From 2020 and on, our collective global tragedy (COVID-19) has changed the way many tech companies operate, nudging them to adopt a work-from-home (WFH) structure. Coincidentally/tragically/ignorantly, many companies have also now (as of August 2022) started to pull back from this arrangement, asking staff to come into the office for “a few” days per week. Some like this, and some hate it, but this specific topic is not the focus of this article. Let’s set aside our personal opinions about WFH for a second and consider the impact of COVID on employment—your employment.
You’re probably like many people. You’ve begun to reevaluate your working situation and pondered “would life be better working elsewhere?” That depends on a lot of factors, and sentiments (and the economy) wildly change from week to week. In the process of writing this, I have seen the tech markets go from historic wall street highs and spending sprees…to worrisome hiring freezes, layoffs, and bankruptcies. It’s been hard to stay abreast of it all as I try to write something worth your time. With a looming recession (or maybe it’s already here), and a stock market that seems to be on its way into Bear territory, you are just as likely to rethink your current job as you are to look for a new one post-layoff.
Author’s note: If you’ve read this far, congrats. From here on, there’s about 45 minutes’ worth of information available. Within the Table of Contents, there are anchor links to jump to the areas you’re most interested in. Please click the below link to jump there:
Oh hi, I’m Ryan. Having spent the last 15+ years building and leading design teams, I’ve also spent quite a huge chunk of that time hiring, mentoring, and training many different types of designers. I’ve had my fair share of successes and more than my fair share of absolute failures. Consequently, one thing I’ve confidently taken away from these experiences is the ability to identify—and hire—strong designers more effectively, more efficiently, and ultimately faster than ever before. This is why people hire me and this is the value I bring to a business.
To get to this place, I’ve employed a multitude of practical and impractical methods: design tests, committee interviews & voting, multi-round interviews, “culture fit” interviews, and more. A lot of these methods wound up taking responsibility off my shoulders and spreading it amongst others, under the incorrect assumption that it would result in greater success and better hires. Turns out that there are a lot of terrible hiring managers, teams, cultures, and companies out in the wild, all trying to attract the very best talent but unable or unequipped to recognize it and nurture it. Similarly, there are a lot of potential employees — perhaps like yourself — looking to get a job but (of course) wanting it to be a positive experience.
I’d like to help.
In an attempt to do just that, I’ve prepared this write-up aimed at tackling the process of getting your first Product Design job. Or maybe it’s your second (or third, or fourth) Product Design job, but you just need guidance. Whether you’re here because you want to start a new career in Product Design or you want to get a similar job at a new company, you’ll find that I have thoroughly examined the whole process.
One last caveat before we continue: The process of writing and editing this has literally taken me months. The industries of design and technology have a tendency to mutate and shift rapidly. Please forgive any terminology or sentiments which may have been accurate last week but fail the sniff test today.
Also remember, the following are my opinions based on over a decade of real-world experiences, and all of this is practical advice and not an instruction manual.
So you’d like to be a product designer? Think you have what it takes? Fortunately for you, you may be better equipped to succeed if you have a fair helping of self-doubt and a low ego. Those celebrity designers you may be familiar with are the very same who struggle in team settings, unable to cope with team dynamics. The most successful, most-worth-working-with designers are those who put the team’s efforts above themselves. If you’re still interested, read on.
Without a doubt, you have seen many confusingly-named design roles posted online and have probably wondered what the difference is between them all. Look no further. The definitions of some of the more popular ones are as follows:
Responsible for understanding and owning a full experience of using a product, from end to end. The “product” is usually a software application. The “full experience” encompasses how a user goes about signing up, starting their journey, using the various features, and having the feeling that it’s all super easy and very delightful. Product Designers are usually treated as a mixed bag of skills — part UI Designer, part UX Designer, part User Researcher, part Visual Designer, and part Product Manager. Lots of rectangles are drawn.
“UI” stands for User Interface. This person is responsible for dictating the appearance of an application. For the most part, the UI Designer acts as the coat of paint on top of underlying planning and architecture. They’re not meant to be concerned with anything but the aesthetics of an interface and how easy it is to use. A lot of UI Design is drawing rectangles.
