Defining Your Ideal Role

an hour, 25 links

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Defining Your Ideal Role

Being intentional in your job search will help you find a job that’s a great fit. Defining what your future role should look like will help you dismiss options that don’t fit with that vision and help you make decisions that are based on values that are important to you.

If you’re just starting out in your career or you’ve been recently laid off, it’s tempting to jump at the first offer, end the search, and start doing the work. Of course everyone’s circumstances vary, and if that first offer checks all the boxes for you, then definitely pursue it.

The trouble comes sometimes when we haven’t taken the time to define those boxes. In those circumstances our opinion may get swayed by shiny things like the perks that companies like to advertise: happy hours on Fridays, various discounts, Ping-Pong tables, and so on. While these may sound cool, the reality is that they might not be applicable to you at all. Maybe at this stage of your career what’s important to you is mentorship, guidance, access, and the ability to work with senior professionals closely so you can level up and grow quickly.

Finding a Job That Fits

This is why it’s important to define your own criteria when looking for a job. Let’s apply the jobs-to-be-done framework by Clayton Christensen. Don’t think about getting any job—think of hiring a job for your needs. This will help you identify a company that can support your growth and help you reach your potential faster with wind at your back.

Think through the company’s characteristics that are important to you as if you’re evaluating a candidate. What makes them great? Who would you pass and who would you hire? Not all of these characteristics will play an equal role, and you may choose to include others, so treat this list as a starting point:

  • Design maturity of the company.

  • Your future manager.

  • Culture of the company and the team.

  • In-house role or work for a design agency.

  • Consumer or enterprise products.

  • Platforms and devices.

  • Location of the company and the surrounding ecosystem (on-site, off-site, and remote.)

  • Industry specialization or breadth of expertise.

  • Impact and society.

Lastly, you may notice one big thing that’s missing from this list—salary. Everyone should be compensated highly based on the value and skills they provide. When you’re evaluating jobs against each other, of course you’ll consider compensation, and we’ll dive into the nuances of it in Breaking Down Your Design Job Offer so that you get the compensation you deserve.

Over time as you’re searching for your dream job, you’ll periodically revisit this list. It’s not static. Maybe you’ll learn some new info based on your interviews or by talking with people in industry. There’s no penalty for adjusting your criteria; however, it does help to have it in place. Think of your job criteria as your north star that can help guide you toward the right decision.

How Design Maturity Impacts the Type of Work You’ll Do

A mature design company has internalized and established proven design processes that it has honed over many years. Design is not a layer sprinkled at the end of the product development cycle but an integral piece at the heart of the process, a core competency that’s well funded and properly staffed.

Unlock expert knowledge.
Learn in depth. Avoid pitfalls. Get lifetime online access to the entire book, plus a download you can keep.
Now Available

Table: Design Maturity Tradeoff

Low maturity companyHigh maturity company
Opportunity toEstablish a practice of design from scratch in-line with your vision, go beyond the work and shape process and design culture.Focus on the core work and develop strong individual contributor skills in craft and collaboration.
Best suited when…You’ve been in industry for some time; you can do the work.You’re starting out and need guidance and mentorship.
You’re interested inOperations, processes, design management, policy, and governance.Improving your core individual contributor design skills, focusing on deliverables.

High design maturity companies are great places to learn quickly and with rigor. You can continue to stay and develop your skills further to become a skilled specialist (that is, design lead) or a manager. Alternatively, you can seek a different challenge altogether by going to a low design maturity company to build the design culture there.

caution Design maturity can be tricky. While it’s easy to adjust in a startup, trying to instill change within a large organization can be a Sisyphean ordeal. Choose carefully.

High Design Maturity Leads to Focus on Craft

For a designer who’s just starting out, it’s best to go to a company that already has the design process established. This means you can focus on what you do best—honing in on your craft and getting your craft skills refined while at the same time expanding your collaboration skills by building relationships with your team and across departments.

You may like this environment if you:

  • Like to refine your design craft skills.

  • Prefer to deliver high quality work which at times may mean moving at a slower pace

  • Are interested in working within an existing process that has already been advocated for and gained adoption within the company.

It’s often (but not always) that higher design maturity is found in larger tech companies. If you’re a designer just starting off, it’s likely you’ll be paired up with a mentor, a peer, and a manager, giving you the opportunity to get continuous feedback to help you quickly accelerate and grow. This is an invaluable experience and will pay dividends in the long-term. It’s not unlike being back in design school, except in this case you’re being paid to learn and the organization is vested in your success.

Low Design Maturity Means Establishing Processes

Usually companies that have low design maturity are smaller—though I’ve worked in companies that were tiny and had better design sensibility than some of the larger orgs. It all varies—but with low design maturity companies, you’re facing the challenge of defining design.

This is more of a process and management role, which places less emphasis on craft skills. This type of challenge is perfect for designers who tend to be more senior and have their craft down, who have worked in places with developed processes before and now have the responsibility and autonomy to establish a design process at this company.

You may like this environment if you:

  • Thrive in ambiguous, rapidly changing environments which may mean shipping work with less than perfect data.

  • Can work on a design team but are also OK being the only designer in the company.

  • Don’t require guidance in your work and can lead initiatives without supervision.

