Designing a Better Career Path for Designers

Illustrations: Diana Thai

There’s a 99.9 percent chance you’re looking at this post on a device that embodies the enormous shift in design as a priority. This shift has been game-changing for how products are designed, crafted and executed across consumer and enterprise domains. Since you got out of bed this morning, you’ve probably interacted with several products where design (research, product design and content strategy) was integral to their development. Whether it was a product (your coffee maker?), an app (Medium?) or a web-based service (your bank?), design as a discipline has made its mark.
 
The design industry has evolved significantly over the past 10 years, but there’s a ways to go before the design discipline is universally understood and embraced. Two things are certain, though: People expect a useful, usable and delightful product experience, and designers are more in-demand than ever. 
 
That said, the role of the designer is still in flux. It wasn’t so long ago that having access to a designer felt like a luxury — practically expendable and certainly questionable in terms of importance. Today’s designers have a much more stable career path compared to a decade ago, and new fields are emerging all the time. Augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, invisible voice-driven interfaces — the scope of what designers now touch and influence has exploded.

Maybe we need to rethink the user experience of career paths

With all these exciting changes in our industry, it’s important to take stock and ask ourselves critical questions.

  • Are we as designers set up for success?
  • Are we positioned to take advantage of this evolution?
  • Do we have the right roles in the right places to leverage and grow our varied yet complementary skills?
  • Do we have a sense of what’s guiding our growth?
  • Do we understand the various career paths that play to our strengths and passions?

Designers today think a lot about flow — how the person they’re creating for will experience what they create. Career paths for designers should also be considered through this lens. In particular, bringing clarity to the role of the senior IC is an important step in the evolution of our field.

As an industry, we must figure out how to continue to grow the roles of highly seasoned design ICs (individual contributors) without pushing them into management — or leading them to think they need to become managers to be successful (professionally and financially). We have to plan out possible growth paths for seasoned talent.
 
Typical career paths for principal designers (or principal researchers or content strategy leads) require shifting into managerial roles. For designers who have a natural talent for getting things done through a team and enabling others to grow — and who get fulfillment out of others’ achievements — it’s a logical progression. But not every designer wants to or should manage. Some thrive as senior individual contributors — people who are masters at a particular skill set, can tackle wickedly complex large-scale projects and work across multiple disciplines with precision and savviness.
 
A designer who isn’t a natural people manager won’t be firing on all cylinders in a managerial role. They may be an OK manager, but they won’t be satisfied or strengthened by their day-to-day work — and the company probably won’t get the best out of them or their team.

We need to do a better job of giving people career paths that match their strengths and capabilities.

Self-selecting into the manager track

How do you find the best managers while growing excellent designers into senior ICs—without automatically steering those ICs toward management? Visualizing the unique traits of design managers and design ICs could help us understand where an individual’s skill set will flourish.
 
Though not an exhaustive list, there are certain skills all designers (senior ICs and managers) should have: a deep and nuanced understanding of the design process, a strong ability to frame problems, a sharp product sense, strength in both strategy and execution, a stellar communication style and the power of persuasion, to name a few. On top of those, we can map specific skills to the following archetypes:

Illustrations: Diana Thai

It’s important to recognize that not every designer will have the desire or ability to savor the successes of others, distribute growth opportunities and plum projects to other designers or recognize other ICs for their wins.

The truth is, most designers don’t think consciously about investing in or building someone else’s career — it’s not typically a stated goal. And that’s OK.

Fortunately, forward-thinking companies like Google, Microsoft, Square and Facebook (where I work) have made enormous efforts to create parallel paths for career growth by enabling individuals to self-select into the manager track or the IC track. Employees benefit from having visibility into their potential for growth in each path, including a defined and comparable compensation structure for promotions. They also have the flexibility to move between paths as company needs change and their careers develop. And by removing roadblocks for high-performing ICs, they have runway to do big things that companies need. Designers are freed up to do what aligns with their strengths, and the pressure to move up on the wrong ladder is removed.

The growth path of an IC might look something like this:

  • Stage 1: Works on a discrete product. Works with guidance of a team.
  • Stage 2: Leads sets of features or end-to-end complex workflows. Works mostly self-directed, supported by someone more experienced.
  • Stage 3: Responsible for a complex surface with multiple features and workflows. Works autonomously.
  • Stage 4: Responsible for entire product areas encompassing multiple features, workflows and new areas of exploration or pivots. Guides others working on the product.
  • Stage 5: Moves from product to product into different domains . Quickly understands problems, defines action plans and supports a team in achieving results.
  • Stage 6: Traverses other disciplines in product teams, takes on loosely scoped, not-well-understood problem areas. Works in high-stakes situations and strategic areas (for example: new business domains, new regulations or country-specific issues) to deliver guidance to the company on further investments.

Senior ICs may even report into a manager with less experience but who is great at identifying an area where the IC can continue to stretch their skills or solve a complex problem for the company. That manager might just hand over a juicy project in a highly ambiguous area, challenge the IC to solve an open-ended problem or create a structure for a project the senior IC has found. In this case, the manager’s role is to unblock rather than tell the IC how to do their job, leveraging both the strengths of the manager and the IC. It’s about finding the next-level challenge that continually grows the IC in their skills and moves the bar up and up, beyond the immediate org and toward things that are important for the company’s larger strategy.

When there’s no explanation needed, we’ve won

No matter how well we approach this within our own companies, until this practice is widely adopted, individual contributors will question how their seniority will be perceived if or when they leave the company.

  • What happens when senior contributors leave the companies that actively nurture them?
  • Is the industry ready to absorb that talent, or will they be at a disadvantage?
  • What will the reporting structure look like if they go to a company where the size of the past teams they lead directly correlates to seniority and compensation?
  • Will senior ICs be put at a disadvantage if they haven’t wrestled with formal review processes — even if they’ve actively participated in critiques of junior designers’ work and contributed to building the skills of junior designers?

These are legitimate concerns. We’re at a crossroads: Some companies embrace the role of the senior IC and some haven’t yet. We need to understand and create space for this high-leverage role. When there’s no cognitive load to what it means to be a senior individual contributor in design, their work will speak for itself — no explanation needed.

Let’s design a better path for designers—it’s what we do

As a designer with experience as an IC—and as a manager supporting a team—I feel we as an industry need to come together to make what’s currently a trend into an accepted standard. Only then can we be sure that competency will not be overlooked for lack of the right title semantics or direct-report numbers. 
 
This benefits individual designers, researchers and content strategists from a mobility perspective (freedom of choice), and it benefits the industry as a whole because people will be in positions that maximize the impact of their individual strengths while benefiting companies strategically. It’s not enough for a handful of companies to elevate the role of the senior IC. What we want is for our design talent to be understood.

Let’s design a better standard together.

What are your thoughts? If you’re a senior IC, what are some best practices that have worked for you in defining your role? What are your hopes and aspirations for this role five years down the road? If you’re a manager, how have you grown your senior ICs?