“UX” stands for User Experience. This title is used almost interchangeably with that of Product Designer, though in spirit the roles are meant to be different. Why is it called “UX” when a Product Designer is also responsible for creating a positive User Experience? I have no idea. But in practice, where a Product Designer is meant to own a full experience end to end, a UX Designer is concerned with a distinct flow — perhaps a checkout flow on an e-commerce website, for example. A UX Designer is not meant to be concerned with the aesthetics of an interface at all, but rather with how certain interaction patterns are applied, comprehended, and utilized by a user. Often, the UX Designer draws entirely in low-fidelity, using black and white boxes to plan out an experience. Most UX Design is drawing rectangles.
This role is very similar to a UI Designer, except much more micro-focused. When a UI Designer is thinking about an interface, a Visual Designer is thinking about the ingredients for that interface. Icons, illustrations, graphic treatments, background textures — these are many of the types of things a Visual Designer would be obsessed with. A Visual Designer and a UI Designer are oftentimes treated as the same, and truthfully there isn’t such a wide distinction that one couldn’t theoretically do the other’s job. But, a Visual Designer is also asked to straddle the line between Product and Brand, crafting materials and assets that are carried throughout both realms and helping to create consistency. Fewer rectangles are drawn in this job than in most others.
Design Systems Designer:
This type of role began coming into visibility and prominence in 2018 as software like Figma and Sketch began to support robust Design System construction. Initially, Product Design teams were excited and tasked with building their Design System (and this tends to be the norm even today). But after a team reaches a certain scale and certain level of maturity, Product Designers realize they don’t have the time and energy to manage their products and also manage a growing, fluctuating design system. So, teams initially hire one or two Design Systems Designers to manage, evolve, and organize their Design Systems. Eventually, some businesses may see value in having whole teams built around Design Systems, including Product Managers and Engineers who treat the Design System as a business-wide productivity multiplier. In a nutshell, the Design Systems Designer draws and organizes the rectangles.
Word to the Wise:
The hiring market really likes to conflate many of these titles. Design industry sentiment has also shifted from first preferring UX Designer as a catchall title, to preferring it as a very specific and focused role (as I described above), to now thinking of it as a catchall title once again. Your mileage may vary, and you may find that the Product Designer role you’d like to have is instead listed as a UX Designer role.
If I didn’t add a role you’d like a plain-English definition for, tag me and let me know.
In essence, these three types of design have a lot of similarities. They are largely visual mediums that are concerned with effective communication, for example. They are also (and should be) judged largely on their measurable performance and not by subjective internal opinion. But it’s fair to say that, in practice, they differ more greatly than they overlap which is why designers tend not to fill all of these roles simultaneously.
To be clear: these are not the only types of design out there in the world. There are many other delicious flavors of creativity one can pursue, but it’s these three that are most commonly funded and hired in both startups and large businesses. Typically, Product Design is treated as one umbrella of work, while Marketing and Brand Design are treated like another. When it comes down to it, you wind up having only two functional work tracks.
As you may expect, the purpose of a Product Design team is to build thoughtful, usable, successful products for the business. Product Design teams tend to hire Product Designers (of course), but also may hire UI, UX, Design System, Visual, and other types of designers. They’ll also oftentimes have some User Researchers on the team unless there is a distinct and separate Research team with its own manager. Success is determined by product-oriented KPIs, such as conversion rates, number of users, revenue-per-user, and more.
The easiest way to define this type of work is to think about all of the design needed to promote a tech product that isn’t the product itself. Usually, you see Marketing Design teams focused on building advertisements, landing pages, and even content marketing. If you join a Marketing Design team, expect to do a little bit of everything, but rarely will you touch the products themselves.
Depending on the business you work for, there may be different leaders who believe they do/should own the brand. Most frequently, the Marketing team thinks they’re the owners because they believe the brand is defined through communication. In other words, the marketing team makes the public feel a certain way about the brand through advertising, copywriting, and other non-product activities. You may have guessed already, but this isn’t entirely accurate. This topic deserves a much longer, much more in-depth write-up to help fully articulate my thoughts about where brands truly are defined, but I’ll abbreviate for you: the brand of the company or the product is characterized by mutual efforts across Marketing, Product Design, and many other seemingly-unrelated factors of the business. But (and this is a huge but), Brand Design is typically a very small grouping of crafts and output that define a logo, a color palette, the way the brand speaks and sounds, icons, and other materials that exist for the sake of continuity and templatization so that everybody doing design within the business makes sure everything looks like it came from the same place.
