How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

Cover art: my wireframe for ——— with Digital Extremes and Blind Squirrel Games

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

Introduction – The Future Afire

I get it. User Interface art and User Experience design is hard. Really hard.

Adding to the Sisyphean challenge is the hard luck that you’re not even attempting this under ideal circumstances. Far from it: hapless in the roil of global pandemics, looming recessions and whatever personal hot-nonsense you had previous to this, you still have to somehow learn design… and who even knows when a physical classroom will be viable again (or if you’ll even want to return to it anytime soon).

Learning video game interface design, a career that is pitch-perfect for remote work – and has been for some time – is probably the smartest career decision you could make as a traditional designer. Game UI and UX is lucrative, creative, and evergreen (and recession proof!). 

And I know how to get you on the path.

Oh beloved and potential future Mentee, I bring you a Benediction! No, you don’t have to take out a heavy loan for some ridiculous “gamer” school. No, you don’t have to wait in confusion and dread if you’ll even want to sit in that poorly ventilated classroom. No, no more wishing and wanting for that Best Destiny.

You, all by yourself, can get into the games industry one studious day at a time. Here are some excellent resources for you to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design in the covid19 age.

The War Room mockup for Call of Duty Advanced Warfare by Seismic Games, Infinity Ward and Activision

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

#1 Video Game UI & UX Mentorships

Let’s start with the most obvious answer: you’ll need a teacher if you want to learn one of the most difficult artforms in the modern world. Outside of crazy-expensive tuitions and the stunning uncertainty of how schools will function in the future, remote learning is your fastest, most effective bet. 

That being said, you don’t want a single teacher in a laggy Zoom call full of 20 barely-there students with an ambien-like curriculum. You really don’t want to shell out thousands only to feel as though you learned less than you would’ve spending a weekend with Youtube. And you absolutely under no circumstances want to feel as though you made a huge mistake and the dream is further than it’s ever been before.

If you’re going to learn remotely, you’d better do it right: grab a Mentorship. One instructor, one student. And not just any instructor (say some career burn-out, smoldering in academic ashes). You want a hungry working professional who is out grinding every day, fighting in the gaming trenches, proud of their battle scars barely healed-over. A UI / UX professional is a rare enough find, but a working designer that enjoys teaching is on a whole ‘nother level.  

You’ll also want Mentors that constantly affirm, “Do as I do.” There should be a strange meta-layer to your instruction where you can deconstruct how your Mentor thinks, solves novel problems, apologizes for mistakes, accounts for multiple possibilities at once, etc. They’re not just teaching, the great ones are learning and adapting as much as you are. 

Outside of their professional zen, great video game professional mentors will also tell you the ins and outs of the industry as they thumb it’s pulse – if they’re not outright defining it themselves. Have an interview? They’ll tell you exactly what HR / The recruiter / The Art Director is thinking. Don’t know what a wireframe is? Ask, and ye shall receive a crash course in it. Really want to know what the day-to-day of a video game UI and UX person is? They’ll tell you all about average and wild days from multiple companies from personal experience. 

An excellent Mentor is basically the masked magician that spoils how all the greatest tricks are done – assuming you need to saw a lady in half tomorrow.

Special Note: If you’re going to get a Mentor, be sure they specialize in what you want. For example, I am one of the very few User Interface and User Experience Mentors for video games in North America (possibly the world?!). There are dozens of UI Mentors, but not all specialize equally. Some are heavily invested in UX wireframing, others are savants with painterly UI art, still others are great at talking out ideas without having to sketch them — see if you can ask the organization or the Mentor who is laser-focused for you and your unique quirks or blindspots.

Watch out for: Any one person or organization that doesn’t vet you first, or allow you the opportunity to vet them. Now I’ll be very real with you: mostly the vetting is to make sure you’re not crazy, violently untalented, or otherwise nonviable as a human you must converse with for an hour. But you too need to know if your Mentor’s style and personality is a good fit for you too. The last thing you need is to drop a cool grand only to find out the highly respected game Mentor loves to wear his red baseball cap and has strong opinions on women in the workplace. 

