic design and interface.


Why pursue a career in UI design

If you’re passionate about design and interested in product development and web design work, a career in UI could be a good fit. Working in this field allows you 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, making 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 and job outlook

According to Glassdoor, UI designers in Canada earn an annual base salary of $66,879 [2]. Salaries will vary depending on location, job responsibilities, company size, and experience.

While user interfaces have existed for as long as machines and computers have, the role of UI designer is relatively new (and quickly growing). The Government of Canada Job Bank predicts that the job outlook for graphical user interface designers will be good or very good across provinces [3].

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 look at a few steps 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 bachelor’s degree is one way to build your skill set. 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 specializing 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, and 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 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 skill set.”

"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 what you can do to potential employers. You don’t necessarily need your 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, finding opportunities directly from your network is also possible. 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.

Start your UI design journey with Coursera.

Taking online courses can be a great way to start on your path toward a career in UI design. In the Cal Arts UI / UX Design Specialization, you can gain hands-on experience with projects that focus on designing visually-driven websites and apps. You can also try an introductory course in the Visual Elements of User Interface Design to see if UI is right for you.

Article sources


Adobe. "Typography in UI Design, https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/ui-design/typography-in-ui-design/." Accessed May 31, 2024.

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