In looking for a job, you may be struggling to figure out where to turn to. Watching TV or YouTube, you’re likely to see seasonal ads for websites like Indeed, Ziprecruiter, and others. Are these worth your time? Sometimes, but not always. Not in tech, not in design.
So where do you start? Well, let’s look at the best and most-common resources to streamline your job hunt.
To successfully leverage a job search engine you must first identify the role you’re looking for. It may seem obvious, but the exact role, the exact title, and the exact seniority level differ from company to company despite being functionally equivalent. Some companies, like Facebook, even forgo titles like “Senior” and instead opt for leveling in the vein of “IC3” or “IC6.” A great way to get a handle on the specific level you’re looking for is to check out Levels.fyi. Here, you will get a sense of how large tech companies level their Product Designers. You will notice that at the time this was written, Facebook is using “IC” with a number, while Salesforce is using descriptors like “Associate” and “Senior.” The latter method is much more commonplace, especially among smaller companies.
Second, start a job search. The most effective way I’ve found to locate up-to-the-day relevant job postings is Google. Yes, the king of search is also the king of job search. It’s broader than LinkedIn or any other site-specific search utility because it looks at everything available. Here’s how you leverage Google for a great job search:
- Go to google and type in the role and general area you’d like to work in. My screenshot below shows Product Design Jobs in San Francisco, which helps narrow down the search for more specificity. If you’re looking to work remotely, try typing in “Remote Product Design Jobs.” Just include the word “jobs” and Google will help you out.
- Where it says the word “Jobs” in the search results headline—Click that. It’ll take you to the Job Search interface.
- Once in the Job Search interface, you’ll see a lot more options for filtering your search. Get to filtering! Narrow down your search more by title, location, and even company type.
- Once the filters are set up the way you like, turn on New Job Alerts (bottom-left corner). This will give you a daily email, to your Google-registered email address, and is literally the most powerful and effective digest of new jobs you can get your hands on today.
- Every day, look for that new email and click on it. You can then apply for the roles that match what you’re truly interested in.
Another method commonly leveraged to start a job hunt is to try to gauge the quality of the business you’re looking into. One of the most common ways to do that, as a potential employee, is to look at Glassdoor.com. It just so happens to be a job-listing site as well, but not all companies post their jobs there (hence why I recommend using Google search).
You may be tempted to look up the company you’re interested in to see how their current employees rank them, but before you do that let me explain the intention behind Glassdoor vs the reality of Glassdoor.
The intention of Glassdoor is to allow employees to share what it’s really like to work at a company. The good and the bad, the work-life balance, the payscale, the quality of the benefits, the perks, etc. As a potential employee, you could look at all of this information and decide if you truly want to work at a given company.
The reality of Glassdoor (and all similar company-rating websites) is, much like most ratings-driven tools, it’s very polarizing. HR teams will regularly send out mass emails to all employees encouraging them to write reviews about the business (with the subtext that it should be positive to help them recruit more wonderful teammates), and so what you get are some businesses with a massive amount of positive 5-star reviews. Simultaneously, disgruntled current and former employees will write 1-star reviews of the same company. Sometimes, businesses will even flag those 1-star reviews as “containing confidential information” in an attempt to get them removed.
Whether valid or not, those 5-star and 1-star reviews are not trustworthy and are almost never accurate reflections of the true reality of working anywhere. If you are looking to venture into Glassdoor territory, only read the middle-of-the-road reviews: the 2, 3, and 4-stars. People giving average reviews will oftentimes be much more objective with their feedback and help paint a more realistic picture of a workplace.
Coincidentally, this same rating phenomenon is also why Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” lists are questionable. I know people who work in some of Glassdoor’s winners’ list companies who would not describe them as great places to work. These lists are PR stunts and do not accurately reflect the day-to-day experience you’ll likely have.
Recommendations & Referrals:
Yet another resource leveraged in job hunts is to pull the Recommendation card with a friend or former coworker. I’ll start this subsection off with a bold statement that is worth your attention.
Being recommended for a job by somebody on the inside of the company is the most powerful way of getting it.
Companies will always prioritize the recommendations of top-performing employees over random, anonymous applicants. The reason is quite simple: if the company already trusts the performance of a given employee, and they trust that employee with company secrets, then the word of that employee is more trustworthy as well. So if the employee says “So-and-so would be great for this job,” there is some weight to that.
