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How designers can get a ‘Seat at the Table’

5 practical career-boosting tips for Designers

“If you could go back in time, what career advice would you give your younger self?”

This is a question I’ve started to get asked a lot recently. I’m generally someone who prefers to look forward rather than reminisce about what could have been, but upon recent reflection of this question, I realized that there was an epiphany that I wish I’d arrived at a little earlier in life. A realization that would have saved me a lot of time, frustration, and confusion. Oh, and that would have helped me make a little more money earlier, too!

The big ‘aha’ moment that I wish I’d had earlier is actually very obvious now, in hindsight, but at the time it really changed everything for me, and I’ve seen it change everything for others, too. That epiphany was that I, not my boss, or company, or clients, or the job market, actually have the majority of the control over my career progression, and there are very tangible things I could have done to progress faster.

I think back to when I was just starting out as a Junior UX Designer. I genuinely believed that progressing was just about how good my designs were. “If only I was better at design – I’d be the one getting the promotions” I’d tell myself. Now, don’t get me wrong – being an excellent Designer will get you far, but it’s my belief that it’s the Designers who have a more well-rounded, holistic approach (I’ll explain what I mean by this in a moment) are the ones that will climb the ranks and progress faster.

This very topic is often top-of-mind for me, as it’s a rhetoric I see reflected in my community. When I open my social media channels, I often have multiple messages from Designers asking a similar question:

“I want to progress in my career – I want to be taken seriously and be considered a key player in the business – but no matter how much I improve my design skills, it’s just not happening”
Luckily, with some years of experience under my belt, and insights from working with design teams in hundreds of companies – from scrappy start-ups to established Fortune 500’s – I’ve seen some common traits in the Designers that manage to smash through the ‘glass ceiling’ of design and make it to the board room.

These 5 strategies have served me personally very well. As soon as I started practicing them, I started getting seen as a strategic partner to my clients, rather than just a pixel-pusher that they wanted to churn out design work as fast as possible. It opened up doors for me to get to do design work that I actually cared about and am interested in, and it allowed me to voice my opinions and have them be respected by decision-makers.

Now, back to the ‘holistic, well-rounded approach’ I mentioned earlier. You’ll notice, when you read my tips in a moment, that only 1 of the 5 is about your actual design work. I’ll stress again that it is important that you’re a good Designer – you can’t cut corners with that one, but what I am saying is that being a good Designer alone doesn’t always equal progression, not any more. It might get you the first two or three promotions, but to really break the design ‘glass ceiling’ I believe Designers need to bolster their design skills with other skills and tactics, and think about how what they do fits into the larger picture of the company they’re working for.

These are the 5 things I now share with anyone who comes to me wondering what they can do to get ahead a little quicker, and they are the things I’d go back and tell my younger self, if I had the chance to.

1. Learn about business & strategy

The trajectory of my career totally changed when I started learning about strategy, and how businesses really operate ‘under the hood’. I upped my business acumen and learned the lingo of marketers and business people. I started to realize that, to be taken seriously, you need to be the Designer in the room who knows what leaders mean when they talk about increasing ‘CLTV’, or what the ‘MRR’ is. Don’t get me wrong – it was uncomfortable at first, and I felt like I was taking a huge leap out of my ‘lane’, but in no time I was in meetings with key stakeholders, speaking their language, being taken more seriously, and being trusted with larger and more interesting projects.

Top tip: I’d recommend reading ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’, ‘The Lean Startup’, and ‘Hacking Growth’. Between these three books, you’ll have a good understanding of core strategic principles, and a solid grasp of business growth metrics, and the lingo that surrounds them.

2. Understand YOUR company’s/client’s business & strategy

It’s one thing having an understanding of how businesses work, and strategy in general, but unless you can apply that to your everyday it won’t do you much good in the here-and-now. It’s now time to immerse yourself in what’s happening behind the scenes in your business.

You should make yourself familiar with your company’s business model, what the revenue streams are (and if there are more than one, how these interact with one another), what challenges the business is facing, who the competitors are, and what the general strategy and direction for the company is. Start by doing some investigating. Depending on the size of your business this will be easier in some cases than others. Working at a big corporation? You’ll be able to figure most of this out with some good old-fashioned Googling. If you’re in a smaller company, then you’ll need to get a bit more creative.

Once you have a solid grasp of the ins-and-outs and the mechanics of your company, you’ll be able to display this understanding in meetings and projects, and you’ll be able to prioritize your tasks to align with the company goals and strategy.

Top tip: Ask someone at your company, who you feel has a good grasp on the inner workings of the business, to have lunch one day. Share with them that you’re interested in having a better understanding of how the business works, and that you respect their knowledge and expertise in this area. If they’re open to it, ask them a few questions about their understanding of the business model and strategy.

