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 optimise 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. When you’re using an app, it should be intuitive, meaning that you should 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.

Keep in mind that the interface 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 colour blind users can differentiate.

Let’s take a closer look at what UI designers do, 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 familiarise yourself with.

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
Colour 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 help a user understand how they can interact with it
AnalyticsThe process of taking data and finding out what information the data is telling you. For example, you may ask questions such as “What buttons are users clicking on most often?” Or “How long are users spending on a particular page?”

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 modernising existing design environments

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

  • Visualising 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

  • Analysing 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 LA 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 empathise 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 familiarise 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 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.


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 designer salary

According to Glassdoor, UI designers in the UK make an average salary of £51,716 as of July 2023 [2]. However, salaries vary by location, experience, company size, and job responsibilities.

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 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 programmes in human-computer interaction, human-centred computing, or human-centred design. Degrees or coursework in web design, digital marketing, and graphic design often target skills that overlap with UI design.

Another option is to take courses or attend bootcamps that specialise in UI design. Look for programmes 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 specialise in organisation 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 organisations.

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

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, 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.

Get started with Coursera

UI and UX designers use many of the same skills and often overlap in their job responsibilities. Consider the  Google UX Design Professional Certificate on Coursera to learn about the fundamentals of user design to build skills toward a career in UI design. With this Professional Certificate, build professional prototypes, connect with users, apply UX concepts to real-world scenarios, and start building a portfolio that can be used to strengthen your application to positions in the user design field. 

Article sources


Adobe. "Typography in UI Design, https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/ui-design/typography-in-ui-design/." Accessed July 12, 2023.

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