With that said, you may be wondering, “how do I get a recommendation or a referral?” Here are some easy tips for success:
- You need to actually know somebody working within that company. Do not expect to reach out to a random employee whom you’ve never met or connected with in the past just to ask for a recommendation. How can somebody who doesn’t know you legitimately recommend you for a job?
- You need to also know somebody who works in or near the department you want the job within. In the case of Product Design, if you know somebody working in Design, Engineering, Product, User Research, or Data then you’ll find more success than somebody working in a disparate function like HR, Bizdev, Marketing, etc.
- Reach out to the person you actually know and be very candid: “Dearest buddy, I am interested in the role of Junior Product Designer at your company. Can you tell me more about it, and would you be willing to recommend me for the job or put me in touch with the Hiring Manager?”
- If connected to the Hiring Manager, your number-one priority is to get a 15-minute video chat. You are not “interviewing” for the job, you are having a video chat to ask questions about the role. The Hiring Manager may be too busy for this, but 15 minutes is also pretty quick. By keeping the ask for less than 15 minutes, it seems like less of a burden. If the conversation goes well, they’ll want to keep talking to you.
- During that 15-minute chat, your number-one priority is to understand who they are as a leader and what they’re looking for in a winning candidate. Then, if all sounds good to you, your job becomes to highlight the ways your qualities and experience suit the needs of the role. Also, it may be easier said than done, but in this conversation, you want to be yourself; do not pretend to be a person you are not. If you are fun, be fun. If you are serious about your work, let that come through. Being real is attractive.
When trying to hire for a role, some businesses will work with Recruiters. There are two types of Recruiters with massively different incentive structures. But first, let’s define what a Recruiter does:
Recruiters exist to help a company fill a role or a set of roles. That’s it. They get paid to identify good candidates, either by sorting through applications or doing proactive outreach and then helping usher those candidates through the hiring process.
- Internal Recruiters (also called Talent Acquisition). These are actual employees of a business, and they earn a salary. Sometimes they earn bonuses based on their efficiency or how successful they were at filling roles, but largely they are paid just like every other employee of the business. They will typically not be interested in proactively selling you as a candidate, but they do want to fill the role they’ve been trusted with. So, if you reach out to a recruiter at a company, they will likely answer some questions and possibly connect you with the people working on the role you’re interested in. You can also expect that reaching out to an internal recruiter may be met with silence. It’s not that they don’t care about your desire to get a job at their company, it’s that they’re too busy to deal with you as an individual. Don’t take it personally.
- External Recruiters. These are recruiters who work on contract, sometimes by themselves and sometimes as an employee of a recruiting agency. Most typically, they only make money when they land a candidate in an open role. Their earnings are usually a percentage of the candidate’s first year’s salary (usually 15–30%). You can see how this incentivizes certain behaviors from external recruiters: they will be much more energized to place candidates in a role (they only eat if they sell), and they will be much more likely to pump up the salary range you’re asking for. I have personally had multiple external recruiters tell me a candidate was looking for $10–20k more than what the candidate told me directly. Remember: this is a strategy. The more the candidate makes, the more they make. But this is a double-edged sword because a company may not have the appetite for a candidate suddenly priced higher than they’ve budgeted.
So, which is better to work with? Are you better off in the hands of an Internal or External recruiter? The truth is that you will likely work with both and they are not at war with one another. The Internal Recruiter will be there to help you along the way, but will not necessarily be your champion, fighting for you to get the job. Meanwhile, the External Recruiter will be your champion and make plenty of noise to get you the job you want but might be slightly overzealous in their methods.
For best results, be proactive and reach out to both Internal and External Recruiters. But with Internal Recruiters, don’t reach out to inquire about a specific job right away. Instead, reach out to build a relationship first. Let them know who you are, what motivates you, and what companies you’re interested in. For example, if you want to work at Shopify, you might locate an Internal Recruiter on LinkedIn with an InMail and let them know you’d like to have a quick video chat or phone call—not about a specific job, but about you as a designer. You’ll ask what they look for in design hires, what roles they might have coming up in the future, and how you might best prepare yourself to be their perfect candidate.
