4 lessons from my dozen-year design career
Happy new year! Believe it or not, it’s been 12 years since I first became a Junior Web Designer. You can read my story on my About page if you’re curious; this will be more of a retrospective than a timeline.
Below are a few points I’ve had my mind on for a while and wanted to share with others since I’ve been in a couple of conversations about what growth looks like at this stage. If any of it resonates with you, I’d love to hear! I’m so interested in what designers have learned as they’ve grown.
Set career values
Some people can go with the flow and land somewhere that makes them happy. I’m a type-A Capricorn who enjoys planning, learning, and documenting how I want (and like) to spend my time. Early into my career, I set a goal to eventually become a senior product designer. But the principles regarding companies I wanted to work with actually drove my career decisions.
Once I became a senior designer, a variety of career opportunities opened. Instead of boxing myself into a particular role, I concentrated on the kinds of activities I wanted to do long-term. After testing out design management, I eventually decided to deepen my skills as an individual contributor design leader (learn more about that in this other post I wrote).
More opportunities will come your way as your career lengthens. I now check in on my career values annually, then write goals that match them. It’s easy to make a decision when you know you’ll get closer to where you’re trying to go.
This means you’ll need to get comfortable with saying no often. Declining one opportunity can open up doors to another. It’s okay to turn down something that doesn’t align with your interests or calendar, especially if you suggest someone else who is interested and has the time!
Don’t be a perfectionist
Perfectionism is your enemy. While I believe in making great experiences, you can’t launch on time if you’re being so meticulous that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Learn to balance speed and quantity as early into your career as you can.
I’ve worked on many projects over the past 12 years and every experience has been different. There is no perfect process that works every time across every context; every project is unique. The new, hot tools and frameworks people love today may be taboo tomorrow (looking at you, personas and jQuery).
When you evaluate projects, consider the following:
- What is the scale of your project? Company? Team(s) involved?
- How do the people on your team(s) work best?
- Is there a hard deadline?
- What are the project goals?
- Are there hard requirements set by an outside force?
Becoming more flexible with processes and tools made me a more adaptive designer. By focusing less on perfection and more on learning in collaboration with my coworkers and customers, I’ve made a larger impact faster. Quality is important, but so is taking grasp of opportunities as they come.
Change takes more work than you think
Whether it’s workflow inefficiencies, challenges with diversity in hiring, or toxic culture, every organization has something to improve. One way to respond to something you dislike is to complain about it. And I’ve done a lot of complaining in my work life. But I didn’t realize that actual change often requires identifying a pattern of problems, recognizing the business impact, and advocating for solutions effectively.
If you’ve found an opportunity to improve, it’s important to step back from the symptoms and identify the workflow issues causing them. What systems contributed to the problem? How might you avoid them in the future?
Assuming the issue can be measured in some way, frame it as a business problem. How many hours were wasted? How much money was wasted? If the company’s bottom line is at stake, people should know — and you should confirm if this is an issue worth pursuing further.
In addition to highlighting the points of failure and their business impacts, propose how they might be amended. This might require you to speak with others and confirm you have the capacity and influence needed to resolve the issue. For example, if a project you worked on tanked despite your best efforts, how might you, your team, and/or your organization’s leadership remove barriers to future success?
Once you’ve answered the above questions, you’ll be ready to make an impact at an organizational level. If you think the right people aren’t aware of the issue, share it with them and ask how they want to be involved. Find collaborators and stakeholders at all levels so you can balance the workload required to make an impact.
Assuming you get traction, follow up afterward so stakeholders understand the impact you made. Keep them updated regarding ways your methods helped as future projects progress. Create artifacts people can reference and be inspired by. And celebrate your wins! When you communicate the value of your efforts, you become a trusted agitator.
The ladder goes into another dimension
Once you get to Staff, Lead, or Principal, you own your career. You might be a peer to your manager, and you will be expected to drive your trajectory. This is why goal-setting (or gut-checking, at least) is important: you need to know what kind of work holds your interest. The career ladder may be less definitive at this altitude, but my values and short-term goals are clear. Those drive the steps I take each day.
You must vocalize your needs to continuously get them filled. Similar to change-making, I communicate what I want in an information-backed, action-centric way. When I start working with a new manager, I outline my career experience and what I’m looking for at the moment. I let them know whether I’m in a survival or growth phase, then share my goals with them. I want every person I work with to know what I aim to do, what interests me, and what doesn’t — and I hope they’ll tell me the same about them so I can help them as well.
As a Staff designer at Asana, I navigate large-scale ambiguous problems, plan and drive continuous improvements to the product area I’m responsible for, contribute to the growth of my fellow designers, and much more. I don’t know what my career will look like in another 12 years, but I’m excited to continue learning and sharing my experience as a designing human.
Finding Meaning In Design When Nothing Is Fine
We’re all aware: working while under duress is terrible! Especially as a designer. People often talk about design as a superpower because you can illustrate the future—and it often is quite magical. But when your skillset doesn’t feel immediately relevant to your survival, the magic evaporates. In this very personal and relatable talk, I will share my experience with navigating hard times and experiencing a career block. Attendees will learn techniques for overcoming the malaise and building a guided, sustainable design career.
Want to talk?
Got feedback, looking to suggest a future writing topic, or want to invite me to speak at your organization? Send me a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!