Most designers that I’ve spoken to, who are looking for jobs, are unprepared to answer two simple questions: What’s your dream job? And what’s keeping you from getting that dream job now?
Aim for the bull’s eye, hit the target
A critical piece of career development is setting SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-oriented. As a graduating senior starts pushing their portfolio across the table (virtually, physically, whatever) to be inspected by a hiring manager or recruiter, I can understand the hesitancy to declare your dream job. I also understand the mindset that “Any job is a good job.” However, the clearer you are with what a REALLY good job is, the more likely you are to land one.
Be specific. Singular job-posting specific. Name the exact company you want to work for, the exact role you wish for, and the traits of the manager you want to learn from. Have a role to aspire to. It may not be your first job, but it’s a great North Star. It quickly helps you to narrow your efforts, hone the articulation of your expectations, and fish in the correct body of water.
Make it measurable. Consider things like the salary you’ll require. Consider the size of the company. Many small companies give you lots of experience working on all kinds of stuff . They tend to be pretty flat, organizationally, which gives you access to leadership and broader “surface area” in terms of your breadth of experience and responsibility. Most large companies have resources to invest in you: larger salaries, more formalized training and growth opportunities, high-profile projects that touch millions — although your role may be narrower and your path to growth may be more rigorously managed.
Of course, in the case of job-hunting, the ultimate measures of your success come down to: Did you get hired? Is it the right job? How long did it take to get?
Make it Attainable. Your first job out of college will not be the Executive Creative Director for Nike. That’s a great long term vision, and a valid one to put out into the universe. Be reasonable with your expectations. Do research here — because the road to leadership is shorter than it may appear but it will take some time. The key to setting attainable goals is to aim high enough that missing is a possibility. But not so unreasonably high that when you do miss, you just shrug and tell yourself, “Well, that goal was impossible anyway.” Goal setting takes practice. Gradually, you’ll learn where the fine line exists between ambitious and irrational.
Make it Relevant. Sometimes the expectations we set for ourselves in the working world are simply mismatched with reality. Businesses are hiring you to do work to make money. They want you to be successful AND they want you to be productive. Good companies want you to grow and expect you to do so THROUGH the work you were hired to do, not despite it. Said another way, if you want a job in film production, don't take a job in direct mail. There are a few stories of people working their way up from the mailroom and the receptionist's desk. There are a lot more stories of people who apprenticed their way into roles by getting into the right field for their passion and learning their way up the ladder. The closer the role you take is to the role you want, the more likely a worn path from one to the other exists.
Make it Time-Oriented. Think in terms of this week, this month, this year, three years, five years. Set milestones. Tracking progress on short term goals builds momentum. Achieving milestones provides a true sense of accomplishment. Once you’ve met a goal, or determined a goal is no longer relevant, immediately set new ones. No time to waste here.
Share your goals with people who can help. Share your dreams and goals with your friends and your significant other. But by all means, tell your recruiter! And your hiring manager! And your boss! And your co-workers! Your goals really take on a different level of power when you share them out loud. When you are transparent with your passions, your areas of opportunity, your wishes, and your ambition, your network can hold you accountable If your boss and your coworkers don’t seem supportive of your goals, start looking elsewhere. Get off the train that isn’t headed to where you want to go.
Last thing: be careful about setting money goals. Money is a means, not an end. I’m not arguing that money doesn’t matter. I’m just arguing that aiming ONLY for the money will unnaturally bend your decision and you could very well end up trapped in a great-paying job you hate and simply cannot leave. Golden handcuffs are real. You’d be surprised how unrewarding it is to be overpaid. The lure of a huge salary might convince you to leave a job that’s been paying you back in a ton of ways beyond salary and benefits. New skills and experiences, relationships, and responsibility make you marketable elsewhere. You can parlay a job that pays poorly but helps you grow at a faster rate. This is why people choose to work for companies that pay less — they’re looking for different value.
If you feel you are wildly underpaid, you probably are. If you feel overpaid, you almost definitely are. If you are satisfied that you’re being paid what you’re worth — and the job is challenging you and helping you grow and help you achieve your goals — beware “the money-bus,” as my friend LaToya would call it.
To sell yourself, you must know yourself
Designers should be as clear as they can about the value they can add to an organization. As a hiring manager, I need to be able to picture how you’ll add value on day one. I’m trying to get a clear sense of what your superpower is. Typically, I ask that question point-blank. This is where this craft exercise comes into play.
I recently reached out to my network for a new set of volunteers for a craft exercise. I had ten volunteers almost immediately. Incredible.
YOU are a product. Use the design process to discover a) what your value proposition is b) what your killer feature is and c) what’s a feature you should either improve or eliminate? Use research, prototyping, and at least one experiment to enhance your “killer feature”.
The purpose of the exercise was three-fold:
- determine your value proposition
What is a value proposition? It’s your differentiated promise. It’s what makes you unique and highly marketable. It’s typically wrapped in a story of who you are, what you do, and what you want.
- determine your killer feature / superpower
What is a superpower? A superpower is a unique combination of what comes easy to you that other people find tremendously valuable, inspiring, effective and “worth the money” — a superpower is your killer feature. It’s why I’d pay double for you.
- use research, prototyping, and at least one experiment to enhance your killer feature.
What’s an experiment? The simplest definition: an experiment is a procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact.
I gave my volunteers a week. And the instructions to work in low-fidelity. Their submissions were super interesting. And revealing. I found a few themes worth noting.
- Understanding your value proposition requires research.
Quite simply, designers need honest feedback from leaders, mentors, peers, clients. Two simple questions can make asking for feedback incredibly actionable: What do you see as my superpowers? And what are the ways you think I could be more effective and have even more impact? Since YOU are the product, you are effectively a prototype in need of iteration.
- Knowing the design process is not the same as knowing your killer
The design process is very knowable. Design PRACTICE can be a killer feature. The difference between knowing and doing is vast. For example, telling me you used the design process to uncover an insight that led to a design decision is — honestly, totally expected.
Showing me you made a prototype [artifact], intercepted customers at the laundromat [photo proof], tracked three key behaviors across a total of 10 people [artifact: research study], mapped their answers on a 2x2 blocker [artifact] gives me confidence that you employed the design process. The practice of design reveals surprises. Real surprises that might be worth money. It also reveals gaps and holes and reasons to try something else. The real design process exposes failures more often than successes. Those failures are “learning” — also “insight”. Validation is not insight. Validation is a checked box. A checked box is not design. If you validated a design, your design was not risky to begin with. I want designers to take risks for the sake of learning something new.
- A prototype, without an experiment, tells your audience very little.
Prototypes have two purposes. First, to make an idea tangible and lend it specificity. Second, to share that specificity with others in pursuit of growth. Drawing pictures to share an idea is one thing. Putting that idea in front of others for appraisal, judgment, criticism, or apathy is scary and brave. And it takes effort. I’m looking for effort.
I’m looking for humility. You’re not afraid to be wrong. In fact, you’re pretty sure you ARE wrong. But you’re also equipped with the skills and behaviors to learn from that.
I’m looking for curiosity. I want designers who can’t help but throw themselves into the design process because they are interested in the subject matter and become obsessed with the people, the problems, and the journey of exploration.
I’m looking for bravery. People whose only fear is not doing enough. Or aiming too low. I want to encourage big swings at bold hypotheses with solid research plans to back them up.
I’d like to thank the volunteers for making prototypes to express their killer feature. I’d love to hear what they learn when they start putting those prototypes into practice!