This article is based on a talk my twin sister, Yunan, and I gave on “Growth as Designers” at the UX+ conference in Manila. Since then, we’ve referenced the talk multiple times with people around us. We’re turning it into this written format so we can share it with more people and start more discussions.
Before we get into it, here’s our background: We are identical twin sisters. We finished our undergraduate in Graphic Design in 2017 and since then,
In the beginning, as new-grad designers, we were green and hungry. We knew nothing, so everything was new and cool to us. We hadn’t yet realized that we “should” be thinking about promotions or careers. We looked up to the people around us and tried our best to do what we were told to do.
Well, we didn’t care about promotions… until we did.
Our mentors and managers, out of best intentions, explained to us how to succeed in the companies. They ask us “What are your goals?” We hear people talk about performance reviews and promotions all the time. We started to care and compare. We started to have goals — climb the ladder.
It surely felt great in the beginning when we got promoted. But, like many other designers, as we approached the “Design Lead” (or “Staff Designer”) role, we weren’t sure what was next.
We were at a crossroads. Should we…
What was more troubling was “Is this it? Do we continue to climb the ladder, until…when?”
Transitioning to be a PM is becoming a more popular consideration for designers recently, especially for designers who work on products that are light on user interfaces. This was the case for Yunan. After working on Meta’s Ads product for 5+ years, she found herself less and less interested in creating UIs and more curious about product strategies.
There were many factors that went into her eventual transition. If you are interested in reading about her transition process, read her article here. In this article though, we will focus on what we learned after her transition.
Let us explain.
Before her transition, as “Design Leads” at Meta, (we are ashamed to say this now) we thought we were so senior that we knew pretty much everything about design; we thought pixel pushing was not worthy of our time; and we thought we get to choose what skills we contribute to our projects… you get the point.
The thing is, our mind was so narrow. We were interpreting our job and ladder descriptions in the most narrow way. We saw boxes and boundaries between different types of designers and different functions.
But, once Yunan started to prepare for her transition to be a PM, her mindset changed. She was a beginner again. She started reading, thinking, reaching out to people, asking questions and questioning things she thought she knew.
Most importantly, she started to think “What skills does she really need to build good things?” And she realised she knew so little.
Or, to sound smarter, we experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect:
Back in college, we had big dreams. Like many others, we looked up to designer CEOs like Brian Chesky of Airbnb.
Working at Google and Meta, time flew by faster than we realised. After focusing on climbing the design career ladder for years, we had unwittingly internalised a narrow self-identity. We had stopped thinking that our ambitions could ever be bigger than “Designer at <Company>” (but we wouldn’t have admitted it out loud if you’d asked us then)
Yunan transitioning to a PM role reminded us that there’s so much more to learn. There’s so much more that we can do and can be.
The sky is still the limit.
It reminded us to think much deeper about:
So, below are our current thoughts.
For us, it’s because we like creating things. From sewing clothes for our dolls when we were young, to drawing and painting in school, to now designing digital products, what we create change and how we create change, but we know creating something out of nothing is always what we enjoy the most.
What’s your answer?
For us, once we are clear that creating things is what excites us, then we can think about how to create and build better.
Let’s zoom out to the basics.
A great, sustainable product needs to be:
To achieve that, different skills are needed.
Or, we can imagine a “connected brain” for the product team. Each person on the team contributes different parts to the brain.
Different products need different skills. Also, the skills needed change throughout the product development circle.
So, what does this have to do with designer growth?
Product needs differ, so the skills we contribute need to differ too. Those who stick to a static job description, and stay within the artificial boundaries of one job function will reach their limits quickly.
With that in mind, here are 3 different ways for designers to grow:
If we zoom into the design section of the brain, we can see there are usually different types of design skills needed. For example, system thinking, product thinking, visual, interaction and prototyping skills.
Unless a designer is super senior and experienced (which most of us aren’t), there are usually some gaps in a designer’s skills. For example, in my case, it could be visual design and prototyping:
The problem oftentimes, is even when a product needs certain design skills, some designers may not realise or be willing to grow these skills to make sure the product is high quality.
In my case, there were times when I resisted to grow my visual and prototyping skills. Why? Because early on, in my career, I was repeatedly told: “Design isn’t about pixels…”; “Function over form…”; “Product thinking and system thinking are required at higher levels…” So I associated visual design and prototyping with junior roles.
But what I have realised is that:
What we have also noticed is that the ones who continue to progress beyond “Design Leads” are the ones who are the most versatile. When needed, they will get their hands dirty, and create whatever designs their team needs.
