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Seniority in design: proximity and closeness

As you become a more senior designer with responsibility for other designers, one of the challenges you will face is your personal closeness to ‘hands on’ design work.

As well as how close you are to the work, you will have to think about the proximity you have to those doing the hands on work when that isn’t you.

Proximity is where you position yourself in relation to other designers.

Closeness is the short distance you are from the work itself. The attachment to solving the problem.

If you get too close to the work you will lose perspective. The job of a design leader is to bring a broader perspective than those that are closest to the work. You can’t do this if you’re as close to the work as those doing the work.

If you lose proximity to the designers in your team, you lose your connection to the work that they’re doing. The job of a design leader is to stay close enough to the work happening throughout a team, by maintaining and building trust and supporting the designers closest to the work.

The biggest question is how much trust you have in your team?

Sometimes it will be hard to let go. You might be able to do a better technical job than your team. You might know how to get somewhere quicker and have the intuition required to make less mistakes along the way (i.e your learning has already been done elsewhere).

To build a strong design team you will need to actively build trust. This is when you make space for people to make their own mistakes, but in an environment where they feel supported and become capable of doing their best work.

It’s knowing when to get closer to the work again that makes your experience invaluable. You have to give people space to work, even letting them go to the cliff edge before knowing how and when to step in, and only if they’re leaning just a little too far over. Everything else becomes the experience for others that will eventually get them to where you find yourself now.

Questions to consider for design leaders:

  • Am I too close to this work to bring a broader perspective?
  • Am I being to ‘hands on’ to allow someone else to do their best possible work here?
  • Can I trust someone else in the team to do this work?
  • Do I need to hand the work I’m doing to someone else?

This blog is part of a short series following my original post about seniority in design. I’ll be talking more about this topic at UX in the City, Manchester – 14th March 2019.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.