How to Succeed at Your New Design Job
You want to hit the ground running but…hey, where is everyone running??
Starting a new job as a designer can be a rollercoaster. One minute you’re chomping at the bit to dive into design work (“PS. Hey IT team, where’s that Sketch license?”), and the next you’re stressing about proving that you are the brilliant designer you said you were during your interviews (Hello, Imposter Syndrome, my old friend). It’s tempting to try to hit the ground running with design work ASAP so that you can more quickly feel like an integral part of the team.
Rushing into design project work too soon at a new position can leave you regretting that you didn’t take the time up front to establish a strong foundation within your company.
The first few weeks of your job is the time to take advantage of the fact that you aren’t yet swamped with design tasks.
The start of any job can be overwhelming, with new information being hurled from every direction, new colleagues to meet, and new domains to master. I’ve started design jobs at many different types of companies, from being a solo designer at a startup, to one of over 100 designers at an enterprise SaaS company. In this article, I want to reflect on how I set myself up for more successful problem-solving, and formed deeper relationships with colleagues, in order to have more of an impact on my organization.
“It’s hard to get up to speed on everything while trying to prove value immediately.”
Not only are you likely learning a new product, but you have to get a deep understanding of the types of people who use the product. Sometimes you even need to learn the ropes of a field that’s entirely new to you, like healthcare or education or a new new internet (Ooh, what will that be like? Will it finally be fast enough to not worry about cat videos clogging the tubes? And can we finally replace all fake news with cat videos?).
It can be difficult to balance a steep learning curve with a desire to deliver and prove worth quickly. This is one of those times where Imposter Syndrome is likely to rear its ugly head. Early in my design career, I felt that if I took too long learning and understanding context at the onset of a job and didn’t quickly start producing design work, my team would suddenly identify me as a terrible designer who didn’t deserve to be there. (Spoiler alert: I was wrong.)
“I’m itching to solve problems but I don’t yet understand their context.”
As designers, we are trained to look at the world through a critical eye. Often when we join a company and look at products with fresh eyes, we are quick to identify areas of improvement in workflow, interactions, and visual design. We’re also quick to be critical of the others’ design processes and want to offer up what has worked best for us in the past.
While there is value to having a fresh set of eyes evaluate a product or a process, your new colleagues won’t always find your suggestions to be helpful or palatable if you don’t first take the time to understand the context behind the current situation.
“I want to do high profile design work ASAP.”
This goes along with a desire to quickly prove your value at a company. When I start a new job, I’m always overly eager to delve deep into the gnarly, complex problems whose solutions could make a huge difference in the success of a product or company.
Starting off with smaller design tasks feels like when you get to the water park and your parent makes you stand there for 15 minutes so they can slather you in sunscreen while all the other kids get to go on the big water slides. No fair!
Let’s dive (or slide) into some tactics to help you overcome these challenges.
Focus first on building relationships, then on producing work.
During your first few weeks, take advantage of the fact that you’re not yet deep into design work. This time period is essential for establishing the relationships that you’ll end up leaning on for collaboration in the future. Be proactive about setting up 1-on-1’s with people both within and outside of your immediate team.
I typically try to set up 1-on-1’s with people from the following roles (when applicable) when I start a new design job:
- Designers What existing design and research processes are in place? What are relationships like between designers and other stakeholders? What are some of the core design values and philosophies that guide design decisions?
- Product Managers What goes into product strategy and how is the road map created? What does the competitive landscape look like, where does our product win, and where does our product need to improve? What type of Product Manager are they? What does their ideal relationship with a designer look like?
- Engineers or Engineering Managers What tech is behind your product? How have engineers and designers been collaborating, and where is there room for improvement? How agile is the engineering team, and is there an expectation for product discovery and design to be ready for engineering within a certain time frame?
- Customer Success What is the state of current users/customers? What are the most common pain points and what are the most common areas of delight and value? What areas of the product are self-service versus require help from Customer Success? How does Customer Success currently communicate with the product/design team and are there areas for improvement?
