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Are design boot camps worth it?

Are design boot camps worth it?

Feb 13, 2024

Someone who read my article about user experience design as a profession contacted me and asked for recommendations on bootcamps for newbies. My answer was simple: I do not recommend any bootcamps if you’re a newbie.

I have several problems with bootcamps. Organizing bootcamps is a fruitful business for the organizers rather than for the participants. Some bootcamps advertise themselves as teaching you a profession in ten weeks and the mentoring isn’t high quality. A few months ago, I ran into a familiar name among the mentors of a newly announced bootcamp. A junior ex-colleague of mine started in this industry only three years ago yet now he is a bootcamp mentor.

A future-proof profession

I understand why it is appealing to start to work as a designer or make a career switch and become a UX designer. This field is much more learnable than any other IT work, and the salary and opportunities are excellent. Being a designer who designs online software and services is a stable, future-proof profession. As everything becomes digital around us, I’m sure we will not have to be afraid that there will not be a need for our work in the future. Million-dollar software solutions need to be designed, and there are not enough people to do the actual job.

Let’s assume that you are a newbie in this field. You go to a bootcamp. They show you the essential tools. They might provide you with some background knowledge. You put together a prototype, and you have a final presentation as a closing chapter of the bootcamp, and that is all. The whole flow is entirely disconnected from real life. While you might feel that you are in the right place as you are in the boot camp process, once you are out, most of the time, you have more questions and are more confused than before you started.

Bootcamps leave you unprepared for the real world. The real learning begins in your first years, and it is up to design leaders to set new designers up for success.

Mentorship and actual project work are what you need to evolve and become successful as a designer. You get none of this at bootcamps. Instead, you get the glamorous part as Jaqrell Alvarez mentioned on the Design Doesn’t Exist podcast:27 “Bootcamps are the glamourization of the design industry.”

I talked to multiple newbies who were bootcamp participants, and most of them confirmed this to me. You can get an overview of what the profession is about, put your hands on some of the tools needed to design, and get familiar with different processes, and that's about it. The experience is too quick and too basic.

Even the promise of these bootcamps itself is a bit of a false promise. Just think about how the senior participants of this profession got into the field. Many of them, including me, started as graphic designers, then became web designers as there was no such thing as UX Designer. After that, I deep-dived into research methods and went to work for companies where I had the chance to learn the techniques. It took me years to understand the different processes and how to do them right. Getting knowledge from a book and applying it to real life is much different. What I’m trying to explain is that design is also a profession like every other that requires years of knowledge and experience.

What I also notice is that those who sign up for these workshops are often quite vulnerable. They are people who are considering a career change because they are dissatisfied with their current job, or they are very young beginners who are interested in the work. This kind of vulnerability can easily be exploited by false promises of quick career opportunities.

It is easy to get in, and you quickly get out.

Design bootcamps are run by profit-driven organizations. You will get in if you apply to them and have the money. On the other hand, if we talk about a great design school, you need to apply, and they check the your skills, and being accepted is a challenge. The main goal of bootcamp organizers is to get as many people to pay for their services as possible.

I guess you can’t blame a business that wants to make money. You can only do this if they don’t deliver what they promise to their clients, and this is precisely what bootcamp organizers do.

A hilarious promise of some of these design bootcamps is a job guarantee. How can you guarantee a job to someone with no previous design experience? You don’t filter the participants, so there is no real criteria for the soft and personal skills of the participants.

Bootcamps usually explain some quick methods to apply when you design. They usually talk about “design thinking,” the magic keyword that is supposed to make all design problems instantly disappear. Other than that, bootcamps mainly focus on software skills.

You jump right into the design tool, put together something, and have a “final presentation” of what you designed. The whole flow is a “success theatre” itself. While it can be helpful to get some software knowledge, software is just a tool designers use to get the job done. Knowing how to use a tool and creating flawless design experiences are different.

I wrote about how the bootcamp mentor quality became very low, but I need to mention that I consider these mentors a victim of the bootcamp industry. They are usually not paid well, but they are happy to get an opportunity and to add the title mentor to their CV. At the same time, these mentors' actual knowledge and expertise often could also use some mentoring.

Last year I heard about an even crazier workshop. It was a two-day event, a “Design Sprint Workshop,” where they charged more than a thousand bucks per person for two days. Two people were talking about design sprints, and participants got a free copy of the associated book. This sounded even less useful than a design bootcamp.

The ‘certificates’

Another cheap promise is the certificates you get when you finish these bootcamps. Everyone in this industry knows that these bootcamps only provide some introductory and basic information. Design is not a certificate-driven industry. No one cares about the certificates you have. What companies care about are problem-solving skills, experience, and real-life expertise.

“UX boot camps don’t prepare students for real-world jobs because when senior or higher UX practitioners look at what bootcamps are teaching, they usually say ‘Wow. This looks nothing like what I do.’ — Debbie Levitt, CXO of Delta CX.

While the promise to"Become a UX Designer in 12 weeks or less!" might sound appealing, you will get nowhere by completing a bootcamp only. Just think about it, and do the math. How many bootcamps are out there? Numerous companies organize these and teach hundreds of thousands of students who don’t have the portfolio or skills of experienced and employed designers. It’s not hard to see that most of these bootcamp attendees will not land a good design job and will end up jobless and disappointed.

Ok, the bootcamp model is broken. What to do instead.

If I needed to start as a designer, knowing what I know today, I would do the following.

Get used to self-learning.

I would focus on self-education for two months or half a year. Knowledge to start any profession is available online for free in videos, cheap courses, and learning materials. The benefit of self-learning is learning how to learn. There are excellent online courses that are relatively cheap and can help you to boost up your software skills and get to know the theoretical knowledge that is needed.

Find a mentor.

Finding a great mentor can be the key to developing fast if you are a newbie. Many people offer mentoring services and, even if you pay for mentoring, it is money much better spent than the money you spend on boot camps. Mentorcruise28 and similar services provide an excellent opportunity to find paid mentors.

Knowledge transfer, provided by senior-level mentors, is the best way to gain the knowledge a junior or freshly started designer needs to be able to get into the industry. If you find the right mentor, you can grow fast as the mentor will only focus on you and give you knowledge and experience you would never get from a boot camp. You can ask your questions freely, and as often as you have questions. You can hardly do them during a boot camp.

A wonderful thing about mentoring is that it is a continuous effort. It is like taking private classes in school. I don’t think I know any better way than having a good and reliable mentor who can help you with their expertise and knowledge.

Design apprenticeship

Many companies are looking for design apprentices, which are similar to an internship but a paid position. This is a great way to get hands-on experience earn money while studying.

Doing the extra legwork

Design is a competitive field; standing out as someone who just started as a designer takes work. Paying for mentorship is a great option, but you must also focus on doing the extra work yourself. Try freelance work. Design things for free for friends or organizations that don’t have money to pay for design. This can be a double win as you gain experience and have a portfolio containing real-life examples that will make you stand out from other newbies and boot camp participants.

To summarize my opinion, I would probably not call bootcamps a scam. Still, it is indisputably true that the ones who win the most with bootcamps are the organizers and not the students, and there are much more intelligent ways to spend your money if you want to be a designer.


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