The transition from design school to career professional can be confusing, difficult, and downright disheartening. This only compounds in -level organizations. Following are some tips learned through these transition points to help you succeed in your design career, as well as the “secret sauce” to continue to be an effective and influential practitioner.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So…you’ve come straight out of a college, university or bootcamp. All green behind the ears, you’re ready to advocate for the user and show the world that you can build great products! You have a solid portfolio, a thirst for creating stunning interfaces, and boundless amounts of energy. You dream of creating amazing products, eventually leading an agency, and raking in the stacks.

As you interview around, you end up being recruited by several larger companies. And that’s where everything starts, as you land your first job as a in a large product-driven organization. So far, so good! Sounds like an opportunity to show off those design chops you’ve worked on so hard to polish.

As you start into the work, soon you are being held to fast deadlines for what can seem mundane tasks. You are introduced to the world of Project Management (something you may not have been trained on) as someone is constantly holding your feet to the fire to get things delivered. You may be introduced to a team of developers who are building out the products you design.

Welcome to the world of enterprise design.

Soon you are hearing terms thrown around about back-end teams, middle-tier, front-end teams (or FED’s in shorter terminology), integrations, CMS, Product team, Brand team, User Research, Marketing, Optimization, and a host of other things. And this crazy term…taxonomy? Doesn’t that have something to do with stuffing animals?

Batman courtesy of

You soon realize this is nothing like your vision of greatness coming out of your program. What has happened to those dreams and aspirations? How can you contribute your design skills to the products you work on?

Is it all over? Not so fast, Robin!

Rewinding back a little…

With a traditional Graphic Design background, perhaps you were trained to understand many different professions and fields at a high level to help you understand how to design effective visual identities.

I remember my professor harping on us to keep learning about everything so we could design for any type of product or brand. We were also hammered over and over about creating mood boards to help us understand market fit. Both of these techniques have helped me get a glimpse into working with other professionals across a number of industries and trades. In the world of visual design, this is the closest instruction I remember to developing empathy.

Image result for journey map
Example of a user journey map, one of many techniques for understanding end users. Image courtesy of

In the bootcamp program you came out of (or if you were lucky, an actual -oriented program of study at the collegiate level), you may have been introduced to several techniques for researching a product and understanding your end users. These may sound familiar with things such as style tiles, field studies, contextual inquiry, empathy maps, journey maps, user interviews, focus groups, A/B testing, and user testing (to name a few). The end goal of all of these exercises is to better understand your users and bring value to them through your product (read: developing empathy).

Empathy is everything.

What’s the whole deal about empathy anyway?

Perhaps you’ve heard about empathy. Perhaps you haven’t. If you have not, consider this a quick intro. There are plenty of great resources out there about why empathy is needed to be a successful designer. Here’s a quick peek at the definition:

Empathy (noun): the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this (“Empathy.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

In design, it is tantamount to “vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of [a user]” to create effective products. This is why we spend all the time and effort that we do to understand the product we are working on as well as the audience it is intended for. A true designer will stand as a liaison between a product and those it is intended for.

Once we understand our users well enough (this process is iterative and ongoing), we can create experiences with our products that will bring value into their lives. That is the ultimate achievement for a designer and/or product. As a new designer, this will also positively impact your portfolio.

Taking it up a notch

In our industry, designers are experts at advocating for the end-user of a product, but commonly struggle within teams to “find a seat at the table.” This is an ongoing rant that has been repeated, postulated, and written about over and over and over.

Example scenario: a designer is assigned to work on a product team. As they start uncovering information about the end users and testing their hypothesis, they determine that direction needs to change from the first vision of the product. They regroup with the Product Manager and present the new information and designs they have been working so feverishly on…which result in immediate skepticism and doubt. They are told to re-focus on the goal and leave the encounter feeling dejected and unvalidated.

If this sounds like your current position, fret not. There are ways to overcome this.

Being a humble designer

The trait of humility was something I was not taught in graphic design, but which is extremely important to understand in the professional world of Product Development. Let me explain why.

