Tiny Tactics

How to be a Valuable Designer

Design school (and amazing design blogs) teach you the skills and theory to become a great designer. Your first big corporate job probably teaches you how to be a valuable employee (probably by watching some awful onboarding video).

But who is teaching you how to be a valuable designer? Well…me.

Honestly, the biggest lesson that helped me level up as a designer was realizing how to become valuable to my organization. My idea of what was “valuable” didn’t quite jive with what those around me saw as valuable — particularly those outside my design team.

I went through years of whining for more headcount, times when I didn’t get on the fun projects, and downright angry when leadership would hire outside consultants to do what I’d been pushing us to do for months.

Some of these lessons I’ve only learned retroactively as I’ve mentored younger designers venting these problems to me over coffee (or several beers). But I’ve found many designers facing similar problems:

How can I be a good designer when I feel like I’m not valued in my organization?


Challenges

“I feel like my work isn’t valued”

This is where it all starts for designers as they start questioning whether they want to leave their position or not. There are dozens of reasons for this to happen, from your organization not respecting design as a discipline (which can ultimately be impossible to overcome), to simply doing way too much and making it difficult for others to see exactly what you’re doing.

This isn’t necessarily unique to design, but it’s interesting in that those outside the design industry don’t always know how to utilize a designer’s skillset. This means that the burden of showing value is more a responsibility of the designer than on those around you. We’ll get into those tactics in a bit.

I am overworked, and I’m not doing great work on anything.

This is the second-most heard complaint I hear from industry professionals. It’s really easy to begin your career by saying, “Yes!” to everything because you want to be seen as useful.

But over time, this escalates until you’re no longer doing anything really well. What’s worse is that along the way you’ve given the impression you won’t ever say “No”. Then you complain that people don’t appreciate you.

Why would they?

If you don’t tell people no, they’ll never appreciate how much you’re doing. In other words, your flexibility works against you. I’m not advocating that you become obstinate. Rather, there are ways to set firm limits that won’t just help you regain your sanity, but better prove your value to your extended team.

I’m not sure I’m being given opportunities to grow

Just as with the others, there are conditions where this can result in simply needing to find another opportunity. Some organizations don’t support growth; others might be too small to carve out a long-term path.

This typically happens when you’re not advocating for yourself as much as you should. You get hired based on a job description — you often get judged based on pre-established corporate job requirements. But these are simply convenient ways for managers to assess the productivity of their employees. They aren’t roadmaps to personal growth. They also aren’t timely and aware of new opportunities that spring up as over time.

Let’s dive into some tactics to help you overcome these challenges.


Tactics

Find the all-stars and work with them!

This is challenging, but also a bit easier with larger organizations with more talent. But often I find frustrations can stem from working with teams that aren’t…well…strong.

That rockstarninjabadassfullstack developer works on a different scrum team. That visionary PM is in a different office.

Don’t let that stop you.

It may take a while for an opportunity to pop up but that shouldn’t stop you from starting a conversation about how you might collaborate.

Figure out what your organization values most and partner with them

Is your company a sales-first org? Then set up a meeting with a salesperson, learn how they work, and find opportunities to help them with design. Sales demos, interactive prototypes, pitch decks…there are plenty of opportunities to show value that dovetail nicely with a designer’s skillset. If your company is marketing oriented then find opportunities to bridge the gap between marketing and design.

To be valuable, you’ll have to look outside your design team.

I’ve said before, your value as a designer lies in how well you work with the broader team.

Tackle an organizational problem or pitch a new project yourself

One big caveat here: don’t just make another damn design system!

Yes, these are useful but it’s become the go-to value add for bored designers everywhere. Design systems are like singing Don’t Stop Believin’ at happy hour karaoke. You’ll enjoy it, but will anyone else?

One year during some down time as a junior designer, I looked at the sheer amount of money my product team spent on getting icons created for our annual releases (we had about 300–500 icons every year). I created a method for us to outsource smaller pieces of the icons and build the composites ourselves. It saved us 60% of what we’d normally spend on icons in a given year.

The key is to not solely rely on others to give you projects, but to find opportunities yourself.

Prioritize your work and focus exclusively on top priorities

Write down every project and product you work on at least bi-weekly and prioritize them. Then bring the list to your manager and validate the list. Then pick the top 3–5 and commit to doing those.

Overachievers sometimes get their due, but most times they just get walked over. If you’re frustrated that your manager won’t hire someone to come help, then you need to make yourself a scarce resource. Think, less McDonald’s and more French Laundry. You want to become a restaurant people will wait in line for, not one that people know is open 24/7.

Tell your manager what you want to do

I end with the most painfully obvious-yet-somehow-overlooked tactic of all: communicating.

If I had a Bitcoin for every time a designer told me they felt unsatisfied at work but hadn’t told their manager, I’d have something like $15 to $80 million (depending on whether bitcoin is crashing or not).

There’s is a misunderstanding that managers know everything their employees need, and don’t want to hear their opinions.

Both are false.

Even great managers can’t stay on top of of everything. But most managers aren’t great, so you can rest assure they’re not thinking about you. But you know what all managers love? A direct report that does their work for them.

Be honest with your manager. But bring ideas and solutions rather than problems. Tell them what you’d like to do, propose projects, ask for opportunities. At worst, a manager will do nothing (in which case you dust off your resume), but most likely they’ll start making something happen.

The natural follow-up question I get to this advice is:

“Well what if I don’t have another offer to use as leverage?”

To that, I remind you that professional relationships are, in fact, relationships. And you wouldn’t approach your spouse or significant other by threatening divorce/break-up every time you wanted something. Same rules here.


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