Seniority in design

It’s no secret that design is an industry of inflated job titles, but what makes a designer ‘senior’?

For everyone, a certain level of professional practice is required.

Time invested in your craft helps shape what you do, but ultimately I think it’s about a maturity of how you think about and approach your work. For some designers this develops much more quickly than others.

Are you a senior designer?

These are just some of the things I think define seniority in design:

More focus on outcomes than process. Using this as a way to deal with complexity and focus on simplicity.

Not over-complicating. Knowing instinctively how to stay focussed on what matters most, applying a range of techniques to keep teams focused on the problem they’re solving. Also, being smart about how to use valuable time and resources.

Asking more questions. This often means the ‘obvious’ questions that no one else is asking and the questions other people have stopped asking.

Being prepared to take more measured risks and being accountable for what happens. People find themselves in senior positions when they’re more willing to be wrong about things. Not because they’re right about more things.

Managing risk, or taking measured risks, includes helping others to prioritise work effectively. I believe that this is why senior design positions are closely aligned to product management (done properly).

Being able to deconstruct your work in order to teach or coach others. This sounds simple but reletively few people that I’ve worked with can do this well.

No one with enough real world design experience needs to pretend that others couldn’t do at least some of their job given the right support and coaching. The real value of experience is the potential to lead others and to share what you’ve learned.

Letting go of perfection. More senior designers still want to do great work but they understand when something is good enough. They’re optimists that have learned when and how to be pragmatic. They get things done and make things better. Meaningful change delivered is better than perfection in most of the situations designers get to work in.

In my experience less experienced designers can let perfection and reaching for high standards get in the way of just making something better.

Managing your responsibility

The best senior designers I’ve worked with could all handle the responsibility that comes with having an opinion, an idea, or setting a direction for others to follow.

I think that senior designers should have developed a reasonable sense of intuition through their professional experience. This sets them apart because they appear to work faster, producing more (and more visibly). They know shortcuts, and how to work to first principles – focussing on what’s important. Asking the obvious questions because they know that’s the smart thing to do (rather than trying to ask smarter questions).

If you lead design teams, let me know what I’ve missed or what you look for? Or, if you are a senior designer, what is it that sets you apart?