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Understanding Your Level

Your total comp is determined by a company’s leveling framework. The more senior you are, the more experience you have, the more money you’ll get. At higher senior levels your compensation will be predominantly based on your performance and will be closer tied to your equity.

In certain organizations, being brought on at a certain level sometimes acts as an anchor. That is if you’re starting out at mid-level you may need to prove yourself for a long amount of time before getting promoted to a senior role. That said there is also a risk of coming in at a level that’s too high or setting yourself for a bar that you cannot meet.

After you join the company, the leveling document will be used as objective criteria to evaluate your performance and determine whether you’re not meeting, meeting, or exceeding the criteria set forth. While the common hustle advice is to “fake it ’til you make it”, sometimes there is no making it. Instead you’d be better off in a place that strikes the right balance of playing to your strengths while giving you an opportunity to grow without so much stress that you’re not able to do your job.

Every company will have their own leveling guide which in great detail shows what one needs to do in order to perform at a certain level.

Table: Individual Contributor Design Levels

LevelExperienceExpectations
Associate (L1-L2)Experience primarily comes from academics or bootcamp. This is usually an intern or a co-op position.Just starting out working in design in a professional capacity. Able to take direction.
Mid-level (L3-L4)Usually a university graduate or someone with a few months of experience from previous internships.Strong grasp on fundamentals developing collaboration skills, taking on projects of increasing complexity. Operates at a team level.
Senior (L5-L6)Usually about 7–8 years of work experience.Defines and reframe problems, gets to the heart of the matter, reliably comes up with strong solutions without supervision. Operates at a department level.
Staff or Lead (L7)8+ years of industry experience but at this point the years of experience matter less than impact.Usually leads a team of designers under them, creates new frameworks, comes up with ideas that solve multiple problems. Operates across departments.
Principal (L8)Same as above.Created new brands, potentially defined industry trends, leads the company with other C-level counterparts.

Leveling will differ by company and one company’s L5 is another company’s L4. Resources such as levels.fyi are helpful in understanding how one’s level transfers over from one company to the next. Companies also usually break down role titles into granular levels. These levels are usually not exposed externally (e.g. Product Designer II) but they are important internally as they assign you to a specific band that’s tied to salary.

Figure: Levels FYI Design Levels

Levels FYI design levels

Companies level designers differently but in general they all follow a similar trajectory. Source: Levels.FYI

Make sure you do your research, learn what other companies pay for the band you’ve applied for. Beyond the numbers, peel back the layers. Is there additional know-how you can get on the compensation conversation? Is the company uncompromising on baseline salary but flexible with stock options? Blind is a good resource to look into this info.

You won’t have all perfect info at the end of the day but closing some gaps of this knowledge will put you in a stronger position during the negotiation.

Demonstrate Your Strengths

Negotiation starts when you first start applying, so look for opportunities to reinforce the unique skills and knowledge that you bring to solve a specific pain (or multiple pains) for the company.

storyWhen I was applying through job boards (which is one of the worst ways to apply, by the way), I was able to score an interview at a well-known tech company due to advanced prototyping that I’d done previously. It was demonstrating the work in-person and letting the interviewers use my prototypes on their own that helped land an amazing offer.

Think of negotiation broadly. It’s not something that happens just at the end—a strong start can make a huge difference toward your final comp and leveling. But let’s say you already are at the end—it doesn’t hurt to reiterate the unique value that you bring.

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