Seniority in design is about personal responsibility.
A disclaimer to start with. While everyone can take personal responsibility, not everyone has the same circumstances, privilege or types of choices to make when doing so.
But, whatever your situation, everyone can can take personal responsibility for their work as a designer.
What I think this means:
i.e taking responsibility for how you use your time, energy and focus (recognising the constraints around this).
Recognise autonomy as a scale.
Very few people have full autonomy over their work or the decisions that they make at work. This can be something that you create for yourself as much as something that is given to you in the situation where you work. Yes, it’s better to work at a company that gives you more autonomy. But within the constraints of the projects and work that’s assigned to you, choose to be smart with how you organise and use your time.
If you produce great work and value for the organisations you work for, the time you didn’t spend producing that work will become less relevant to whoever manages you.
Whenever I used to find myself in situations where I was being more closely managed, or had to spend most of my day on set tasks, I would always work on the basis that I could make time back to spend on other things. For me, this meant areas of interest, experiments and learning. I always worked on the basis that as long as I met the expectations of my team I could be smart with my own time (therefore creating a small amount of autonomy for myself in the process, even as a more junior designer).
No matter how small, the things you choose to do yourself at work will most likely be things outside of your job description or level of seniority. When those things start to create value they have a good chance of eventually becoming your work and your responsibility in the future.
2. Asking for support when you need it
i.e not waiting for someone else to notice that you’re not okay.
Focus on how you are.
Asking for help and support when you need it is important because it should be okay not to be okay at work. Your best work needs you to be your best, most healthy and fully functioning self.
The point about personal responsibility here is being self-aware enough to ask for help when you need it. Don’t wait for your manager or colleagues to notice. Everyone is busy and many of the people you work with all have their own personal problems, health issues, and things they will be struggling with at work day to day.
If you don’t work somewhere where you can ask for help when you need it, question why you still work there (or invest time in finding a better place to work).
3. Asking for feedback when you need it
i.e not waiting for feedback from other people.
Focus on your work.
This should include the outputs of your work, your ways of working and how you communicate. This is about how you find and manage feedback.
As a designer, you’re only as good as your feedback loops.
Personal responsibility here is part asking for feedback from others, and it’s also part self reflection.
The more feedback we have the more we open up the potential to improve the work we’re doing, as well as how we communicate and work with others. Personal responsibility is being prepared to ask for feedback even when this is uncomfortable. It’s about opening up your ideas and thinking. Writing and working in the open are feedback loops that work in this way.
For self reflection, be your own feedback loop. Make time to reflect on how you lead, design, and make adjustments. The more responsibility you have as a designer, the more disciplined you need to be in taking time to reflect on the outputs of your work and how you lead others.
4. Looking out for other people
i.e. always being aware if the person working alongside you is okay.
Focus on how other people are.
Following on from asking for support when you need it, we all have a duty to also look out for each other.
The more autonomy, influence and responsibility in your role the more you should be taking this seriously. Put other people first and make sure other people are okay.
5. Being proactive
i.e. not waiting for someone else to offer you a promotion or opportunity.
Don’t mind the gaps.
This means recognising and being prepared to work in the gaps in front or around you.
I’ve often found myself in a position where there was a missing role, set of skills or level of responsibility in the situations I was working in at the time. For example, there wasn’t anyone thinking about how we could incorporate user research into our design process, or how user experience might add value to the product team I was part of. Later on there wasn’t an established design team or any design leadership in the organisations I was working with. These were all gaps I was able to step into at different points.
Being proactive is on the autonomy scale. Sometimes it’s turning up and being determined to do things differently because you believe in design as a way of changing how things work. It can be more collective, small, actions, as much it has to be something more visibly disruptive. But be strategic about how you act proactively and recognise your battles.
Being pragmatic (you can’t win every battle today), while still being optimistic (everything is worth fighting for).
Working in the gaps often means you will be doing work that you’re not immediately (or ever) recognised for, and can also lead to things like pay disparity. But I still think personal responsibility means seeing and, to an extent, creating and shaping opportunities for yourself.
This blog is part of a short series following my original post about seniority in design.
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.