During the course of your career, your requirements for design maturity may change. Designers usually start out in environments that are well structured and well defined, working on a small part of a project. Over time, as their experience evolves, they may want to stay, progress, and climb the proverbial design ladder either as an individual contributor or as a design manager going all the way to VP level.

story Early on in my career I had plenty of opportunities to work in low design maturity companies, but not all of them were equal experiences. Companies that were open to change and willing to experiment with new approaches made it a breeze for design to quickly accelerate and mature as a practice. Companies, and teams really, that weren’t as open continued stifling design. Ironically, sometimes these roadblocks came from existing designers who prevented others from engaging in design.

Alternatively, some designers may choose to leave and do their own thing either as an independent contractor or as the only designer at a fledgling startup. There is no “right” career path for everyone, and your desire for challenge and growth may change over time.

How do you learn where a company sits on the maturity spectrum? While you may see some telltale signs by talking with interviewers, I also recommend you ask a few questions of your own.

Additional Resources

The examples above are two extremes of the design maturity spectrum. The reality is that most companies don’t neatly fit into those two boxes. Some may be more mature in certain characteristics than others. When you start interviewing and looking for roles, be sure to take those into account.

Here are some additional resources on design maturity:

  • Level Up, by Heather Phillips, Design Director at Abstract. This questionnaire enables a company to assess its design maturity across multiple phases from process. Each question has four answers, corresponding to how mature a company is based on its stage (process, communication, employee development, and so on)

  • Design Maturity Model, a report by InVision. InVision has interviewed and conducted a large- scale study across many companies, from small startups to large corporations.

  • UX Maturity Stages, by Nielson Norman Group (NN/g) is a detailed two-part article on how a company evolves from design immaturity to design enlightenment. Of note is that while growth can sometimes come fast and easy in the first stages, in the last phases it takes more than a few years to reach the peak and few, if any, companies ever reach it.

  • If you do find yourself being the only designer, check out Leah Buley’s book The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide. It provides you the tools and methods for how to navigate your company at a low design maturity stage, advocating for resources while showing value with the tools you have at your disposal.

Lastly, another way to look at design maturity is through the lens of culture. Companies that have a low design maturity but a culture that’s open to design and experimentation can be a great fit as well, and can accelerate your growth.

Your Future Manager

Your future design manager will play a key role in your career. They will have the final say about your performance. In many companies a combination of peer and manager reviews are common, but at the end of the day, the manager wields a significant amount of influence. They will ultimately decide how well you’ve done compared to your peers and whether your performance was satisfactory or not.

While we sometimes think of managers as omnipotent supervisors, the reality is that we still have control over who we decide to work for. In fact, during your interviews, you want to think of interviewing your manager as much as they’re interviewing you. What kind of manager would you like to hire? Think about the skills that you’re trying to improve and how they can help.

The Design Manager

Having a manager who’s come from a design background can be helpful. If you’re just starting out in your design career, they’ll get you up to speed quickly on the craft side of things. But not all designers make great managers. Some may have turned to management reluctantly because it was difficult for them to advance otherwise. So when you are interviewing with a design manager, take note how they show up and the type of design team culture they’ve established (more on that in the next section). In the later stages of your job search when you get an offer, be sure to talk with other designers who currently work with this manager or have worked with them in the past.

The Non-Design Manager

Occasionally your manager may come from a background other than design, usually an adjacent field like product management or engineering. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. While you won’t get as much craft knowledge from these folks, you can still get a lot of value from their expertise in the domain, their knowledge of the company, and their collaboration skills—all crucial for a designer to be successful.

story One of the best managers I worked with came up as an individual contributor and was not a designer, but he did work in tech. The way he handled relationships and structured projects for the team, including stretch assignments, made it very clear what it meant to meet and exceed expectations. After nine months of working together he left, but the structures he put in place allowed me to quickly take over the work and set the team up for success, leading to a satisfactory performance review at the end.

Consider Your Manager’s Personality

Another thing to watch for is a manager’s personality. As you start interviewing and getting to know different types of managers, try to glean their working style and personality. Would you be able to get along well with them? How do they react under pressure? How have they handled designers like you in the past and supported their growth efforts?

It’s implicit that a manager is a role model for the team. How they handle themselves, first and foremost, and other team members sets a strong precedent.

story Early on in my career I had an interview with a well-known health tech company. Just when the portfolio review was going poorly the situation got hostile. The manager started picking apart the approach and twisting my words. Needless to say I didn’t get the job, but after that interview I wasn’t as enthused about the place either. Who would want to work for a manager that not only fails to understand how you work but makes snap decisions in their mind and rips your work apart in front of others?

Usually, it’s harder to understand if a manager is great but easier to see if the manager doesn’t seem as friendly or welcoming. Typically, during the interview cycle most people put on an appearance of talking about how great the opportunity is and how much they want you, but sometimes little signs that things aren’t as they seem slip through.

