Design has a generation gap: Here’s why career pathing is the solution

4 min read
Michelle Wong
  •  Dec 2, 2020
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As the demand for product designers continues to rise, bootcamps and other formalized programs have emerged to supply the job market with capable entry-level designers. Those looking to kickstart a successful career in tech learn the skills and tools training that companies need to stay competitive. Often, the programs require students to invest less time and money than they would a traditional college degree. But, now that the design industry has matured, this quick pipeline leaves companies with distinct challenges from this quick pipeline. There’s a generation gap between these designers and their leaders. In one camp, there’s the new designer, brought up to speed remarkably fast through programs teaching formalized methods. And in the other, their leaders, who learned it all through organic, real world experience.

Whereas many current design leaders fell into their career paths through trial and error, the newer generation sees design as a profession. This new breed is looking to grow their careers in a more standardized approach. The problem is, though, how do you create a career vision for this new generation when technology and design are changing faster than ever?

At American Express (Amex), the answer to bridging this gap has been career pathing. Career pathing is the practice of looking at the needs of the company—current and future. After this assessment, leaders work to provide their employees with the right skills to meet these needs. Not only does career pathing help develop talent, it also creates a culture of nourishment and opportunity. Employees can grow in the directions they want, which can reinforce a company’s overall retention efforts.

Danny Forst, vice president of product design at American Express

While career pathing has been a company priority for years, Danny Forst, vice president of product design for Amex, set out to specifically tackle the challenge of career pathing for product designers two years ago. He launched the Design Skills Framework (DSF), a detailed library of the skills every designer needs to be successful in their career. Also, rather than implement an entirely new schema for designers, they structured the content to integrate seamlessly into existing company processes that apply across the whole employee journey, including everything from job descriptions for hiring to resources for continuous learning.

An example of the mid-year check in using the framework.

Just like any design problem, the team focused on compiling good user research before they finalized anything, says Evan English, VP of product design.

Danny worked directly with the designers to define applicable skill sets and a career path for design. They focused their efforts not just on vertical career growth, but also lateral opportunities. Because design is still a rapidly growing and changing landscape, the framework needed to consider new and emerging specializations that continue to arise as the team scales and matures.

They came up with a new framework centered around three different groups of skills: leadership, a small section encompassing things like hiring and team design; technical craft, a larger portion of discipline specific skills like UX, UI, and system design; and shared skills, the largest bucket making up “soft skills” like compassion, communication, and advocacy as well as supporting skills like engineering fluency, stakeholder management, and managing feedback.

An example of how Design Collaboration and Engineering Fluency are defined in the library.

The team is now leveraging the framework to create supporting tools and processes at every step of a designer’s career path. During hiring, for example, the framework aids hiring leaders to create accurate job descriptions and requirements that set new designers up for success from the get-go.

Continuous learning and growth is also enabled through cadenced career check-ins where the framework helps managers and designers have meaningful career pathing conversations that lead to personalized development plans.

Expectations are then set clearly in regard to the skills designers need to be successful. The understanding is that if Amex gives the right resources to its designers, they can then focus on developing those skills.

It all starts with the individual designer understanding their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions. They then work to conceptualize what’s known as a T-shaped designer. The idea is to have just enough breadth of the skills to advance as a designer, but also the depth of a specialty. This skills structure opens up opportunities for both vertical and horizontal movement.

English says that regardless of technical skills, there’s always a focus on shared skills that can help get designers to the next role.

“I think it sets someone up to be more adaptable and flexible,” English says. “It allows them to have a growth mindset and embrace a role that might not really even exist today.”

The roles of designers, product managers, developers are evolving

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But it can’t all fall on the designer. Management, too, plays a large role in turning this framework into real outcomes for employees.

“You have to be that caretaker,” says Priscilla Giler, director of product design at Amex. “Even when they don’t see that magic in themselves, you have to make them see that magic. That’s how you retain people and empower them to be their best selves.”

From left to right: Riri Nagao, Camilo Munar, Anabela Borges, and Priscilla Giler at American Express Design Fest.

And that investment in retention and empowerment translates to positive effects for the business, too. It’s getting recognized publicly for its focus on customer experience: In June 2020, American Express Mobile App ranked #1 in the J.D. Power 2020 US Credit Card Mobile App Satisfaction Study for its focus on customer experience. Jonathan Wei, design director of the Global Amex App, said the product success wouldn’t have been possible if not for this career pathing work.

“There are a lot of opportunities for anyone at Amex,” Wei says. “We have a very strong and increasingly mature process, and we have the senior leadership to thank for all that. It’s a very exciting time right now within Amex.”

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