Remember: When thinking of External Recruiters, it’s important to build relationships with those who are primarily focused on Product Design/UX Design—these are going to be the people who know how the industry works, where you might best fit in, and what you’re worth. And, to be quite frank, I’ve had the most beneficial relationships with smaller recruiting agencies. The big ones tend to saddle their staff with so many candidates that you get lost in the shuffle, whereas the smaller recruiting agencies really get to know you as a candidate and think about your success. In fairness, recruiting firms like Robert Half have made strides in recent years to make sure their recruiters are more focused on great candidate experiences. But still, if I had to recommend a place to start, it would be with smaller recruiters.
My Favorite Recruiters
A few of my favorite “small” recruiters:
I can’t overstate the value of working with them. They’ve each been very caring about my experience and my well-being, both as a job-seeker and as a hiring manager. None of them actively tries to sell me new services when I’m not hiring, implying they are busy enough to not have to upsell. That bodes well for job-seeking candidates; a busy recruiter has plenty of work, which means they’re good at their job.
Although I have already recommended knowing more about/identifying the company (or companies) you’d like to work at, it’s worth doing a breakdown of the pros and cons of each type of business known to leverage Product Designers. After all, you may think you want to work at a Tech Giant, Startup, or Design Agency until you realize the trade-offs you make along the way. To keep this section snappy, I’ve split each into relative Pros and Cons. You may disagree with some of them (i.e. you may view a Pro as a Con, or vice-versa) so remember: this entire piece is filtered through my own lens based on what I believe and have seen in my career.
Working at a Tech Giant
Gigantic Fortune 50 companies like Meta, Amazon, Google, Microsoft (and the like) have thousands of employees, and with them come pretty sizeable design departments.
- Large companies have large design departments, equating to more job opportunities.
- Can usually pay higher salaries than startups or agencies.
- Most likely to have yearly bonuses.
- Most likely to have signing/sign-on bonuses.
- Your work is more likely to affect larger populations of people. Imagine designing something used by millions of Microsoft customers!
- Part of your compensation might be based on publicly-traded stock. Larger companies tend to have more stable stock prices (it may not seem like it in the Fall of 2022, but historically prices tend to remain stable and grow pretty consistently).
- Your design work is not likely to be all that impactful to the bottom line. If you’re nervous about screwing up and ruining the company, the likelihood of that happening is very small.
- The company is so large that it’s unlikely to suddenly go out of business. Most large, publicly-traded companies (though not all) are profitable.
- Layoffs, historically, tend to be uncommon (even though in 2022 lots of layoffs are happening). So, if you get a job at a large company, you’re probably safe longer-term, ESPECIALLY if your job is close to where the revenue comes from.
- Having a large company on your resume can be very meaningful to your career growth, even if you didn’t necessarily do anything exciting there. When people see “Product Designer at Apple,” they don’t care that you toiled away on an internal FAQ tool for repair technicians to use (not to diminish such work). They’ll instead imagine that maybe you had some impact on the sexy new consumer product Apple released…and you don’t need to correct them unless they ask.
- Lots of designers within the company means less ownership of important projects. You’re a small fish in a big pond, owning small fragments of projects. There’s almost no variety to be found here—you may spend years working on optimizing the search box of a mobile app to increase Average Searches per User by 1%.
- Levels can be confusing. Instead of a“Senior”, you may be an “IC3.”
- Much more bureaucracy than you’d typically see at a startup — managers above managers above managers, and unless you’re part of the top brass most managers may not even know you exist.
- Interview processes tend to take a lot longer—sometimes 5, 6, 7, or more rounds of interviews with totally different groups of people, many of whom you may or may not ever see again once hired. Bigger almost never means “more efficient” in any category, especially in interviews.
- Because part of your compensation might be based on publicly-traded stock, the value of that stock can change wildly based on the whims of the stock market. One day it’s worth $10,000, the next it’s worthless. Recent drops in the stock market have really underscored this point.
- Many bonuses and stock grants have a vesting schedule or clawback clause built in. I.e. you can keep the money you’ve been given, but it’s only technically yours after you’ve worked there for 1, 2, or even 4 years. If you quit or you’re fired, you owe the money back (or simply never get it).
- Your design work is not likely to be all that impactful to the bottom line. If you’re interested in making a difference, you may be disappointed in how unimportant you are.
