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How To Go From Junior Designer To Chief Design Officer

A savvy designer should treat his or her career like a design problem. Here’s how.

As design school grads launch into their chosen professions, it’s a good time of year to remind all design professionals that your career is the one design project that you control. There is no single right path, no single right direction. There is an array of options, and the choice is entirely up to you. But keep in mind that designers can take on important leadership roles in all types of companies.

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Just consider the dazzling career trajectories of the following industrial design grads. Mark Parker started as a footwear designer and is now the CEO of Nike. Designer Bob Schwartz became the General Manager of Global Design for GE after heading up the Industrial Designers Society of America. Mauro Porcini, a long-time designer at 3M, became a SVP Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo. In the tech world, Jonathan Ive joined Apple as a young designer in 1992—his second job following a stint at Tangerine in London—and the rest is history. Meanwhile, Steve Kaneko was designing the mouse at Microsoft, ultimately becoming Director of UX Design for the company.

But other industrial designers successfully forged very different paths. Nathan Shedroff, designer turned entrepreneur, now leads California College of Art’s MBA Design Strategy program. Former IDSA chief Cooper Woodring has gone on to become an expert witness in design patent litigation. Brian Cheskey, a RISD alum, co-founded and is CEO of Airbnb.

And what about former visual and communication design students? David Butler is now the VP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola. Dana Arnett became the CEO of VSA Partners. Kate Aronowitz rose to the Director of Design at Facebook (and has since joined a finance startup), and Shelley Evenson became Director of Organizational Evolution at Fjord.

What’s your own professional destination, and how will you get there? To answer that question, a savvy designer might apply design-thinking methods to his or her career and treat it like a design problem. Here are a few challenges that might arise between your first job and your dream job.

Design Problem #1: You Don’t Have a Direction
What should guide you in career planning above all is your passion. Ask yourself these questions: What do you believe in? What values influence your work? What is your vision for the future, what do you want to be known for in three years, in five years?

There is nothing like contextual, user-centered research, even in career planning. Find two or three mentors and explore alternative design careers from their perspective. By shadowing and consulting with others you will learn more about yourself, which can help you decide what direction you want to go. For example, at one point in my career, I decided to shift from visual design to either product design or architecture. I couldn’t decide which until I shadowed an architect, a stint that made it very clear that architecture wasn’t for me. A new path only becomes clear if you are in motion, so break down the goals into bite size projects and get started.

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Design Problem #2: You’re Not a Manager
In a corporate setting, usually advancement goes something like this: designer to senior designer to design manager to design director. The typical career progression for designers requires getting into management, but what if you’re not the manager type? You can let your career stall, or find another career path by becoming a niche design expert.

Defining a niche is a tougher road with fewer opportunities and less compensation, but you have a much better chance of designing all day. Positions at Lego, P&G, Microsoft, GE, Mars and Philips are all companies that have a track for top designers to advance in non-management positions. The trick is to get on the “fellow” track (designer, senior designer, chief designer, then design fellow). Examples of these types of fellow positions are Bill Buxton, “principal researcher” at Microsoft, or Lawrence Murphy, Chief of Global Design at GE Healthcare.

To be clear, in most companies it is almost impossible to both advance your career and receive significantly higher compensation without becoming a manager. Exceptions are semi-manager roles, still leading a design organization but as a creative without all the baggage of managing the people, process, and budgets. Titles like “Concept Creator,” “Top Designer,” or “Creative Guru”—high pay-grade roles focused on inspiration, design, and challenging the status quo—sound like great fun but are extremely rare.

Design Problem #3: Stiff Competition
You’ve got to be on top of your game, because there are many designers out there who all want a piece of the action. In the U.S., 69 schools offer degrees in industrial design, but in China, there are 866 industrial design schools with about 50,000 graduates every year. (And there are even more graduates in visual design.) The competition for design jobs has become global.

And don’t forget, there is competition from non-designers too: the first global VP of Design for P&G, Claudia Kotchka, started out as an accountant; Bill Grant, the President of Grant Design, majored in English and psychology; Stanley Hainsworth, who has held top design leadership jobs at Nike, Lego and Starbucks, started out as an actor; and Boris Anthony, head of Experience at Nokia, studied linguistics.

Design Problem #4: A Shifting Design Landscape
The role of designers and design leaders is also changing fast, and becoming more complicated as the need to integrate all touch points increases (product design, UX design, service design and customer experience). For example, who “owns” UX, a UX designer or a technologist? Who owns experience, a designer or a customer service pro? Who owns service design?

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Can future design leaders really design their careers in such a volatile landscape? The answer is yes, for a couple of reasons. First, great design is needed by every company in the world today in order to compete, so designers are in high demand. Second, designers are experts at problem-solving, so when you encounter a challenge on your way to being Chief Design Officer, take a step back and then design your way through it.

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About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.

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