The Lifecycle of a Designer: Part 1

Edit: Spelling and grammar checked and re-checked as per popular request!
One thing that I believe many designers, managers of designers, or buyers of design talent will struggle with, is the understanding of a Designer’s Lifecycle within the design industry.
Dealing with Lifecycle problems come in many forms. A few examples include, designers looking for the skills to get to the next level? Or even designers wondering why they are stuck in their career? Or even why can’t we hire the right designers for the job?
For designers looking to rise up in their career, it will be one of those hard facts of life they have to deal with. The requirements of our professions do change as we move up, and the problem I see with most designers looking to move to higher positions is that they fail to realize what skills are required to get there.
Another problem is also in the hiring of designers. The reality is that there are no job title “standards” and it is very common that “Creative Directors” in certain companies might be equivalent to Senior Designers in others. The old saying that titles don’t mean everything is quite true in this case.
Part 1 of this 2 part article will focus on the lifecycle and the different paths a designer can take. In part 2, I will do my best to describe the various design positions available, the capabilities and expectations, and the sort of work that should be highlighted in the portfolio. While the titles are there for organization and discussion purposes, don’t worry too much about. Focus instead on the years of experience and the sort of skills designers are expected to have.

In general most designers start their career as junior designers. Duh. However it is worth mentioning that are many paths into design. Many companies have entry level design positions that can be segmented. They could include sub-specialty areas of trend forecasting, colors and materials, technology analysis etc. This could well move into a full sub-specialty career of design. I know for a fact that BMW has some of the world’s best colors and materials experts working for them. But for the purpose of this discussion we will just focus on generic design.
After junior design positions, the next is what is sometimes called middle-weight designers. Middle weight designers have a few years of experience that will lead into that of a senior design position.
After this things start to get interesting. At this stage is it more about what a designer is more interested to do as the path sort of splits into 2 routes. There is the design and creative direction route and the other I will probably call the design management route.
Let’s start with the most obvious route, the design management route. This path leads into the Design Manager positions, and ultimately a Design Director or even VP of design. This role manages and considers design on a strategic business level.
The technical design continues into lead or principal designer positions. This path has been becoming popular of late as companies are finding that there are designers that just want to do design and not program/project or designer management. As a result their career comes to a halt as their advancement stops and so does the pay.
Another thing to note is that even thought the creative direction path follows after the lead designer position, it is sort of an in between the design management and technical deign career path. At this level there is the strategic application of a design’s form or look within a larger frame work or brand context. This career path also requires managing the designers of the technical design route and as well as ensuring the form requirements of the client are fulfilled or met.
So this is pretty much in a nutshell the possible career paths for designers. In Part 2, we will dive deeper in to the individual roles and explore the sort of requirements and expectations to have, so that designers can aspire towards it.
The Lifecycle of a Designer: Part 2 is up and running so see you there!

14 Comments
  • Cameron

    August 13, 2008 at 11:39 pm Reply

    Thanks so much DT! Your articles are always so helpful to me as a student preparing for design as a career and the real world.

  • Quote Catcher Website Design

    August 14, 2008 at 3:44 am Reply

    This is a great post. The design world is so diverse it is often difficult to determine next steps or even what to strive for if you are just starting out.

  • Waikit

    August 14, 2008 at 9:58 am Reply

    Excellent info! Really useful for designers to be aware of their position and their future path. Looking forward to read the descriptions of the different roles.
    Keep up the good posts!

  • David

    August 14, 2008 at 8:55 pm Reply

    Hey DT, you’re the Design Manager type right? Does that mean that the Technical Designers are like Naoto and Karim?

  • Industrial Guru

    August 15, 2008 at 1:53 am Reply

    Great post. Change is the only constant, and with that in my mind I wonder how the future of this position will evolve. Emerging technologies that will allow designers to do so much more might create even more routes.

  • Steve (chefich)

    August 15, 2008 at 11:48 pm Reply

    Thank you for this informative article!
    I was looking for something like this for the last years. Well I had a rough view over the career path of an ID/Product designer, but this article is adding a whole new perspective.
    Can`t wait to read Part 2.
    P.S. I want to express my respect to you “DT” for the great Blog, I have an eye on this website since early 2007. Keep up the excelent work and a lot of succes on the new path you took up.
    Cheers,
    Steve R.

  • DT

    August 16, 2008 at 9:47 pm Reply

    Hi All, really sorry for the late reply. It has been crazy at work these days. Cameron, Quote Catcher, Waikit thanks for your kind comments, please do keep in touch.
    @David, I would consider Naoto and Karim as Design Entrepreneurs, that is a whole different path and another article that will be coming soon!
    @Steve, Why thank you kindly! Part 2 will be up middle of next week! Please do stay tuned!

  • csven

    August 19, 2008 at 3:17 am Reply

    Hey! I don’t fit.

  • Jonahstone

    August 19, 2008 at 4:11 am Reply

    Great undertaking of explaining two of the simpler paths that an industrial designer might take in their career path. I know this is a blog and many blogs are of fast development (ie. writing), but on your next post please, spell check and give it the ‘ol once over reading. Otherwise, thanks for your work on the topic.

  • DT

    August 19, 2008 at 11:57 am Reply

    @csven You never fit! That is what makes you so special!
    @Jonahstone Thanks for your comments and feedback. On your comment on spell checking, actually all my posts ARE spell checked. Don’t forget English is spelled differently in different parts of the world. While I do acknowledge, I have some grammar and construction issues, this is intentional as I am writing my posts in a conversational style. I think my readers prefer that to the usual formats. Please keep in touch!

  • Niels

    August 21, 2008 at 1:41 am Reply

    Hi DT,
    Nice post to show the differences in career moves, I am definitely interested in reading the descriptions of the different ‘functions’.

  • […] and please keep in touch? ~ D.T.Thanks for all the great comments and input you have left from Part 1. It has really given me a great insight to what you want to see here on Design […]

  • zach

    August 26, 2008 at 5:03 am Reply

    I can tell you are a designer. Your spelling and grammar have not been double checked for accuracy. LOL Nice career path chart, get a HR consulting job!

  • Ronni

    October 18, 2008 at 5:47 am Reply

    My son just started a Bachelors program in Industrial Design. Although he really likes it he is questioning if it can lead to his desired career. He wants to design Robots. He is particularly interested in Robots for NASA. He is already 23 and has tried a few other majors so this is a serous question.
    Since this is not my field I would like some advice from the Pros. Should he stay in ID or look at another path to his goal?
    Thanks!

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