Developing Levels on a Design Team

Mia Blume
Mia Blume
Feb 5, 2019 · 5 min read

“How do I create a clear growth path for my team?” It’s a question I hear all the time from design leaders at startups and agencies.

They often wait so long to set levels that there are no clear paths for top performers, who go elsewhere when they don’t see room for growth. Or, they take a stab at structuring levels but without a framework to build on they blur responsibilities and frustrate their team.

Done poorly, leveling confuses the team, frustrates your top performers, and increases turnover. When done well, leveling sets a foundation for clear roles, fair hiring, and talent retention.

What is leveling?

Leveling defines expectations for an individual’s performance and charts a path for growth on your team. Its purposes include:

  1. Creating a clear and shared language around your discipline.
  2. Defining the core responsibilities of each role.
  3. Setting clear definitions for great performance.
  4. Crafting paths for development.

Once levels exist, they can also be used to:

  • Create performance-related alignment across cross-functional teams.
  • Provide a framework for peer feedback based on defined performance rather than personal expectations.
  • Reduce hiring bias and map compensation to objective criteria instead of tenure, negotiation, or personal feelings.

Levels codify an organization’s values, which is why it’s never too early to start defining them: they shape daily life on your team.

Leveling development tips

Keep levels simple, clear, and flexible to accommodate growth — and before you get started, align with HR on the following principles.

  • Start early. Codify values and expectations even if your organization isn’t ready to formalize levels. For example, before we had levels at Pinterest, we created a one-page document called “The Three Cs,” (Craft, Collaboration, and Communication), which stated our mission and outlined how these three concepts would help us achieve it. Craft represented “what we create,” so we listed core skill areas and stretch skills. Collaboration and Communication represented “how we create,” and we listed expectations and examples for how to work within the design team and with cross-functional teammates. Taken as a whole, the document explained what we meant when we told designers, “Communication and collaboration are just as important to your success as what you create.”
  • Map levels to compensation bands. This ensures consistent leveling and compensation for new hires (which, as we’ve noted, combats bias). It also enables development paths to be connected to explicit, compensation-related incentives.
  • Start with a clear framework. Don’t just dive in and start by defining your Level 1 description with a long list of bullet points, because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to clearly define the growth path for each bullet. Instead, make a grid and fill in each section as if you were painting swatches in school. Creating white to red, you’d never start at red and try to lighten it up all the way to white, or vice versa. You’d always start at the ends, paint in the middle, then go back and forth. With leveling, first set the boundaries — your lowest and highest levels — before filling in the details.
  • Separate levels from titles and roles. Organizations often link levels (which should be neutral, often a numerical approach such as “Level 3”) to titles like “senior designer” or “lead designer” that represent seniority or roles. This creates two problems. First, it assumes that people will move through a role (e.g. “design lead”) in order to progress in the organization. Secondly, it makes it tricky to map to old titles to new levels when the company grows and iterates on levels. Separating roles or titles from your leveling system provides you with the most flexibility and the most clarity to your team.
  • Align levels cross-functionally. Levels on your design team should be comparable to levels in product management and engineering to help ensure consistency in performance. Google’s Aristotle Project found that reliable performance of teammates — as well as structured, clear expectations — are key factors in team effectiveness.
  • Include expectations of leadership from both managers and individual contributors (ICs). I’ve seen teams decide they don’t expect experienced IC’s to be leaders, and leave everything to managers. That’s a huge missed opportunity to develop your team from the inside. IC’s inherently have a leadership impact on the business and inevitably influence junior designers. Most senior ICs already want to contribute in this way, but it helps to codify it.
  • Allow levels to evolve as you grow. Startups always end up iterating on levels. As you hire more designers and expand into more areas, you’ll require more granularity. This means you’ll need to re-level periodically.

Sample design leveling rubric

Here’s a leveling rubric that’s designed to tease out clear growth requirements. Each level is divided into three columns: What, How, and Impact.

There are two paths, one for ICs and one for managers. A designer is eligible to become a manager only when they’ve reached a higher level.

This rubric has five levels for illustration purposes only — rarely would an organization have only five.

The What is about a designer’s craft and ability to deliver high-quality products. It’s broken down by skill areas, such as Product Thinking, Interaction Design, Visual Design, and Production Design.

The How describes the way they bring ideas to fruition. This encompasses how they communicate, collaborate, and influence others in the organization.

The Impact is all about the influence an individual’s work has on the business and their team. For a Level 1, their impact is at the project level: are they having a positive impact and completing their work? Higher levels might influence at the initiative, product, or team level. Even higher levels influence strategy, discipline, the company, and even the industry. This column should include leadership expectations for ICs.

It’s never too early — or too late — to start leveling. It’s like creating a blueprint for a house. Put your values and expectations on paper to create the home your team needs to thrive.

To learn more about developing levels, designing team structures, and catalyzing individual performance, sign up for Designing Design Teams, a two-day, hands-on leadership workshop with Design Dept.

Mia Blume is a Design Leadership Coach living in San Francisco, California. A former design leader at Pinterest, Square, and IDEO, Mia founded Design transform the way creative leaders work. In 2017, Mia founded Within — a series of leadership retreats for women in design.

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