editione1.0.2Updated February 27, 2023
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.
Product designer. UX designer. UI/UX designer. Interaction designer. Experience designer. There are just some of the many titles designers call themselves these days. But look deeper and you’ll quickly realize that one company’s product designer is very different from another’s. Before diving into titles, it helps to step back and start by asking yourself:
What type of designer are you?
What are your strengths and what are your growth areas?
What traits are second nature and what doesn’t come as easy?
If you were to make up your own title, how would you describe yourself?
By understanding yourself, your skills, you’ll be able to come up with a compelling value proposition that gets companies excited to work with you. Yes, this will take some time upfront to think about. But by taking a focused approach you’ll not only target opportunities that are a good fit but also increase your chances of landing an offer that’s closer to your ideal role.
Product design is a field that requires a combination of many skills and traits. It might seem overwhelming at first to realize how much there is to learn, but the good news is that no one is expected to master everything. Even if someone hypothetically did, they wouldn’t have the time to get everything done.
This natural constraint is a good thing, as it allows you to focus on mastering a couple of skills that are in demand and meaningful to you. As a designer, you have to think about ways to creatively combine your skills to synthesize, identify the right problems, and solve them efficiently.
The design industry has evolved significantly over the last few decades. Significant innovations in mobile computing have increased design scope to native and wearable devices. Larger tech companies translated psychology principles with the help of design into engaging, and at times addictive, products. All of this is to say that the roles and responsibilities of designers have significantly changed over the last few years.
The titles of design have also evolved. Previously, specialist skills present in roles such as web designer, service designer, interaction designer, UX designer, UI designer, and information architect are now commonly seen collapsed under the title of “product designer.” This sometimes adds more to the confusion since product design expectations vary by company.
confusion To keep things focused and less wordy, throughout the book I’ll be using the term product design to refer to UX/UI design as well.
While the definition of a product designer is in flux, here are some general things to keep in mind if you’re applying for this role:
Craft skills. Baseline visual design and interaction design skills, sometimes with fundamental user research skills mixed in.
Collaboration skills. The ability to work with other designers and cross-functional stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page and is able to deliver a great product together.
Professional traits. The ability to lead, take initiative, and handle complex situations.
Strategy. Also known as “product thinking,” it’s thinking about business implications of your design decisions and ensuring your work influences positive business outcomes, such as scaling the company’s team to help the company grow or reduce costs.
There’s more to being a great designer than having a collection of skills, of course. Having the ability to execute and deliver work that leads to impact is the ultimate marker of success. Everything ladders up to why a designer is hired by a company in the first place, to either improve or grow the business.
Different models exist out there to map out design skills. It’s a rough science and more of an art. IDEO popularized the T-shaped designer—someone who has deep knowledge and expertise in one or two areas (for example, interaction design and research) but has broad knowledge of other areas (for example, service design and brand design). Larger companies, usually with bigger teams, are composed of a mix of designers. Some of those designers tend to be I-shaped—deep specialists in their domain (motion graphics experts, for instance).
The modern designer will typically have a variety of skills at their disposal.
It’s easy to progress at a skill in the beginning, but it gets harder to reach an advanced level and even harder still to become an expert. It’s important to prioritize which skills are important to you. As you’re going through them and thinking of specific skills, consider:
How important is this skill to me?
Where do I want it to be?
What skills do I want to develop next in my career journey?
What skills play to my strengths and interests?
What combination of skills will help me stand out as a designer and make an impact?
Not all skills are important all the time, and your needs and industry focus will change. What’s important is to be explicit about what you know, where you want to go, and what’s important to you.
Beyond understanding your own skills, you need to also think about how your skill sets translate to the needs of an organization. At the end of the day, you’ll be hired to solve another company’s pain point that they are not able to solve themselves. These pain points vary, but there’s some consistency depending on the company’s maturity.
Smaller companies, such as startups for instance, can’t afford to hire many designers, so they typically bring in a senior generalist to start. Typically this designer will have a strong grasp of interaction design and research, and some visual design skills. They’ll help establish a design direction for the company and ship product, while integrating design process into the product development cycle.
As companies grow, they start to fill out the rest of the pillars based on need.
