Are You a Senior Designer? Am I?

Advice from The Sherwins for March 2018

Climbing the Ladder


Hey Sherwins,

I’m a design manager. I’ve been here for almost six years in a different office, and in my current position in this office for about a year. One of the senior designers on my team was hired by the manager I replaced. And, politely, this senior designer isn’t delivering senior-level work. Have you found any particularly effective strategies for dealing with this?

P in Boston


Hi Sherwins,

I just got hired at a new company and I got a title bump to senior designer. Which sounds awesome, but I’ve been here six months and I am totally overwhelmed. I didn’t inflate my credentials or anything, and I know I’m good. But so far, this place is out of my league. What do I do?

Q in Austin


Hi P & Q, we got your questions within a week of each other. We know you work at different companies, but we felt like the world wouldn’t end if we addressed both of your letters at the same time. They’re dancing around the same subject, so to speak.

First, let’s start with you, P.

That senior designer—it doesn’t matter who hired him. He’s your hire now. During times of deep and fast change, people can be hired in appropriately and then immediately become misaligned with their positions. The other manager’s definition of senior may not be relevant anymore. If this is the case, you have to document that and describe the differences. This is especially true when an organization decides to “level up” the talent. (We’ll start using the phrase “level up” without laughing when we meet a team that has special swords for each job title.)

Side note: If the person who hired him is such an important factor, we’d be curious if there were a nepotism issue at play. Which could be all kinds of juicy, in a walking-HR-violation kind of way. But maybe you just don’t want to be blamed for this designer’s poor performance. After all, you didn’t hire him.

Which brings us to an important question. You say he's a senior designer, but if he were applying as a mid-level designer, would you hire him? If the answer is no, then you’re done here. Document his performance and get a move on. Every day you aren’t proactive about your expectations is another day that this guy could be learning and growing somewhere else.

But if you would hire him, P…

Okay, Q, this is where you come in.

Q, we’re going to assume that you are a good designer, and this isn’t a case of imposter syndrome. We’ve seen plenty of designers come into companies and flame out because they weren’t the right type of designer for the product or the team. Particular products require a particular way of thinking, and good doesn’t mean good for everyone.

So answer these three questions for us:

  • Do you like this new company?
  • Do you want to stay?
  • Do you see yourself being a senior designer someday?

If any of those is a no, then mosey on over to another company. Chalk your current situation up to experience, and get out before you’re so overwhelmed that something terrible happens.

But if your answers came up yes, then let’s ask you this: Would you consider asking your manager to demote you? Level-down, so to speak. This is a chance for you to get some stability, while keeping a clear eye on your growing your skills.

And P, if you put your designer in a mid-level role, this is an opportunity for you to mentor and grow a true senior designer.

So both of you should go get copies of the job descriptions for these senior-level and mid-level design positions… Oh wait, what do we hear you saying? You’re saying that your job descriptions aren’t specific enough to really tell the difference between a mid-level designer and a senior designer?

Ah, that’s right, because most companies don’t have particularly useful job descriptions. And even if they are useful, the difference between a mid-level and a senior designer is frequently arbitrary, attached to years in the seat rather than a set of tangible descriptions of responsibilities that ascend on clear growth tracks from lowest design intern to the ultimate-leveled Grand Design Oracle (+3 Charisma).

Relatedly, somewhere along the way, design got shoved into a corporate ladder narrative. Two years, title bump, three years, title bump, and we still haven’t figure out how to reward excellence with anything other than managerial responsibility. Usually a senior designer is starting to manage others or they can “lead a project without significant support”. So what do you do with all of the people who are great designers but terrible managers? What does support mean, anyway? What if they don’t want to be managers? Design, from UX to graphic to interface, should not be turning away talent because they want to stay in the details. And yet, we do. All the time. We need to break the narrative that a designer that hasn’t made senior in X number of years is a Bad Designer. If we could change one thing about every industry that includes designers, it would be this: Stop rewarding seniority with underlings.

But, back to you, P and Q.

Q, look at a demotion or a level-down for 6 to 12 months.

P, track a plan alongside the job responsibilities for the higher position.

Both of you, figure out what’s being done that’s meeting the expectation of senior designer. Talk about where things are coming up short. Partner together to draw a line between designer and senior designer. Make a decision about how you will know that progress is being made.

Perhaps you two are lucky and your companies have great job descriptions. If that’s the case, making a plan is far easier. Be realistic and clear about how you’re going to know if senior quality work is being achieved. Use all of this to grow the people that you want and that you want to be.

And at the end of that time period, if things don't work out, you have to be prepared, P, to fire him. And you, Q? You need to be prepared to fly.

Best, though sometimes we go back to Better as we progress to Best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will achieve seniority and be retired on March 31, 2018.