The Evolution of a Designer

This week’s question is from Katelyn Peterson. She asks, “As a graphic designer, how does your role change as you become more senior?”

The starting position for most designers is an internship. In this role you have two primary responsibilities. The first is to support the design team or studio in whatever way you can — research, errands, comping, scanning, filing, whatever. As an intern I spent a lot of time walking the dog, researching stock photography and getting print estimates. And yes, I also got to design. Your other responsibility as intern is to learn. More on that under “related reading” below.

The next step up from an internship is Junior Designer. Junior Designers have been out of school for up to three years and require supervision in all aspects of design conception and implementation. You may benefit from the support of an intern (remember from whence thou cometh and be nice to them!), though in smaller studios you will probably still be expected to pitch in on non-design tasks from time to time. A more senior designer or art director will typically provide you with a brief that frames the problem and the scope of exploration. You will receive art direction and in some instances may be asked to execute variations of someone else’s idea. Often you will work on just one aspect of a project. You will think you are better than you are. Later you will look back and wish you were more humble.

After a while you will drop the “junior” qualifier from your title and be considered a straight up Designer. You will probably get a decent raise and if you don’t already have one, a business card. You will call your mom. Designers have more autonomy over their projects, but usually still work with an Art Director or Creative Director. You will have more conceptual responsibilities and will probably look at design problems more holistically. By this I mean you will consider design programs as systems rather than individual elements. You will probably begin to consider logistics like cost, maintenance and sustainability. If you used some of your raise to upgrade your wardrobe, you might start being included in client meetings.

The “Designer” position can be a long plateau. As you log more time in the profession (typically 5-7 years), increase your skills and demonstrate leadership you may be promoted to the role of Senior Designer. As a Senior Designer you might start directing the work of one or more junior designers or interns, or you might be designated “senior” because of your experience and standing in the firm, or because a cooler sounding title will keep you there another year or two. “Senior,” by the way, is not a relative term. It refers to your decision-making authority and overall design ability, not necessarily your seniority over other designers in the firm. You can be a Senior Designer in a firm that has no other designers. Either way you’ll probably call your mom again.

From here, things get a bit murky. As you continue to advance in your career you may receive additional responsibilities with titles and salaries to match. Art Director is often next (particularly in advertising and in-house environments). As an Art Director you will supervise and direct designers and design projects but you may not be required to actually to design yourself. Likewise with the position of Design Manager or Design Director and ultimately Creative Director. Creative Directors set the creative agenda for multiple projects and the studio as a whole. As the face of the firm, Creative Directors are usually the ones asked to judge, speak and otherwise represent the firm. They get credit for everything — including other people’s ideas and hard work. Good Creative Directors go out of their way to share this credit. Some do not.

These definitions and opinions are not universal and apply mainly to design studios. In-house design departments, ad agencies and larger creative agencies have slightly different roles and responsibilities. Specialized studios (e.g. those that focus on interactive design, environmental graphics, research, etc.) may likewise have specialized workflows that require specialized roles.

Generally speaking, as you advance beyond the position of Senior Designer you will find that you spend less time with the craft of design (i.e. actually making stuff) and more time defining problems, guiding other designers through the process of addressing those problems, and convincing clients that the problem has in fact been solved.

Regardless of your “role,” design itself will change dramatically over the arc of your career. There were no “web designers” when I was in school. When I started my business, there were no app designers. There were no iPads. No iPhones. No Facebook. A design practice today that doesn’t engage with how these and other technologies are modifying the landscape of communication will soon find itself on the margins of the profession. The designer who doesn’t adapt to the shifting demands of the profession will soon see it pass them by.

Over time you will also change as a person. You will mature and grow in ways unrelated to your profession. Passions may give way to pragmatism (or new passions). Righteousness to empathy. Ambition to balance. You may start a family. You may become ill. The point is, your role as a designer will be modified by your role in life. And that’s how it should be (just ask your mom).


Related reading:
AIGA’s definition of design positions
NY Times article about internships
My own post about design internships