As the company grows, specialized roles get brought on, such as brand designers, visual designers, researchers, and content strategists. As a team, their diversity and specialized talents allow them to create products that are of high quality.
If the company starts rapidly scaling, typically more and more designers get brought on with similar skill sets. At that point it’s important to hire more people because there’s more work than any one designer could do. Sometimes these roles might get filled by contractors if it’s a temporary project or if recruiting is lagging behind. At other times, if growth is continuous, more full-time employees are brought on. By understanding where the company is in its growth cycle and their current pain points, you can match yourself appropriately.
To do strong design work, you have to be well versed in fundamental skills. It’s a prerequisite for the job. This is the raw ability to take inputs and transform them into something meaningful based on your technical knowledge of tools and concepts.
Craft is your knowledge of the tools, methods, and techniques to get the work done. A good designer has a solid grasp of the fundamentals that are usually studied in school, but not everything will be or is expected to be mastered at an academic setting.
important The most important skill of all? Learn how to acquire new skills or renew existing ones as the design field changes rapidly.
From a craft perspective you need to think about acquiring skills in these areas:
User research and psychology.
Platforms and devices.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, so take it as a starting point. You may want to focus on some areas more than others. For example, if your work lies heavily on the content side, you might want to lean more into content strategy or copy and information architecture (a whole field in itself). Or if you’re interested in doing work that spans pixels and places, you may want to understand the tools and techniques of service design.
Visual design plays a vital role in the digital experience. At a visceral level it gives the user clues on what they’re about to see. Is this experience serious or playful? An expert visual designer is able to come up with a pleasing composition of elements on a screen.
Today, visual designers have more power, as they play an active role in creating design systems that embed visual design and interaction rules that span multiple platforms.
Some of the core visual design skills include:
Typography. Choosing type for function and emotion, creating typographic scales that work across multiple platforms and contexts, creating your own typefaces.
Grid. Creating grids that guide the eye but knowing when to intentionally break the grid; working with baseline and vertical grids, considering the macro and micro grid interactions.
Layout. Creating pleasing layouts that come together through a combination of typography, image, illustration, and so on.
Color and shape. Choosing colors that are functional and emotional, colors that are pleasing and accessibility compliant, understanding cultural contexts of color and trends.
Iconography. Choosing icons, doing minor vector work, creating an icon family that scales across different platforms and contexts.
Illustration. Using illustration in proper contexts, understanding the nuances of colors and shapes to make changes to existing illustrations, creating your own from a sketch.
Images and composition. Using images to evoke a certain aesthetic, image manipulation and editing, creating and shooting your own photos, coming up with image and photo guidelines.
Animation and motion. Animation between screens, micro-interactions, making the customer experience feel polished, and using motion design to inform, guide, and delight.
The best way to learn visual design is to practice. Better yet, try practicing and critiquing design with other senior visual designers. Pick up on their good habits and ask them about how they think through a visual design problem. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and acquire shortcuts faster.
Outside of that, make time to replicate the work of others to understand how they’ve made it. See if you can uncover not just the individual design elements but common patterns and think through the problem they were trying to solve.
Interaction design is about understanding true user intent and developing proper workflows to get the job done. It’s the art and science of communicating to the customer in a way that makes sense for them while pushing back on technology constraints meaningfully.
Sketching. Exploring many ideas quickly on whiteboards and paper. Storyboarding to communicate key interactions. Showing rough ideas via UI thumbnails or drafts of complex multi-platform flows.
Storytelling. Creating a compelling narrative of your work, “sketching” out your user’s world via succinct scenarios, writing a story that stakeholders can relate to and thus take action to make it a reality.
Wireframing. Moving quickly from low-fidelity sketches, utilizing whiteboards, paper, or digital low-fidelity diagrams.
Flows and diagrams. Distilling complex information into abstract flows, mapping existing flows of apps, knowing how to balance comprehensiveness with complexity, mapping out flows for multiple platforms and services. Synthesizing complex data and communicating abstract concepts to yourself and to other designers and stakeholders.
Patterns. Demonstrating awareness of interaction patterns and best practices that are being used right now and why they’re effective. Understanding the reasoning for why certain patterns work better than others depending on the platform and context.
