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

7 minutes, 5 links


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

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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.

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.

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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.

storyEarly 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

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