Becoming a design leader vs becoming a design expert?
May 8, 2023
As UX designers grow and gain more experience, they may be offered an opportunity to ‘step up’ into leadership and take on other responsibilities outside of their day-to-day design. Many of us consider this the natural progression, maybe there is another way to keep excelling? In this article, we will discuss the both paths, their merits and drawbacks - so sit tight!
To lead or not to lead
Firstly, becoming a design leader is an excellent choice for UX designers who enjoy managing teams and projects. Design leaders have a unique role in overseeing the design process from beginning to end. In order to do so they must have excellent communication skills as they will be working, on the regular, with clients, stakeholders, recruitment, and members of the their design team to ensure that the product aligns with the business objectives while meeting user needs.
To be an effective design leader, one must have a strong designer (naturally) and have excellent communication and leadership skills to manage and inspire their teams. Design leaders are responsible for providing direction, guidance, and feedback to their team members to ensure that the product meets the desired outcome.
One of the most significant benefits of becoming a design leader is the potential for career growth. Design leaders have the opportunity to advance to executive positions, such as Chief Design Officer or VP of Design. Even they wanted to also, they could take on further challenges by leading a cross-functional teams or working with international clients. Many design leaders absolutely love their positions, finding the opportunity of working closely with others and leading from the front incredibly rewarding.
However, becoming a design leader is not without its caveats and may not be for everyone. Many of us prefer to focus on their craft and prefer working on design projects rather than managing teams, dealing with recruitment, or labor-intensive stakeholders. Also, transitioning to a design leader is no piece of cake. Depending on how well assisted the leadership infrastructure is at your company, taking on new roles and responsibilities may also bring with it increased stress and pressure, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines and managing client expectations — especially if your old duties still remain.
Are you made to manage?
It is also important to note that as design leaders take on more managerial responsibilities, they may have less time to be in the details and use the tools that drew them to design in the first place. Depending on your ‘design style’, some designers may struggle to take a step back and let their team take the reins. I know personally, stories of design managers re-doing work in secret without discussing it beforehand. Having seen how demoralising that is to the designer who put in the effort in the first struck me hard so errr – try not to do that. If you could imagine yourself doing this then maybe - just maybe - the leadership route is not for you.
But don’t despair! There are other options, for example, to remain an individual contributor but max out on being an industry expert - being at the top of your game. Naturally, your level of responsibility within a company will always increase but these will be focused on projects responsibilities vs getting bogged down in the sticky subject of people management. With additional time to your name, you can continue more and more to develop your craft, hone your skills, and explore new design methodologies and ways of working. And remember, a highly-skilled individual can raise the bar for the whole team and therefore is an incredibly valuable asset for any company – regardless of whether they choose to go by name leader or not.
Becoming an industry leader
Design experts are typically designers with a deep understanding of the industry and design principles. They should be passionate about their craft and have a drive to continuously learn, and improve, and share their knowledge with others . Industry experts often specialize in specific areas, such as user research, information architecture, or interaction design.
One of the most significant benefits of becoming an industry expert is the ability to become highly-specialized in a particular niche (or even multiple niches for the super-talented). They can develop a unique skill set that sets them apart from your everyday designer which brings along with it higher salaries and more creative freedom. Design experts also have the potential to become influencers and thought leaders in the industry, which can open new doors to new opportunities, challenges, and collaborations.
However, it may sound ‘rosey’ but becoming an design expert as an individual contributor may limit career growth opportunities. Without stepping up into leadership, experts will not be able to direct the ship themselves and have greater control on what the product becomes — although their voice and opinion will always carry value.
In the end, both paths have their merits and drawbacks, and it ultimately depends on your goals, skills, and aspirations. Becoming a design leader offers potential for career growth and the opportunity to manage teams and projects. Becoming an design expert offers the ability to become highly specialized in a particular area and become an influencer in the industry. Ultimately, UX designers should consider their own strengths and interests before choosing a career path. It is essential to remember that there is no right or wrong path and the correct decision is dependant on which role that feels the most rewarding to you personally in terms of growth and fulfilment.
At HATCH Conference, we'll be exploring the topic of leadership in-depth who will be providing insights through a series of talks, workshops, and masterclasses! HATCH Conference in Berlin is currently sold out but sign up to our waiting list to give yourself a chance to join us and 300+ other influential designers. More info in https://www.hatchconference.com