From Senior Designer to Lead Designer: Advance Your Career Without Becoming a Manager

If not just a pixel-pusher, then what else? - Diógenes Brito

A mentee of mine asked me to share my perspective on what it takes to advance one’s career as a product designer.

I want to continue growing in my career, what steps should I take aside from doing the work here?

The mentee was already a senior product designer with about five years of experience, and was asking for my advice as a principal designer. Despite being in design leadership positions for several years, I struggled to find an obvious answer. After reflecting on my own career and how I got to where I am, I organized some thoughts into this blog post.

What should designers do to get to the next level (without becoming a manager)?

I didn’t become a principal designer simply by being really good at design. I spent a lot of time filling the gaps on my teams to make them succeed. That meant taking on tasks that didn’t always fall within my stated job description, but were necessary for the team’s success.

In addition to my responsibilities as a designer, here are a few areas I think design leaders should focus their efforts on.

Be reliable

Being reliable is essential to maintaining trust and credibility. If we’re unreliable, it doesn’t matter what our other virtues are; we’ll crater immediately. Doing what we’ve agreed to do should be an automatic part of our behavior. This is something I index heavily on.

Examples of being reliable are:

  • Hitting deadlines
  • Being on time to meetings
  • Delivering what was promised

I’ve found being reliable often means saying “no” and “not yet.” As we become more senior, we'll acrue more responsiblities. We can’t be reliable and deliver high-quality work if we’re overcommitted.

One way to manage this is to underpromise and (hopefully) overdeliver, whereby we agree to do something but set low expectations. This still builds trust and credibility while avoiding the pressure of delivering something unrealistic or burning ourselves out.

Do glue work

Every senior person in an organization should recognize and value the necessary-but-often-unglamorous “glue work” that contributes to the team’s success. Glue work refers to things that help the team and projects run smoothly, but are not “traditional design tasks.”

Examples of glue work are:

  • Wrangling cross-functional players to get things done
  • Documenting meeting notes and important decisions
  • Understanding the problem domain
  • Giving thoughtful feedback on someone else’s design
  • Onboarding new employees

If no one handles these responsibilities, the team's performance will suffer.

Doing glue work shows we’re willing to go above and beyond our job responsibilities to ensure the team is functioning effectively. It demonstrates an ability to lead and manage, as well as a commitment to the overall success of the team.

Too often glue work is left for women, as Tanya notes. So fellas, we should realize this and help ensure it doesn’t happen on our teams.

In my case, doing glue work helped me tremendously in getting from the senior to principal designer level.

Be comfortable with ambiguity

I noticed the more senior I became, the more I was expected to define my own job. I still get projects and requirements assigned to me, but sometimes I’m expected to “figure out what needs to be done.”

For example, we might be asked to execute on vague ideas with few requirements, such as:

“We want to do something with A.I., but not sure what. Prototype a few ideas.”

Other times we’re given a problem and we have to figure out how it fits into the product experience, such as:

“Managers should know when something bad happens on their team. Figure out how that should happen.”

Design leads are expected to take squishy ideas like these and create something tangible like a wireframe or prototype.

As a design lead, we’re not only expected to drive how we work, but also what we do. All with little guidance. To that end, we’re also expected to contribute to our product roadmap, routinely pitching ideas and helping prioritize projects.

Be a voice for others

As a senior member of a team, it’s our job to help to create a more inclusive and supportive work environment, and ensure that everyone's contributions are valued and recognized. That means speaking up for coworkers, advocating for their needs, helping to ensure their voices are heard, and creating opportunities for them to lead.

Examples include:

  • Representing the team in meetings (especially in the presence of leadership)
  • Asking questions others are afraid to
  • Publicly recognizing coworkers
  • Helping resolve conflicts
  • Suggesting projects that align with someone else’s growth areas

As a design lead, we should be actively, visibly, and vocally supporting our teammates and validating their expertise. Leaders don’t try to be the best on the team. They try to be the best for the team.

Share what we learn

What might seem obvious to us isn’t to others, especially when it comes to complex or specialized topics. So we should be regularly sharing what’s on our mind and what we’re thinking about. Everything is new for someone.

We don’t need to know everything about a topic to talk about it. Sharing our thoughts helps inspire and guide others, and fosters a culture of learning within the team.

Examples of sharing include:

  • Sharing interesting articles or resources in work chat
  • Writing articles or recording podcasts
  • Hosting lunch ‘n learns or tiny talks

Even as a design lead, I often ask my manager what’s on her mind in our 1:1’s and just listen. It’s helpful to know what folks a level or two above us are thinking (and worrying) about.

This can take the form of coaching or mentoring, helping folks with things like:

  • Guiding someone through part of their project
  • Explaining how employee stock options work
  • Helping someone through an awkward situation on their team
  • Answering questions folks don’t want to ask their manager

I’d recommend coaching and mentoring only after folks have gained eight or so years of experience. It’s important not to rush into it since we’d be impacting someone else’s career.

Wrapping up

Time spent understanding people is never wasted. - Cate Huston

Succeeding as a design lead is less about tactical skills and more about people skills.

You could argue that everything in this article should be the responsibility of a manager, and that’s true. But design leads should be working with managers to grow people’s careers, improve team health, and evangelize the team’s work.

While “management” isn’t part of a design lead’s responsibilities, “leadership” is. A good design lead makes everyone around them better.

Leaders rise by lifting others.

Thanks for reading ✌️

Thanks to Paolo, Beth, and Sara for reading early versions of this article.