My wireframe for Chat integration in Project ———- with Digital Extremes and Blind Squirrel Games

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

#2 Personal Projects

Believe it or not, your own goofy, giddy personal work is the best way to grow. Looking back, I have absolutely no doubt the reason I made it into the Industry in the first place was the aggressive amount of personal work I made for months prior to my application to Midway Games. But don’t take my word for it, you’re on the damn  site, take a look around. Every one of these silly one-offs have been invaluable practice; from simple masking in Aftereffects, Herculean efforts like an entire app, to lifelong lessons in maximalism in my web design

One of the best reasons to dig into personal work is emotional attachment; an attachment which implies follow-through. Projects are dramatically more difficult and rewarding when you need to take them to an objective level of completion. The public eye also brings a level of excellence that’s hard to synthesize. Therefor, for practical and public reasons, follow-through is the essential core of learning, especially for learning new skill sets – and its necessity can not be overstated. 

In fact, here’s something I want you to consider: your job is to create a positive feedback loop where your efforts give you slightly more motivation to put forth slightly more effort which gains you slightly more motivation, and so on. Personal work primes the engine on our feedback loop quite a bit, ensuring your work perpetuates the mechanism of your love of creating even more work. 

A word of caution, most beloved neophyte: if you grow stagnant, or worse still, if the feedback loop slips into the negative, you’ll grind to a frustrating halt. Stagnant and paralytic, your competition will be growing that much brighter in the absence of your shadow. Oh, and your competition is me.

No pressure.

Personal work is the closest you’ll ever get to a padded laboratory environment in which to practice. And in order to compete with the likes of me (the video game boss that ends up being a regular enemy by late-game) you’ll need lots of practice. Personal work is the most effective and efficient practice I know of.

The real professional world is mercurial and formless – there’s no real way to practice for it specifically. In fact, you’ll likely be tasked with coming up with things that never were and have never been – and then you’ll have to champion that nameless thing. How in the world do you practice being ready for the things you can scarcely imagine?

If you’ve studied the exquisite art of follow-through, time management, and efficient processes – it doesn’t matter what shapeless dread they throw at you. You’ve been practicing to stay agile and full of potential – being caught flatfooted is unacceptable. Eventually you’ll that you can never be ready – but you can always be ready enough.

Do try: Learning a powerful engine to implement UI like Unity or Unreal – or really anything with a timeline like Animate CC (formerly Flash) or Gamemaker. Some studios definitely want you to integrate the designs, others have dedicated coders. But the ability to not just design but animate and integrate will never hurt your chances in the video game industry. Besides, you want to talk about follow-through, imagine your worth if you could make an entire app or game from start to finish!

Don’t try: Getting distracted by any one project. To break into the games industry, you’ll need a reasonably robust (6 to 9 projects) portfolio. If you get bogged down in any one project, it hurts your overall timeline – and you only have so much energy to spare in these wild times.

Explorations of the health bar in Wasteland 3 with inXile and Microsoft Games

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

#3 Mock-up an existing property

Wait, isn’t this personal work? Not quite – I’m keeping this in its own unique category because it’s meant to fulfill a very unique role in your portfolio – and has certain morale implications(?). 

It has been a long tradition for designers to do dream mockups of projects they’ll never get or gigs they’d love to have. So people redesign Netflix’s menu, the crossbar on the Playstation Menu, and reddit has a field-day with indie games. 

No, it’s not particularly fair (and is wildly anxiety inducing) for the original artist to have their work steamrolled by random passers-by. But mocking up existing properties has unique benefits.

For one, your name and website are attached to some of the most powerful branding on the planet. For another, it’s a property your audience (hiring managers and art directors) are familiar with – requiring little by way of exposition. Lastly, mocking up an existing IP shows you’re an active designer that doesn’t shy away from a challenge. If you’re nervous about trying to explain a “fake portfolio piece”, tell your detractors all working artists do this at some point, and this is like a gamejam for artists.

Do try: to go for obscure things that are in sore need of a designer’s touch. Bad music album covers, books, indie games, apps, and websites are a few obscure things you can change that you can also have a personal attachment to.

Don’t try: to outdo the major corporations and brands. They’ve hired the best of the best to handle all their design work, sit down junior. If you take on McDonalds, you will be judged on McDonald’s sum-total of visual design excellence. McDonald’s ain’t hiring geeks off the street, these are people who are handy with the steel – they earn their keep

A work-in-progress of the Art Pass on the Shell Menu of Wasteland 3

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

#4 Help people around your skill level

Whether it’s pro bono work or dramatically discounted, doing work for peers and friends at riiiiight around your skill level can pay off huge dividends. For one, your contemporaries will all be growing in skill together. One of you will eventually make it big and likely take the others along for the ride. You think I have two Call of Duty games under my belt because I worked the room and could throw my weight around? I made friends at Electronic Arts, and those people made connections all over Los Angeles. 