Here’s a diagram:
So, one way for designers to grow is to perfect their expertise in design. There may be fewer design roles available on the market right now, but those who have the patience and determination to be the best will stand out.
What matters is to focus on the product outcome. If the team needs more visual skills, provide more. If the team needs more prototyping skills, provide more. No skill or work is beneath anyone if the goal is to build the best products possible.
Building a solid foundation in design is important, but there are limits.
The design leader, John Maeda, said back in 2019:
Our interpretation of the article is that designers shouldn’t try to push for “design” and “design-led approach” regardless of the product’s needs and context.
For example, if a designer is staffed on a team where other functions don’t spend much time discussing the UIs and interactions (e.g. Ads products).
One way for the designer to react is to feel that design isn’t valued. They may go “fight for a seat at the table” by trying to educate the other functions about users, quality and craft.
But a more valuable way for the designer to react is to go much deeper — understand why “design” isn’t prioritised, and what is the key to the product’s success. For example, what’s more important might be the machine learning algorithm.
Then, the meaningful thing for the designers to do is to educate themselves about these algorithms and be creative in how they contribute. They can use their “design thinking” in completely new ways to help design the algorithms, rather than fighting for the traditional UI or interaction designs to be prioritised.
Again, the key is to focus on the outcome and gain whatever skills are needed to achieve that. Job functions are artificial and always changing. No one knows what future job functions will be like. But this much is clear, the ones who are the most versatile will prevail.
Building better digital products is exciting, but what about building even bigger things — a team, a business, or a new way of living?
The unique skills we designers have are never “creating beautiful UIs”, but “finding problems and solving them in effective and creative ways”. So, what if we take those skills and apply them to much much bigger things?
Like many designers, we are huge fans of Julie Zhuo! She recently published an article on “Higher level design” (much of our content was inspired by her writings). She wrote:
My friends, to escape from the shackles of role definitions, we must pursue higher-level design.
High-level design means not limiting yourself to activities you do but rather outcomes you’d like to influence.
It means growing the scale of your ambitions on those outcomes. Maybe you start off designing a screen that converts, then a feature that enables, then an app that retains, then an experience that delights, then a business that sustains, then a way of life that fulfills. Maybe you design a way to change the world and it’s real and meaningful in the way you intended, not just some corporate jingo.
Isn’t that inspiring!?
We feel more excited than ever to expand our ambitions, learn more, and aspire to design and build much bigger things.
AI will 1000% make some of our current work irrelevant. But isn’t it great if we no longer need to do the very tedious and repetitive work? For example, if we no longer need to turn a screenshot into a Figma mock?
We are optimists, so we believe new technology will empower us to do better and bigger things:
Today, product teams are divided into many different functions — product management, development, design, content, research, marketing, data science, and more.
In the future, as tools get better, if anyone can code easily, design effortlessly, understand data effectively, and get user insights quickly, then maybe we will no longer need specialized functions, and we just need one “product person”? (not a Product Manager, but someone who can actually do all the work)
No one knows how the future is going to be, but what is clear is that tools will continue to be better. Repetitive and easy work will be done in less and less time.
Changes will happen regardless if you are paying attention, or if you are taking part in it.
Here’s a quote from the computer pioneer, Alan Kay for extra inspiration:
It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.
We’ve had many new designers ask us “Is UX dead?”, “Is it still a good time to be a UX designer?” So, we want to share thoughts on this question too.
No. It’s not a bad time at all!
Sure, competition is tough, and demand is lower than in previous years.
But, the wave of AI is presenting us with a new opportunity to redefine human-machine interactions. The job title “UX” may change, but human-machine interaction is and will always be an emerging field.
As long as there are people creating new technology, someone needs to “design” how the new technology can be used by humans.
So far, designing for AI is still very much on the surface level. To truly innovate and harness the power of this new technology, we designers have a long way to go. We need to go much deeper into the technology layer, to speak machines, and then rethink the machines.
For those who are on the fence about whether or not to get into UX, we would say, this is an amazing time to become the next wave of UX designers. Job titles and descriptions may change, tools may change and what you do may be different from UX designers of now, but this is a new opportunity.
That’s what we have to say about designer growth.
It’s us sharing our excitement about the endless things we can all be learning and doing. It’s a reminder to say “the sky is still the limit”.
We, designers, are builders and dreamers. Let’s not limit ourselves to a narrow definition of “design”. Let’s deepen our expertise, broaden our focus, learn and leverage technological changes, so we can invent the future together.
We will end with a Meta slogan (it’s cliche, but it sums it all up so well):