You’ve landed that dream design job after all those interviews. This may even be your second or third offer. In either case, good on you for coming this far. The hard work paid off and the tables have turned. Before you accept the offer, do some homework to set yourself up for a strong head start in your next job. Now you’ll get to play the role of an interviewer to see if hiring this particular job will be best for your career.
When companies hire executives, they usually go through an intensive interview process of getting the dirt behind the candidates. You should follow a similar process. With an offer in hand, take the time to get your questions answered about the company, opportunity, and team so that you can make a well-informed decision.
important Skip the email Q&A—set up a coffee chat (or a conference call) instead. Body language and voice can sometimes be more telling than the answers themselves.
To start, you should talk with people you’ll be working with daily—a fellow designer, engineer, or a product manager. If there’s only one person that you can get to interview from your direct team, I would recommend talking with the product manager. So much of your day-to-day will be spent directly working with them. Understanding how they think about customers, design, and user research will help you get a much better clue of design maturity at the company.
If you haven’t had a chance to talk with your design manager during the interview process, definitely make the time to do so now.
You should feel confident that this manager is someone who’s going to help you grow. If something feels off, now’s a good time to clarify. A good manager is like a coach—they’re there to set you and the team up to play your best. They’ll navigate tough decisions with poise. No manager is perfect, but finding someone you can get along with well will make a big difference over time.
Now of course, current company employees will be biased in favor of the company. It’s rare that someone will tell you that the org isn’t in good shape or that the work environment is stressful. So it helps to get a second opinion. Talk to a former designer if there was one. Sometimes interviewing the people who just left will give you an unbiased view of the workplace you’re about to join.
story When I was getting background info on one of my managers, I looked at his connections on LinkedIn. One of those connections—let’s call him David—worked with my manager a few jobs ago. Coincidentally, David also worked closely with a CEO of another company that I interviewed with. Small world!
Take the time to search out those former employees—a few searches on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google is all it takes.
As you’re reaching out to folks and setting up coffee chats, it helps to have a strong question list ready that gets to the heart of the matter. Just like interviewing users, you don’t want to ask leading questions but instead get at the truth by asking about existing behaviors.
I recommend you get a clear signal on the work, work-life balance, the design team, the company’s design maturity, and—if it’s a startup—how much runway they have left.
Here are some good questions to ask your design manager.
What are your expectations for me in the first month on the job?
How quickly do we ship new features?
How involved is user research in the design process?
Have you had a designer before who made a mistake or was underperforming? How did you handle their performance issues?
Working in a company that’s a good fit can make a difference between coming to work miserable versus happy. Some organizations pride themselves in going above and beyond, pushing employees to work nights and weekends to achieve a greater mission. Other companies do the bare minimum and everyone leaves the office by six p.m. In the end, it’s a personal preference.
What is it like to work here?
How many projects does a designer usually work on in parallel?
What does a usual day look like for a designer working here?
What was the last intense project that you worked on? What made it intense?
To understand your growth opportunity, it helps to understand the types of folks you’ll be working with and how the design team is situated in the company.
How is the design team organized within the company?
How big is the design team? Are there plans to grow it? What roles are next to hire?
What do you think is a current strength of the design team?
What is a growth opportunity for the design team as a whole?
When does the design team come together (for critiques, team outings, and so on)?
Some of the questions that you’ll ask will inevitably overlap with design maturity. Usually, in a company’s early days everyone is a generalist and designers scramble to meet the changing needs of the company. As the org matures, processes become more established and the quality bar rises.
Design is still a nascent discipline in many orgs. There are many different design maturity models out there, but suffice it to say companies with low maturity offer a different challenge compared to high design maturity companies. In the former you shape the process, in the latter you optimize and get better at your craft.
Both options may be a good fit for your career. It helps to learn more about the level of design maturity at this company.
How are roadmaps or quarterly goals set at the company?
When it comes to building features, who determines what to build?
How much budget does the UX/design team get?
What was the last project driven by UX research?
What’s the design to engineering ratio?
Is there a design system in place?
Is there a design ops team?