Managers Are Not Always Mentors

A manager’s responsibility is developing their employees, but it’s only a part of their job. They sometimes get pulled into messy organizational situations that can take up a majority of their time. Sometimes they may be absent due to a personal issue. Surprise, managers are people too. They don’t have superpowers as much as a specialized skill set they’ve honed over the years.

important Get into the details. When you start interviewing, it sometimes may be easy to get blindsided by a company’s or a manager’s prestige—for example, they worked in all the cool high-tech places and checked all the boxes. But the reality is that you’ll be closely working with cross-functional engineers and other designers. Look up their backgrounds. Where else have these designers worked? What were their backgrounds? What did they achieve in their career and what work are they most proud of?

Lean on your manager for mentorship, but don’t let them be your only source for professional development. For that, also consider the broader design team and their backgrounds.

Additional Resources

If you’re curious about management yourself, or if you want to know what they might deal with on a day-to-day basis, in addition to what you should expect of them, check out Julie Zhuo’s book The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You. While the book is geared toward first-time managers, it’s still a good read for individual contributors too, especially those reporting to a newly minted manager.

Assessing Company and Design Culture

Trendy Ping-Pong tables, fun swag, cool off-sites. Some of these things may come to mind when we reference a company’s culture. In reality, perks are just surface characteristics of a culture, which usually runs much deeper—it’s the way things get done in an organization. Some companies may look great from the outside, but inside the reality is different. When interviewing for companies, it’s important to find out the real deal (usually by interviewing the company after you’ve got your offer, and at the same time it helps to think about companies’ characteristics that are important to you—that is, which environment aligns best with your values.

How do you determine a company’s culture? One way to understand culture is by looking at how the company wants to present itself. Usually that’s a company’s mission statement or its list of values. But beware, what’s preached is not always practiced. To ensure it performed at the highest level of ethics, one company put together a statement of human rights and espoused values, such as respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. The company, Enron, is now a popular case study in values gone wrong—the value they rewarded was the opposite of what was written.

One way to think about a company’s culture is through its actions. How does it get things done?

Company: Moving Fast Versus Approaching Things Deliberately

Some aspects of a company’s culture may be defined by the industry that it operates in. For example, healthcare companies, including startups, may face a long and rigorous evaluation process before launching their consumer healthcare device to the public. Opposite on the spectrum of industries are tech companies and startups. Going too slow at a startup may be the end of it. As an example, when Facebook was rapidly growing, the common mantra was “move fast and break things.” It was a rallying cry to get employees to make decisions quickly even if mistakes happened along the way.

What does this mean for design? Cultures that value a bias for action sometimes encourage a very rough, move-fast-at-all-costs type of design. This can leave you as a designer frustrated because the work is just a series of minimum viable designs that never get polished. At the other extreme is a culture that focuses too much on research and evaluation. Sometimes this leads to projects that have many hours put against them but for one reason or another were cancelled in the final stages.

storyIn one past company, design was kept to a bare minimum. In fact, engineering sometimes would start building first and design would have to catch up. While this bias for action got features launched, many of them were later scrapped. Lack of strategy (that design could have informed) led to wasted work.

Figure: Chainsaw and Chisel

Chainsaw and chisel

The ideal is somewhere in the middle. Angel Steger (Director of Design at Facebook) likens the product design process to carving out an ice sculpture. You’ll need a chainsaw to hack away at the general shape of the work, but you’ll need the chisel to get into the finer details. Doing everything with a chainsaw will get the job done, but that’s about it. At the same time, doing too much chiseling may end up wasting precious time as the ice melts. Striking the balance between the two creates a ripe opportunity for you as a designer to create with speed while learning and filling out the details as the general design takes shape.

Company: Risk Tolerance

This characteristic is usually tied to a company’s growth stage. Unless they are in dire straits, it’s rare for a large, successful company to make big bets that could potentially bankrupt the whole company. Early-stage startups, on the other hand, are always in dire straits; they have to swing for the fences otherwise it’s very likely they’ll go out of business. As companies mature they gain more shareholders. The IPO brings a whole new level of responsibilities and sometimes a myopic view focusing solely on quarterly numbers.

confusion Playing it safe in a startup? You may be surprised to see risk averse and startup together in the same sentence. But it can happen. Startups that are data-driven (as opposed to data-informed) usually make good decisions (raising the floor of the experience), but they rarely break lead in the industry (by breaking through the ceiling).

Generally, risk averse companies tend to place a premium on shipping work that’s more “buttoned up.” The final product has gone through multiple rounds of iterations, reviews, and so on, and every pixel has been interrogated. If the company’s design maturity is high, this might push designers to create their best work. However, if the company lacks design vision or is in the low design maturity stage, this may feel like a “swoop and poop” where an executive comes up at the last minute and completely discards or discredits the work.

What about companies that encourage risk taking—what’s their relationship with design? In the case of an early stage startup your work may be more conceptual, focusing on finding the right product market fit. Usually this means lots of divergent explorations, iterations, and experiments, all to find a few promising ideas to build. From a company perspective, it’s critical to evaluate multiple options quickly without settling on a subpar solution. Designers can play a major role at this stage, helping the company find its customers and potentially take off in a big way. However, the road there is not without bumps and setbacks. Ultimately, it depends on your appetite and level of risk-taking.

