Entering the design profession is sometimes like love at first sight, but it can also be something you simply want to do and learn to respect. Design is one of the most popular fields for people to move into from other professions.
Design has been called many things in the past, but even as a definition it’s referring to a multitude of activities across times. Within the design profession there are people who are more creative and some that are more scientific in their approach. Some people can draw, other can write, and some can think, but designers have to study all of these and continually try to be better at them all. At this given point of time the most popular design roles are UX, UI, and Graphic Designer and I’m focused on these when I refer to ‘design’.
In this article I will explore the reasons for transitioning in and out of design, the have baked approaches that companies have developed towards sustaining designers on a career path, and the developing skill set of the designer who aspires to be an executive.
I talked about the main drivers behind people who want to go through the process of changing career.
Within a person’s work life the two main key problems are interest and progression. Interest is hard to maintain now that we work for 55 years on average. It’s impossible to be interested in the same field for that long. Progression is another stumbling block because within those 55 years the thing that keeps the best people alive is constant change and challenge.
You would think that the design profession supports multi-disciplinary people, but it doesn’t.
Transition from another discipline to Design
Many software developers, economists, and lawyers have transitioned into the design profession. Changing career usually leads to a temporary step down in salary and status. I’m not sure about the statistics but I’ve personally met more people who have downgraded their salary to ‘design level’ than people who’ve upgraded. The main reasons I’ve heard are all linked to the fact that design is essentially social. People transition into design because they want to do something they love (and it can be cool at times).
I have found it quite hard for a developer to excite a CEO, or even friends at dinner, with the things they do. A developer expects to get a project done fast, but built properly and, of course, to come up with meaningful ideas to solve problems. The difference between the designer and the developer is that the developer is usually solving problems that are quite complex, have a lot of interdependent issues to deal with and must understand a lot of abstract, technical stuff. Whereas the designer is usually solving problems that people can see, and they solve them by talking to people and testing it with people. This is something that people find easier to talk about over dinner, something that everyone can have an opinion on. That’s why design problem solving can be more exciting for the CEO, a marketing executive, and people in general.
For many people being a designer is a dream: very few try to learn more about how to live that dream and even fewer succeed at living it. I have learnt that when something looks easy, it probably means I know nothing about it. The design profession suffers from appearing easier than it is, but once people dive into design, its complexity unfolds. Design is a social role. Designers talk to people, do ethnographic research, user testing, build stuff fast, launch, fail and learn. It’s a diverse field and that means it should be open to people from diverse backgrounds.
Transitioning from Design to another discipline
People in design usually love it, so if they are ‘leaving’ the field it happens because of three reasons:
- They don’t like the fluff, and they prefer to answer to a clearer set of instructions. I call it the “either it works or it doesn’t” attitude.
2. Designers sometimes discover that they are really good at their craft, or art, and want to be their own masters.
3. They have power and economic aspirations, but in their organisation being a designer means they continually need to fight their corner and educate others about the value of design.
* By mentioning changing career away from design I’m only referring to designers who were professionally doing design. Looking back at my BA, and even my MA, the average percentage of people who learnt design alongside me and actually are working as designers is 50%
Let’s look at the design profession roles over the past few years…
The ever-changing professional design environment is where the problem for the cross-disciplinary person starts.
Here are some of the jobs that come within the design category:
Graphic designer, Human-computer interaction, Interaction designer, Designer researcher, Motion designer, UI designer, UX designer, Product designer, Design manager, Principal designer, Design Ops, Head of design, Creative Director, Director of Design — and that’s without adding Intern, Junior, Mid-weight, Senior, Executive and Global to each level. Two-thirds of this list are roles that were invented in the past 10 years. As you know, ‘Design’ is quite a new discipline, and as I grow older, I see more and more job titles that were created to sustain the 45-year-old designer, most of which never existed before.
I was recently exposed to this Progression.fyi by Jonny Burch which aggregates career ladders and measurements for designers inside enterprise companies. Looking at many of these companies’ ‘ladders’ it is obvious that this is still a work in progress and that a lot of that progress is being made by designers who need to invent their own career path while at the same time trying to get more leadership roles.
You can argue that design is not that new. It exists in commercial art, architecture and interior decoration, and the marketing and branding agencies established it as a profession many years ago. As the years pass many big tech firms started forming their own internal design agencies, as design departments which therefore adopted the hierarchy. But, I would argue that working for an agency with a fast-paced project versus working on a setting within the security settings submenu for a whole year are two extremely different experiences.
The leading Silicon Valley companies have a different take on this phenomenon. Companies like Google et al solve the issue of a traditional hierarchy within a sector by stripping away fancy titles and just call employees, “Designer’. ‘Manager’ or ‘VP of something’. You can see examples of this in many people’s LinkedIn profiles where they have gone from Senior Creative Global Director to UX designer.
The differences in ‘roles’ are often dependent on who the designer defines as their client. Is the client a Head of Design who has the mandate to enforce good design work, or a person from the marketing department looking for an inspirational piece of design? The brief, the client, the environment, the time frame and focus are the things that completely change the depth to which a designer can dive.