When designers consider a new job, one of their biggest concerns is the size of the company. Should I work at a small company or a large one? What’s better: start-ups or enterprise? Maybe something in-between?
After working in design for 20 years for companies ranging from Facebook and Instagram to small start-ups, I’ve learned that the answer to this question is far from one-size-fits-all. I’ve also learned that changing companies isn’t a magical path straight to permanent contentment.
Even when you land somewhere that suits you, just about everything is likely to change: your position, title, team, and your personal circumstances. These changes can either feel inspiring or incredibly uncomfortable. Regardless of outcome, our human instinct is to fight the change, but the sooner you accept and lean into change, the better. As Dr. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard points out, “Your future self will be a different person regardless of effort and intention.” Because change is inevitable and growth is optional, my advice is to design your life and your career wisely.
Luckily, change isn’t the only constant in design. The job of a designer has other, less uncomfortable givens that, once recognized, can steer you through stressful times and actually improve your life and the lives of those close to you. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned about both the changes and the constants in the last two decades of working in product design.
5 things that are pretty much guaranteed to change and evolve in design
1. Companies ebb and flow, and so do their cultures
Companies grow — sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically. When I started as a product designer for Dropbox in 2013, there were 300 employees. By the time I left in 2015, Dropbox employed more than 1,000 people. When I started my current role as the Principal Designer for Abstract in 2015, I was one of only a handful people, and now we’ve grown to more than 120 in 2019.
As your company grows, so does your team. Even if you start a project on your own, a team will grow around you — people you’ve likely helped to hire. If you’re anything like me, your designs are your babies. If you hire and collaborate with the right people, they become co-parents who can do a better job than you can with parts of the work.
If you’ve helped to hire new team members, it’s imperative to set the right example once you begin working with them. This is how building company culture happens. New hires look to you and other team members for inspiration, to learn how things get done, and how to behave. If you are a design leader, you shoulder a lot of responsibility beyond design.
2. Your role
When it comes to our career trajectories as designers, we usually have two choices: Remain an individual contributor or become a manager. Some companies believe the only way up the ladder is through a management position. Not only is this patently untrue, but a number of designers who choose the management route become unhappy. While the path from individual contributor to a senior role isn’t as straightforward a jump as the one from management, it can be accomplished through developing your expertise and moving companies when necessary. Of course, this requires more change, but what did you expect?
My best advice is to do your research before jumping into a new role that you think you’re supposed to take just because you’re older and wiser. Nothing against management roles, but sometimes people become managers for the wrong reasons.
3. Design tools
We’ve seen how quickly design tools change. In the past few years, the product design industry has shifted from using just Photoshop and Fireworks to any number of amazing tools. I don’t know what tools we’ll be using in 10 years, which should make me nervous because I work for a design platform. But I actually think the unknown future of design tools is super exciting. A lot of money is being poured into this space, and I’m optimistic that our jobs will become easier as our tools get better. Product design is a field long known for being tumultuous, and the most resilient design professionals know how to leverage their skills into different roles when the going gets tough.
4. Design trends change rapidly across digital products
Product design is fashion. Trends appear and disappear seemingly in the blink of an eye. Some events, like the launch of a new mobile operating system, trigger these changes more rapidly, and within a couple of weeks we’ve all changed the look of what we’re designing. Whether you’re a contributor or a manager, you have a responsibility to keep an eye on trends — where they’re moving, what works, and what doesn’t.
From skeuomorphism to flat design, design styles and approaches have changed dramatically in the last two decades. We’re now in the thick of transitioning to a systematic approach with design systems. What’s next?
5. Your work life and your home life
Most importantly, the thing that changes throughout your career is you. Your career path can have a big impact on your life, but life outside of work has an equal effect on your career. Getting married, having a kid, moving countries, dealing with health problems — not only do you have to be able to deal with them, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else in your life. It’s OK to have a bad day or a bad week, but if you have a bad month, you might need to address what needs to change to solve the issue.
We hope you work for an organization that welcomes open dialogue and is understanding of your need for a healthy work-life balance.
4 things that don’t change in design
1. Design basics will always be a prerequisite
Essential design basics don’t change. Every product designer needs a solid understanding of user experience, white space, typography, and design systems. You need this understanding to do your job no matter what tools you use.
I’ve learned the majority of my product design skills through experience and self-study, but I hope that formal design education now incorporates a lot of what I taught myself. While I’ve enjoyed learning by doing, it can be difficult to get up to speed if you’re just getting started now.
2. Clear communication will always be key
Designers speak a very specific language loaded with lingo about tools, design systems, keyboard command shortcuts, company acronyms, and so on. I can’t imagine what non-designers think when they overhear our conversations. (Side note: Two product designers standing in front of an ATM could ignite a 45-minute critique of the UI, which would sound completely alien to passersby.) In addition to understanding design language, I recommend learning the languages your engineers and support team speak. Understanding their vocabulary allows you to obtain information you need in order to create the best design you can.
Excellent communication skills — both verbal and written — will always help you be an effective designer. Knowing how to give and receive productive criticism makes all the difference. Non-verbal communication skills, like staying mindful of your tone of voice and being able to read a room, are important too. They allow you to be aware of when someone around you needs help, but isn’t specifically asking for it. It’s important to be able to pick up on signals and to be able to ask someone if they’re OK and if there’s anything you can do to help.
3. The value of mentorship is ongoing and reciprocal
Mentoring a new team member is one of the most satisfying parts of any design job. It’s short-sighted to think that helping someone find their path takes time away from your own work, since you’re effectively gaining a collaborator. You must treat a new person as equal. Lead them through everything you’re doing and tell them why you made your decisions. Everyone has something to teach. You can change a person’s life, and it’s a phenomenal feeling.
As Liana Dumitru from Dropbox points out, humans are hard-wired to work together, so supporting someone can be intrinsically fulfilling. “Mentoring is as much a selfless act as it is self-serving,” she writes. “Through mentorship, mentors can develop critical skills, like providing guidance and teaching, or grow close professional relationships with more people.”
4. Paying it forward is here to stay
The collective success of the design community is based on people helping each other for free — blogging, writing beautiful HTML, and CSS so people can learn from nicely formatted code. But to fully take advantage of and participate in the design community, you need to make yourself available to others. This can be as simple as opening yourself to direct messages on Twitter, or providing feedback on someone’s portfolio, or grabbing coffee.
No matter how little the gesture, it matters. A number of people helped me when I was just getting started in my design career, and I am forever thankful for their generosity. Now is my time to pay it forward.
As I’ve said before, more inclusive, open, and egalitarian approach can help us build better products, grow personally and professionally, and help junior team members flourish much faster than they could alone. At a company level, this approach isn’t just “nice,” it actually makes business sense, too.
No one works in a future-proof field, including designers. But if you recognize that change is coming and help others along the way, you can future-proof yourself.