3. Design ‘hack’ your way to the top

I constantly tell the Junior Designers on my team: “don’t reinvent the wheel”. Now, I’m all for being innovative, pushing boundaries, and trying new things, but when you’re starting out you want to be able to show successes as soon as you can. To do this, I’d recommend ‘design hacking’.

My marketing team and I often do this with marketing tactics & strategies, and we call it ‘funnel hacking’, but the same principles can be used by Designers.

I’d describe ‘design hacking’ as looking at how others are solving the problem you’re trying to solve: who is killing it and what are they doing? What can you learn from this? How can you apply this to what you’re working on? I’d then map out what they’re doing, step-by-step, and make my own version of the parts I want to implement. Of course I don’t mean copying, but instead taking inspiration from what’s already working and then putting my own spin on it.

One thing I’d recommend is not being bound to ‘design hacking’ companies in the exact same industry as you. For example, if you’re working on the screens of an e-commerce app, with the goal of getting as many users to complete checkout as possible, instead of just looking at how other e-commerce apps structure their checkout screens, you could instead think of a time, in any situation, where you’ve had a seamless checkout experience: what happened that made it so great? What was on the screen? What were the steps? What did the buttons say? Map this out and implement what you can.

Top tip: Check out the ‘Lightning demos’ exercise in the Design Sprint. It’s a fantastic, simple exercise that will take you through the core principles of ‘design hacking’.

4. Think (and care) about how your designs impact the bottom-line

The best Designers I’ve ever worked with are the ones who know how what they do impacts the ‘bottom-line’ of the business, meaning how what they do impacts company revenue.

The first step here is realizing that what you’re doing does, in fact, impact the bottom line. Whether you’re creating the graphics for advertising campaigns, or creating onboarding wireframes, this all impacts the company’s performance in one way or another.

Once you understand how exactly what you do connects to and impacts the company’s financial success, you’ll be able to optimize your work in a way that better supports this. You can then take these insights into meetings, and show how your work is correlating with results. Even just showing that you understand this will already put you ahead in the minds of managers and decision makers, who are ultimately looking for ways to maximize the ‘bottom-line’ every day.

Top tip: Start looking into the numbers behind your work. For example, ask the marketers that you design ads for how each set of graphics performed compared to one another. Ask if they can regularly share some data about the performance of the creatives and then start learning from this. This will not only improve your design work, but it will also show that you’re interested in how your work connects to the bigger picture.

5. Become a Workshopper

This one was the biggest game-changer for me. But first I need to take a few steps back…

When I first started out as a freelance Designer working with clients, I executed exactly what my clients told me to do. They briefed me; I did what they asked, and the cycle continued, but I wasn’t moving forward. This is a common complaint I hear from Designers working at companies, too: getting sent briefs by colleagues and being expected to execute, but never being asked for any strategic involvement, and never being able to really prove what they’re capable of. I really believe I’d still be stuck in that cycle if I didn’t become a Workshopper.

It’ll help if I explain what a Workshopper is…

“A Workshopper is someone who can lead a team to a common goal through a series of exercises strung together.”

Sounds simple, right? In all honesty it is simple, but very few people realize how much having this ability will change their career, and very few people actually act on it.

When I gradually started moving away from being a design-executor, and moving towards becoming a Workshopper, there was a seismic shift in how my employers, and later, my clients saw me. I started to be seen as a strategic partner to my colleagues and clients. They started asking for my input and ideas. They started to let me lead the way instead of giving me orders.

This all happened because they saw that I had the skill set (the Workshopper skillset) that drove the team towards results, helping them cut through the busywork and dialogue, and showing that alignment and progress were just one exercise or workshop away. I stopped being seen as ‘just a Designer’ and started being seen as a strategic player who can manifest business goals through their design work.

Becoming a Workshopper is easy. It starts with a mindset shift, and then progresses into learning simple techniques and exercises that you can then put together into workshops. You’ll be able to work better and more efficiently, and you’ll eventually be viewed as the expert in the room, even if you’re not a subject-matter expert, because you’re the person leading the team, or the subject-matter experts, to the result they want.

As I said, becoming a Workshopper isn’t hard – it just takes belief and a bold commitment to championing a better way to work.

Top tip: I recently wrote a book on this exact topic, that I’m now giving away for free (shipping not included). It’s called ‘The Workshopper Playbook’ and it teaches everything I know about becoming a Workshopper. If you’re interested in getting a copy, then you can find out more here.

So there you have it – my top 5 tips for advancing in your career in design. One of my favorite mottos is “getting started is more important than being right”, so I’d encourage you to practice this and experiment with the tips I’ve mentioned here. Start small, build up confidence, and then take it from there.

Let me know what you think! You’ll find me on Instagram and Jake & Jonathan (hosted by myself & Jake Knapp).

“Getting started is more important than being right.”

Co-Founder of AJ&Smart, a Digital Product Design agency and co-producer of Jake & Jonathan. Follow him on Instagram .

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