Transitioning as a principal designer

Principal designers navigate unconventional career paths as they grow. What can we learn from these messy paths to navigate transitions?

Sometimes career transitions are more about knowing where to wander, what to become, and how to live — Photo by Joel Vodell on Unsplash

This is my contribution to the Designed Transitions publication, featuring perspectives on transitions, design, leadership, careers, and coaching. Big thanks to my friend, Jason Mesut, for starting this initiative and letting me share.

My 20 year career has taken me from software development to UX, and now into areas like strategic / service / systemic design though they’re still a bit fuzzy to me. I’ve line-managed others but felt it wasn’t my calling, so I chose to be an individual contributor (IC), spending more time tackling messy problems. Some organisations support IC role tracks, and I’m currently a senior principal designer on my organisation’s IC track.

What is a principal designer?

The principal designer role means different things depending on who you ask. Often, it’s a role for a higher-level of seniority, experience, expertise, and responsibility where most of the work is non-managerial. It can be applied to specialists as well as generalists. I’ve also seen founders of small design companies call themselves principals.

Some principals take on line-management responsibilities, though it’s uncommon to have principals dedicated to it otherwise the roles would carry labels like “lead”, “head”, “manager” or “director”.

Principal designers are diverse in their skills and focus areas. There isn’t a simple explanation of how designers should “become” a principal apart from taking on more responsibility. For my work, I’ve ventured into adjacent spaces like product management, systems thinkingservice designstrategy, and organisational change, as a way to deal with bigger challenges. But it might not be the same for others.

For me, transitioning as a principal designer has been rewarding but not easy, straightforward, or linear. I’ve learned a lot, but I don’t feel I’ve arrived. I keep discovering new horizons, I’m still transitioning and learning. And since learning never ends, the challenge is how to build it into the day-to-day work, into the spaces I work in, the people I work with, and into our shared solutions.

What has stuck with me so far? Here are 4 things I’ll share.

  • Nurturing and maturing specific points of view — Principal designers transition from designing for experiences and towards shaping and clarifying why and what makes a difference.
  • Experimenting and evolving our design approachesPrincipal designers transition between a skills-and-making approach to a critical perspectives approach.
  • Not doing it alone and making the work socialPrincipal designers add value to others’ work through design, not to design things for them.
  • Embracing, supporting and growing the whole self and othersPrincipal designers navigate a change in themselves because of the change in their work.

I don’t know if these apply to all principal designers, but I hope they’re useful for those whose paths don’t quite fit the conventional craft or leadership ladder.

Nurturing and maturing our specific points of view

Principal designers transition from designing for experiences and towards shaping and clarifying why and what makes a difference.

This transition is about developing relevant points of view to navigate problem spaces that designers can help facilitate and shape.

At increasing levels of complexity and seniority, all sorts of things get scrutinised by people around us, so it’s worth knowing and developing points of view on:

  • why some things are worth scrutinising over others,
  • why some things are the way they are, and
  • why some things should change.

After awhile, it will feel insufficient to make a difference through design alone while closing an eye to things like strategy, operations, organisations, technology, and other things that also make a difference. This of course requires learning from other domains, but critical thinking is also needed to make sense of it all together.

5 years ago when I led the design work for a large CMS transformation project, the work of designing the experience of the several hundred sites also needed to factor in how administrators of those sites needed to support the sites, how our developers wanted to build the system, how our proposed content and CMS approach improved the strategies of different businesses, as well as taking on board the design team’s approach and abilities. I remember how difficult that transition was, to relate these different points of views together in helping to navigate and shape our design solutions together with everyone.

While it still isn’t easy today, I put much more emphasis on understanding and collaborating on everyone’s different points of view than purely on the design alone.

The story above relates to internal points of view, but external points of view are also needed to support outside-in perspectives. Courses, conferences, books—these are necessary but not enough. Not everything can be easily applied. For me, applying systems thinking, service design, strategy or organisational change still requires trial-and-error, adaptation and experimentation, with much going back and forth and across things. Even new knowledge has to be scrutinised—what works in one place might not apply to another.

