I’ve been a designer for a long while now.
I’ve worked my way up, sideways, down, up again, and now landed somewhere in the middle. I’ve been a junior designer, intermediate designer, senior designer, art director, creative director, account manager, client relations coordinator, project coordinator, communications officer, manager of design and creative, and a studio manager. I’ve worked for small and medium design firms, as well as on a large in-house creative team. I’ve also worked on both the studio side and the client side.
I can safely say I’ve experienced what it means to work in the design profession from many angles—all of which have given me perspective and understanding.
Whether you are just starting in the design profession or looking to move into a new role, here’s how you can be better at what you do for the benefit of those creating alongside you.
Congratulations! You’ve been hired for your first job as a designer. That’s a big feat and represents the hours and hours of hard work and creativity that you’ve put into your post-secondary studies. You are in an interesting position where you likely know more about the most recent tools and technologies than your manager or creative director. You may be tired and euphoric and, if you’re good at what you do, confident, talented, and a little bit scared. At this stage, your job is to soak it all in and keep learning. While your boss may not know the latest techniques, they have a wealth of experience and knowledge to offer. Be professional and treat this first job as a true continuation of your studies. There is no way for a design education program to fully teach you what it means to work on a creative team, to take creative direction with both confidence and humility, to catch all the details, and to work with client feedback.
You’re a few years in and you’ve proven yourself. Maybe you’re still at your first job, or you’ve moved on to a second or even a third. You’re figuring out what you most like about the profession, the kind of clients you like to work with and the projects you like to work on. You’ve earned the respect of your creative director and the team. You’ve made errors along the way but you’ve grown and learned from them. You (likely) won’t make them again. Keep doing what you’re doing and look for opportunities to take on more responsibility. Assuming you’re interested in moving up the design ladder, you’ll want to show your ability to “own” a project—to take it from start to finish, to be a project lead.
You’re five to seven years in and your design skills are fully honed. You may be ready to take on an art director role or start your own company. Or, you might be perfectly happy focusing solely on design. Either way, you’re inspired and talented and you’ve got the real-world portfolio to show for it. This is a good time in your career to build up your specialized skills and knowledge. Find an industry mentor, talk with the younger designers on your team, attend conferences and workshops, figure out where you might like to grow further. Become a mentor—either within your own company or by mentoring students. Remember what it was like at the beginning of your career and offer guidance and encouragement wherever you can. Be honest and kind. Read and sketch, stay interested.
Art Director/Design Director
If this is something you’ve been working towards, you’ve made it! You’re now responsible for continuing to deliver your own creative work, as well as guiding and directing some of the team’s projects. It’s a balance and there are time management methodologies that you’ll need to master. You need to meet your own deadlines while also ensuring that the designers you are directing can also meet theirs. If you have a project coordinator on your team, use them as a resource so that you understand the order of priority for any given day.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of giving your full workday to the team, and designing your own projects at night, when it’s quiet and uninterrupted. If that works for you, that’s fine, but if you find your life/work balance is totally out the window at this stage, it’s time to set some strong boundaries.
Last but not least, this is the start of letting go from a design perspective. You’re no longer solely in control, and you need to let the designers on your project and team grow and excel too. Remember to be kind—don’t do their work for them but guide, guide, guide. If you are in a larger team structure and there’s a creative director in a role above you, learn from them. Find out what they respond to (both positive and negative) to ensure projects that you bring forward for review have preemptively resolved those considerations. Don’t waste their time having to comment on a detail that you should have caught at your review stage.
At long last, you’re here. You still love design and designing, and depending on the size of the team for which you’re responsible, you may even be able to take on choice projects here and there. Most of your design life, though, is focused on the output of the creative team. You are clearly a strategic thinker at this stage, and you know how to get critical and relevant information from the client or account manager so that you and your team can do the best job. You are likely responsible for contributing to or writing creative briefs, and you know what guidance designers need from that important document.
If you haven’t already, learn to work closely with the project coordinator. Ask them to plan out schedules to allow you enough time to review and respond to projects, and to work with the design team to ensure proposed concepts and solutions are on strategy and meet a high level of quality.
Create a strong design culture on your team. Encourage research, go for field trips, send your team to conferences, be a mentor and leader within the design profession, speak on panels, review portfolios, contribute time to a design association. Stay knowledgeable of what others are doing. Most importantly, figure out where you can make a positive impact on the world. If your team has account managers, work closely with them. They are creative thinkers too. Be considerate and kind, lead by example.
I’m not sure how you got here. Maybe you came through some sort of sales track, or maybe you’re like me and you wanted to experience a different side of the design profession. You may have been a designer yourself, or you may only understand what sells. Either way, you are in an interesting position of having to stick up for your clients while also sticking up for the company you work for. Fight the us vs. them mentality (account team vs. creative team). We’re all in this together and we all want to deliver excellent work.
It’s really important to be a good listener, and to understand both the strategic and technical information that your client shares, so that you can convey it to the team. Work that into your discovery process and collaborate with the creative director on the best project brief structure. Be an advocate for your clients, deep-dive into their industry, challenges, audiences and goals. Be prepared to push back on both sides. Know when to be flexible. Pay attention to the details. Make sure that the work you’re delivering to the client meets the brief, that it’s been proofed, and that everything the client asked for has either been addressed, or comes with an explanation as to why it wasn’t. Keep a communications log and stay in regular touch with your clients. Always be professional, even if you need an occasional vent session behind the scenes. Be kind.
You thrive on organizing and you’re good at it. You can break a project down into pieces and pull in all the necessary team members to make it happen. You can create detailed workback schedules and flex along the way. You’re in close contact with both the account managers and the creative directors, and you’re balancing out the needs of the client and the team.
In this role, you need to understand and report on the big picture (three or six months out) but also keep an eye on every little deadline for every single project. Figure out the tools and systems that work best for you, and find a project management platform that will work for the whole team. Build room in the schedule to allow for the inevitable adjustments you’ll need to make over the course of a project.
Get to know each of the people on the team so that you understand their working style and how much or how little scheduling and project detail they need to do their job best. Some people will want to know all of their projects and tasks for the month, others will want to focus on one at a time. Express your timeline-related stress to the owner or your manager but always remain calm with the team. Read the signs and pull in help for team members when they need it. Ask the designers and directors to give you a heads-up if a deadline is in jeopardy. And last but not least… you guessed it, be kind.
Manager of Design and Creative
Maybe you’re part of a larger company and responsible for both managing and directing the creative team, or maybe you are the principal or owner of a design studio or agency. Ultimately though, you’re responsible for ensuring your team is healthy, vibrant, and growing, and that they are in an environment that allows them to create strong, strategic work for your company’s clients. Take the time to get to know each member of the team, provide mentorship and learning opportunities, listen and guide, recognize and reward talent and hard work. Don’t burn the team out with impossible demands. Prioritize worker well-being. Be one of the good ones.
That’s all I’ve got. Twenty-plus years of experience in a nutshell. If you’re in the design profession, either starting out, or well along the way into your career, I’d love to hear from you. Does any of this resonate?