Team Culture

Within the company’s culture—and perhaps the most important part—is the culture of the team you’ll be working on. In smaller companies this means you’ll have a close relationship with your cross-functional peers: product managers, engineering, and so on. Be sure to get to know these folks, as you’ll be working with them more closely than with other designers.

confusion The industry sometimes uses the term three-legged stool to describe a team made up of a designer, product manager, and lead engineer. I use the term squad, because modern teams usually have additional contributors, such as research, operations, data scientists, and so forth, depending on the company.

Design Culture

In some companies there may not be a design team—in fact, you may be it. As more design hires get brought on, a design culture starts to form organically. The organization will splinter into a matrix: you’ll work closely with your squad, but you may also report to a design manager or designers may report to you. Depending on the work, designers may start working on multiple squads and projects. This is similar to an internal agency model where designers are called in ad-hoc as requests come in through the org. As the design team grows, designers get allocated to their individual squads where they build deeper context and relationships with their teams.

So what does all of this have to do with design culture? The short of it is that design has its own unique perspective on the product. Fostering a design culture is about team-bonding but also translating that culture to the rest of the company.

Designers will establish their own rituals to improve product quality. Sometimes these rituals, such as the design critique or design reviews, may be in opposition to a company that values moving quickly. This is where team cultures may start to clash—the PM demands to get something done now while the design manager is pushing for a better customer experience. Conflict is an inevitable part of collaboration, but how it gets reconciled makes all the difference.

As you’re interviewing different companies, it’s important to see how design shows up:

  • Are designers respected as equal value partners on par with an engineering lead and the product manager, or are they merely tolerated?

  • How do the various cross-functional stakeholders talk about design and the design team?

  • Does design have enough time to get work done, or are designers spread thin across multiple projects and told to hurry up to not block engineering?

These are some of the things to watch for as you get a sense of cultures at different places.

Closing Thoughts on Culture

In summary, if you’ve done your homework and researched the company, you’ll be able to weed out the companies that have “bad” cultures (toxic environments with high turnover). They are few, but they exist. The most important thing is to find a culture that resonates with your personal values.

  • How do you like to get work done? Do you prefer a more laid-back environment (slower growth but at a reasonable pace) or something more intense (potentially leading to faster growth)?

  • Do you crave structure and organization (such as in a large company), or are you fine operating in environments where things change every day and the problems are far more ambiguous (a tiny startup)?

Beyond a company’s culture, what kind of team do you like to work with? If the team you join gets disbanded, would you still be interested in working with those people (who might now be in a different company) or do you believe in the mission of the company more?

Usually it’s hard to fully understand culture when you’re interviewing from the outside. Yes, you should still read and familiarize yourself with the company’s mission statement and values, but until you actually work there, you won’t know all the details. One way you can get a better sense of the culture is by interviewing a member of the design team when you’re in the early stages of your application process to see what it’s actually like. And you should definitely set up additional time to talk with the team once you get to an offer.

Additional Resources

  • Although it’s more engineering focused, Key Values is a useful resource for getting a sense of product culture at startups. Sites like Comparably and Glassdoor are also good resources, but take the feedback with a grain of salt as most reviews tend to skew negatively.

  • Kim Goodwin, a design consultant, defines four types of cultures: adhocracy, clan, hierarchy, and market. Kim defines each and provides recommendations for how to gain credibility and influence for each culture. Another way of looking at these types is through your own lens—which culture resonates with you more.

  • More on Angel Streger’s philosophy of design and Growth Design from First Round.

  • Katie Dill, VP of Design at Lyft, shares 8 Principles on Scaling a Design Team, a good read on what makes a design team successful in an organization.

Designing at a Large Company, Agency, or Startup

In-house (big company or startup) and agency roles offer different advantages. This is a simplified model, but it should give you a rough idea of the work you’d be doing at those types of companies.

Table: Types of Companies

NameBig companyAgencyEarly stage startup
IndustryYou’ll gain deep expertise and, depending on the company, may work within a limited subset of industries.At an agency (unless they’re specialized) you’ll work with a variety of clients who come from different industries.You’ll become the in-house design expert, knowing the ins and outs of your industry and how it relates to the company.
Variety of design projectsIn a large company this will be highly dependent on the team. However, the benefit of large companies is that you have many teams to choose from.You’ll be exposed to different clients and organizations. Some engagements last a week and others may last months, but variety is usually the norm.As the only designer or as part of a small team, you’ll have your hands full in a variety of design projects for the company from product, to brand, to marketing, and so on.
SalaryTends to be higher as large companies are sustainably profitable.Usually runs lower as service businesses aren’t easy to scale and most of the cost is due to human resources.Most of your compensation here will be derived from equity, not so much cash.
Risk and longevityUsually highly stable, less risk for the company to go under.As a service business, agencies are inherently risky in that they depend on a continuous stream of clients.Not many startups survive beyond their first year, and many don’t turn in a profit.
StructureUsually highly structured, defined processes, much slower than a startup.Depends on the agency, newer agencies typically don’t have as much structure.Usually no structure, the primary focus is on getting the company off the ground.
You’ll learnSpecialized individual contributor skills with an opportunity to get into design management.Similar to the big company, you’ll develop specialized craft skills, and you may also choose to advance in the client-relationship track.You’ll wear multiple hats and may cross over domains (marketing, front-end, and so on). If the company grows and starts hiring, there may also be an opportunity to manage incoming designers.

