A decade ago, most designers were new to digital design. Two decades ago, everyone was new. There was something exciting about being the trailblazers helping to define how User Experience, as a profession, would evolve.
Designers are getting old. Today, it’s not uncommon to find folks with 15 or 20 years of professional experience in digital design. These are the people who have evolved their craft over the course of time to adapt to new processes and tools; they’ve taken leadership roles in our industry to help train and shape the next generation of designers.
However, the way we break down job title requirements by level is rapidly becoming antiquated. Generally, in the United States, it goes like this: after two years Associate Designers become Mid-level Designers; after four years they become Senior Designers; after six they become Lead Designers. Not to mention the recent phenomenon of designers who acquire a Senior title less than a year after school.
Since the rise of bootcamp design schools in the early 2010s, thousands of new designers are entering the market each year, a faster turnaround time than that of graduates who enter the workforce after completing traditional education programs. And all of them are now getting their highly anticipated Design Lead title.
We are building an industry full of lead- and director-level designers. The current ratio between managers and individual contributors is so unbalanced that it’s not uncommon to find managers/leads of teams of one.
In the long run, that top-heavy structure might not be sustainable. Paying lead/director salaries to individual contributors inflates our industry, while fancy job titles create the false expectation that someone is being hired to manage and not to produce designs — leading to frustration and low retention rates. To help fix that, some companies have been creating official documentation that outlines roles and responsibilities for each level to avoid mismatched expectations.
From a high-level perspective, we are seeing a clear differentiation between the seniority levels implied in job titles and the actual impact designers are having in their organization.
- Seniority levels used for job titles. Associate, Mid-level, Senior, Lead, Manager, Director, Group Director, VP. The list of titles for designers continues to expand, with new labels and levels and variations continually added. The goal is to attract new hires who are on the lookout for a senior-sounding position, while keeping current employees motivated, rewarding them with a shiny new position every other year.
- Independence and power within an organization. Although unspoken, company heads are starting to think about their employees in two main buckets: juniors and leaders (which certainly do not map to the title “Associate” or “Senior” titles from the first group). Seniority is becoming less about years of experience on your resume and more about your mindset, your behaviors, and your ability to influence change in the organization, whether that’s through state-of-art interfaces or pure thought leadership and articulation.
In 2019 we should start looking at seniority through new lenses. You can be proud of your “lead” title, as it is an integral part of your growth story. But if you consider seniority from the perspective of how much impact you are able to make (or not) within your organization, you’ll have a better sense of where you are along your career trajectory and of how your particular skills and experience are influencing others around you and our industry as a whole.