I think it helps to relate, rather than apply, things back to the work we’re doing, not forcing or overdoing things and allowing solutions and insights to emerge rather than dictate outcomes, this will help us and others maintain sanity.

Navigating this transition has helped me tackle more complex issues, with more collaboration, and so on. It also helped me address fundamental issues designers have about getting a “seat at the table” —I think much of this comes down to understanding and navigating points of view. Post-transition, design can sometimes feel like an echo chamber, to which Dave Gray’s work on liminal thinking (below) can help illuminate.

Where do different points of view come from? Dave Gray’s work on Liminal Thinking explains a way to navigate different belief systems. (YouTube: Liminal thinking The pyramid of belief)

Experimenting and evolving our design approaches

Principal designers transition between a skills-and-making approach to a critical perspectives approach.

  • Skills-and-making refers to the iterative learn-make approach we’re used to as designers. It’s how we apply craft to our chosen mediums towards design outcomes.
  • Critical perspectives just means questioning, learning, seeing, and articulating why different points of views make sense. This includes questioning design itself.

Developing critical perspectives is a byproduct of working at the limits or edges of our design work in its interaction with everything else.

For example, when we’re so used to designing for digital-only use cases, we find it hard to factor non-digital contexts into our designs. Or, when we’re only used to designing for single users, and we find it challenging to design solutions that involve interactions between multiple user types. Or, when we’re designing for service journeys which are somewhat sequential in nature, and we find it hard to design for ecosystems, networks or systems with feedback loops.

It’s challenging to learn outside our comfort zones if we pay attention to design through a specific lens (e.g. digital product design). Operating within a specific lens of design offers security and comfort, because it feels more accessible to level up our work, but there are trade-offs.

On one hand, new knowledge developed for designers is becoming increasingly available (e.g. design ethics, product management for UX), but sometimes this removes useful detail, substantiation, and context when “translated” from its source references.

On the other, learning directly from other domains and communities can feel alienating, technical, elitist, bureaucratic, argumentative or academic — think of books, theories, explanations, experts that don’t agree with each other, etc.

Developing critical perspectives is a byproduct of working at the limits or edges of our design work in its interaction with everything else.

I think there is a healthy middle ground that helps us build bridges between those gaps, by using our design skills to make sense of complicated things through making, experimentation, iteration, learning, and trusting our design intuition and approaches to encourage solutions to emerge. This isn’t about objecting to the new knowledge that feels inaccessible, but about engaging with it in different ways, with the same intentionality, care and understanding.

Eventually, this actually turns into a good thing, something design can offer back to other knowledge domains. Where our skills-and-making approach can blend and add value to critical perspectives.

An example of this is the lives and work of Charles and Ray Eames, who demonstrated a unrestrained design philosophy through their lives and work by approaching new things with a broad scope and a learning-by-doing approach. I think the video below by architect Eric Reinholdt explains this in a really nice way.

Architect Eric Reinholdt promotes the virtues of approaching problems with the mind of an lifelong amateur.

Not doing it alone and making the work social

Principal designers add value to others’ work through design, not to design things for them.

This is another kind of transition, but one that also relates to the craft itself.

The term “individual contributor” is ironic. There’s nothing individual about the work that principal designers do, especially if it requires more collaboration, facilitation, learning about people and their work, and supporting them.

Another thought is principal designers doing the work of “silo busting”, but this overlooks our natural tendencies as humans to work in sufficiently stable networks (“natural” silos), and we should to be mindful that our design solutions can upset the livelihoods of other colleagues and people.

So, when new paradigms are being introduced and shaped through design work, e.g. changing an organisation’s transactional approach to services to a relational one, there’s a lot of thinking and operating on behalf of other people who need to execute on the work. This is also part of the work, alongside learning and designing, mentioned previously. All these things go together.