- Sales/Account Executives What markets do we do well in, and are there any markets we want to break into? How do you tell the story of our company and product, and does that story change depending on the type of prospect you’re talking to? If you could wave a magic wand and add or change one feature in the product to help improve your life in sales, what would that be and why? What do you usually show to prospects, and have you collaborated with designers for these materials?
- Support What are some of the most common support issues that come in? Are there common issues that users could easily solve on their own but don’t realize they can? How do support issues get funneled to the product team and prioritized?
- Executives How do you see design and product’s role in supporting the vision of this company? What are some of the characteristics of your most successful team members? Where do you hope this company/product will be in 5 years?
Pro tip: The people you set up 1-on-1’s with in your first few weeks will likely be essential for any future internal research initiatives you lead.
Observe with a helpful eye, and ask questions with an open mind.
In addition to working on establishing relationships, I try to spend my first few weeks of a job in observation mode. This means often treating experiences like contextual inquiry sessions: observing how people work and interact, asking questions along the way, and taking notes on design and research ideas or how I might be helpful to the people around me.
Observe by shadowing customer-facing roles and listening in on calls with customers. Observe by asking your manager if you can sit in on meetings that would help give you insight into how the company runs and how various teams function. Observe by attending your developers’ stand-up meetings even if you don’t understand most of the technical jargon they’re using (Maybe things would be more energetic around here if you weren’t using Decaf to water down your CoffeeScript code! I’d recommend upgrading to at least Half-Caf.).
Try not to make assumptions about what you observe. Instead, ask questions to establish context around what you’re seeing and hearing. Make a note of any areas in which colleagues may have had frustrations with designers, or where you feel your skills and talents may be able to solve a problem.
If you have an idea you feel is worth sharing, keep in mind that you’re the new kid in town and it’s entirely possible your ideas have already been not only considered, but also talked to death and shot down multiple times well before you even interviewed. Use questions to help establish context around the ideas swirling around in your head:
- Could you tell me more about the process and rationale behind [this feature]?
- Have you considered [trying this type of process]?
- What directions did you explore when you first started designing [this feature], and what went behind your decision to go in this direction?
By asking questions like these and listening for context, you’ll be able to better evaluate the ideas you have while you observe your new environment.
Show thoughtful work in small tasks.
At your new design job, you will likely start off with design tasks that feel menial to you. These small tasks may make you question how your manager and colleagues see you. Do they think I’m an amateur? (Probably not.) Am I ever going to work on something more meaningful? (Yes, if you follow the advice in this article.)
Small design tasks are exactly what you want at the onset of a new design job, for a few reasons.
First, they leave you with higher reserves of brain power to focus on getting up to speed on the administrative stuff:
- Is there a design system I should be using? How should I use it?
- How do I know if there’s already research in this problem space?
- Where are design files stored?
- What fonts do I need to install?
- Oh crap, I need to set up my Sketch plugins.
- Oh crap, the IT team still hasn’t given me a Sketch license yet.
- Oh crap, who is on the IT team?
Second, and more importantly, smaller design tasks give you the opportunity to really let your process and skills shine. Take this moment to showcase that thoughtful, human-centered design process you bragged about during your interview. Collaborate with your team. Mock up a bunch of ideas and share your philosophy on how to iteratively arrive at a final solution. Have a talk with your product manager about the business goals your design work should help achieve, and chat with an engineer about feasibility considerations. Define success criteria for your design work. Don’t skimp on your process just because the task feels small.
Stay helpful, stay humble.
This mantra was given to me by a mentor, and it has stuck with me ever since. As a designer, we should want to be seen as essential for making the company’s mission and vision a reality. This happens when we focus not on our own ideas and accomplishments, but instead on amplifying and developing the best ideas in the room, regardless of where they come from.
Getting started on the right foot in a design job is especially important because as designers, we often feel like it’s a struggle to prove our worth within an organization. By building foundational relationships, observing and asking questions, putting extra care into small design tasks, and staying humble, you’ll be on track to becoming an incredibly valuable and high-performing member of your team.