How does a designer get promoted? Get a raise? Get the exciting new assignment? Get a better job? These are questions I get — from my own team and also from designers I meet, in person and virtually, on a regular basis. These are great questions. There are no easy answers.
Your company may not have “that role” for a next level designer. And by that role, I mean the need for, or budget for, next level skills and experience. It’s important for you to understand the economics of your role — and your business. Understand the levers that drive revenue and expenses, and what your company’s targets are for each. In order to add more value for your company, you need to know how and where they’re currently measuring value.
Many designers also make the mistake of thinking, “if I do my present job well, I will prove that I’m ready for more.” While that’s partially true, doing your job well mostly proves that you are good at your current job. Doing more shows you are ready for more. And by doing more, I mean doing things beyond your role — not just more, or even a lot more, of the same. Taking on additional tactical work will likely water down your output or burn you out. Or both. You need to find strategic leverage — that is, you need to invent ways to accomplish tactical work in dramatically less time.
Finding and exerting strategic leverage
To illustrate the concept of strategic leverage, I often use the story of the water-carrier. Perhaps you’ve heard that, in developing countries, one of the most vital responsibilities a girl has is fetching water to provide for her family. Water for drinking, cooking, agriculture. It’s an important job — and difficult work. It’d be hard to argue it isn’t the most important work. If it wasn’t done, a family would die. But for school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa, fetching water is a burden that traps them in poverty. That’s because the six hours average they spend fetching water are hours they aren’t spending in school, or doing other things to help them get ahead in the long term. Basically, girls fetching water are trading off their long term growth opportunities for short-term subsistence needs.
What’s the solution? Better yet, what does this have to do with your own career growth? Studies have shown that access to close, clean, reliable water is a game changer for communities. Digging a well reduces the time spent fetching water and increases the likelihood that a girl can return to class. Digging a well is a strategic solution that reduces tactical effort not just for one girl, but for the entire village. Everyone can do more meaningful work. Strategic work takes vision — but honestly it only take a few simple questions to frame a case for change: What’s the Goal? What’s our Reality? What are our Options? How will we determine our Way forward?
Six ways designers can behave more strategically
So now, imagine you are a water-carrier. Imagine that your growth, your career development, relies on you evaluating your tactical work and evaluating it critically. And applying these concepts:
As a designer — a dot-connector, an oblique thinker, a customer-tuned empathizer and a maker/experimenter — you are uniquely geared for this kind of strategic thinking.
Listen for the bitching.
When your colleagues whine, they are expressing unsolved pains. The easy job is to join in with your own complaints. But the wiser designer documents the complaints and thinks on them — and compares them to the list above. “We really need a process for this” usually belies a need for a team to understand how work flows, how decisions are made, how to prioritize work, and how success is defined.
“They don’t understand what we do” can mean faulty communication, a broken feedback loop, a lack of managerial support or cultural disenfranchisement.
“I barely had any time to do this” is a classic indicator that designers are being treated as tactical hands, were brought into the process late, and don’t feel ownership of the strategy or the outcomes.
Take these as opportunities to go learn how you can help. Ask your boss if you can try to do it. And if she’ll help you.
Understand how the money moves.
Design decisions should effectively balance the needs of the customer AND the business. Understand both what the value is you’re delivering to your customer (what they’re paying you for) and how you are extracting business value from a job, a task, an interaction, a flow is imperative. It requires deft skill to ask for money in exchange for value delivered. Don’t underestimate how emotional the experience can be. Transactions are often anything but transactional.
Understand how your team is funded. And why. Ask your boss about the design budget. It’s surprising how many designers are naive to the way businesses operate. Once you know how it works, you know what the levers are. What’s considered an expense versus what’s considered an investment. Investments are strategic, and typically pay out over the long term. Expenses are things to be “reduced” in pursuit of efficiency. As long as design is looked at as an investment, and pays off like one, a design team can grow and thrive. When design is seen as an expense to be managed, its value slowly erodes.
