Design career path schematic

The other day I met with my boss to discuss my “career plan” going forward. Snooze, right? Could easily descend into a boring corporate dialogue, filled with trite, empty jargon and eye-rolling acronyms…blah.

However, being a veteran of such drab contexts, I walked in fully prepared, focused on a substantive discussion, by presenting a simple yet powerful schematic that summarizes key “vectors of influence” which I see myself pursuing in an aggregative fashion over time, enabling me to gain valuable lessons and develop my repertoire as a design leader…not just in my current workplace, but also in the field at-large, applicable to a variety of contexts. Because in the end your career is what you make of it, and how you see yourself become what you seek. (sounds so Zen doesn’t it? ;-) What was this schematic and what are its core elements? Well, I’m happy to share, as I don’t believe it’s something to be withheld, but instead propagated to help other budding design leaders.

Career schematic 2012


This schematic is based upon the infamous “cross of pain” diagrams at Carnegie Mellon in Dick Buchanan’s Grad Seminar back in the day. The centerpiece at the heart is “influence”, in terms of shaping and guiding impact regarding problems & opportunities as a principal designer. As my first industry mentor once said to me, “Uday, what you need is influence. That’s the key to success as a designer.” It’s basically a rhetorical concept, in terms of applying language and perception towards advancing your aims in support of a beneficial goal for the team or company or the market. Influence is about framing and guiding, activities grounded in humanistic principles, not mere slick snake-oil manipulation (i.e., sophistry) but of progress, delight, and craft. Change for the better! Who doesn’t want to achieve that…it’s the essence of design itself.

So from influence, what are the vectors? Four simple yet major areas of impact within a company context (and applicable to agency or consulting situations as well), as described below:


Vision: What’s that beautifully articulated noble, magnanimous, ambitious concept of where we are headed as a company? What are the product or service design “moon shot” concepts, typically next-generation ideas, that push us further as a team, and help advance the company, even industry and society? What’s truly disruptive and game-changing that you are passionately enabling? How are you impacting that with workshops, brainstorms, prototypes, with emphasis on executive involvement? To be a design leader you’ve got to enable powerful visions of what can be, not jus incremental fixing existing pains…but leapfrogging and anticipating tomorrow’s potential.


Culture: How are you impacting and evolving the norms, values, principles, and general ethos that defines a team, department, and company overall…by virtue of your advocacy, evangelism, outreach activities, thought leadership outputs (books, articles, talks, classes), and training efforts. Are you making a mark in defining what kind of place this company is in terms of design excellence and the value of those efforts for the company-at-large, for non-designers like HR, IT, Finance, Legal, Sales, etc. To be a design leader you should be constantly nurturing and advancing the cultural design-oriented vibe of a place, whether it’s in-house design or an agency or even your client. Always be fostering design-mindfulness.


Strategy: Oh strategy…Such a nebulous and buzzwordy notion! But at the end of the day it comes down to a systematic, thoughtful articulation of how design is applied in multiple areas of the business in interdependent, integrative fashion, from products to marketing, services to branding to hiring. How is design manifested as a strategic conversation of deliberative intentions, versus a temporary policy of adherence and policing. And as a design leader, are you instigating, guiding, and resolving critical conversations with the highest visiblity stakeholders (i.e., executives) or simply reacting to short-order requests? Are you being proactive and anticipating “big picture” decision-points with multifaceted rationale (humanistic, technological, financial, etc.)?


Process: Designers love to discuss process, right? Well, this is more than simply speechifying “1-2-3” steps, but also effectively advocating, educating, and evolving processes to support general product & service development in a blended  partnership model, serving as a diplomat and ambassador for doing what’s right, fair, useful, and just…for the business and the customer. To be an effective design leader you gotta be a constant champion for ensuring better ways of collaborating, cooperating, sharing, and delivering powerful innovations.


Hopefully it’s become clear that these four central elements (vision, culture, strategy, process) overlap in many ways; indeed, they must in order for design innovation and progress to be made. That’s why, in my view it makes sense for a design leader to evaluate their contributions and influential impact along these “vectors of impact” and map out a career plan accordingly per these areas. This can help lead to far richer, engaging, insightful, and perhaps challenging conversation with your boss about what you really want to do, and how to mark out a path to get there. They set the beacons for helping to define specific, tangible actions and outcomes that can be itemized and evaluated for personal and professional progress.




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