The product development process involves many different parties. The two main groups who bring products to life are stakeholders and team members, whom I like to call “contributors.” Jared M. Spool (backed up by Daniel Burka of Google Ventures fame) has controversially said that “everyone is a designer,” referring to the fact that everyone working on a product contributes to the ultimate design of it. This is an absolute truth. Here are some examples:

  • Stakeholder: This individual is an investor into the product who ensures that it’s funded…and therefore ensures the ability to launch the product. There are typically many stakeholders for a single product.
  • Product manager: This individual is the primary person accountable to the business for the success of the product. They guide product vision and are supposed to have a sound understanding of the audience and their needs.
  • Information architect: This individual helps to organize content in the most intuitive way possible across the product being built. They employ a specialized skill set paired with testing methods to build their solution.
  • Writer/editor: This individual maintains brand fidelity through writing style, controlled vocabulary, and voice and tone. They also “design” words to create optimal understanding.
  • Project manager: This individual helps the Product manager to make sure that the product can be completed within viable timelines and budgets. They ensure that the team is staffed optimally within those parameters.
  • Front-end developer: This individual is the one who will actually build the product that you see. They code the interface and bring it to life. Without a front-end developer, the product is a bunch of static screens.
  • Back-end developer: This individual does all the magic behind the scenes in code land. They are the ones who will provide systems to get data to the front-end. Without these guys, you’ll have a really rad coded prototype…without abilities to sort, manipulate, or pull data (read: actually accomplish anything).

A product simply cannot exist without the investment of all these parties.
*Note: These roles don’t represent every case of a product team structure, but serve as an example of how multiple roles contribute to a product’s success.

Be humble and understand that it is vital to know how to best work with each individual of your team to contribute your design skills in the most effective way possible.

Tying it all together

We’ve chatted about how you may have dropped into a large organization feeling a little lost on how you can contribute as a designer. We’ve also discussed the tantamount importance of empathy in the creation of successful, meaningful products-briefly touching on user research methods. Next, we addressed the age-old conundrum of “having a seat at the table.” Then we chatted about the concept that there are multiple individuals who contribute to a product being created, and how it is important as a designer to be humble and understand that you are just a piece of the team, not the team itself.

The last statement of the previous section was “Be humble and understand that it is vital to know how to best work with each individual…to contribute your design skills in the most effective way possible.

Let’s finish by exploring that statement a little more in depth.

Contributing your design skills in the most effective way possible

The secret sauce to your design contribution is the following:

Treat everyone as your user.

Ironically, this concept is so simple that it’s extremely difficult to master. This truly involves developing your “soft skills” so that you can communicate effectively with your team members, and—eventually—all members of your organization. We need to employ the same exercises that we do with our end users (remember the User Research methods mentioned above?) to our team members. We need to “vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience” of them. I cannot stress this point enough! Lucky for us, we already have the tools to do so!

Something to remember is that we don’t need to deep dive to understand our fellow contributors. Start simple and work your way to deeper understanding. Going to lunch and chatting about life is a great place to start! Another way to understand is seek to communicate clearly when facing “roadblocks.” A great example of this is when you may disagree with a Project Manager on your priority work for the day. First ask them about their concerns and why they feel something is priority. Then work together to come up with a solution that will satisfy your users’ priorities, as well as the business’s. That’s empathy and problem solving in action.

As we empathize with those with whom we work, we will come to truly become the liaison we seek to be between the end users and the product. As we intimately understand the struggles of our team mates, we can work with them to find optimal solutions together, and we will learn much faster the rigor involved with building amazing products. As we are transparent with our intentions and provide context in a way that our team mates can understand (speaking their language), we will gain their trust as a proactive professional. Our value as a designer will increase exponentially and we will be able to fulfill that dream we mentioned in the beginning… creating amazing things for our users.

Sharing what’s worked

Please feel free to share below experiences that have worked for you in developing better empathy for your team members and stake holders! I’d love to learn what you have learned.

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