You should always be vigilant for the exploitation of your labors. But consider the incredible practice of real-world projects with real people. I remember a friend’s cousin hired me to do the website redesign of the Schaumburg chamber of commerce. I had literally no design experience and charged maybe $1000 for it? It was the first time I realized I was in way over my head. After that grueling Imposter-syndrome laden experience, I never promoted myself as a web designer ever again – I learned just how much I needed to learn! 

Helping people around your level is tremendous for networking, a skill every modern artist will need. It’s a solitary field, mostly reliant upon your gut, so having a professional network that grew up in lockstep with you is essential for your best possible future (especially amid social distancing and remote work).

Do try: Trading for favors. Make a logo for this streamer in return for exposure. Help your dentist’s website and see if he has other dentist friends with wretched online presences, too. Have a coder-friend that sucks at art? He’ll be your Sam to your Frodo if you can make something work together. 

Don’t try: to get paid at a very low skill level. This is the easiest way to be picked off by Industry poachers who can smell the exploitability on you. There is a world of difference between pro-bono work and getting nothing back for your time. If you’re junior as hell, shoot for the actual junior-level position and no junior one-off “side-gigs”. And dear God, stay away from Upwork.

UX Designer cover art
My sketchbook from my first UI gaming job at Midway Games

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

#5 Reverse engineer what you see on Pinterest and Dribbble

I try to make sure my students are never discouraged by seeing the best work of other professionals – and that’s really what pinterest and Dribble are: showcases of the best from the best. It’s very hard to gain perspective when the least talented guy in the room is you no matter how talented you are. So, for the preservation of your sanity and ego, you might want to stay away.

On the other hand Pinterest and Dribble contain a wealth of design trends you should absolutely be aware of. Not all the designs are viable from a usability standpoint, but inspiration is inspiration. 

Pinterest and Dribbble are great ways to analyze, deconstruct and if possible, reconstruct design trends – if you’ve got the head for it. Need to make an app and have no idea where to start? Boom, just look at a bunch of app designs and recognize patterns that are repeated and what designers shy away from. Making a sci-fi game? You should at least know what makes a sci-fi UI read as generic, as opposed to something wild and novel – that still reads as sci-fi. 

But please, a word of caution: don’t try to copy verbatim what you see on Pinterest or Dribbble. Those are unique solutions made for unique problems by talented artists. That’s not you. Just because you grab the same tanks and planes, that does NOT give you a good head for war. Try to understand why elements, designs, and aesthetics are working. Really comprehend the interplay between art and engineering. Make things abstract – think about common things you are seeing in a new light. If you had to make this… how would you do it better? Or at all?

Pinterest in particular is a handy tool for collections to have at thehip: fantasy, sci fi interfaces, minimalist, dashboard, etc. This will help create a touchstone to hold your portfolio work up to, at least by way of UI trends and UX widgets. Comparing the quality of your work against Pinterest and Dribbble is, again, unhealthy – but making sure you’re aware of what a client / boss would expect can only help you.

Do Try: To understand what makes the interfaces you see “cool” or “slick” or “clean”. Put shape, color, form to these abstract feelings. Check out designs that are completely removed from your artform: web sites and apps and even strange turns like fine art and the sciences. Just like learning a foreign language, absolutely drown yourself in design, trends, and standards. 

Don’t Try: To copy what you see. For all the wonderfully poetic reasons above but mostly because if it looks like a direct copy, that might be a legal matter. Further to that, what company wants to keep the person employed who made, “exactly their site with no changes”?

The first screen of the first game I ever worked on, Ballers Phenom 2006 (also: f’ing LOL, look at this thing – the hell is going on!?)

How to learn video game User Interface Art and User Experience Design on your own in the Covid19 age

Whatever you do, don’t sit still

And that’s it! Some ways how to learn video game UI and UX design in the covid19 day and age. Doubtless there are more methods and ideas and programs – but honestly, nothing will ever come close to a Mentorship – so you should start there.

Your journey from here to a gainfully successful game developer will be an usual one moving forward. The old rules, old expectations – even the old blogs are no more. You’ll be moving forward into a world people can barely predict or understand. In such an age, you need to invest in a future where you are still building, still growing, and still flourishing. What better way to ensure that future comes to pass… than by building it brick by brick? 

John “The Wingless” Burnett is a 20 year User Interface Artist (UI Artist) and User Experience Designer (UX Designer) in the video game industry and digital design sphere. He is an award-winning artist available for hire or for UX Design Mentorship