Prototyping. Communicating your work effectively through a series of different stages of prototypes (within a screen, across screens), focusing on prototyping the critical few interactions while leaving out the unimportant many.
Copy. Giving your product’s customers “information scent,” guiding them through the experience via effective copy. Providing a good way of finding clues and being consistent across screens and platforms.
There are tons of great resources out there, but if you had to read one book, then consider About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, 4th ed., by Alan Cooper. It’s a great handbook to refer back to as well as a primer for anyone new to design.
As a product designer you probably don’t need to be a research expert, but strong interaction design skills are complemented well with foundational research skills. Understanding your customers and their goals and being empathetic to their needs helps you focus efforts on things that truly matter.
In a large company you’ll likely have access to dedicated research professionals. For smaller companies this may not be the case as they may not be able to afford both a researcher and a designer. In that case some of the research responsibilities might fall on your shoulders.
Heuristic review. The easiest way to critique an interface via a list of guidelines for UI design (for example, Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design).
Competitive audits. Analyzing your competitors to learn about their offerings without falling into the trap of copying them.
Analogous domains. Extracting relevant patterns from a different domain and applying it in your work.
Usability testing. Structuring and running unbiased usability studies that will give you proper directional data with confidence.
Surveying methods. Understanding basic tenets of how to write a survey, how to take a correct sample, and how to synthesize data.
Contextual inquiry. Monitoring users in context, understanding how work is actually being done (as opposed to how they say it is), and being empathetic to their needs and workarounds.
Research planning. Putting the methods together in a plan that’s cost effective, leading to faster feedback loops, with the right amount of rigor.
Lastly, designers should also have a basic understanding of psychology:
Cognitive psychology. Limitations of human memory, how people make sense of information, and what they pay attention to.
Behavioral psychology. Understanding how to influence and guide people with your product.
Need to brush up on research techniques? Check out Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research by Elizabeth Goodman, et al. This book lays out the core fundamentals while arming you with practical tips.
Understanding the advantages and constraints of platforms is a key skill for product designers. Since product design work is so closely tied to platforms, it’s important to know the best practices for each platform and also how these platforms can work together (this is especially important when your company’s product is multi-platform). Platform knowledge means understanding best practices and trends as well general market trends, recency, and adoption of a platform.
Responsive web. Creating a system that works well across multiple sizes and deals with different platform nuances (touch versus point interfaces).
Mobile native. Understanding touch, mobile, and tablet affordances, being aware of guidelines for iOS (Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines) and Android apps (Material Design).
Wearables. Unique patterns in the experience (for example, designing for bracelets, rings, watches), understanding use cases, small tap targets, managing battery life and other hardware considerations.
Voice. Designing trees, anticipating user intent and actions, providing cues, new interaction patterns.
AR/VR. Inventing new patterns or stress-testing existing ones, guiding users in unfamiliar settings, understanding different VR platforms—their capabilities and trade-offs.
Between native (touch) and web (point and click) devices, you’ll have your work cut out for you. But if you’re in for adventure and want to explore or pioneer new methods of interaction, you’re in luck! New wearable devices are emerging all the time, and the world of augmented reality and virtual reality, while maturing, still has a long way to go.
Later on, we’ll get into the pros and cons of designing for existing vs emerging platforms.
Product design tools are always changing. Adobe used to be the company of choice for most digital work, but these days things are changing. Sketch has come on the scene and established itself as an industry leader, but now with the emergence of Figma, its dominance is slowly fading. Who knows what the next future design tool might look like.
Some design experts say that learning tools doesn’t make you a better designer—you’re just a tool expert. I disagree. Knowing how to quickly use a tool efficiently or picking the right tool for the job will help you not only generate more concepts (and thus lead to a better outcome) but also help you get there faster. You certainly don’t have to learn every shortcut and install every plug-in out there, but having common ones at your disposal will help you be far more effective, so it’s time worth spending.
Here is how you can think about your tool stack:
Low fidelity exploration. Quick sketches on paper using pens, markers, sketching flows, and UI on whiteboards.
