Considering Industry Specialization as a Designer

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Updated October 11, 2023
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One decision to consider when you’re looking for your next job is whether you want to specialize in a particular industry or domain. For example, you may want to specialize in the healthcare sector because you think that’s an area where you’ll make the most impact and you may already have some prior industry knowledge that can put you at an advantage. As an industry specialist, you’ll be able to get up to speed quickly on new projects and command a premium for your salary. Typically designers choose to specialize later in their careers, but there is no right approach as it’s largely a personal choice.

You can also consider remaining an industry generalist. This may be a good choice when you’re not yet sure if there’s a particular industry you want to focus on and if you still want to double down on your design skills. Your lack of context sometimes may also be an advantage as it may lead to breakthrough solutions that a specialist may have missed.

Specializing in an Industry

As a designer specializing in an industry, you’ll understand the domain deeply and will be able to make a faster impact to the company that hired you. If you’re coming to the design from another role (education, for instance), this could be a good way to get an in. For example, new designers who have worked in your field (let’s say as a nurse practitioner) will have a domain knowledge advantage over designers who have never done work in this space.

Another benefit of focusing on a specific industry is the accrued domain knowledge. Aside from understanding the context, you’ll also be able to build deeper connections with industry peers, potentially raising your profile as an industry expert.

What does a profile of an industry specialist look like? Stacy La started her career as a front-end engineer, later becoming a design lead at Yammer, a company specializing in enterprise software. It wasn’t until a few years later that she joined Clover, where she became a lead designer and later a director of design. Around that time she also founded Design for Healthcare SF meetup group, which now boasts 2,000+ members. She didn’t stop there but continues to give countless talks and interviews, not just about healthcare but also about her role in building a design team from the ground up.

Making a jump into a specific industry may feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t know which one to pick. If you’re not sure which is right for you, one way to go about this decision is to join a design agency, which will typically allow you to work on projects from companies in different industries.

Industry Agnostic

You can also choose not to specialize. Many designers choose that route, and it offers the ultimate flexibility. Agencies such as IDEO, while specializing in specific verticals, pride themselves in placing designers who are not familiar with an industry to uncover new insights through a fresh perspective. Big tech companies are not dissimilar—you’ll have a variety of projects to work on, potentially with multiple teams.

As an example, Zarla Ludin’s work was primarily in the agency space. She spent a significant amount of time working at Essential before transitioning to Motivate Design. In the end, she co-founded a design agency called twig+fish while also continuing to freelance as an experience researcher. Aside from her stint as an interaction design intern at Autodesk early on in her career, she primarily chose to work in the agency space.

Creating Your Own Path

While the distinction of becoming specialist or remaining agnostic may seem binary, the truth is that most designers don’t start out in one camp and remain in it forever. As an example, Nastasha Tan started her career working in-house with notable companies like Salesforce and Samsung. She joined IDEO a few years later, where she rose up the ranks to a design director working on various projects in the San Francisco Bay Area office. After over five years of being there she was looking for a new challenge, which led her to a role as Head of Design at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG). There, she worked on pioneering Uber’s autonomous vehicle experience.

A good way to think about this is the type of career experience you want to create for yourself—not just in the next job but over the next decade. How can you capitalize on the opportunities out there (or create them yourself) so that you look back and feel proud of what you’ve accomplished? What should your career portfolio look like? This brings us to the next topic—impact.

Design Impact, Ethics, and Diversity

Problems Worth Solving

As you’re considering companies and opportunities, it’s helpful to also to step back and think about the type of impact you may want to create and the legacy to leave behind. Are you more comfortable working on a deep problem that impacts few but has the power to change their experience significantly? Or would you prefer to cover a smaller problem that affects millions? There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, and just like the question of different cultures—some of these problems may resonate closer with you than others.

When we make decisions, we’re usually well aware of our present surroundings and our current situation. While usually it’s good to be present in the moment, sometimes it may deter us from taking on an opportunity that might seem risky in the near-term. One way to get over this risk is to reflect on this experience as if you’re looking back at it. Jeff Bezos calls it the regret minimization framework—if you were to look back in your life as if you’re 80 years old, how would this experience feel? Sometimes this additional perspective can help us see things in focus when viewed from a broader lens.

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