Everyone is someone’s customer.
Look at every situation through the eyes of the customer. It’s one of the most valuable roles designers can play, strategically, by orienting the conversation around the customer experience. Not the UI, mind you. The Customer’s wants, needs, frustrations and joys. Will they like it, want it, do it? Will they care? Not sure? Suggest an experiment.
The way up is on the seams.
Every company has fuzzy intersections. Where business and design and data and engineering and marketing collide. In these ambiguous areas, there is incredible opportunity. A lack of ownership, a fear of toe-stepping, or lack of clear drivers can bring a business to a stand-still. So often, a prototype (a drawing, a provocative action, a diagram) is what’s needed to create clarity, tangibility and specificity. Even if it’s wrong, it changes the conversation.
Being comfortable being uncomfortable is a skill. Being comfortable being wrong — so that others might clarify — takes practice but yields dividends over time. Not every piece of work we make is in service to “the answer” — some of them are just framing “the question.”
Meet new people. The end.
Seriously, you need to foster relationships to develop trust, influence and working capital. Introduce yourself to other people in your company. And designers at other companies. Students. Educators. Community leaders. People who do things that interest you. People with tremendous craft expertise. This is not an exercise of handing out 500 business cards or littering the internet with LinkedIn requests. This is about developing friendships and partnerships of substance. Quality matters more than quantity — but you should apply yourself to the task of meaningfully developing your network. Your growth depends on it.
If you’re working toward a new role, consider who your new peers will be. Start forging those relationships now. Over coffee, or over an assignment. Earn trust before you need it. Add value in small but meaningful ways. Actively maintain relationships that reward you. And where you can, when you can — get out of your chair and go communicate with them face-to-face. Steady slacking or Linkedin messaging is not a relationship builder.
New skills and experiences
Yes — you can go take that Coursera class and add that to your resume. Do that if you want to do different work and expand your weaponry. Consider ANY new skill or experience as fuel for your “analogous” fire. “Grist for the mill” my mother would say. Be interesting. Be vibrant. Be curious. DO curious and vibrant and interesting. People who do those things are far more interesting then people who “are” those things. Doing interesting matters.
I have a friend who is a killer iOS developer. But I know him as a bike mechanic and an intrepid airstream traveler. I have another friend who is an experience strategist. But you likely know him for his podcast. I work with a guy who leads design at scale across Intuit. But his passion for racing and automobiles is next level. And I know a guy who a killer design leader who’s always trying something new: an app, a coaching experiment, photography, cooking. These people are interesting because they do interesting. And they bring those experiences back to their jobs — with passion, a unique perspective, a different kind of eye for detail and nuance, and new dots to connect as they consider the customer problems presented to them in their day jobs.
Working on a single feature for a single company for years and years robs you of inspiration, challenges and creative spark. You may be doing very important work — but if that’s all you do, it will be a challenge for people to picture you doing different work. Beware the “I’m irreplaceable because I’m the only one that knows how to do this” trap. You are not.
Sign up to do a job that will be hard. You can be afraid. You can be reluctant. Do it anyway. BE BRAVE. Be smart. Ask for help. Lots of help. Don’t ask for more of the same. Ask for different kinds of challenges. Test your meddle in arenas outside your expertise. Expect to be uncomfortable — and know that’s because you’re learning.
Give yourself more responsibility. You have more time than you think. You are less busy than you think. Do work that wasn’t assigned to you. Pitch in on work that interest you. Do work that asks a question. Do work that makes people think differently about your role, your interests, your talents and your commitment. Do work that forces you to meet new people and collaborate with them. Do extra work that gives you energy AND is valuable to the company. It will make you better. It will force you to grow.
Remember the three rules of improv: 1. Commit, 2. Relentlessly Practice and Learn, 3. Leave space for others to make it better, and build off their ideas.
Dig a well (not literally).
Keep it fun.
Don’t just sit there.