5 Career Lessons from Designers at the World’s Best Companies
We asked designers and creatives from some of the world’s best companies about their biggest career lessons.
CMCI Studio is a design graduate program at CU Boulder. Established in 2009, the program has been developing design leaders for nearly a decade. Our alumni have gone on to design and lead teams at Google, Apple, Spotify, Uber, Pinterest, Dropbox, Wieden+Kennedy, R/GA, Twitter, Airbnb and more. Many have also founded their own companies and agencies.
With so much combined experience in our network, we wanted to know what the last decade has taught them about growing as a creative and building a career in design. Here are their biggest takeaways:
1. Be willing to take control of your own destiny.
The most common thread from everyone we spoke to. Waiting for permission often just leaves you waiting. To push new ideas and move forward in your career sometimes you need to take a risk and go for it.
Mike Newell, Interactive Dev Manager @ Apple:
“Don’t ask for permission to do things, if you have an idea for something, make it. The most successful people I’ve seen in my time have been the ones who just go off and make shit happen. Be smart enough to figure things out and dumb enough to try.”
Alia Munger, Product Designer @ Google:
“Your career goals will change and morph constantly, be open to it and willing to grow. Evaluate your contributions, role, and impact every year. If it doesn’t align with your values, goals, and needs — find something else. You have a great foundation to create a path unique to you.”
Dan Viens, Creative Director @ Wieden + Kennedy:
“Don’t assume other people are thinking deeply about your career, your contributions, or your role on a project. It’s great to have mentors, collaborative colleagues and an awesome boss, but even if you have those things you need to take charge of your work, your day and your career.
If you have an idea for a project you’re not expected to work on then pitch the idea (Don’t half-ass it. Develop it and share it.) It’s your job to make your voice heard. If you find yourself in an environment where you don’t think your voice can be heard let someone know. If that falls on deaf ears, get out. And when you show up, do it with confidence and without ego. That is a powerful combo.”
2. Be flexible in your approach and always be learning
Design work isn’t always the most exciting. But, if you stay open and flexible, and intentionally look for the chances to learn in each project, your work will always push you forward and you’ll never stop improving.
Adam Noffsinger, Senior Product Designer @ Dropbox:
“In my experience, the designers that are most successful are those that are able to adapt to new tools, workflows, and ways of thinking with relative independence. Designers too often find a way of working or thinking that becomes comfortable, which then leads to stagnation. Just as engineers find themselves consistently moving between new frameworks and languages in order to better solve problems, designers should approach new ways of working with unbridled curiosity.”
Patti Lo, Product Designer @ OpenTable:
“Always be open to learning. There may be times you work on a problem or feature that isn’t the most exciting thing ever. For those moments, you can still go in with the attitude that you’ll take at least one thing away from the experience.”
Alia @ Google:
“Not all of your work will be exciting, and a lot of it will be slow going. Finding ways to challenge yourself with your work in those times will be beneficial in so many ways.”
3. Don’t be afraid to put your business hat on
As creatives, we can sometimes feel reticent to embrace the business side of what we are creating. But, thinking long-term and stepping into a more strategic role can set you apart and push the quality and impact of your work.
Emily McCammon, Founder @ Femme Digital:
“You need to be highly strategic and largely medium agnostic. Being strategic does not preclude you from going deep on tools & skills. Specialization can co-exist with agility and strategy.”
Joe Toscano⚡️, Designer-Founder @ Designgood.tech:
“Business. No matter where you work, you have to understand business. If you don’t know how to get your idea onto the product roadmap, you’re just a dreamer. No ideas ever changed the world, it was people acting on those ideas. If you want people to act on your ideas, they need to drive business.”
Pedro Sorrentino, Cofounder & General Partner @ ONEVC:
“It pays to combine long-term thinking with a daily sense of urgency.”
4. Be a bridge builder for all your stakeholders
We talk about user-centered design, but there are also a lot of other stakeholders to consider in the process of creating great work. A great designer is a bridge between each of these different points of view.
Cassie Stewart, Product Marketer @ Twitter:
“It all comes back to empathy. You can have rad design skills and be incredibly innovative with code and yet miss the mark entirely. It’s one thing to build something you think is cool. That’s art, and that’s wonderful and deserves its own place in this world. But when you are building for others, build for others. Put them first and talk to them along the way.”
Kate Mills, Lead Product Designer @ Aetna:
“One of my biggest lessons is the importance of building relationships with product and engineering partners. I can produce awesome and effective designs for features all day, but if I don’t also collaborate, bring people in, get their buy-in, advocate for the importance of the design process, etc., then I will never be successful at building and executing on long-term UX strategy.”
Emma Lawler, Cofounder @ Moonlight:
“You need to be a full-stack thinker and implementer who genuinely cares about the users you’re designing for. Engineers, marketers, and product managers all have opinions and great ideas. The specialized design practitioner on the team needs to lead discussions and bring together all the thoughts, priorities, and user needs into a functional end product.”
Alia @ Google:
“Anyone can learn how to create the perfect drop shadow or transition animation, what I think the industry needs are designers skilled in applying end-to-end emotional design, empathy, and ethics. Designers end up being the [only] voice at the table for a lot of these issues.”
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate
It is nearly impossible to get things done if you can’t communicate your vision, your process and the value of your work. Like all things, good communication can be learned with intentional practice.
Tory Rebhun, UX Research Lead @ STARZ
“Internal business processes and operational collaboration are incredibly important and have a huge impact on your ability to create a great product for the user. In larger organizations, this is tailoring your communication and work to appeal to the user’s needs, but also understanding how to communicate that value to a variety of business stakeholders.”
George Tong, Senior Art Director @ Flexport
“Presentation matters. In every aspect of your career, you’re going to have to sell yourself and your ideas. Whether it’s an interview or a nationwide campaign, you’re going to need to present, and present well. Think about who you’re presenting to and be intentional about how you’re going to present to them.”
Patti @ OpenTable:
“Writing! From day-to-day processes like defining user needs and formulating hypotheses, to creating usability tests and putting together presentations, I’m constantly writing. It’s invaluable to be able to effectively articulate the thought that goes into your work. Writing is something that I’m constantly working on.”
Joe @ Designgood.tech:
“What’s in our minds does not automatically translate to the minds of others. If you have an idea you think should be brought to life, prototype it, make it feel real, show people the vision, have numbers to support it, and create the plan to put it into production. Make it so easy to say yes that they won’t say no.”
About CMCI Studio
CMCI Studio is a design graduate program at CU Boulder. Driven by a culture of collective creativity and fueled by design thinking, our mission is to transform our students into design professionals capable of leading us into the future and solving problems in a rapidly changing world. You can learn more at our website. We are currently accepting applications for fall 2019.