A job is just a job, but a career is a design problem. Like people in any discipline, designers tend to fall into a career path. If your first job is with a software company, your next one is likely to be as well. If you start with a job at a nonprofit, you stay in the nonprofit sector. Unless you make deliberate career decisions, your vertical may decide it for you.
The types of career challenges that need to be solved vary from one designer to the next and from one company to the next. But these six rules should cover most of the bases.
Ambitious young designers working in a design-led culture can focus on polishing their leadership skills. The first skill to pick up is the confidence to ask questions. It’s okay to not know everything, and in fact, not knowing everything can be beneficial because it forces a person to be open to asking questions.
That can be hard to do at first; it’s normal to look around a conference table at a lot of people whose job titles start with the word "chief" and be afraid to speak up for fear of looking stupid. But staying silent is just as bad. After all, the reason you are in a meeting like that is because those chiefs want your help. Everyone is trying to solve a problem together—your titles don't matter.
Some people work hard and don’t get anywhere, while others continually move up. Those in the latter group may seem to be natural leaders or have innate charisma. But a lot of what makes one person stand out can be learned.
Designers who want to advance need to promote themselves. That can be accomplished in different ways, such as writing blog posts, winning awards, getting involved with high-profile projects, and public speaking. Designers should also look for formal training opportunities. Unlike MBAs who receive management training before they enter the workforce, designers usually learn to lead on the job. If your organization pays for skills development, jump into a management class every chance you get. If that benefit is not offered, there are other avenues available, such as mass open online courses (MOOCs), many of which are free.
The takeaway: Grab any and every chance to learn new skills.
Not all companies support design-led thinking. Designers working for these types of employers have two sets of problems to solve: first, to do good design, and second, to help company leaders understand how good design can provide a strategic advantage.
Lots of companies think the role of a designer is just to make things look better. They may recognize that their website is converting poorly or that some of their app’s features are underused, but they don’t understand that fixing the problem is going to take more than changing the color of a button. Designers in these environments need to become evangelists, teaching the design process and building credibility throughout the organization.
I’ve seen many designers who were hired to be a company’s sole design resource end up leading a whole department. They all had a few things in common: a natural need to solve problems, the backbone to push for appropriate processes, and a willingness to connect with people throughout the organization.
Often, designers sit at their desks quietly designing, unaware of the opportunities around them. These opportunities won’t reveal themselves; it’s up to the designer to root them out by building relationships with people outside the design team. By teaching others about the design process and showing how good design can have a strategic impact on a company, a designer can create excitement throughout the organization—after all, the more you involve other people, the more they will care about what you do.
Start by reaching out to a few people in different business units, looking for people who light up when you show them your designs. These are potential advocates.
Ask questions about their business challenges and invite them into your process by including them in design reviews and seeking their advice. A good advocate has a broad skill set and can provide input on things like product fit and technical feasibility. If the person has a position of respect within the company, that’s even better—the relationship you build with the advocate may ripple throughout the organization’s leadership.
What happens if a designer tries to promote design-led thinking in his or her company but can’t seem to make any progress? Then it’s time to ask if there are better problems to solve at another company. The answer to that question will depend on how strongly a designer believes in the product his or her current employer is trying to put out into the world. A sense of pride in one’s work tends to generate the energy needed to push through obstacles. But if your company is selling something you as a designer don't really care about, it will be hard to keep up the effort necessary to drive change. In that case, it’s time to polish your resume.
Right now, no designer should be afraid to leave a job. In the past, geography or experience may have limited employment options, but such limitations are fading away as remote work becomes more accepted and design-led thinking vaults designers into strategic roles. There are opportunities everywhere today for designers that recognize their value.