Managers, Stop Overcomplicating Why Your Designers are Leaving

Five simple reasons why designers quit your company.

Mike Curtis
Apr 12 · 7 min read
woman staring at her computer screen
Image by Leni_und_Tom from Pixabay

ve spent the better part of the last 5 years deeply involved in the UX mentoring and coaching scene here in the United States. These many conversations with managers and design leaders reveal something alarming. Leaders in these management roles are watching their designers leave for other organizations and opportunities…and they can’t figure out why.

The “why” isn’t complicated.

In no particular order, I’ve outlined 5 reasons why your designers quit, put in their two weeks, and move on. It could be one of these reasons, or all 5, but the truth is, it’s likely at least one of them. Before you go scrambling to fill the empty void left by one of your designers, take a moment to review this list — it could open your eyes to the hearts and minds of your designers and help you on your next hire.

Designers leave for a better salary

If you don’t think money is a contributing factor, you have a skewed view of what’s going on out there. Designers are leaving your company for better-paying opportunities and it’s a reason at the top of the list. Money is important and a crucial piece to your designer sticking around.

Designers, for the most part, are a tight-knit, albeit worldwide community. They talk to each other, conduct and share surveys on salary amongst themselves, and have a fairly good understanding of what each other is making. They take into account their years of experience, the metropolitan areas in which they work, and more.

Sure, some designers have an outlandish view of what they should be paid, and I know not all companies can simply meet this demand, but at least do your due diligence to see where you stand.

It’s important for management to understand the market and have a good pulse on what it’s paying designers in the area. If you pay low compared to other companies, you can expect short turnarounds from your design team once they find out the “green is greener” at another company.

Plus, remember, designers talk — they’ll be sure to let other designers know about their low-paying experience at your company. It sounds brutal, but it happens.

Fancy arcade rooms and on-site restaurants don’t mean much if your designer gets a 20% higher job offer. Money matters and it’s one of the top reasons your designers are leaving.

Designers leave for a better manager

If they don’t like you, they’re not going to stick around. Just because your management style is “how you’ve always done it” does not mean it will work for all designers. If you are arrogant, rude, condescending, and toxic, your designer will bail. Designers aren’t going to put up with belittling, harassment, or a complete lack of care on your part.

On a larger scale, they’re leaving because the organization’s leadership is trash. Fail to provide a psychologically safe space for them, and they won’t stick around long. Failing to remove roadblocks, too much red tape, processes, and friction to do the work are a few more responsibilities of a manager that if not done properly, will cause designers to leave.

The remedy to this starts with communication — and it’s going to take opening up on your part.

How well do you know your direct reports? Can they trust you? What do they have going on at home? It would serve you well to regularly check in with your employees and make sure you know what they need to be successful in their roles. Establish a regular cadence of communication with your designers.

Or, just stay quiet, conduct “business as usual”, and your designers will wave goodbye. I promise you, your designers are leaving for a better manager.

Designers leave to find more value in their work

Designers want to do work that matters. They want to change the lives of those using the products they design. They want to know their work is having an impact on the world, even if it’s a small one. They want to do good, ethical work that influences others to do good as well.

If they don’t feel like their work matters or they don’t feel they’re providing any value to the customers or the organization, they’ll go find somewhere where they do feel it. Shady, unethical work tops the list too. If in their gut the work is wrong, their conscience kicks in to help them move along and stop doing harmful work.

Julie Zhuo, author, co-founder, and design leader, articulates this point perfectly in her piece, “Why Designers Leave”:

Every person who works in a creative field has an aspiration for her work, a yearning for that ideal plane which is the culmination of her taste.

When an environment fails, over and over and over again, to provide her with a means to follow her internal compass, then she will leave.

Take some time to determine if your designers are coming to work filled with a sense of purpose; you’ll only know this as you watch them, converse with them, and get to know them. How much energy do they bring to work? Do they jump at the chance to tackle gnarly problems or do they sit back waiting to be told what to do?

Your designers are leaving to find value elsewhere.

Designers leave to grow in their careers

Designers are leaving your company because you don’t have a clear path for them to grow. When the designer accepted the job offer, it might not have crossed their mind to ask how designers are nurtured, developed, and promoted at your company.

When you hired them, you might not have been thinking about this either.

How do you promote your designers? Is it by years of tenure or through accomplishments or both? A junior/associate designer begins to assess their own career after a couple of years on the job — they start looking at mid-level positions. Mid-level designers begin looking for senior roles. Senior designers begin asking themselves if they want to continue as an individual contributor or take the management track.

Designers leave because they need a mentor and aren’t getting that mentorship from your company.

These are all conversations playing out in the designer’s head. If your company has no clear direction for its designers on career growth, what reason would the designer have to stick with you? If they have no mentor, why stay?

There is hope. Leaders like Peter Merholz, author of Org Design for Design Orgs, have put together frameworks to help organizations develop designers and move them along in their career path. It’s not to say that Peter’s framework is perfect for your company, but it’s at least a starting point.

There’s another version of this called the UX career development framework that might interest you. It was used by the folks over at Workfront (an Adobe company). Again, it’s a starting point which you’d need to adapt to your company, but a conversation you should be having with your designers nonetheless.

If you don’t have the career progression talk with them, your designers will leave to seek growth in their roles at some other place.

Designers leave to diversify their portfolio

Finally, designers leave to get more experience under their belt. Some designers go for years, sometimes decades, working in the same industry. They may hop around to different companies but the work is all similar.

Designers want to diversify their portfolio, improve their skillset, and add value to themselves and their abilities. If the designer only worked on native mobile apps, they may seek opportunities to work on websites. If they’ve been working on Saas product their whole career, they may want to pivot into the world of e-commerce.

Don’t take this personally — encourage it. Maybe you can help diversify their portfolio within your organization, but if not, encourage them to take the new role and improve themselves.

Do these five reasons encompass and embody every reason why a designer might quit? No, absolutely not. But, this list shows up time and time again as you get to know the design community and their reasons for moving on.

Take some time to establish regular communication with your direct reports — that’s the solution to hopefully keeping them. Let them know you care and that they’re safe to share their career ambitions with you. Then, and only then, will you earn their trust for them to open up about their goals.

Mike Curtis (aka Uncle Mikey) helps amplify people and products through human-centered design. With 20+ years experience in design, marketing, e-commerce, and UX, his passion is helping people & businesses apply their skills to the way they’re experienced by others. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or follow his writing here on Medium.

Mike W. Curtis

UX Designer | Mentor | Teacher

Mike Curtis

Written by

(aka Uncle Mikey) How do others experience you? I help amplify people and products through human-centered design. 20+ years in design, e-com, sales, and UX.

Mike W. Curtis

Helping businesses & individuals apply their UX skills to how they’re experienced by other people. 20 years experience in design, UX, marketing, e-commerce & sales.

Mike Curtis

Written by

(aka Uncle Mikey) How do others experience you? I help amplify people and products through human-centered design. 20+ years in design, e-com, sales, and UX.

Mike W. Curtis

Helping businesses & individuals apply their UX skills to how they’re experienced by other people. 20 years experience in design, UX, marketing, e-commerce & sales.

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