One thing to note—in smaller companies with little to no design resources, you may be the only designer. However, you can mature the design practice there quickly if their appetite for it is high. For larger companies, design maturity will be slower—given the layers and various stakeholders, it will take longer even if the impact might be more significant.
If you have an offer from a startup, you should also ask about the company’s burn rate and growth ambitions. Every startup carries risk, but that risk can be mitigated with a strong team, strong execution, and decent funding.
How does the company make money or how do we plan on making money?
Is the company currently profitable?
What is our current burn rate—given the current size and funding, how long do we have before we have to raise another round?
Most startups fail. Yes, it may be glamorous to work at one to make a dent in the universe, but remember, not every company will succeed. And that’s OK. It’s nice to see one’s equity amount to something, but see it as a bonus. The most important factor that will contribute to your well-being is the people you’ll interact and work with daily.
When you get an offer, take the time to zoom out before you zoom in. If you were to take this role, how will it help you achieve your current and future goals? Ultimately, we’re all captains of our own ships. A good job is one that pays well, grows your skills, and advances your career. Of course, choosing a job isn’t all about career aspirations either. Work-life balance is also key. In the end, you should weigh factors based on how important they are to you.
Remember the mapping your futures exercise exercise that we did earlier on? Now’s a good time to reflect, since you’ve been through the process and a few weeks have passed by since then. Are your fundamental goals still the same? Have they changed with new information?
important There will never be a sure thing or an ideal workplace. Companies reorg, teams change, projects shift. The best you can do is to look at core factors (such as culture) and the key people who influence the process so that even in the times of reorg, you’ll still end up in a good place because the culture of the company is one that resonates with your values.
If you’re in a lucky position of deciding among multiple offers, it helps to step back and think about the factors that are most important to you. It can be easy to get caught up and compare the roles based on superficial factors—office space, location, salary. With the exception of salary, some of these might not be important. And even with salary—minor differences may seem trivial compared to other factors, such as a great team and a short commute.
List the things that are important to you and see how companies stack up—logically, is there a clear winner? Emotionally, do you feel more at home or a better fit at a certain place?
Lastly, an exercise you can do is imagine yourself fully accepting a specific offer. Live out your next day as if you’ve already committed to it. Sleep on it. When you wake up—do you still feel strong about your choice?
If you’ve done your prior research, this step will be hard. If you’re deciding between two great options, flip a coin and make a decision based on that. If you feel immediate regret based on the toss, then you know which option is truly important to you.
Inevitably, for one reason or another, you’ll have to reject a company or two—this one will be tough. If you absolutely know for sure that you don’t want to continue or have a better offer that you’ve already accepted, reach out to the company that you’re rejecting and let them know quickly. As bittersweet as this is, it’s not the end of the world; the design industry is surprisingly small, so you never know when you’ll run into these folks next.
When we think of negotiation, we think of it as the final step between you and the job. The reality is that we’re always negotiating. Sometimes you’re not even in the room. Your work, your portfolio, is negotiating on your behalf, especially in the beginning—so be sure to make it strong. Show that you’ve achieved outstanding results in the companies you were with and this will lead to proper leveling and help the employer set the right expectations for a salary range.
Stay positive and convey your excitement for the role. The next step is to get the offer in writing so you can pore over it in detail. The employer wouldn’t expect you to commit on the spot, and it’s reasonable to ask for time to think things over.
If you’re still on the fence about taking the job, get answers to your questions first by interviewing your future teammates. As part of your interviewing, you can also ask about job expectations and career ladders. What does success look like? Who is a good example of a strong designer there? Return here when you’re mostly certain.
Yes! It pays to ask.
important According to Comparably, only 52% of all designers negotiated their salary. Not negotiating is a guarantee that you won’t get more. Studies also show that women also take the first offer at face value whereas men see it as negotiable. At least starting the conversation opens up the chance that you’ll get a bump, and you won’t regret leaving money on the table. Your subsequent promotions and raises will be in part based on that number. There’s no shame in asking and no shame in later accepting the original offer.