- When layoffs do happen (although they are historically uncommon) they affect hundreds if not thousands of employees. This can be very scary. You can see whole departments or whole offices disappear in an instant. Recent (as of Q3 2022) layoffs have been a reminder of this.
- Larger companies tend to be less flexible about WFH.
- If at your last job at a startup you were an Executive Creative Director, the large company may decide that based on your experience you are only really qualified to be a Design Manager. In other words, the carry-over of skills and titles is not necessarily 1:1.
- Your manager has less wiggle room when it comes to your salary because salary bands are established by groups of executives and applied as sweeping rules across the company. You can’t easily negotiate with your manager because he/she has no salary power beyond a recommendation to higher-ups.
- Most tech companies are still heavily centralized in certain areas. I.e. Apple is in Northern California (for the most part). Although more strides are being made to really decentralize the workforce, the fact they have official headquarters means they’ll never truly abandon the idea of “Working from HQ.” That means you’ll probably need to live nearby. Changes in WFH attitudes in late 2022 have also clarified that though some large companies (like Meta) are willing to let go of office space to reduce costs and support remote workers, there will always be a set of official headquarters where the company technically lives, and the further away from it you live the less visible you are to them.
Working in Startups
If working at a large company doesn’t seem like your calling, perhaps working at a smaller company does.
- An immense amount of autonomy. You will be able to, and expected to, self-direct and wear lots of hats. Some people thrive in such a role. Work-life balance, who needs it?!
- For the most part, you’re focused on a specific product or service.
- Much of your pay might be rooted in large shares of private equity. If the company succeeds (by being bought, or going public through IPO), your share of equity might be worth quite a lot of money.
- The earlier you join the startup in its fundraising, the more equity you stand to receive.
- For those who like working in smaller teams, you can really get to know your coworkers and build great lasting relationships together. Studies have shown that small groups of tight-knit people who go through shared struggles tend to forge lasting bonds, too…meaning your startup buddies could become lifelong friends.
- If you’re the first designer hired into a startup, you can usually pick your title. Maybe today you feel like being a Senior Product Designer even though you’ve never had a product design job before. Heck, maybe you feel like you’re a Chief Design Officer. Who cares! Just get to designing, k?
- The work you do will have a direct impact on the success or failure of the company. No pressure!
- Your design vision, and your design ideas, are much more likely to be seriously considered.
- You’ll probably talk to the CEO on a regular basis, even if they aren’t your direct manager. That level of transparency and communication can be amazing.
- A greater willingness to support remote work. Some startups are 100% remote, allowing you to live anywhere in the US or maybe even the world and still have a fulfilling career.
- A greater willingness to support changes in life. For example, paid paternity leave might not be an official company policy, but your manager might choose to support some necessary time off with your newborn baby simply because you’re valued as a teammate.
- Most startups fail.
- You’re stuck working on one product or brand. There is limited variety, which can be problematic for those who really want it.
- Your salary will tend to be lower than at a large company unless the startup is very well-funded by VC.
- You’re less likely to receive signing bonuses or yearly bonuses.
- Your benefits and perks are a crapshoot. Sometimes startups have great benefits packages because they’re cheaper to cover 10 employees vs 10,000. Other times they’re abysmal.
- Much of your pay might be rooted in large shares of private equity. If the startup fails, that means you not only got paid less in salary, but you also received shares of equity that were ultimately worthless and spent years of your life on something that went nowhere.
- Furthermore, because much of your pay might be rooted in private equity, even if the business doesn’t explicitly “fail” your equity may become worthless as a result of a down round. When fellow employees see their equity’s promise of value vanish, they tend to quit unless they receive new stock grants at the new lower price point (unlikely) or they receive significant increases in pay (also unlikely).
- You will wear a lot of hats. On Monday you might be designing something, while on Tuesday you may be in charge of user research, and on Wednesday you may be writing code. Some people can’t maintain this type of stress.
- The 5 years you spent working at this weirdly-named, never-heard-of startup may be meaningless in the grand scheme of your career and your resume even though you personally enjoyed your time there and grew immensely as a person and a professional.
- It’s guaranteed that the CEO will meddle in your work, and they will know that you’re the one doing it. You may find yourself conducting weekly design reviews with just the CEO, who will approve or reject your work despite having no real qualifications to judge Design.
- