Cultivating a design career beyond job titles

This reflection of sorts started after I first came across the Fast Company article “5 Design Jobs That Won’t Exist in The Future” last year. (Yes… the one from last year… I come from the Neal Stephenson / George R. R Martin school of writing schedules…) Anyway, the article posed and then attempted to answer an interesting question:

How will the design industry as a whole change over the next decade?

The article outlines a number of design related roles supposedly on track for extinction, followed by a list of positions that are to take our not-so-little-industry by storm. After reading the article, if I had to sum up the article in a sentence it’d be this:

The game of musical chairs continues.

What I actually mean by this

FastCo‘s general premise regarding future opportunities is I think totally on point. AR/VR, Machine learning, and new niches that require a combination of both hardware and software design skills will provide some really exciting opportunities for people in coming years. Likewise, as existing platforms and technologies continue to evolve, designers of all disciplines will have to continue to update their skillsets to remain competitive.

Now, maybe this is just a by-product of the article’s “Top 5” format, but as it gets into the minutia of titles and definitions around different design disciplines (especially in the second half of the post), things start to fall apart a bit.

The article introduced the “post-industrial designer” as a future design job that’s expected to grow. A post-industrial designer will think about the total end-to-end user experience to build “tangible experiences that connect the physical and digital worlds.”

But isn’t that just the reality of being an industrial designer today?

Technical roles have a way of evolving each decade as the tools and technology change. Consider the master mechanic working in a car dealership today versus one from 1950. While the title remains the same, the knowledge and training is vastly different given the leaps in technology and growing dependence on in-car computers. But I’m pretty sure you’d have a tough time selling “post-automotive mechanics” as a classified ad.

Another “emerging role” identified in the article is a design strategist. Someone with “the ability to understand and model increasingly complex systems — for example, social media networks or supply chains”. Sounds an awful lot like we’re describing the responsibilities of either a systems or information architect, or even a CDO. (One of the roles that is supposedly going the way of the dodo, according to the article).

And last but not least, organization designers are already walking among us. The only difference is, we at IBM just call them Studio Managers.

I’m being a bit facetious, but you get my point. Titles are important in terms of managing expectations; but I think, especially in tech, they are largely transient. And if definitions are constantly shifting, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on the noun instead of the adjective — the designer rather than the Industrial or UX or Visual.

Framing the conversation in terms of these job titles misses something crucial. Good design is something much more fundamental and, as a result, I believe good designers will always adapt and find work regardless of what our industry’s landscape looks like.

Which of course gets us into the bigger philosophical question — what is good design? Or more importantly, what makes a good designer?

That’s the question I found myself asking at the end of the FastCo article. Everyone has their own answer to this. What are the metrics by which we define greatness and evaluate our own mastery of our respective crafts? This answer is in no way definitive, but after looking among my peers and mentors, and mulling this over on many-a subway ride home, below is my answer to that question. The skills and dimensions I look for in others, and the ones I try to cultivate within myself as I grow my own practice.

Technical Skill

This is the first of four factors, and the one I think most people tend to focus on when evaluating designers. It’s what most of the job titles in that article were anchored around, and what you most often see under the “Requirements” section of a job posting. Technical skill focuses on proficiency with the tools and practices of the trade for your specific niche — what you use to accomplish the task at hand and how well you do it. I also use the word tools in the broadest possible sense here. For a UI Designer, the tools and technical skills could involve anything and everything from Sketch and InVision, to sticky notes and Sharpies, an understanding of visual hierarchy and composition, typesetting and colour theory… Or even how to work on an agile team, run user testing sessions and conduct research to validate designs. You get the idea.

These are the things that can change the most (and most quickly) within any given industry. It is our responsibility as designers to keep our skills current, and to use the tools that make the most sense for us, our teams and for the job.

Domain Knowledge

Never was the importance of domain knowledge, and its distinction from technical skill and knowledge more clear to me than when I first joined the Watson Analytics team in 2015.

I knew my way around most visual design software and had somewhat of a background in front-end development. I’ve designed UIs and built websites, worked with developers and project managers, marketing teams, content strategists and everyone in between. In other words, I felt like I was at least competent on the technical skills front. But when it came to the topic of data visualization and analytics, I was clueless. I couldn’t tell you what a box and whisker chart were or how to read a spiral graph if my life depended on it. Never mind being able to give a good breakdown of what constituted “Predictive Analytics.” So, I had to learn… and learn fast. Luckily for me, I had some great mentors to help me along the way.

Domain knowledge is familiarity with your particular niche itself, and the more specific the niche or complex the domain, the greater the value of that knowledge becomes. It’s what gives us the required context to be effective at our jobs. To see whether we’re asking the right questions before we even try to propose any solution (and to help gain the right insight from the answers we receive).

A certain level of unfamiliarity can be beneficial. It helps bring fresh eyes to an old problem, and I think that’s the challenge for us as designers. To deepen our knowledge of the space we are working in, without being constrained by what already exists. Or as PMs the world over love to put it — to think outside the box.

We also operate in multiple domains. There is the domain of the product space. For us on Watson Analytics, the product space is Analytics and Data Visualization. For someone building a fitness tracker, it’s Health and Fitness. Another popular one right now is FinTech.

But there is also the domain of the company and the business itself: What the business needs and goals are, company structure, team dynamics, process and even things like culture. The smaller the company, the faster you can perhaps pick this up; but like all knowledge, this takes time to acquire, and at the Enterprise level, this knowledge has real value that should not be overlooked. It’s part of why so many big companies prefer to promote or hire from within.

Problem Solving

Most great designers are natural-born problem solvers. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that at its core, this is what the practice of design really is: effective problem solving. But designing effective solutions and solving problems for our users is just one of the ways good designers engage in this practice.

A few months back I asked a few random members on my team the following question:

When you think of designers you’ve worked with in the past, what did you feel separated good designers from great designers?

One answer that helped really change my perspective can be summed up as the following:

A good designer is someone who is focused and is good at what they do.
A great designer is someone who can also step back, and understand the broader picture. Not only what the user need is, but also what the business objectives are, how the team works, what the market opportunity is, and then actually executes on all that and still ship products.

This was pretty impactful for me. One of those things that sounds so obvious after the fact, I wondered why I never saw it before. Simply being a good production designer is a good start and a necessity, but it’s not enough. The designers I most admired and respected throughout my career were always the ones who weren’t just good at what they did, but through the very way they worked, helped enable others.

Whether consciously or not, they went out of their way not just to solve problems for the end user, but for their team as well. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a new keyboard shortcut. Other times, it’s helping revamp your team’s entire process. Giving feedback, building bridges with other teams. The list goes on.

The point is, great designers are innate problem solvers in all aspects of their work, because they understand that whether we fail or succeed, we do so as a team and they ship products by not just doing their job well and improving their own craft, but by helping others do the same.

Which dovetails nicely into the 4th dimension…

Empathy

“Empathy for the user” is a fairly common phrase heard throughout the world of UX design. And it’s the one that most often gets eye rolls from certain engineers and developers. But the disciplines of development and design have always been two sides of the same coin. If I was to replace the word designer with the word developer in the title of this post, the first three Venn diagrams would remain unchanged.

The key difference between the two is where our primary point of focus is. (This is obviously a gross oversimplification… but get ready; it’s about to get worse).

Engineers focus on technology. They apply a combination of technical skill, domain knowledge and problem solving capability in an effort to build the best solution possible within time, budget and technical constraints of the project.

Designers focus on people. They’re tasked with understanding how human beings work, think, and the nuances of the challenges they face, making sure that what we build is really an effective solution.

Just as being able to quickly understand and troubleshoot highly technical problems is an acquired skill, so is doing the same when it comes to understanding and solving for human problems. It’s our responsibility as designers to cultivate this skill. While everyone on the team has a shared responsibility to the end user, when it comes to the actual experience of using our product, the buck and responsibility stops with us.

Taking a step back

But wait… you totally missed <insert_quality_here>!

You’re probably right. Each of these areas can easily be broken down further, and contain skills and qualities that dip into more than one section. For example, something like “creativity” is an undoubtedly important quality to have, but is something I would place primarily as a subset of Problem Solving, where it also overlaps with something like Domain Knowledge too.

The composition of each of these 4 buckets (and how they overlap) depends largely on each designer’s specific role and even stage of their career. Just as an example, for someone in more of a design lead position the skills and qualities of effective leadership, conflict resolution, mentorship and team management are all crucial, and should be considered as a primary part of their Technical Skills.

That being said, if you feel like I totally missed something really important that doesn’t necessarily fit into this template, or none of what I wrote really jives with your definition of what makes a good designer, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Because ultimately, the specifics of the diagram — the number of circles and the labels we attach to them are secondary. We work in an industry that likes to play pretty fast and loose with job titles and their respective definitions. Not to say these definitions don’t matter, but I think it’s easy to get pigeonholed by these acronyms. (This goes double for early career professionals, or at least I know it did for me).

What matters is that we consider our roles and careers in a broader context. This template is simply a tool (and this post just a starting point) to hopefully help do that.

If we treat “design” as a more holistic approach and discipline, and continue to develop our skills accordingly, not only do I think we’ll all be better designers, but we’ll be much more capable of adapting and keeping pace with the industry, regardless of what combination of titles and other 2–3 letter identifiers are trending on LinkedIn at the time.

Lehel Babos is a Product Designer and Front End Developer at IBM based in Toronto. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.