Static UI. Creating polished mock-ups quickly (Sketch, Adobe XD, Figma).
Prototyping. Creating interactive prototypes and communicating micro and macro interactions for developers and users (Figma, InVision, Framer, Principle, Origami).
Capturing feedback. Helping your stakeholders comment and share their feedback on your work (Google Slides, InVision).
Diagrams of complex interactions. Providing a bird’s-eye view for yourself and others of how screens and information flow.
Pixel perfect precision. When you need to do retouching or pixel perfect precision, usually for photography (for example, Photoshop).
Take this list as a starting point. Depending on the role that you’re seeking out you may need to pick up new applications along the way.
Think of design tools as an extension of your skills. Are there tools that can help you generate more quality ideas faster and communicate them effectively? Sometimes the best tool is the one you have close at hand—a napkin and a pen might do when you need to capture an idea quickly. Tools will always change and evolve, but great thinking is never out of style.
Design is a team sport. A designer is powerless if they can’t communicate what they’ve done and if they can’t work well with others. Strong collaboration and communication skills are key throughout one’s journey as a designer.
Initially, entry-level designers focus on smaller features and work primarily with oversight from a senior designer. As one’s career progresses, the scope and complexity increase. While strong craft skills are still a prerequisite, one’s focus shifts toward influencing others and working with other cross-functional senior leaders on ambiguous, long-term projects.
There are various models of how a designer fits into a company’s org chart. One of the more popular models these days is the squad model, where a designer, product manager, and a technical lead all work together to establish the team’s day-to-day and overall long-term vision. However, sometimes you’ll also frequently work with other specialists, such as researchers and data scientists. If this is a multi-team project, you’ll probably have regular syncs with the other teams and it’s not uncommon to interface with non-technical counterparts such as folks in sales, legal, operations and so on. You’ll be working closely with the team to get your work shipped. Unless you’re also an engineer, most likely you’ll need developer support to get the thing you’ve designed built.
Assessing yourself on your cross-functional skills is not easy. The best way to get a true assessment is to ask peers who have worked with you, but short of that, you can also reflect on how you perceive your current skills:
How do you work with others now?
Do you build on the ideas of others? Do you make them feel included?
How have you elevated other designers?
How have you improved how the team has worked in the past?
What cross-functional stakeholder do you work best with (for example, engineers, data scientists, product managers, and executives)?
What cross-functional stakeholder is your weak point?
This is also a testament of your leadership and influence skills:
How quickly can you build your influence on a new team?
Can you establish yourself well in an environment that might not be as design focused?
Are you able to influence your peers, manage up, and potentially change the course of executive decisions for the better?
While these types of skills may not necessarily first come to mind when we think of a product design role, the more senior you are as a designer, the more important these “soft” skills become. If you’re an entry level designer—these skills will help you stand out.
At its core, design is about communication. In addition to communicating to customers, designers also need to be masters at relaying information to stakeholders. These skills are critical in an interview setting, especially when you’re presenting your portfolio. When it comes to day-to-day work, we can view communication through these lenses: public speaking, facilitation, and documentation.
Whether it’s presenting to a small audience of designers at a design critique or presenting to the whole company at all hands, strong communication and presentation skills are critical. These are a couple of ways you can look into assessing your skills:
How well can you present and explain your work?
Do other designers understand your work? How about engineers, product managers, and executive stakeholders?
Of course practicing at work helps, but you don’t necessarily have to improve these skills at work as there are many public speaking clubs or coaches that can help you practice. That said, the best way to improve is to continuously seek out opportunities to speak and to get feedback.
Public speaking and facilitation skills go hand in hand. As a designer you’ll sometimes have to step in and lead a meeting or organize and run a workshop. Back to point number one—design is a team sport, but as a designer, you can take a leadership role in getting everyone organized and excited about the work at hand and thus contribute to the vision.
How well can you lead meetings? Do they all have a clear agenda? Are you able to come to the right answer quickly with a list of next actions?
Have you run workshops with large multi-disciplinary teams before? How did you get alignment on your work from stakeholders?
Communication is not limited to speaking; writing is just as important, especially more so when working remotely. By creating mockups and prototypes, and telling a story and documenting the nuances of interaction, a designer can ensure the vision goes smoothly from concept to implementation.