Aside from polishing your skills, the next step is to collect data to understand the market rate for designers. The goal isn’t to squeeze every penny out of the company. Rather, you want to make sure there’s a good match between your level of skill and the money that you’re getting. You don’t want to end up in a place where you drive a hard bargain, get the money, end up not performing, and get let go as a result.
The best resource is real compensation from other designers. Ask your friends or even friends of friends to get a rough estimate. Hired’s Salary Calculator and W2 filings are also good resources for actual salary data. If you’re going the startup route, take a look at AngelList, as jobs come with transparent equity and salary ranges.
Levels.fyi is a good resource, as it has a granular side-by-side comparison of salaries across (mainly large) tech companies. Similar to Hired, Levels is starting to verify salaries through official documents. It also graphs ranges for tech salaries based on level, helping you better understand how different companies do compensation. Less reliable info comes from self-reported salaries on sites such as Glassdoor, LinkedIn Salary, and Comparably. Your best bet is to look at aggregate salary per level.
Your compensation package will consist of multiple levers you can pull:
Compensation. Combination of cash, equity, and sometimes a starting bonus with a promise of a performance bonus.
Title. A series of levels that determine your salary range.
Benefits. Medical and voluntary insurance. This is a major perk that can help you save major money compared to buying it yourself.
Vacation. Some companies offer unlimited time off, others allow you to sell your time off, and some tie vacation to employee band.
Perks. These can be some nice-to-have extras, such as free lunch at the office, flex work, learning budgets, and so on.
If you have multiple offers, it helps to do a summary of all the financial benefits that you get in order to do a side-by-side comparison.
Remember though, the most important things (for example, industry experience or access to expertise from mentors) won’t be stated in your offer and are hard to quantify. These are personal, so be sure to take stock of intangible benefits that are valuable to you. Small things like a culture of remote work or a flexible working-hour policy add up quickly.
That’s why when you’re looking for work, it helps to start with the end in mind. Have a north star for the next step in your career—it aids you in narrowing down options and making tough calls based on factors critical for you while not getting distracted by shiny but meaningless add-ons.
When you receive your compensation package, you’ll be leveled at a band, which comes with a range; for example, associate product designer makes $100K–110K base salary compared to a product designer who might make $110K–125K. In general, the company that you’re considering should have an objective standard for determining salary ranges, and you can always ask how they’ve arrived at their decision.
Years of design work serves as a rule of thumb when it comes to compensation, but years of experience doesn’t always equate to expertise. Ability to ship products that led to phenomenal outcomes does. Prove that you can perform at a certain band and have deep expertise that the company doesn’t have—you’ll get compensated appropriately.
Base salary is usually shown as a pre-tax annual number. If you’re moving to a new area, be sure to factor in your cost of living plus various taxes. According to Hired’s State of Salaries 2019 report, the average tech salary is highest in the SF bay area at $145K. However, Austin, TX, wins out since it has a better cost of living and so the same salary brings more purchasing power. In addition to your base salary, it’s helpful to understand how often the company does performance reviews, as these are additional opportunities to recalibrate your salary. Typically they happen either once or twice a year.
You may also get a one-time signing bonus, usually conditionally if you stay on for the full year. Sometimes you may also get a promise of a performance bonus at the end of the year, so you can ballpark how much potential extra money you might get. Take that with a grain of salt though—these bonuses are not guaranteed.
When we think of compensation, benefits don’t immediately come to mind. However, getting benefits like medical insurance coverage can quickly add up, helping you save $15,000 or more for individual coverage.
Some other perks that you might encounter:
401K budgets to help you manage retirement.
Learning budgets that you can spend on workshops or conferences.
Snacks and lunches at the office saving you both time and money.
Discounts with other partner companies.
Quantifying benefits and their financial impact can be tricky, but you can always do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to rough-size the money and time you can save.
In addition to offering salaries, companies, especially startups, offer equity as another form of compensation. Typically, early-stage companies weigh heavily on equity but pay lower in base. Of course, this isn’t legal or investment advice, so always check with your lawyer if you have questions.
Generally, you’ll encounter these equity types:
Public stock. Although the stock price of a company will vary over time, the benefit of public stock is obvious: it’s real money that’s worth something today.
