When working on teams with multiple designers (or any other profession, really) it can often be confusing to understand why some are considered senior and some are junior. Those who are just starting out in their careers want to look up to their seniors. However, when you’ve already had a few years under your belt, you might start having questions.
Why am I still here? How can I move up?
What makes others senior?
Is the grass really greener if I climb that ladder?
After your first 5 years of professional experience, it becomes much harder to discriminate based the number of years under your belt. Everyone learns at a different pace, and takes different roads in life. When it comes to seniority, part of it really all comes down to how much responsibility you choose to take on and how accountable you are willing to be for your errors.
With great power comes great responsibility.
The other part involves having the humility to help people within your field grow. This is often a harder path to realize as it comes with a deep understanding of how much you know and what you can really offer to your peers.Let me now share a bit from my journey. Hopefully, it will help you understand where you are is a reflection of your choices, and how much you learned in life.
Let me now share a bit from my journey. Hopefully, it will help you understand where you are is a reflection of your choices, and how much you learned in life.
After my first year of College in 2003, I sent an email to a few senior designers asking for a coffee date to gain some solid career advice. Weeks went by. None of them returned my emails. Perhaps they thought I was their competition since that’s what they teach you in College. It was a mean world. I thought, If that’s how it is, I’ll just hoard my knowledge too and develop a thick skin.
By graduation in 2005, I found a job at my second startup marketing agency whose goal was to serve the small to medium-sized business market. It was primarily two of us: the President/Hustler/Sales/Legal/Operations person and I. We did have other contractors come and go as well depending on our scaling needs.
When I started, the President offered the best advice ever:
“Janis, you can be whatever you want to be, just be prepared to take on the responsibility for that title.”
So, I, in my glorified understanding of the Graphic Design field, having just graduated from college a few months earlier, felt that maybe I can handle being a Creative Director. My role became Creative Director/Printer Relationship Manager/Graphic Designer/Production-worker/Client Support/etc… You get the picture. I was the in-house creative team. I was the nexus between client, company, and supplier. I worked on everything from the visual branding of internal materials to showcasing my work as a client-facing member of the team.Being young and ambitious, there couldn’t have been more of a trial-by-fire opportunity to learn
Being young and ambitious, there couldn’t have been more of a trial-by-fire opportunity to learn than working at a young and scrappy start-up.
It was an incredible hustle. There were lots of opportunities to stretch out and try different things. Some moments were painful such as staying late on the production of promotional packaging, and some were amazing like seeing the client’s face light up when they first see their new brand.
I learned to be resourceful. If something’s not quite right, you make it happen for yourself. In those days, working at a startup meant no coffee machines, no beanbag chairs, barely any furniture, though we did eventually get desks and a sofa. We had no frills from fancy budgets.
It was a great opportunity but at the same time a lot of work. Many of the learnings from this experience carried me through years as a solo designer from roles in Graphic Design to UX. I learned that the more established the company was, the less there was to be responsible for. It made me incredibly docile and lazy.
I had no desire to move into leadership, and an extremely narrow perception about what it meant to be a manager. I thought it was just about operational responsibilities and working with difficult people. It sounded like more work.
One day, I started a UX role working with a team of other designers. It was a fantastic company. We had an extremely flat hierarchy but as the company grew, definitions were put in place and I was classified as an Intermediate Designer.
Honestly, this aggravated me, considering my number of years of experience and the types of projects I was able to handle, but I took some time to reflect on my feelings. At my current level as an Intermediate, I could still make mistakes without any real consequences.
For most, this may be a fantastic place to be because of the job security. For me, it was finally the realization that I wanted more.
I started to really consider the pathway to leadership and what it meant for me. Experience told me that if I wanted to really become Senior and flex some leadership skills, I simply had to start. It’s not usually something that is just handed onto one’s lap.
I wanted to be Senior so that I can:
- Do better than my predecessors by responding to coffee-date emails from those who are just started out;
- Share my knowledge altruistically because it is personally fulfilling and not simply as a quick way to advance my career;
- Just feel good inside about helping others, not because it’s a lot of work;
- Leverage all the tips I’ve passed onto my former managers when I managed up.
Despite what my old College profs taught me, I started to share my knowledge and mentor others. I discovered a love to help them grow. I connected with everyone learning UX in the various communities and their Slack channels. I started writing Medium articles that (hopefully) are meaningful and relatable.
No pay it forward mentality here. Just doing it because it feels right.
In the end, I realized that being senior and displaying leadership skills is really about coaching others, both above and below. And, in turn, learning from them. There’s always something new for people of all stages of their career.
One day I might find myself with a team under me, all of whom I’ll really need to be there for. I’ll help foster their skills development and self-confidence so I can stand by their decisions. Leadership roles are not about working with difficult people, it’s about building a team that you trust.
It takes a lot of humility to be a leader, not just the hustle. The path to leadership, therefore, is not about knowing all the answers, it’s about knowing how to figure them out. Being a doer.
So, the next time you are contemplating moving up in your role, think about what it means for you to go there. At the end of the day, you choose your level when you choose your title and must accept all that it really means.
It is your choice, after all.