So, the idea of a single individual contributor’s job going around and making change happen isn’t realistic nor practical. Instead, there is a lot of designing with groups of people, for groups of people, and in groups of people.

Making the work social involves getting along with everyone else’s way of working. For example, I’ve learnt the hard way not to impose new learnings and approaches without due diligence – on one hand, colleagues say that I’ve introduced valuable perspectives to our work, but also that some people don’t find my perspectives easy to understand.

I once had a panic attack when my line manager once said “I don’t know what you’re doing” at a time when I was trying hard by myself to understand a new part of the business I had transitioned into while also learning new things in order to learn about the business, but I also realised I needed to help others understand what I was doing, particularly those I needed to have close alignment with.

So, new perspectives and learnings are important, but it needs to be worked on as a social activity — i.e. where people are involved and contributing. If people are feeling excluded or isolated because of new learnings, then it’s not very social.

A thought experiment: replace the science domains with business units. Then imagine yourself working with every one of them to help you with whatever it is you’re working on. Alternatively, imagine trying convert all of them into designers. Then imagine them trying to convert you into one of them. Try to ignore what you just read. Repeat.

Embracing, supporting and growing the whole self and others

Principal designers navigate a change in themselves because of the change in their work.

This is a funny transition because it’s both personal and professional, and it isn’t always easy to separate professional and personal perspectives.

Design is a job that involves a “whole” person approach—empathy, intentionality, craft, people, systems—all the things that makes work-life hard to compartmentalise—our full selves become more entangled with our professional selves.

In my work, it helps to care about what I do. It improves the quality of my work and collaborations. But in order to care, I also risk bringing my whole self into my work. My authenticity, vulnerability, energy, motivation and so on. And because I collaborate with a lot of people, how I show up and how consistent that is to others also reflects on our collective work as a wider group. It’s important to keep things in balance, but it feels like that adds another layer of complexity, so maybe my approach to dealing with this balance is to approach things holistically.

Taking things holistically, rather than one aspect at a time, helps me navigate work that is often more situational and unpredictable. At the same time, having a set of healthy foundations in life (e.g. habits, friends, commitments, agreements between my colleagues) helps me navigate the ups and downs of change and growth. A holistic, humane approach will also be helpful in collaborations as transitions can often be things that groups navigate together.

Transitions across new areas can get quite lonely because it’s harder to connect with others as they might not understand what we’re going through and how we feel, sometimes even with my fellow design peers I’ve known with over the years. Discussing my struggles with other advanced practitioners in various community spaces has helped a bit, though.

When transitioning to new spaces, it helps to find new, often different support networks. Communities of people who might not be designers but operate in adjacent spaces (e.g. systems thinking communities for me), peers who have trodden similar messy paths in their career, other professionals who are of a similar experience level, different mentors, etc. I see this as a natural byproduct, and it’s healthy to seek out new connections with others who share similar experiences and struggles.

(If this is you, please drop me a line and say hi!)

Closing thoughts: What do we become?

The four perspectives came out of a realisation that at increasing levels of seniority and responsibility, the career transitions become more about shifting into different gears—i.e. different points of view, different problem spaces, collaborating differently, changing ourselves. Our work as designers can evolve and be radically changed as a result of these transitions.

Meanwhile, we remain simple human beings—we cannot clone ourselves, we don’t want to suffer a clash of conflicting identities, we have to work with more people, and we also don’t want undesirable design solutions—much of which is not always in our control. One way forward as seeing growth and transitions as part of working with other people.

I say this about transitioning as a principal designer because perhaps, our growth paths are far more a function of our environments and relationships with it than it is a career plan, hence it is a bit messy and it means having to go with the flow a bit and a bit of risk taking too.

As a passing thought — as to what we call ourselves, I think we get to call ourselves whatever we want when we feel the time is right, because only we would know how it speaks to the work we do that makes us special. 🙂

Thanks to Sam Yuen, Laura Dantonio, Jason Mesut, Tomomi Sasaki, Lori Ho, and Seb Wachholz for their feedback.

originally published here on Medium:

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