Career Architectures for Design Teams

Ryan Donahue
Jun 1, 2018 · 4 min read
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There is a moment within every growing design organization when a design leader comes to realize that “hand-wavy” is no longer cutting it.

For those unfamiliar, handwavy is a pejorative term that describes a person’s attempt to explain something while omitting important details.

When we’re being hand-wavy, I liken it to speaking before we really know what we’re talking about. In general, hand-waviness includes a healthy dose of enthusiasm which is typically added in to compensate for the lack of facts and substance. It’s usually pretty harmless, but it’s bullshitty nonetheless.

Hand-wavy design leadership comes in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Many of these acts of hand-waviness are harmless and easily forgivable offenses depending on the maturity of your design organization. However, you should avoid hand-wavy conversations about someone’s career growth at all cost. The stewardship of another person’s career is your most serious responsibility as a design manager. In my opinion, better to say nothing than to speak about someone’s career growth without consistency and substance. Investing in a document known as a career architecture can be an excellent tool for saving you from the perils of hand-wavy career conversations.

Avoid hand-wavy conversations about someone’s career growth at all cost.

What is a career architecture?

A career architecture shows each specific design role, job responsibilities and the expected levels of influence and impact associated with a role. From intern to chief creative officer — it’s a living document that attempts to detail the expectations of every job within your design org from top to bottom.

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Career architectures are typically displayed as a multi-column table with job titles, job scope and other descriptors for each role within your design department. Scroll to the bottom of the article for complete downloads of the Zendesk Design Career Architectures.

What are career architectures good for?

  • They allow you to emphasize the directional milestones in a designer’s career that will allow them to progress
  • They spark honest conversation between designers and managers about motivation. Is a person more motivated by managing people, things or some combination of the two?
  • They allow you to operationalize the values that your design management team wants to reward

What are career architectures bad at?

The biggest danger with career architectures is that it’s all too easy to misinterpret these kinds of materials as career todo lists. Check this box and proceed to the next level. This overly-literal interpretation of career architectures can be tempting, but thinking of them in this way is flawed for both parties (manager and employee).

For employees, this creates an unrealistically narrow definition of success that is overly dependent on external factors which may or may not be in the employee’s control. Imagine if projects don’t arise which allow one to sufficiently “check the box” on a certain career milestone. Should your career be put on pause while you wait for said projects to materialize?

For managers, a career todo list approach disincentives creativity and improvisation. There should never be a single way to be successful, especially in a creative profession. Building incentive systems such as career architectures can have disastrous effects if you gamify things so strongly that people are afraid to stray from the prescribed paths of behavior.

Remember: Career architectures are not a detailed algorithmic map of if than statements, but rather a compass showing the right direction in which to travel.

Career architectures in the Zendesk Creative Department

During my first two years at Zendesk, my management team and I handled career growth for designers in a style that would best be described as “fast and loose.” There was no documentation and little consistency. Lacking in details and having not yet dedicated the time to build out a thoughtful career architecture ourselves, I relied on hand-wavy responses while staying committed to the idea that for what we lacked in documentation, we made up for in spontaneous acts of “doing right by people.”

Career architectures are not a detailed algorithmic map of if than statements, but rather a compass showing the right direction in which to travel.

But, over time, these career conversations I was having wandered deeper and deeper into specifics and I increasingly realized the error in my ways. The fact was that hand-wavy career conversations would no longer cut it. It was time for thoughtful reflection about our design roles and how we wanted people to progress from role to role in order to learn, grow and have the best possible career experience as creatives at Zendesk.

Within the Zendesk Creative Department, we’ve had a career architecture in place for approximately two years now. After many months of work, late last year my team and I rolled out the latest version of our career architectures.

What follows are downloadable versions of three documents:

  1. Product Design Career Paths for Individual Contributors (pdf 1.4 mb)
  2. Product Design Career Paths for People Managers (pdf 1.6 mb)
  3. Brand Design Career Paths for People Managers (pdf 1.5 mb)

We have many more, but I figured I would start by sharing just three, and see where the conversation goes. Instead of over-explaining these, I would rather keep my description of them brief and invite your questions or comments to happen in the comments section below. Keep in mind these are living docs— they are neither perfect, nor are they done. My hope is that you may be inspired by them to better develop your own and perhaps make your career conversations a bit less hand-wavy.

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Zendesk Creative

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design.

Ryan Donahue

Written by

VP of Product Design at Databricks. Formerly VP Design @ Zendesk. I’m hiring! http://t.co/ldxEHHnbec

Zendesk Creative

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

Ryan Donahue

Written by

VP of Product Design at Databricks. Formerly VP Design @ Zendesk. I’m hiring! http://t.co/ldxEHHnbec

Zendesk Creative

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

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