Restricted stock units (RSUs). You wait to get the shares, and once they vest, you don’t need to buy them.
Incentive stock options (ISOs). You get the right to buy shares in the future with a preferential tax treatment. Your offer will state how much you will have to pay per share (strike price), but you will have to fork over some cash to get your equity.
To understand how much your equity is worth, you’ll need to understand how much you’re getting out of a total pool of options outstanding and how much the company is currently valued at. You’ll also need to have conviction that this value will rise over time (hopefully in part due to your efforts).
You don’t get equity all at once but instead accumulate it over time—aka vesting. A typical vesting schedule is four years, which means you’ll get all of your shares in four years. Usually there’s a one-year cliff where you get 25% of your equity package at the end of year one. After that you get 1/48 of your equity vested every month until you reach year four.
While it’s exciting to work for startups, the chances of making it big are rare. The reality is that nearly all startups fail, some break even and get acquired, and a select few hit it big. Even with the select few, 2019 was a year of lackluster IPOs as companies’ stock significantly decreased after going public. That said, Facebook’s IPO wasn’t an early blockbuster success either. So treat equity as a nice bonus, not as a 100% sure thing.
If you want to learn more about how equity works, take a look at Holloway’s Guide to Equity Compensation. Candor also has an article on equity education, and they provide a nifty equity calculator to help you figure how much your equity is worth.
Start with the end in mind. Before entering a negotiation, think through the factors that are important to you now. You don’t have to have a five-year vision—not many do. But having a solid plan for your next year, what you want to learn, and the type of work you want to be doing will help you meaningfully make trade-offs.
When we think of negotiation, it’s not unusual to think of it as a zero-sum game. One player takes most and another is left with less. But that’s a losing proposition. You should reframe a negotiation as a conversation to come up with a win-win situation for both parties. This will lead not only to a good short-term outcome for you but also to long-term goodwill down the road when your next assessment comes.
important A good negotiation should feel like a productive collaboration between two teammates.
Stay enthusiastic about the role throughout the negotiation process as you’re building rapport with the recruiter. Thank them for the concessions as you’re approaching the offer together. Mention that you appreciate their willingness to listen and be flexible. Graciousness goes a long way—don’t miss an opportunity to make the other party feel fabulous. You’ve already built trust throughout the interview process; use the negotiation as a way to further reinforce your goodwill.
In turn, be willing to listen. Empathy is a designer’s master skill. If you can truly understand their issues, and the true issues behind those, you can come up with a creative way to solve the compensation problem while putting them at ease and moving closer toward your end goal.
important Practice negotiating. This is a difficult and crucial conversation. Sometimes you might trip up and not get the right words out during a crucial moment in negotiation. Do a mock interview with a friend. Dedicate a little time here, where the stakes are low. With practice, the negotiation will feel closer to a natural conversation, allowing you to think and respond quickly with empathy and enthusiasm.
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 more closely 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 time before getting promoted to a senior role. But there is also a risk of coming in at a level that’s too high or setting yourself 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 to perform at a certain level.
|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—one company’s L5 is another’s L4. Resources such as levels.fyi are helpful in understanding how a level translates over from one company to the next. Companies also usually break down role titles into granular levels. These levels are usually not exposed externally (for example, Product Designer II), but they are important internally as they assign you to a specific band that’s tied to salary.
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 insight into the company’s approach to compensation? Is the company uncompromising on baseline salary but flexible with stock options? Blind is a good resource for this info.
You won’t have perfect info at the end of the day, but closing some gaps in this knowledge will put you in a stronger position during the negotiation.
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.
story When 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.
important If you want to get compensated highly, you need to understand a company’s key pain points. Show that your unique strengths can resolve these issues.
Inevitably you will get pushback around cost, but reframing the discussion from cost to an investment for the company will help you steer the conversation in the right direction.
If you’re in a lucky position to have multiple offers, be sure to compare and contrast. Talk with the recruiter about matching your highest offer’s salary. At this point you have some advantage here, as a company would hate to lose a qualified candidate to a competitor. Beyond salary, you can negotiate equity or maybe sweeten the deal with a one-time signing bonus.
