Getting into UX: Designathons 🚀

UW/UX Waterloo
6 min readFeb 24, 2021


Written by Carol Chu and Vanessa Seto ❤️

Intro ✨

How can I get the experience to land an internship, when I need an internship to get experience?

… is a common saying many of us have heard before. While the job market can be a scary place to navigate (especially during a pandemic), it’s important to keep in mind that internships are not the only way to gain experience. As a student, you have a large pool of opportunities to learn, develop, and apply your design skills — one of these is attending designathons.

This is the second post of our blog series “Getting into UX” by UW/UX! We will cover:

  1. What is a designathon
  2. How to get the most out of your designathon experience
  3. Summary and tips
  4. How to get involved with designathons

What’s a designathon?

While hackathons largely involve engineers building software and hardware projects, designathons are based on open-ended design prompts allowing participants to turn an abstract idea into a functional prototype using design thinking methods. Designathons typically involve a set of guidelines to follow, a schedule of workshops and activities to attend, and a bunch of sleep-deprived creative, eager-to-learn students designing — all over the span of a weekend!

How do I get the most out of my designathon experience?

Whether you’re looking to gain hands-on experience as a budding designer or you’ve found yourself in a creative rut and want to flex your design muscles, you’re in the right place. As students who’ve participated in more than 20 different designathons and hackathons, we put together a few things we’ve learned along the way to help you navigate your designathon experiences.

Get a bird’s eye view 🕊️

Before you jump into designing, it’s valuable to get a good sense of what’s available to you during the event. While a big part of the designathon is the designing itself, there are also a lot of other resources offered to students that can be useful for both your designathon project and for your other design learnings. During this stage, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What types of workshops are provided?
  • Are there opportunities to meet other designers (ex. through a meet-up or speed-friending activity)?
  • Is there time to connect with sponsors and network with people in the industry?
  • Are there fun activities that will allow me to take a break from designing?

Once you get a bigger picture of the opportunities, make a list (or keep a 🧠 note) of the events that interest you the most and keep track of how these will fit in your schedule alongside designing.

Have a game plan 🏈

Since designathons typically span a couple or days, it’s important to know what you want to prioritize from your experience. For example, some goals you can set for yourself are:

  • I want to improve my interaction design skills by building a fully functional prototype
  • I want to master Figma’s Auto Layout Feature by the end of the designathon
  • I want to come out of this designathon with a project for my portfolio
  • I plan to attend as many sponsor booths and networking sessions at the event as I can

Whether you love networking with designers or diving into design problems and solutions, designathons can be very jam-packed, so be sure to spread your efforts to align with your goals as a designer!

Always ask for help 🚁

Designathons are filled with industry professionals and mentors who are there to support you along the way. If your team is blocked on a part of the design process, or you want to get another pair of eyes on a design, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help! While you may not have a lot of time to iterate, it’s always valuable to get feedback from others and find room for improvement. Throughout the design process, it’s also important to lean on your teammates to gather opinions and insights on the problem at hand — designathons aren’t easy and they are not meant to be tackled single-handedly!

Use existing processes and frameworks ✏️

At any designathon, time may be one of your worst enemies. The good news? You can leverage existing design thinking processes and frameworks to speed up your workflow! Using a definitive framework allows you to more easily budget your time as you have concrete steps for your project workflow. Here’s one that we’d recommend you to use:

The Five Stages of Design Thinking:

  1. Empathize: Understand the users, their needs, and the root or underlying causes of a problem
  2. Define: Define the problem statement and the goals of the project
  3. Ideate: Identify new solutions and alternative ways of viewing the problem
  4. Prototype: Create and identify the best possible solution
  5. (Note: for a designathon, this is usually a high-fidelity mockup or interactive digital prototype.)
  6. Test: Test the solutions and measure their success on achieving project goals

Have an open mind 🧠

Be ready to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and be open to new knowledge, skills, and development. At designathons, so much learning and growth can happen in such a short amount of time, so welcome new situations that are different from those you’re familiar with, and keep an open mind! When you’re exposed to so many different topics, opinions, and situations at a designathon, look at all of them as learning experiences to help shape you into a better designer!

How do I get involved with designathons?

Whether you’re new to design or looking to level up your toolbox, you’re in luck! UW/UX is excited to present TILE: a virtual designathon aimed to Teach, Inspire, Link, and Enable students of all levels of design experience on March 13–14th 2021. Throughout the event, students will have access to a variety of tools and resources to help develop design skills and grow design careers. From inspiring speakers and workshops to access to mentorship and networking, the takeaways and the learnings are endless — for design enthusiasts, curious beginners, and everyone in between. ✨

TILE is excited to be sponsored by HMBradley, Intuit, Autodesk, Deloitte, and Square. We’ve also partnered with Figma to provide an amazing designathon experience for all students! Applications are open until February 27th, 2021, so check out to apply today! ✏️

Other examples of designathons include Adobe Creative Jams, a popular series of designathon events where students can put their creative skills to the test using Adobe apps. Stay up to date with the latest and greatest design events through design communities such as our UW/UX slack community or explore more communities at Designer Slack Community.

Summary 📌

While this may be a challenging time to gain professional experience, designathons are a great place to start — whether it’s to learn, develop, or apply your skills as a designer.

To recap, here are a few things that can help to optimize your experience:

  • Get a bird’s eye view: Spend some time mapping out all the opportunities that are available to you outside of the designing itself.
  • Have a game plan: Set goals for what you want to take away from the weekend and prioritize the opportunities that align with them — this could be creating your first functional prototype or meeting as many other designers as possible!
  • Always ask for help: Designathons aren’t easily done single-handedly. Lean on mentors, sponsors, and your team members when you have questions or need help.
  • Use existing processes and frameworks: To speed up your workflow, choose an existing design process to follow (Ex. The Five Stages of Design Thinking). Having defined steps in a collaborative environment can be integral when working against the clock.
  • Have an open mind: While it’s great to be able to come out of a designathon with a case study in hand, the most important opportunity is the potential to learn and grow over the span of the weekend. Keep an open mind to new challenges, people, and perspectives.

We hope you found this post helpful and we wish you the best of luck at future designathons! Our team is excited to support you in your design journey, so keep your eyes peeled for more posts from our “Getting into UX” series and for our upcoming events!

Connect with us! 🤝

UW/UX is a student organization committed to growing the user experience and product design community at the University of Waterloo. Our mission is to empower designers to educate and inspire each other through events, workshops, and mentorship opportunities. Whether you’re looking for career advice or just a welcoming community to hang out with, UW/UX is here for you!

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UW/UX Waterloo

UW/UX is a student organization committed to growing the user experience and product design community at the University of Waterloo.