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How to navigate transitions in your design career

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We hosted a DesignTalk with Melissa Mandelbaum on how to navigate career transitions in the design world. Below is the full recording and an excerpt of the talk, edited for length and clarity.  Enjoy!

Melissa: To kick things off, we’ll talk about our design careers, and we’ll try to answer the question what does a modern design career path look like?

To do that, I’m going to share a bit about my own design journey and some of the lessons learned along the way.

Although I’m currently a product designer, my design career actually began in architecture school. At the time, my professors taught me to think about my design career path in a pretty specific way.

I learned that to become a licensed architect, you have to get your undergrad degree, then your Master’s, then you do a couple of years of interning, you take a lot of exams, and then you can become a licensed architect.

“Design transitions take time. Don’t rush.”

The bad side of this is that it takes many years to complete this path. But the good is that it’s super linear and really direct. So, it was pretty easy to figure out how to get from your undergrad degree all the way to your license.

Just when I started to wrap my head around this, and I was feeling good about this career path, 2 big things happened that changed my entire career trajectory:

  • It was 2008, and I was a junior in architecture school, and the economy took a dive. A lot of industries fell apart, so it was a pretty difficult time.
  • On a more positive note, the iPhone was born in 2007 and the App Store launched in 2008

What did this mean for me as a designer? Well, thanks to the recession, it became a difficult time for me to become an architect. The construction industry was largely paused—not many new buildings were going up.

On the flip side, the iPhone and the new App Store gave way to a lot of new and exciting opportunities at tech startups. So as a junior about to graduate college, I had to make a hard decision: Was I going to pursue architecture, or was I going to try something else?

Given the state of things, I decided to try the world of tech startups.

In all, I’ve made 3 massive career transitions that were all unexpected. I moved from architecture to product design, I moved from a number of small startups to a larger startup, and I moved from New York City tech to San Francisco tech.

I can bet I’m not alone. Designers I know transition between mediums, teams, and companies. Our design careers include a lot of transitions—it’s part of what it means to be a modern designer. That begs the question: what does a modern design career path look like?

Sheryl Sandberg has a great quote where she talks about career paths. In short, she’s saying that it’s not a ladder—there’s no direct way to the top. Rather, our career paths are a jungle gym. We’re jumping around the jungle gym—sometimes we’re dangling, sometimes we’re on the ground, sometimes we’re on the top, sometimes we’re stable, sometimes we’re holding on by one hand.

Related: How to become a great UX designer without a degree

I’d like to offer you a framework for how to navigate design career transitions. This is applicable for many different types of design career transitions, and it’s great if you’re moving between design mediums or if you’re moving between design teams. It has a lot of different use cases. This is based on my own personal experience from watching others, and what I’ve learned over the last few years.

Let’s talk about the 5 phases of this framework for navigating design career transitions:


Absorb

When you first go to a new design medium, a new design team, or any new design environment, you’re probably surrounded by a lot of new—there’s a new team, new people, new process, new office, new tools. All of this new can feel overwhelming.

The best thing to do in these early days is just be a sponge. Keep your eyes open, look around, talk to people, and justlet it all soak in. For me, this was particularly meaningful when I joined the Dropbox design team, as it was my first time on a team of this size. I had never worked with 80 designers— I’d never worked in a team of that scale.

It was also my first time on a team with so many different types of design roles. The way our team is made up is that we have product designers, user researchers, UX writers, brand designers, illustrators—a lot of different roles. Because this was so new to me, I just had to absorb in those early days. I had to be a sponge, and let it all soak in.

“During your first days at a new design job, be a sponge.”

The takeaway for the first step is that when you transition to a new design medium or team, you want to begin by absorbing your new environment and letting it all soak in. Give yourself the benefit of time to just take it in.

Digest

After some time, things are going to start making sense and the dots will connect in your head. And that’s when you’re going to move into the next phase, which is called digest.

A helpful way to begin digesting is to compare your old environment to your new design environment and look for the similarities. The similarities are a great way to start because they’re comforting and stabilizing—they make sense to you.

For me, this was a particularly meaningful step, when I transitioned from architecture to product design. I ended up making a diagram early in my transition when I was trying to figure out what about buildings is the same as it is in products.

What I explored is the idea that floors in a building are actually very similar to screens or tabs in an app. Just as the primary circulation between the floors in a building such as stairs or elevators is actually very similar to primary circulation in apps such as tabs. So by making this diagram early in this transition, it made a lot of sense to me and it made it easier for me to jump between the mediums, because I could see the things that made sense and the parallels between the 2.

During this phase, I was also thinking about process, so I was thinking about what about the architecture design process is similar to the product design process. I realized that sections and plans for architecture are actually very similar to wireframes in product design. The early stage of the design process where it’s not about the visual colors or the visual textures, but it’s really about understanding the user experience. So it’s laying out the core parts of the design and how the user moves between them.

Really, this is going to allow you to anchor on them for stability in your new design environment. It’ll make you feel good about the transition.

“Product design has a defined start but it doesn’t really end.”

Although the similarities are key, it’s also important to look for the differences for a very different reason. You also want to digest and look for the differences between your old environment and your new environment so that you can see the gaps in your experience. That will allow you to be aware of the things that are different and the things that you want to dig into and learn more about.

This was an important exercise early in my architecture-to-product-design days because I was trying to figure out what I needed to learn, my weaknesses, and the gaps in my experience. I explored how in architecture, the process for making buildings is basically you have a defined start, you have a number of steps in the middle, and then you have a defined end. You’re not going to iterate on buildings—maybe you will, but it’ll just be a very expensive iteration. It’s pretty rare. Product design, on the other hand, has a defined start but it doesn’t really end. Product designs are never really quite done. This was an important realization for me. It was very clear that when I moved to product design, I needed to learn more about this idea of designing things that are never quite done.

The takeaway for this part of the digest phase is similar to the similarities: we have to look at the differences, but again for the slightly different reason of recognizing your gaps and then tagging them or flagging them as things that you want to learn more about.

For more of how Melissa recommends dealing with career transitions—and her other 3 phases of her transition framework—watch the full recording of the DesignTalk in the video above!

Author

Margaret Kelsey
Content + community at InVision. Newly Bostonian.

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