Big Companies

As an in-house designer at a big company, you’ll have the opportunity to master the industry the company is operating in. You’ll be responsible for seeing how a project gets built all the way to the end and then track it afterward. Your work may never be cleanly finished (compared to an agency), but that’s OK because you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your company and the market.

Another way to think about in-house is this: Which domain do you want to operate in? In large tech companies (think Google) you could work on a variety of different projects. In non-tech companies you’ll still have project variety, but you’ll likely be focused on a specific industry vertical.

In a larger company you’ll have the advantage of learning from other designers. You’ll also most likely have horizontal mobility to try out different teams and roles and the vertical mobility to climb the corporate ladder, either as an individual contributor or into management.

Startups

Usually, in small to mid-size startups a designer will take on a generalist role. You’ll have lots of autonomy, and if you’re the only designer, you’ll be running the show. This could prove a double-edged sword, as you’ll have to continuously learn how to triage and prioritize your time to ship work quickly and sometimes compromise on quality. Most likely the design won’t be perfect and corners will be cut to get things out fast.

If you’re starting off new, this could be a sink-or-swim type of environment. It’s helpful to get perspective and mentorship outside of the company. Startups also typically offer lower pay and are a high-risk but high-reward environment. However, that’s not a bad thing (even if you do end up in one that’s going through a downturn), and if you’re comfortable with ambiguity, this could be a great way to learn and make an impact on large projects.

With startups there are also a few important distinctions to keep in mind:

  • Early-stage (pre-market validation). These companies change rapidly in search of customers. Your work will change at a similar clip as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and if you’re comfortable with high risk and ambiguity, this would be a good fit.

  • Mid-stage (market validated but far from profitability). Startups at this stage still feel relatively tame, at least in comparison to early-stage. At this phase you’ll be focusing on growth and helping the company scale while lowering costs with the goal of reaching profitability.

  • Late-stage (close to a liquidity event). These types of startups are closer to a big company; there isn’t as much change and the business will do OK in the long run. The design focus will be on optimization and growing existing products.

At a startup, you’ll be deep in the work and may develop strong professional relationships as a result. If this company goes well, these connections can last for decades to come—maybe you’ll even launch your own startup together someday. Even if things go completely south, you’ll have a mutual bond of going through this experience together.

Unlike a large company though, you won’t be able to easily move around if you don’t end up getting along with your workers. Startups also face the challenge of being selective in hiring the right person—they’re desperate for help but usually have little to offer in cash (thus the higher compensation in equity).

What If You Only Get Offers From Startups?

If you are just starting out in the design industry, you may not get the opportunity to work at a large company with established design processes. But you may find certain startups more than happy to take a chance on you.

Some industry veterans argue against newcomers joining startups. They believe that the designer is going to “lock” the company into a cycle of bad decisions and the lack of formal mentorship will stifle one’s growth. I disagree. If you’ve taken the initiative and done your homework, you can still provide a ton of value and learn in the process. While startups typically have low design maturity, as long as their culture is open to design and experimentation, scaling the maturity curve won’t be a problem.

Product design isn’t etched in stone; things change quickly, and in startups rapid pivots are usually the norm, so no product is too precious to change. As for finding mentorship, you can supplement that from online resources outside the company. Many special groups exist out there, for new designers or for designers within a company.

Agencies

At an agency, you’ll be surrounded by top designers—it’s another great place to start to hone your craft. You’ll learn quickly from diverse peers and experienced mentors. In most agencies, design itself is the product.

A downside of agencies is that they usually pay lower (compared to more established companies or larger tech companies). The hours can be long, too, but that depends largely on the company and its culture. As a result, few designers stay in agencies long-term; many choose to pursue more lucrative roles in-house after their agency stint. The ones who do choose to continue typically end up in client management roles, which are less craft focused and require collaboration and business savvy.

important Aside from deeply focusing on design craft, agencies require designers to present and to interact with clients. This opportunity is a great way to get an inside peek into some of the company’s inner workings, politics, and team dynamics—without actually joining the company.

The focus of the agencies varies, but in general they offer a variety of projects, which can be a great way to expand your design skill set quickly. One day you might be working for a project on transportation, another on healthcare, and the next day could be something completely different.

You probably won’t be able to go very deep and grasp the nuances of each domain, but that’s OK because you’ll have a broad skill set that you could (in theory) apply anywhere else you feel most passionate about. If you’re not committed to a specific industry, agencies are a great way to test out the waters and make the jump.

In closing, agencies are in an interesting transition time these days. Over the last couple of years, large consulting (like McKinsey) and tech companies (like Facebook) have been buying up agencies left and right. According to John Maeda’s Design In Tech Report 2019, there were 19 agencies bought in that year. So if you do end up at a large company, you may find yourself working for an agency inside the company or working closely with them. Or if you start your work at an agency, don’t be surprised if you become part of acquihire.

Additional Resources

Looking to learn more about different types of agencies? Take a look at SoDA, a membership organization that has a list of agencies known for their high-quality work.

