What is career success in design?

That’s a damn good (and difficult) question!

success-cat.jpeg

Are we successful when we make hundreds of thousands of dollars to design icons all day? Umm, no… probably not. According to nearly every designer that I’ve ever personally met. We want a living wage, yes, but we’re not in this field to roll in dollar bills.

To decide if you’re successful, it depends on how you think of your “design” role. A framework like jobcareer and calling is a decent place to start:

  • Job people see work as a means to an end, a necessity for affording things in life.
  • Career people want to move upward and achieve social standing.
  • Calling people consider their work a meaningful form of self-expression that is integral to their life.

Every designer and researcher I know would shout from the rooftops that design is their calling that they can’t imagine doing anything else. When I reflect on where I stand, I want to say design is my calling too. But am I an asshole for wanting some career success and standing, too?

“Success” is a loaded word; weighed down with fame, wealth and social status. Successful people are the ones who win a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award or have been profiled in Vogue as “Apple’s Design Genius”.

Like any person, I do want to be acknowledged and hear that my efforts were worth it — though I haven’t reached that level of fame (or maybe ever?)

If you go back to the Oxford English Dictionary 🤓, the primary definition of success isn’t quite so focused on material goods:

success
“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”

Obviously, other definitions touch on the fame part. But the most frequent use of the word has to do with meeting a purpose or goal. I’ve learned slowly over my career that I can’t get hung up on traditional success 💰🏆💰

The truth is:
I am successful if I have moments of feeling accomplished,
even if validation comes from no one else.

In the face of Dribbble and Instagram, it’s easy to feel like a loser if there aren’t enough likes or applause or famous companies like Facebook, Lyft and SpaceX knocking down your door. But maybe, you’ve already reached success because you want to share.

My story of success

I’ve been working in design professionally for 12 years. As a young whippersnapper, I came to work everyday wanting to create compelling artifacts that were both beautiful and functional. The tech magazine I was designing was not just going to look good, but also facilitate learning and respect the rich content within.

Success in this universe meant I created artifacts that looked “designy” and were easily readable. Thankfully, I was good enough that no tragic failures or angry, disillusioned customers plagued me.

Over time, I shifted from one job title to another: from graphic designer to online editor to interaction/service designer. I didn’t see it as abandoning one form of design for another, but instead a shift in my focus from execution to strategy. I made that shift with the idea that I wanted to make sure my companies were making the right artifacts for the right audience with the right purpose.

One of the main reasons I love being an designer is that my job is to ask (and, ultimately, answer) challenging questions about purpose and goals.

I feel most successful these days when my client and I have a mind-meld on the vision, or when my questions lead to the response “oh, that’s not right. Let me explain this another way” or “good points, we hadn’t thought about before”.

Being successful isn’t about feeling more clever or getting everything right; it’s about achieving and having a process for thoughtful design. I want to be recognized for bringing something valuable to the table — “did I contribute more than Sketch files?”

As I look ahead to what gets me really pumped, I’m shifting from doer to leader (sorry that’s so cheesy 😜). I’ve worked in a lot of different products, media, even regions; thankfully, design is a field that loves to reinvent itself, so I know there’s always more to learn about. But, I still find myself drawn to mentoring and speaking up for others. I’m making this shift with the idea that I want to do everything I can to support a positive design environment and rigorous design conversation. I want designers around me to feel like they also contribute more than just Sketch files.

Questions for measuring “success”

But, how do I know whether I’m successful at supporting a positive design environment and rigorous design conversation? I don’t do a big goal setting practices, but I do smaller check-ins at key moments in my journey.

Today, my journey is very hinged on client and internal projects, so at the start of a project, during milestones and when it’s over I use these questions to determine if I’m accomplishing what I hope to.

Before

  1. What is my purpose in taking this project? This job? This approach?
    There’s this concept of the 5 Whys which I love for unpacking this question.
  2. What’s the ideal scenario here?
    If all goes well, what happens? Who benefits from this outcome: you, users, your career, your love life?

During

  1. In my next meeting or interaction, what’s the thing I want to happen?
    Do you need something tactical to keep the project on schedule? Or, are you changing hearts, minds and attitudes to get somewhere?
  2. How is this going? Am I on track to that purpose or thing I want?
    Going “backwards” is never going backwards; it’s an important piece of data to know that assumptions were wrong or the timing wasn’t right or maybe you weren’t so realistic.
  3. Have you tried multiple angles?
    Life is iterative and full of variety. Why would there only be one way to accomplish something?

After

  1. Did you get that thing to happen (During Question 1)?
    Be honest with yourself about how things turned out. There’s good and bad to everything, you just have to give yourself time to think about it.
  2. What did you learn (tactically? About yourself? About this context?) in the process?
    While the phrase “growth mindset” is trendy at the moment, it’s describing a pretty fundamental human quality.
  3. Do you want to do that again? Could you do that again?
    Even if things turned out well, knowing if you’d put yourself through it again tells you how you want to use your energy. Don’t put energy into stuff that you don’t care to accomplish; because then the “success” won’t mean anything to you.