Where do IC designers go once they peak?

Illustration by Raúl Gil for this article.

The answer is often: to an entirely different role.

This is an unfortunate reality playing out in product companies today, where after a few years those in IC—or "individual contributor”—roles find themselves seemingly stuck.

Stuck in their ability to garner additional responsibility and impact within the organizations they are part of. Stuck in their place on the career ladder, perceiving themselves unable to move higher without having to switch to a different ladder altogether.

I've spent the better part of the last year talking with various designers and design leaders about this "career ladder stickiness” and the situation is confusing at best. What is clear about the current situation is designers in the role of individual contributor feel as though the optimal (or in some cases: the only) way to grow in their career after a point is not to stay the course as an IC, but instead move into the role of formalized leadership. Typically as a design manager or director/head of design at a smaller company.

I've felt this pull myself.

Note: this is understandably not a problem unique to design. IC product managers, researchers, writers, analysts, and engineers find themselves in the same situation. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing solely on product designers.

Common belief at this point is that the only (or best) way to have more impact and readily available influence as a designer is to move into a formalized leadership role, typically a design manager or that of a director or head of design at a smaller company or startup.

This fallacy is highlighted in numerous places, such as this well written article by Josh Taylor, former Director of Design at Evernote:

I see a lot of designers who continue to expand their craft and simultaneously build their muscle for impact. And then a strange thing happens. At some point, many of us are forced to let go of one of the outer layers in order to keep scaling our impact on the world.

Josh explains that as designers progress in their career—as they hunger for more impact from the work they do—the way for them to continue growing is by moving to doing different types of design. Away from product craft and execution and more into team and organizational design.

This shouldn't be the case. I believe the last thing we want to teach designers is that the only way to scale their ability to make an impact on the world is by moving into team or organizational design.

The tangible work done as a designer—the screens and flows, the interaction patterns and project strategies, the ability to create vision and align a team behind it—has the ability to influence and create impact just as much as that of organizational design.

But the two are obviously not the same. Designing a product and designing a team are possibly equally important in terms of the impact they can potentially have, it's just they're focused on different legs of the same chair.

Today we lose many remarkable IC product designers to the management track because it doesn't feel like there's any other way to grow and do meaningful work at-scale. We continuously teach others that people managers have more influence and impact on the world than ICs, partially because the inherent power dynamic of someone who makes design decisions vs someone who makes decisions that directly impact the career of the other person.

Look to the example of Russ Maschmeyer, former designer turned design manager back to product designer at Facebook (and a former manager and mentor of mine), who in his 2017 Leading Design talk There and Back Again states:

I said yes to becoming a manager because I was afraid of losing my opportunity to lead. I bought into this corporate, cultural assumption that moving into management was the only path to leadership in the workplace.

One problem with this perspective is that being an IC product designer is a completely different job than being a design manager or director.

A product designer is ultimately responsible for outputs and quality, while people managers are directly responsible for people and processes in the organization. At least, in a perfect world that would be the case.

Rather than having to move into a management role to become a formally recognized leader, high-level IC designers should be utilized on larger and larger business and product problems.

What this looks like in practice will vary from team to team and business to business, but at it's core it comes down to giving very senior designers the responsibility to make business-level product design decisions, maybe even more than that. Along with the added responsibility: fair treatment alongside their people-managing counter-parts.

This equality matters, because there are many of us who immensely enjoy the tangible output of our work more than we like the idea of helping define career paths, providing opportunities and cover for teammates, or negotiating career pathways for those we work with. The craft of the work itself—the shapes and colors, interactions and flows, ability to clearly communicate a vision and rally a team behind it—is as important as building a team itself.

Part of the challenge I've observed is that these ever-expanding responsibilities for IC designers often overlap with the perceived work of the designer's manager, or the manager's manager.

Either as a result of poor leadership or immature organizational structure, the manager sees their role as being not only to assign tasks and help manager careers, but also to define the quality of the work and single-handedly own product vision and direction. This mental model is a direct conflation of the creative agency legacy, where Creative Directors are accountable for not only the individuals on their team, but the output of that team.

A design manager's energy is better spent overseeing the decisions behind the work setup and managing the teams themselves, unblocking members and bridging gaps across teams, not managing or owning the design output and strategy.

One way I've seen companies try to resolve this issue is by introducing clear levels and roles for designers, assigning new skills and responsibilities to equal levels. This approach sounds great on paper but regularly doesn't translate to the real world. The majority of companies I've spoken to who have introduced these role ranges or levels tend to not even have designers anywhere near the top of the list.

This issue of senior ICs feeling like they have to move away from actual production work isn't going to get resolved simply by adding IC levels with fancy titles for very senior designers.

Labels and titles certainly help the situation—particularly as it relates to internal teams recognizing an individual's responsibilities and experience—but unless those levels actually represent expanded and internally (as well as externally) recognized roles and responsibilities, a nice title and set of skills on a spreadsheet are not going to be enough to pave a pathway for senior ICs.

What might this look like if we lived in a perfect world? How might IC designers continue to feel confident that staying in the role of producing work is a life-long career path?

1. Explicitly clarify manager vs. senior IC responsibilities

Truly senior ICs may need to be in design-focused planning and strategy meetings, sometimes at the highest level. They may need to have more control of the direction of the work than managers may feel comfortable giving them. In either case: company's should define IC career tracks and roles and also explicitly clarify what differentiates those senior IC levels from that of their managerial counterparts. Openly and honestly.

We need professional arcs that decouple design decision making from people management.

— Maxim Leyzerovich (@round) June 4, 2019 When push comes to shove: outline who gets the final say, and why. Overlapping responsibilities between IC and managers is the most prominent issue I've observed, but it's an easy one to resolve by looking at where the line is drawn between people and product on the team.