If startups are more your jam, I recommend starting with a resource such as AngelList—think of it as a LinkedIn for startups. Many jobs listed there are of high quality and usually come with a salary range attached (unlike many job postings online).

Designing Consumer or Enterprise Products

If you’re going in-house, two more factors to consider are enterprise or consumer. If you’re going the agency route, most specialize in consumer products, but some exclusively focus on complex enterprise apps.

Table: Consumer versus Enterprise

NameConsumer companyEnterprise company
Places a premium onSimplicity, high polish, solid craft, aesthetics.Solving for complex interactions, extensibility.
Who do these companies serve?Usually many every-day individual consumers.Usually fewer buyers, who get the product on behalf of a company.
Watch out forFlurry of activity that leads nowhere.Sales-driven culture that doesn’t value design’s input.
Update cycleTypically moves faster with limitations driven by platforms (for example, mobile slightly behind web).Slower, sometimes determined by sales cycles or mandated updates that happen a few times a year.

Consumer Companies

By the nature of their business, consumer companies are more aligned with their customers. This means that they have to provide an amazing experience right out of the gate that can’t be covered up by sales or marketing. Usually these companies tend to favor designers with a high visual design acumen, but that’s not always the case. Some consumer companies might have stronger service design and interaction design components, especially if those companies bridge the digital and physical realms (for example, Eventbrite, Getaround).

Consumer companies are usually the ones that are in the news since they try to appeal to a broad segment of consumers. At the end of the day a consumer company can’t rely on great product experience alone—it has to make money. Usually they can do this a couple of ways:

  • Charging the consumer for a product. This is usually rare for consumer companies, as it puts significant barriers to customers and the industry expectation of “free” is hard to overcome.

  • Charging a subset of the customer population. This is most common with the “freemium” model where the majority of customers use a scaled-down version of the app for free and a small amount of customers pay for more advanced features, subsidizing the overall product.

  • Generating revenue through ads. Allowing other partners to put ads on their service.

Sometimes companies experiment with a blend of different methods. Giving away the product for free is, of course, the easiest way for a company to grow, but at some point they will have to come up with a sustainable business model that doesn’t rely on venture capital dollars. Usually this means relying on advertising. For design, this is an opportunity to find the right sweet spot of driving ad engagement with customers without making everything an ad.

Early-stage consumer startups sometimes may struggle to get off the ground. Because the barrier to entry for these companies is low, this may lead to high competition. This can be the right challenge for you if you’re OK with a moderate to high level of risk and you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor. As a designer, you’ll have the opportunity to shape and define the vision for the company with the founding team by working through many conceptual designs. You’ll also bring some of the promising directions to life—a rewarding experience to take the process from beginning to end.

Mature consumer companies that are already profitable, like Instagram or Pinterest for instance, offer a different type of challenge. You’ll primarily work with an existing product that you will seek to optimize. Sometimes these may be small feature tweaks or they might be brand-new products or features. You’ll learn lots about growth design from an experienced team, and you’ll get to understand what makes the customers tick at a nuanced level.

Enterprise Companies

Enterprise companies operate differently from a consumer business. From a purely economic perspective, enterprise companies make money by selling their product to other companies. Although the customer base for their product is lower compared to consumer companies, the amount of revenue they make per customer is much higher.

The business model for enterprise designers can be sometimes a blessing or a curse. It can be positive because it will allow designers to focus strictly on helping the customer get the job done without detracting or distracting them with ads. However, depending on the company’s design maturity and its culture, you may also run into some challenges. Companies that are sales driven may over-optimize on the client, leading to a fragmented design experience. Design may also be continuously relegated to the back seat as sales people try to “protect” their clients by blocking design from interviewing them.

Another thing to watch out for when joining an enterprise company is its sales cycle, which is closely tied to software updates. Due to high product complexity or just older software practices, some companies push out changes to their software only a few times a year. This can be a big challenge for designers, as it usually means fewer learning opportunities. Of course there are workarounds for slower releases, but nothing beats real-world learning once the product is out.

Selling enterprise software used to be heavily driven by relationships. An app was designed essentially to a spec sheet. Frequently this would amount to a complex, hard-to-use interface, which conveniently enough would allow the company to charge more for its services, such as training the employees who would ultimately use the software.

With the “consumerization” of enterprise products, most companies are now moving away from this outdated business model. Some companies are also flipping the top-down sales cycle on its head. Instead of appealing to key decision-makers in the company, they market to new hires who are more likely to try out new products that help them get the job done faster. The business incentive here is aligned with design, creating products that work with minimum friction and little to no training.

As a designer for enterprise, you’ll frequently work on complex interaction flows and customer workflows. Every domain (insurance, healthcare, tech, and so on) has its own context and rules that you’ll pick up on. If you’re interested in tackling big, sprawling problems, this direction may be right for you.

Which One Should You Pick?

In the past, the stereotype was that consumer design is glitzy, flashy, and the most coveted place to work. On the other hand, enterprise design would always get a bad reputation with its awkward looking UIs. It was usually unheard of for enterprise designers to transition into consumer. But now the lines are much more blurred. Both enterprise and consumer companies offer complex challenges for design to solve; both now require strong, quality design output.