Does your documentation account for edge cases in your work? Do you strike the right balance of documentation that’s accessible to other parties without it being so comprehensive that nobody reads it?
Are you able to document and communicate effectively to different audiences, such as engineers, product managers, researchers, and other designers?
Strong designers have a healthy level of self-awareness about them. They can also feel the sentiment in the room and take appropriate measures, diffusing a tense situation or rallying the group to persevere when things don’t go to plan.
Design itself is a discipline that’s based on persuasion, negotiation, and often getting other team members to buy into a specific world view. Of course those views are substantiated with evidence, such as research or data, but not always. Sometimes designers must rely on industry standards or heuristics when there are no resources to run a study, for example.
Here is how you can touch on some of the important aspects of emotional intelligence at work:
Emotional regulation. How well can you control your emotions? Can you harness your emotion to lead and inspire others? Or do you often find yourself unable to control what you say?
Negotiation. How can you effectively push back on requirements or demands without coming off as confrontational?
Conflict. What’s your perception of conflict? Are you conflict averse? Do you try to hide or mitigate it? Do you use it as a force for growth? Do you see it as positive? How do you navigate conflict to maximize its positive attributes while minimizing the negative?
Just like with the rest of design, the best way to improve your collaboration skills is to do so in practice. Dedicating time to assess and check in with your stakeholders regularly, not just about the work but also about the process of getting the work done, will help you be a stronger leader and contributor to the organization.
Here are a few helpful guides and resources that can help you along the way:
Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, by Kevin Hoffman. A book specifically about meetings. I know what you’re thinking: what could be more boring than attending a meeting—reading a book about it. But it’s a solid read that helps you reframe how you facilitate and conduct meetings, helping you ultimately save more time.
Designing Together, by Dan Brown. All about how to collaborate as a designer, working with different styles, and how to take work together to achieve a better outcome.
User Experience Management, by Arnie Lund. More applicable for managers, it’s also a good read when it comes to understanding how individual designers fit into a larger company’s ecosystem.
Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman. A definitive book on the topic of emotional intelligence, awareness of self, and how to use emotional intelligence to connect with others (it’s not just about being “nice”).
Should designers have a seat at the table? It depends on the organization and design maturity—some already do, while in companies with low design maturity, designers are merely decorators late in the process. But what does it mean to have a seat, and what’s expected of designers who create value beyond producing deliverables?
At its core, strategy is choosing what to do and what to leave out. It’s about deliberately prioritizing limited resources (time, money, people) to create value.
Not all designers will engage in strategy. Typically this is the domain of product managers or senior-level designers. Some designers might even eschew strategy altogether in favor of being a master at craft. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if you do want to grow your influence in a company, then understanding the business, how it makes money and how design can help, will help you advance rapidly in the organization.
When you’re interviewing, demonstrating that your work has led to success will make you stand out. Yes, it’s hard to get crisp data and many designers struggle with showing results of their work beyond the deliverable. If you are in this situation, follow up with your team. Get the data. Get the information you need; not only will it be important for interviews—it’s important as a feedback loop overall.
One way to determine your level of strategic prowess is to look at the scale of your impact—how effective was your work and who benefited from it?
Team(s). You made your team more efficient by bringing in new tools or by holding training that helped everyone ship new features faster.
Department(s). You shipped a feature for an internal tool that has made everyone’s lives in this department easier.
The company. You created an outsize impact for the whole organization by either reducing costs or increasing revenue and profit.
Industry. Your work is known outside of the company; you’re a regular speaker at conferences and have created strong brands.
The impact of scale is also relative. For example, improving a particular feature may affect a small population of a company’s user base. However, if this feature dramatically improves their experience, then that impact can be still considered significant.
Design exists to solve issues, but measuring efficacy of solutions is often fraught with complexity. It’s not as simple as showing that doing Y improved a metric X by 10%. That said, ideally before engaging in any project, you have a rough sense of baseline measurement and understand how the experience is currently performing—what parts are working well and which aren’t.
In your work, ask yourself:
When and how do you define success for your projects?
In absence of data, how did you define a baseline and success?