One new pattern I'm beginning to see is a hybrid role where the individual is responsible for their regular IC work, but also afforded the option to formally support one or two individuals on the team. In some circles this is known as the player-coach model.

2. As an industry, we need to treat senior ICs as equals alongside people managers

Being a "Head of Design” is certainly a different job than being a "Principle Product Designer” and each has unique roles and responsibilities within a team, but both ICs and managers should be treated equally where it makes sense to do so.

In the product design industry we've gone ahead and created this mismatch between how we treat people managers and senior ICs. As Russ—mentioned above—highlights in his Leading Design talk, we often view any step away from management back into designing as a step literally downward:

I committed what some might consider a demotion, or career suicide, by going to my manager and asking her if I can just be a designer again.

This is a real problem nobody should have to confront in their career: debating doing what they love and are good at vs. what will get them more clout.

How can we open doors for ICs who are effective at leading and scaling their work? How can we welcome more senior ICs to the conversation around what it means to lead a team or project, to navigate muddy business decisions, to inspire and uplift those around them.

Today there are numerous design events with the message of "leadership” behind them. Conferences like Clearleft's Leading Design and DesignX's Design Leadership. Yet time and time again the only people asked to speak on the stages of these event are formal people managers: directors, managers, heads of design, and VPs.

If we're really going to talk about design leadership let's invite not just people leaders but design leaders. Not just Managers and Heads of Design, but senior designers too. If we're not willing to do that, at least change all of these leadership events to be more honest in how they describe themselves. They're not about "design leadership” they're about "leading designers.” There's a real distinction we—as a collective—have failed to call attention to.

3. Standardizing IC leadership leveling

Titles aren't everything, but they do create a perception around us as individuals and what we're responsible for and what we can bring to the table.

This is a difficult point for many leaders to come to terms with, but after countless conversations with IC peers, it's a reality we must face.

If someone with the title of "Designer” or even "Senior Designer” speaks in a room, they will receive a very different reception to someone with the title of "Head of Design” or "Design Manager.” Simply because the perception is that the designer reports to the other individual, therefore the loftier title has more naturally authority. This is a misconception, a false belief, but it persists in countless organizations. It's difficult to break biases around what someone's title means.

Titles like "People Manager” or "Head of Design” are equally difficult to parse as titles for individual contributors, but formalized leadership titles come with a bit of pre-established understanding even outside a company. We can assume someone with the title "Head of Design” had to lead a team—either of one or two dozen—but it's assumed they have some experience shaping a team of individuals.

A person with the title of "Lead Designer” or "Senior Designer” may or may not have experience leading a team of cross-functional peers toward a solution. They may or may not have experience formalizing a product vision and working closely with key stakeholders to execute on that vision. It really depends on the company they come from and even the location of that company in the world.

If we as an industry could better standardize IC designer titles we might make it easier to better acknowledge what skills a single designer possesses (without having to dig through the case studies in their portfolio), both internally and externally.

There are already a number of companies who have publicly opened up leveling for designers and managers at their company. It's worthwhile for companies, managers, and ICs to read through these resources and either 1. Contribute feedback to the company who shared it, on how they might change or improve their leveling, or 2. Utilize these resources to structure their own leveling.

Here are a few examples I'm aware (last updated December 23, 2019):

4. Celebrate senior individual contributors who lead as examples

This last point is tricky. Looking out at the industry it's hard to find very senior ICs who are a strong voice or who take time to share their work, processes, and ideas.

A common excuse I've heard for the lack of senior ICs is "they're senior designers so they're busy doing their work, too busy to write a blog post for the public.”

This is a false belief, as a core tenant of being someone in a senior position is the ability to lead others and contribute to the industry as a whole. Just look at the list of levels I included in the previous point, at the senior-most level for each there's something about contributing back to the community or industry.

So where are the senior ICs?

I believe the reality is these senior ICs are a minuscule minority (because the majority have transitioned to people management) and aren't celebrated as much as those in managerial roles. Again looking back at point #2 above: as an industry we just don't treat senior ICs as equal as design managers or VPs of design, though we should. So their voices are quiet and even when they do show-up, they're not as celebrated.

What can we do to celebrate more when these designers speak up? When they take the time to show up and share their process or struggles, when they ask to have a ticket on the speaking circuit or when they tweet something other leaders—formal or otherwise—might learn from?

Here's the thing...

I don't have all the answers here. I'm not claiming to have the answers. In-fact: after countless discussions and writing this article, I'm left with more questions than solutions.

But I hope this is enough to keep the dialog going. As design leaders: how can we create a better ecosystem for senior ICs? As ICs: how might we engage our organizations and peers in a way that helps them understand this difficulty?

I believe—as I'm sure you reading this—that leadership and the ability to have impact in a company has little-to-nothing to do with title or explicit role. Anyone can lead, by building trust, exemplifying values, and committing oneself to the work. The ability to have impact is more of our ability as individuals to do what we love doing in a way that provokes others to do equally as meaningful and scalable work.

To once again quote Russ Maschmeyer's talk from Leading Design:

Leadership is not a title. It's not an authority granted to you from on high. It's an energy and influence born of loving what you do minute to minute, and allowing that energy to overflow into the hearts and minds of the teammates around you.

And yet, so many IC designers feel like the work they put into building organic leadership is stifled: by title, by industry perception, by mislead managers.

It's time we as an industry start seeing the career track of individual contributors as that on par with people managers. It's not lesser to choose to be an IC. It's not really an upward leap to move from IC work into people management. These things are different, both are equally needed on any sizable team. Both matter.

Where should IC designers go once they hit their peak? Hopefully somewhere even higher on the same trajectory they've taken their entire careers. Upward, not adjacent.