Designers in the consumer space can help simplify complex enterprise products. Designers working on enterprise products can tackle complex flows in consumer apps as well. Design skills do transfer over, so at the end of the day it’s more about a personal preference and the type of challenge that excites you most.

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more about enterprise design? Check out the Enterprise Experience conference by Rosenfeld Media which brings in many well-known speakers in the field.

Designing for Platforms and Devices

Over the last two decades the world of product design and its potential applications has exploded. Previously, desktop computers, slow connections, and basic-feature phones used to dominate the digital landscape. Now with more powerful computers and ubiquitous connectivity, new platforms have emerged on the scene. Mobile is no longer the hot new trend but is a mainstream, mature platform with guidelines that have been refined over time. Emerging platforms like virtual or augmented reality are not brand-new either, but the best practices for them are still evolving.

So what does this all mean for design? In part, it depends on where you want to take your career. Working on a mature platform will offer you a safe space to leverage existing patterns and to quickly shape new features that can help solve user and business problems. Emerging platforms, on the other hand, offer an exciting opportunity to define and pioneer the space since there are no set best practices and standards yet.

Table: Mature versus Emerging Platforms

Mature platformsEmerging platforms
ExamplesWeb, mobile.Virtual reality, augmented reality, wearables, autonomous vehicles.
Design patternsEstablished and concrete, evolving slowly.Fluid and changing, opportunity to pioneer and set the precent.
Risk levelNone, these platforms are here to stay.High, these platforms may not be the right solution or may not be economically feasible.
AdoptionHigh across enterprise and consumer markets.Varies, for example, the use of autonomous vehicles is restricted to certain regions.

Mature Platforms

Mature platforms have been around for a long time and offer designers the ultimate safety net. These are the devices and platforms that we use in our daily lives, such as:

  • Desktop applications and operating systems, like Windows, Mac, or Linux.

  • Mobile and tablet apps, such as those running on iOS or Android.

  • Web, usually running inside a browser and utilizing a common practice today such as responsive web design to present the experience differently depending on the device.

One advantage of working in this space is near-term job security. Say you were working for a company that was doing native design but this company went out of business, it would be easy to transfer over the native design acumen to another company.

The interaction patterns for mature platforms are well defined, but there’s still room for some innovation and optimization as platforms continue to evolve. As an example, new ways of interacting in iOS 14 offer designers new ways to present their content. However, the innovation here is incremental as opposed to groundbreaking when iOS was first launched during the era of feature phones.

Emerging Platforms

I consider emerging platforms to be those that are not yet fully mainstream and where the best practices are still in flux. Some examples include:

  • Wearables devices. Smartwatches and fitness devices.

  • Augmented reality. These could be dedicated headsets, like Microsoft’s Hololens, or technologies that you can run on your phone, such as Apple’s AR Kit.

  • Virtual reality. Headsets such as Oculus and HTC.

  • Voice Interfaces. Google’s home, Amazon’s Alexa, Siri, and many others.

  • Autonomous vehicles. Companies like Tesla, Cruise, Uber, and Nuro.

For designers who are interested in exploring new territories and pioneering new interactions, the emerging platforms may offer a safe haven to play with conceptual, blue-sky ideas. By definition, there are usually fewer opportunities available to work in this space; usually these opportunities are found in larger, mature companies that can sustain investment into unproven technologies that may not pan out. For design, this also means many conceptual directions and ideas may never get implemented.

important Not sure if you’re passionate about one platform or another? One way you can get a sense of these technologies is by joining an agency that does work across these platforms.

The hardware of these emerging platforms may also be a limiting factor. Since the technology is experimental, you may encounter glitches and issues along the way—the hardware may not work as you expect it to and the platform itself may be rife with problems. However, this is also an opportunity. By experimenting with concepts and patching together workarounds, you may be able to pioneer a new standard not just for a product but for the industry as a whole.

story During my stint designing healthcare experiences for Google Glass, I quickly ramped up to speed by leaning in on my traditional design skills. When I was interviewing for companies doing work on more mainstream platforms, I was able to show how much of the design and process is easily transferable between the platforms. So if you’re worried about boxing yourself in by going the emerging platform route—don’t be. At the end of the day, it’s how you tell your story that matters.

A few years ago I connected with a well-known designer who was a voice expert in his field. He started before voice interface became a thing, and because there were so few people operating in the space, he quickly made a name for himself as a recognized expert in the field.

Which Platform Is the Best?

In the end, deciding between emerging or mature platforms is largely a personal choice. Emerging platforms can be high risk but also carry a high reward. Mature platforms have established practices that are important to study and become adept on. Ultimately, at some point emerging platforms cross over the new threshold and become mainstream. By at least having some knowledge of them and keeping track of where these technologies are headed, as designers we can stay ahead of the curve and jump into the new opportunity where it presents itself.

Company Location and Surrounding Ecosystem

In today’s largely digitized world, the physical environment still matters to a degree. Living in a city that has a vibrant tech ecosystem confers a number of advantages. Take for example the San Francisco Bay Area. The venture capital industry creates an opportunity for many new companies to kick start growing. A few of these companies go public and become your regular big high-tech company like Google or Facebook, thus creating even more opportunity. Even in the case for startups that don’t make it, and that’s usually the case for many of them, the ecosystem makes it easier for employees to transition to another company. Because tech opportunities are abundant, the risk of being unemployed for a long period of time is significantly less compared to places that don’t have a tech ecosystem.