What types of data do you use to measure progress—qualitative or quantitative? Are these the right measures? Why?
Sometimes it’ll be impossible to get any quantitative data, or you may have already moved on from the company. If that’s the case, you can reach out to the company to see how your projects have fared. Alternatively you can also find other ways to measure success, for example by including a customer testimonial or playing back clips from research participants delivering a similar message. Don’t constrain yourself to quantitative feedback alone.
This one is natural to all design processes. Understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve for and the opportunity that’s ahead of you will help you make appropriate decisions when you’re deep in the design process. Waiting too long on gathering all the problems will hinder momentum, but not taking the time up front might also cause you to solve the wrong problem and not make any progress on the underlying issue.
Consider these questions:
Do you approach a problem from first principles?
Based on your previous experience, did you accurately represent the problem? What did you get right? What was missing?
How do you push back when the problem is not accurately portrayed or framed?
How well can you prioritize problems so that the most important one is solved first or addressing one can address many of the subsequent pain points?
Problem framing is a whole exercise unto itself. Many times, it’s not as simple as writing out a problem statement, agreeing on it with the team and calling it a day. Oftentimes additional problems come up, and as a designer you’ll have to come back, reassess, and make calls of when to pause and when to execute on the work.
Framing the problem is half the battle. If the solution to the problem isn’t well thought out or built, then in some ways the steps that come before that were a waste.
What type of solution are we going for? Should this be a quick-win MVP?
How does this solution overlap with other solutions? Are we shipping the org chart, or is this a meaningful way to solve a customer’s problem?
Is this solution feasible to build? Will it take significant resources to build and launch?
In the professional world of design, as mentioned previously, quality varies depending on what you want to learn. Sometimes it’s paramount to launch fast with minimum features in order to learn; other times it’s important to have the final polish to stabilize the experience and potentially solve for new issues that customers may not even have encountered yet.
Strategy is a big topic and resources abound. You might find these useful:
“How to have impact as a designer.” An Intercom blog post by Paul Murphy that outlines the formula for impact.
UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want, by Jamie Levy. A step-by-step guidebook for how to create great products.
Outcomes Over Output, by Joshua Seiden. A short read on distinguishing deliverables and outcomes, with a few case study examples.
Aside from having a well-honed skill set, designers possess traits that help them get quality work done while elevating people around them to do their best work. Strong designers raise the quality bar and are seen as leaders to emulate due to the positive examples they set in the workplace. Examine the following traits.
Design is a team sport that continues to evolve and rapidly grow over time. No one knows everything, but how you handle the lack of knowledge makes a key difference. Having a “growth mindset” (as coined by Carol Dweck) as opposed to a “fixed mindset” helps you continue to push when the going gets tough and to learn from failure.
Designers with a growth mindset:
See mistakes as a natural part of learning.
Attribute their design skills to hard work instead of innate talent.
Perceive others as having the ability to grow.
Although mindset is singular, this is not a binary switch that you flip on or off. Unlike craft and collaboration skills, we usually think of mindset as an either-or. While people do have certain preferences or attitudes and a certain inclination, a helpful mindset can be developed and cultivated.
There are many ways to solve a problem in design.
To understand your level of comfort with ambiguity, ask yourself:
How have I approached complex or ill-defined (“wicked”) problems in the past?
How many complex assignments have I had in the past (for example, ones that spanned multiple teams, platforms, and initiatives, and which may not have had concrete success criteria attached to them)?
What is the most ambiguous assignment you’ve faced?
As you mature as a designer, taking on larger and more undefined projects, your level of comfort with ambiguity and complexity will increase gradually.
In your approach to solving a design problem, you can choose to wait until perfect data and research come in, but oftentimes, realistically, there is not enough time and waiting too long is just as bad as moving too quickly. As your experience increases, you’ll know when to move fast and when to wait. Senior designers don’t wait for problems, they seize the opportunity, create solutions for the future, and rally their team around implementation.
From a design manager’s eye, this is the type of designer anyone would want to hire. Instead of having them wait for work to come in, this designer is restless and will focus on creating value and identifying the biggest gaps that they can close while delivering maximum value to the company.
