6 tips for taking ownership of your design career

By Isaak Hayes
7 min read
November 19, 2020
6 Tips for Taking Ownership of Your Design Career


Working in design is one thing — building a fulfilling design career is another. So how do you do that?

For the greater part of my career as a product designer, I have been deeply committed to mentoring and sharing insights with those who do not have equal opportunity and access to the tech world. These days, mentoring is all virtual, obviously, but it is possible. As you might expect, my recent conversations have been less focused on long-term career management and more on burnout and isolation.

Of course, everyone is feeling stressed right now in one way or another. However, for designers in particular, I have found that defining who you are as a designer unlocks your awareness, focus and authenticity, mitigating burnout in the long term.

Here are six tips for designers who are ready to take ownership of their careers in order to achieve their personal and career goals.

1. Define yourself

Who are you as a designer? How do you work? What should people know about you? If you have ever interviewed to work as a designer, you can recall the interview prep you did. You probably spent time on a presentation deck and defined your design process. You may even have illustrated your strengths and values as a designer.

My guess is that for most of us, the things we said were learned from school, articles, former jobs and other experiences, but they were not actually our own views — and do not paint an accurate picture of who we are. Assuming safety and inclusion are possible in your workplace, and if it is your goal to have authentic and fulfilling relationships with others, you need to be able to say who you are.

I recommend creating a designer profile so you can build self-awareness and self-ownership. You can share this profile with anyone you have a meaningful work relationship with. Doing so allows them — and you — to know what to expect from you.

Start by describing what you do and what you are passionate about in your career. Next, talk about the things that make you happy during the work day. Try defining some things that delight you about design, your job or your life in general. Explain your personal mission and what drives you.

Paint a picture of your working style, your process and your style of learning. Describe your impact on your teams and colleagues, and talk about why others enjoy working with you. Summarize the work projects and passion projects you’ve loved, those you’re working on currently and those you hope to take on in the future.

Finally, specify your communication style and call out the improvements you’re working on making. I’m still evolving my own designer profile and consider it a flexible exercise. In fact, I frequently revisit it because I copy and paste certain parts when I introduce myself to new teammates. Sharing the entire thing all at once feels a little vulnerable to me, but it’s linked in my internal profile, should anyone care to read it.

2. Be open to feedback

As long as we as product designers try to prove how smart, bold, witty and innovative we are, we risk losing humility and our ability to be authentic. Designers are always getting critiqued one way or another, so it’s crucial that we get used to hearing challenging feedback.

At Facebook, we frequently present our work to product teams, colleagues and managers, each time opening ourselves to comments and judgments. It is easy to dismiss feedback and argue why we are right or have more background than the other person — and we may even be correct. But what does this achieve?

It took me a long time and a lot of hurt feelings to get used to feedback. Critique was a competition in my mind, a way to prove how much effort I had put into a solution. The way I recognized and changed this habit was in part due to a previous manager, who pointed out a specific defensive moment of mine. They let me know that the people giving me feedback were not attacking me; they were trying to support me.

After I reflected on this feedback, I came up with a strategy: I presented my work as though I was not the person who designed it. And it worked! My language was different. My body was relaxed. I was able to ask the room questions without being on the defense.

I also educated myself by reading up about the concept of “feedback is a gift,” and I started to see honest feedback as a sign of care. In this imagining, passive feedback is harmful and shows a lack of care. Even in cases when I knew the feedback I was receiving was wrong, thinking of it as a gift allowed me to address it calmly and guide the conversation back in the right direction.

3. Practice self-care

We designers can problem-solve our way out of hard positions. We can run a design sprint, create a new vision or plan a new app. What if we put the same energy into solving non-design problems that we put into managing our careers?

Product designers spend as much time designing as we do dealing with people, which can sometimes feel heavy and burdensome. Self-care is so important. If you don’t have a trusted manager or close design friends to talk to, make sure you’re getting help elsewhere, whether that is coaching, mentoring, therapy, long bike rides or something else that fills your bucket.

Personally, I’m much more likely to ask for help and lobby for everyone except myself, which has sometimes left me anxious, isolated and burned out. It’s super-important to stay mentally sharp, especially now, when the world can feel upside down.

4. Have accountability buddies

In my experience, mentors are like cats. When I’ve sought out specific mentors, I had to do a lot of coaxing to get them to respond. On the other hand, some of my best mentors adopted me without my knowledge as to why. Mentors are important, but in their absence I tend to rely more on accountability buddies.

Accountability buddies are people I work with or who know me professionally whom I can ask for specific feedback. I seek out different accountability buddies depending on the situation. For example, if I want feedback on how I am performing, I ask a person who is in weekly meetings with me. For more conceptual or mind-set feedback, I’ll ask someone whose viewpoints I really jibe with. It doesn’t have to be formal — it can be as simple as sending a chat message to a colleague after a meeting.

I usually ask my accountability buddy questions about one subject to keep it light and focused. Sometimes I will ask engineers on my team how my communication and delivery was on a project. Sometimes I will ask fellow designers how a recent critique went. By regularly asking questions, I am able to build trust with my accountability buddies and ultimately receive more honest responses.

As you open up to your accountability buddy, you might want to ask them if they have areas that they are working on. Keep it low pressure. It may take some time before they solicit your feedback on something, and don’t be offended if they never ask for it.

A word of caution: Feedback requires consent, otherwise you can damage the relationship. Do not volunteer criticism on unsuspecting colleagues and expect them to thank you.

5. Uncover others’ goals and values

It’s rare that a company’s values, team mission and other HR documentation are able to help with day-to-day tasks or conflicts. To prevent disagreements and address alignment issues, I focus on understanding the goals and values of my peers.

How do I know their goals if they are hidden? I ask! And you can, too. Start by inviting teammates, product partners, stakeholders and managers to meet one on one. Ask them what they value. Ask them what their goals are and what success looks like for them. Find out how you can support them and how they prefer to receive feedback. Essentially, reverse the process of creating your own design profile. Ask the same questions of them that you considered for yourself.

When I do this, I assure them that I’m not trying to be irritating; I just want to do everything possible to make it easier for me to work with them and vice versa.

By the way, it is never too late to have this talk. If you and your engineer had a rough patch on a recent project, this is a perfect opportunity to have a quick check-in. Examine where there’s a mismatch in your goals and perceptions so it will be easier to know what to look out for in the future.

6. Generate your own career goals

It’s essential that you create goals that are aligned to who you are and where you want to go. There are a ton of articles on how to start your design career, creating realistic design processes, designing better career paths for designers, learning and adapting throughout your career, setting design goals and more. But how do you know which ones to focus on?

Once you have your design profile, pull out goals based on what you are focused on, your mission, how you impact your teams and colleagues, your working style, your passion projects and things that you are trying to improve on.

Perhaps your goal is to communicate to people what you are good at so they can stop asking you to do things you don’t enjoy. That’s a self-promotion goal that also helps with better professional relationships. Crystallize your goals and communicate them to others. Doing so will help you be the you that you are meant to be as a designer and a person.

Honor your values

You may be lucky enough to find great managers, mentors and colleagues to help you on your journey, but you must be the one to take the journey.

Whether you want to be an all-star designer, chill in your current role, become a manager or move in a new career direction, what is important is that it be meaningful to you, valuable to you. I value integrity, honesty, authenticity, passion and creativity, and these values fuel me as I work toward the next step in my career. I hope hearing about my design journey can help you navigate yours.

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