Aside from employment opportunities, there’s a higher chance to run into other like-minded folks and to strike new connections. San Francisco, for instance, has no shortage of tech- and design-related events happening every day. Every summer, San Francisco Design Week allows companies to open up their doors, giving eager designers a sneak peek into the space. Aside from connecting with other designers, there are courses and training for product managers, bootcamps for new engineers, and overall a vibrant ecosystem that supports professional development.

story When I first moved to San Francisco, I found one of my jobs by waiting in line for a product management event. Outside the venue, in the uncharacteristic San Francisco rain, I struck up a conversation with a couple of folks behind me. One of them happened to be a data scientist who was looking for a designer for her startup. I applied and a few months later got the job. This is the power of serendipitous connections and being in the right place at the right time.

Of course the Bay Area is a well-known place, but it does have its challenges, such as rising costs of living that promotes a transient population, making the Bay less of a destination and more of a spring board. According to Hired’s 2018 report in the U.S.: Seattle, Austin, and Denver are some of the top cities for relocation for tech workers. New York City boasts its own tech hub, while having far more diversity than the Bay Area. Boston’s high student population and medical focus create a unique culture of health tech innovation.

When looking at companies, it helps to shop for a good ecosystem that will not only support you in your current job but for many jobs to come. Of course, depending on where you are in your career (and life), it’s not as simple as packing your bags and leaving. An ecosystem that’s growing and evolving is helpful for career prospects. Research your geographical locations closely and think not just of the company but also of the surrounding environment.

Remote Work and Location

In the times of COVID-19 many companies are now going remote. Some, like Facebook, Twitter, and Coinbase allow employees to permanently work from home. While not all companies are following this trend yet, it’s highly likely that in the future more opportunities will be geographically distributed.

If you are interviewing for a remote role, it’s important to dig into the details of the remote arrangement. Has the company done remote work before, or is this a first-time experiment? It’s not necessarily a red flag if you’re the first remote employee. That said, you should learn more about how the company will support you if you are the sole remote pioneer. Holloway’s guide on Remote Work is a good resource for anyone figuring out how to navigate the remote work experience.

Considering Industry Specialization as a Designer

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.

But First, Do No Harm

The world of design is changing. Another way to look at one’s impact is through the lens of ethics. Are there certain industries that you wouldn’t want to work for or projects that would go against your ethics because you think the impact would be a negative for society? If this was your last role—what would you have liked to accomplish there?

Some of these questions may seem “fluffy.” It’s easy to dismiss them as impractical and idealistic, especially when you’ve been laid off and you’re trying to make ends meet. But the reality is that not all tech companies create impact that’s positive for the world. Even for the companies that try to stay neutral or “not evil,” the reality is far more nuanced. While discussing ethics in design is nothing new, too often these discussions fall by the wayside in practice. The people who bring up ethics in industry are sometimes termed contrarians, but eventually companies come around. In 2020, Twitter started flagging incendiary posts and allows users to filter replies to their posts.

Diversity

Although design as a field is a discipline that’s accessible to all, the reality of current hiring practices makes this a privileged profession. It takes skill, yes, plus a healthy dose of luck and a way of “looking the part” to get past the gate. Companies can often avoid negative impact by having a representative employee base. Unfortunately, design, like tech, has not caught up with diversity and inclusion best practices. What starts out as innocuously screening candidates for “cultural fit” ends up as a homogeneous workplace where everyone looks and acts the same. This can quickly lead to bad decisions if employees don’t recognize or empathize with customers who are very different from them.

So choose carefully. When ranking the companies you want to work for, consider:

  • What is the company’s mission, and are its actions in line with what they do?

  • How has this company benefited humanity, or has it made things worse off?

  • How actively does this company engage in its community? What type of work does it do?

  • How does this company treat diversity and inclusion? Is it an afterthought?

  • Do they have a diverse board of directors? What does the management team look like?

These days it’s hard not to find news of yet another well-known large tech company coming under fire for their lax diversity standards.

Additional Resources

Clayton Christensen is well known for his theory of jobs to be done, and one of his seminal books on the topic is The Innovator’s Dilemma. But did you know that he also wrote the book, How Will You Measure Your Life? In this book, Clayton admonishes readers to think about their guiding principles when making decisions so that they stay true to themselves and not end up in jail.

More on Jeff Bezos’ framework in the 2010 Princeton graduating class address.

Mapping Your Design Futures

Now that you’re familiar with the job criteria, take a step back to brainstorm what aspects of that criteria are important to you. You can use this job evaluation template to get started. One way to think about your next role is in the context of your previous positions. What lessons did you learn there? What was useful and what wasn’t as useful? What do you want to do more or less of?

Mapping your design futures

Envisioning Different Futures

You’re reading a preview of an online book. Buy it now for lifetime access to expert knowledge, including future updates.
If you found this post worthwhile, please share!
Unlock expert knowledge.
Learn in depth. Avoid pitfalls. Get lifetime online access to the entire book, plus a download you can keep.
Now Available