Note: This article is from my personal experience of 17 years working in design, but never in BIG tech/FAANG. I’d love for others to share their experience in the comments or on LinkedIn…or on X (lolz), or Threads, or…Mastadon?…I mean, where do we chat these days?
How most companies leverage Design
Most companies are still behind the times on recognizing what design and design-thinking can do for a business. They won’t flat out say that they don’t value design, but they severely underutilize their designers’ skills, sequestering them to squads, not inviting them to strategic conversations, and generally not recognizing their contributions that are non-visual.
If you’re not sure if your company values design, it sometimes takes a while to figure it out. First, no org is going to say they don’t value design. Instead they’ll say to you, ‘What’s the ROI of your solution?’ knowing that they don’t even implement a way to track usability, making it impossible for you to give a quantitative answer. Or they’ll say, ‘We iterate where we can…but we have to stick to the roadmap’ and then they’ll have a quite unrealistically packed roadmap with tons of new features and no planned iterations.
And then of course, all the designers will be tethered to squads, working on the work that their PM asks of them and nothing more. No carved out time for blue sky, generative ideation, iterative experiments, pushing the needle aesthetically or taking a human-centered bet based on a research insight.
Given all of this, designers still fight this fight every quarter. And this can be fought on two main battle grounds — 1) in the designs themselves, always pushing for higher quality, refusing to lower the bar of our handoff specs even if the dev team cuts corners every time, or 2) by becoming a manager and battling for more design resources in endless meetings.
If neither of these paths appeal to you, perhaps your brain, like mine, leans more towards strategy, blue sky ideation, and utilizing frameworks to help stakeholders make hard decisions. For example, I’ve co-created vision presentations for my org’s all-hands 2 years in a row and I love doing it. I love receiving input from product visionaries, asking tough questions, and elevating their ideas with visuals & flows. But at most companies there’s no career ladder for this type of work as a designer. Sadly, many designers jump to the PM track at this point if they care about strategy and roadmap creation.
A proposal for a new design career path
What does a product designer do when they want to advance their career? If this was 10 years ago, the only answer would be ‘they become a manager.’ Today, the answer is now thankfully 2 choices — manager or distinguished IC designer. Here’s a fantastic diagram of what this all looks like fleshed out (Thank you Ryan Ford for this article):
I’m realizing, 17 years into my career, that there might be opportunity for 1 more track. It can certainly be argued that this proposal is merely an overlap between the IC skills and the manager skills, but hear me out.
…there was an IC6 track that was a business-minded ‘creative problem solver’ role (Note: I’m removing the word ‘designer’ from the title purposefully). This ‘creative problem solving’ role is meant for a designer who no longer wants to be shackled to a squad sprint-after-sprint, but instead wants to lead C-level workshops, dig into ambiguous discovery, facilitate decision making on hard company problems, present visionary flows that are 3–10 years ahead, and of course deliver stunning designs when needed. The new (simplified) career track would look something like this.
After the core development of IC5 skills, a designer could choose between principal IC6, manager, or creative problem solver. And they all, some day, could lead to Director of Design and/or Chief Design Officer.
What problem would this solve?
In my experience, design is often not invited to the table unless there are screens to discuss. I feel that removing the word ‘designer’ from the title does a lot. Words matter.
At many companies you have to have manager in your title to be invited to a strategic conversation. And inversely, the word ‘designer’ in your title will ensure that you’re not needed in strategic conversations.
Secondly, removing this person from the squad-grind allows them to work exclusively on bigger ideas, future visions, gnarly discovery, big bets, and side experiments, passing on the ‘Why’ from Discovery onto the rest of the team.
What would this person do?
This job description would encompass all the IC5 design skills that a core product designer would have — UI, UX, IA, Prototyping, Research, etc. But then as a creative problem solving IC6 they’d also need to facilitate decision making sessions with leaders, teach design thinking to other parts of the org, break down silos, mentor, help plan the roadmap with a human-centered perspective, help re-organize teams when needed, make sure that design ROI was easier to express by creating scalable feedback mechanism, ensure that fast-paced experimentation is being conducted with the right usability standards, and..of course..make gorgeous designs that are both near term and visionary.
Please tell me in the comment:
- What do YOU think?
- What has your personal experience been (and at what size company)?
Eve Weinberg is a lead product designer at HackerOne, working to make the internet safer.