Design work is never done, and often the first iteration of a design has missing elements and needs to evolve further. It’s up to the designer to determine and seek out the type of feedback they need in specific parts of the process, while moving with quality and little supervision.
Are you proactive in seeking out feedback?
How have you developed others by giving them effective feedback?
How have you acknowledged mistakes in the past and learned from them?
When do you ask for help?
Have you created action plans to get yourself or the project unstuck?
This isn’t about hedging or sweeping mistakes under the rug but rather admitting fault or calling for support and help when needed.
As you mature as a designer, your speed of execution will also increase. You’ll be able to move quickly and get to high quality solutions faster. Of course this will vary by company and priority at the moment.
How often do you show your work in progress?
How long does it take for you to go from idea to polished concept?
How well can you context-switch, handling multiple projects in parallel while advancing the direction of all of them?
How much are you able to take on? How good are you at juggling multiple projects? Can you only effectively work on one? Or can you pick up and run with two or more at the same time?
When the scope of your projects increases from working on features to working on things that cover multiple surface areas, planning becomes more important. At senior levels you’re expected to properly set expectations for the scope of the work and meet those expectations.
How accurate are you in scoping projects?
How well were you able to manage stakeholder expectations?
How far out can you reliably plan out projects and foresee potential issues?
Quality is a murky term that could mean different things to different people, and oftentimes quality is negotiable depending on where you are in the product process.
How innovative or ground breaking are your design proposals? Are you pushing bounds and establishing new standards?
How well can you focus on the critical few things that matter? Can you double down on the things that are working while letting go of things that are just OK?
How do you set and maintain a standard for “quality” work? Can you push back on constraints to maintain a higher bar for design?
Having said all that, quality doesn’t always have to be a compromise. Even in projects that call for MVPs, there’s always room to think more holistically and propose future versions. Thinking of quality this way can help you deliver good work in the short term while building a path toward the north star.
Quality will mean different things in the context of the company you’re with. In a design agency it may mean pushing the bounds for high end, visually stunning prototypes that win over the client. For a corporate banking application, this may mean getting the details right to account for all the various edge cases while dealing while working within the confines of a legacy infrastructure.
Some of your interviews, especially behavioral and cross-functional ones, will touch on these traits. However, it’s in your best interest to not just keep these traits in mind when interviewing—actively develop them so that they become second nature in your work. How well do you display these traits today? What are some key aspects of these traits that you can grow in?
Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is an excellent read about what it means to have a growth mindset compared to a fixed mindset. This concept has been popularized in the media and may seem like old news, but I sincerely recommend the book, as the rich stories bring the ideas to life. Alternatively, you can also check out Dweck’s TED Talk, “The power of believing that you can improve.”
As you can see, the modern designer possesses a tremendous amount of knowledge about various aspects of design. If you’re starting out in your career, don’t worry, you don’t need to know everything all at once! Naturally, there will be some areas you’ll gravitate toward and enjoy, and others where you may need to pay extra attention in order to improve.
If you’re an entry-level designer, the core expertise and strength that you should bring to your team lies in your craft. This means you should be spending more of your time on the tactics and execution, getting stronger and faster with production. How companies determine your level of craft will vary and this is a good conversation to have with your manager. But in general you’ll probably want to hone in on your interaction design and visual design skills. When you have the basics down, you should pay attention to execution and strategy. All of these things take time, so don’t stress out if you don’t feel like you’re growing as fast as you’d like. It usually takes a couple of tries on multiple projects to improve your skills.
As a senior designer, your work will be more strategic. You may not be pushing the pixels as much day-to-day, but you’ll find yourself in meetings and strategy sessions. You’ll be responsible for leading the team toward new ideas and innovations on par with your product manager and engineering lead.
There are of course exceptions to these rules. In larger companies, for instance, there are dedicated specialist roles for visual designers, interaction designers, and motion designers If you’re working at a small company or a startup, you might find yourself stepping into strategy more often than not, and doing the design, while also running research studies and maybe even coding some of the concepts yourself. For some designers, this can be a nightmare. Others will relish the opportunity to do multiple things at once and learn a lot. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what’s the best fit.
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.