Understand that interviewing candidates is a long process. They’ve just gone through rounds of writing the job description, reviewing candidates, going through phone screens, and getting designers to spend their time interviewing you and other candidates. Finally, they narrowed it to one offer—yours. This whole process usually takes money and time, and time is the most painful factor. They’d rather not go through a month and a half of work again.
Sometimes you’ll end up in a position where you’re still interviewing at one company but you’ve already got an offer at another. Be sure to let the company who’s still interviewing you know that you’re already at the offer stage elsewhere. This adds a bit of (valid) pressure on them to accelerate the interviewing process. Ideally, as early in the process as possible, let the other company know that you’re late in the interviewing cycle with someone else. This will help you line up all your offer letters at the end.
Lastly, you might not have any offers outstanding or anything to match against. You may even be out of a job, so anything will look good right now. Alternatively, you might get an offer from a place where you’d love to work and the starting salary is already high. What do you do? Two things—conditionally agree or restructure your offer based on things critical to you.
The first step in negotiation is understanding the needs of your client. Since you’ll be working closely with a recruiter and they have a quota to fill, you can assure them that you’re serious about the offer by saying you’ll accept it right away if they can get you X. X can be anything that’s important to you and is not just restricted to salary.
Saying no can feel like placing an ultimatum. As we’ve talked about earlier, a negotiation is like a conversation (but with high stakes). If you’re getting close to what you hope you’re getting, you can say no in a non-confrontational way—“Thank you for showing flexibility on salary, this seems appropriate. Could we talk about other things that factor into compensation?”
Again, this will reinforce the image of your flexibility and allows you and the other party to examine compensation in a safe way.
You’ve played your cards right, done your homework, and negotiated with multiple offers, but still the company won’t budge. Hey, at least you’ve tried and you’re still ahead of most folks who don’t even ask. You still have a couple of options.
If you’re negotiating with a startup, the company simply may not have the money to give you a higher salary, as everyone is already taking a pay cut. Potentially, this is an opportunity either to ask for an increase in equity if you think your compensation package isn’t in line or to better understand how subsequent rounds of raising money will affect your compensation.
Finally, as a method of last resort you can also scale down salary in favor of equity or go the reverse route and ask for more cash with a lower equity stake. In doing so, you need to understand how this will impact your future performance reviews. Are you only going to be compensated with raises in extra cash, or can extra equity come into play as well?
Regardless of where you are in your career, optimize for growth. Given the choice between a job that pays slightly more and one that helps you grow more—go for the latter. It’s easier to negotiate for a raise or a higher salary when you have the skills and the results to back it up.
So how can you negotiate for growth? Bring up the fact that you’re excited to learn and contribute on key projects. This could be access to key individuals (mentors, for example), specific projects, or teams that can be high impact. These things may cost little to nothing for the company, while giving you long-term potential for your career.
When you’re joining a company, you’re not just getting paid—you’re also buying into their culture. Ideally, you’ll end up in a place that has good salary, good work, and good people. The day-to-day will be far more important to your long-term sense of achievement and success. If you’re always stressed about the commute, or if it feels like the co-workers don’t have your back, it will eventually translate to not just worse performance—it will ultimately lead to burnout, forcing you to look for another job.
important Negotiation is a critical skill for designers. It’s not just something you magically get better at during a few critical moments where it counts. We don’t get to practice it as often as we need. Aside from practicing, it helps to learn what to practice. If I had to recommend one book on negotiation, it would be Never Split the Difference. Written by an FBI hostage negotiator, the tactics are made applicable to many areas of life, “in the boardroom or at home.”
To learn more about design levels and how various companies structure them:
Basecamp’s Titles for Designers. Although Basecamp is a small company by startup standards, their design framework is rigorous. Aside from describing what are the different expectations of designers, it also publicly lists the names of designers at those levels.
DoorDash’s Head of Design, Helena Seo, shares her thinking and approach toward creating a leveling system at the company.
progression.fyi, a collection of open source company ladders, includes some for design, such as BuzzFeed and Zendesk, among many others.