4 design career trends for 2021

4 min read
Brittany Anas
  •  Jan 27, 2021
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Over the past few years, designs practices have helped companies take a quantum leap in their digital transformations and resulted in large payoffs. And last year, COVID-19 pushed even holdout industries over a technological tipping point, bringing about years of transformative digital change in just months.

It’s 2021 and design is seated comfortably at the table in more companies than ever. Businesses continue to integrate design practices into their core functions and scale them across the entire organization. That’s a great holistic look at design, but what does that mean for you—the IC designer, the leader looking to build out their team, or the curious product collaborator? To find the effects these large industry trends have on your career and future opportunities, we scoured job postings, sought out original reporting, and referred to expert insight. We found that, while developing stellar products still is the core function for many designers, there are so many opportunities awaiting those looking for something different. Here, four different careers trends you might want to explore this year:


Companies that invest in design, as well as digital-first companies, outperform their peers and deliver better customer experiences and products. Organizations began ramping up their investments in DesignOps a couple years ago partly to help keep teams in sync. But now, as more companies mature and move to digital-first faster, you can expect to see an increased emphasis on design operations roles. The title is just beginning to trickle into the job listings, with companies like Grammarly, Afterpay, and DocuSign all looking to fill roles.

DesignOps can help ease digital transformation and maximize the design team’s impact across the company. Join us on Feb 2 at 12p.m. EST to learn more about how DesignOps can help align and scale teams with special insight from leaders at Apple, Zendesk and Thinkific

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Design engineers

Should designers code? What a dated debate. As Adekunle Oduye, senior UX engineer with Mailchimp, argues in the Design Engineering Handbook there is room within organizations for both designers who can code and those who can’t. As organizations scale, product teams need some designers who are free to creatively explore without feeling stifled by the constraints of code. But they also need designers who can only foresee the challenges inherent in their designs, but also ease the friction between design and engineering. The good news is many design budgets are now large enough to employ both specialists side by side.

“When these two types of designers join forces, they are able to prototype ideas quickly and come up with innovative solutions,” Oduye writes.

For those who can code, design engineering is an emerging hybrid position that will play a pivotal role as UX organizations scale, helping ease the friction between design and engineering collaboration. Design engineers not only solve problems for users, but also improve the design and engineering processes within their organizations and factor in business viability.

In 2021, you’ll find these design engineering roles taking off on job listing sites (under that title or many others). You’ll also see organizations using not the title, but the principles of design engineering in their product-development processes. These will be the designers who are in charge of pondering things like “will engineers be able to build the features within the time, resources, and technology available?” and whether the product adds value and solves existing problems for users.

Want to learn more about Design Engineering? Get a deep dive into how this discipline is emerging and essential to creating great products and bringing together form and function.

Get the free handbook

Business-minded designers

As design scales and becomes a more integrated function within an organization, designers no longer can work in the purely “creative” space. Just like their suit-wearing associates, they need to connect findings and user experience to direct, tangible business results. While many ICs are expected to do this as an extension of their roles, larger organizations are now hiring design strategists to sit beside design leaders and work to evangelize design thinking across the organization.

As Heidi Munc, VP of user experience at Nationwide, explains these positions are usually filled by designers who have a refined sense of business. In fact, Indeed lists more than 4,000 available positions ready to be filled at time of writing.

Want to learn more about the principles behind business thinking for design? Ryan Rumsey shares how design principles can translate into business principles in this handbook.

Inclusion designers

When designers don’t recognize the privileges or biases they have, it gives way to a nobility complex, tech ethicist Nancy Douyon told us on the Design Better Podcast at the start of last year. A burgeoning racial-justice movement over the spring and summer made it clear that organizations need to go beyond alluding to change, but act on their stances surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. One way they’re doing this is bringing more diverse stakeholders to the table.

According to the 2021 Product Design Trends Report, 62.3% of respondents said they had a team conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion at work—and 26.4% said it was the first time they had done so.

Going into the new year, inclusivity will remain paramount as organizations root out non-inclusive, racist, and biased language and design in their products. There will be more codified inclusivity practices at more mature companies, with job roles centered on holding designers accountable for more inclusive design.

Designing more inclusive products can be achieved by regularly getting diverse perspectives and continually testing, addressing and improving on the distinct needs of historically underrepresented users, says Google’s Annie Jean-Baptiste.

Design has a tremendous opportunity to guide us through another year of unceasing change

—but only if we make good on the chance. To read more about successfully navigating 2021 through the eyes of design and its collaborators, check out our 2021 Product Design Trends Report.

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