Too many great designers and developers become mediocre (if not terrible) managers as there’s no other visible path forward. It’s an inexcusable failure of our industry and those of us charged with building teams.
We, as leaders must ensure that great people can continue to build their skills and receive the recognition and compensation they deserve, whether they wish to focus on their craft or on building teams. Here’s how I do it.
Start With the Craft
Everyone starts on the same path, learning about our industry and the tools available and applying them with more and more skill over time. It requires tremendous effort to be good at this job, much less amazing at it. And while some people will quickly give out inflated titles, once you’ve worked with and been mentored by a great Senior Designer, you can spot what true craft leadership means. (If your Senior Designer doesn’t actively mentor, they aren’t truly senior, in my book).
It is critical to recognize that leaders don’t always want to manage other humans. In fact, in many cases, they shouldn’t manage people. People leadership is hard and requires a very different set of skills, which must be learned over time, taking precedence over design skills. Craft leadership is equally complex, requiring constant improvement and awareness of changing technologies and practices while broadening one’s technical capabilities.
This is the central thesis of this branching path — craft leadership and people leadership require different skills and perspectives. Each requires a tremendous amount of focus in order to “level up”. We need to recognize this as an industry and provide a structure that allows everyone to be successful and contribute.
The Top of the Map
When you view this structure, keep in mind that it should take a long time to reach the top. Setting small startups aside, where teams are too small for this structure to be applicable, in a well lead team, we’re looking at a couple of decades to reach the heights. That sounds like forever, but truly excellent leaders need time and experience to execute at those levels.
Are These Paths Truly Equal?
Yes, they should be. A Lead Designer and a Design Team Lead should be compensated in the same band and afforded the same respect. A Principle Designer may be the highest paid person on the team, earning more than the Manager or Director that they report to.
There is one caveat though…
“Head of Design”
Yup, this is the one spot where the People Leadership path extends a bit further. Ultimately someone needs to lead all of the people in the design organization, represent their interests to the business and provide the business context in return. The person in this role needs to be someone who has built the critical relationship and business skills that take years to master. They’re the ones who bear the responsibility for the team’s failures. They’re the ones who make and communicate the hard decisions, and you don’t want to leave that to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to develop those skills.
Jumping Between and Away
Sometimes the current path isn’t the right one. I say this as someone who’s been a developer and product manager in addition to my design roles. Sometimes you want to explore. Sometimes the current path doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, there’s a different path altogether that beckons. Sometimes you just don’t know if you want to manage people or not. This structure fully supports those eventualities. The interconnecting and side paths shown are representative, but by no means comprehensive. Go! Explore! Find what’s right for you, no matter which direction.
What’s Expected at Each Step
I haven’t written up descriptions for each role in a shareable format yet, but luckily Peter Merholz has built out an impressively comprehensive Design Team Levels spreadsheet, which is a tremendous resource. I’ve been using a modified version of that work as a way to provide a “Zoomed in” view of each step of my diagram. They aren’t a one-to-one match, but between the two, you should have a great starting point and can modify it to match your team and outlook.
Thoughts or Feedback?
Usage & Attribution
Feel free to make use of this framework, and even the graphic. If you do, please credit me, keeping the attribution in the graphic, and if you share your work publicly, please link to this post. If you’re up for sharing, I’d be excited to hear about your modifications.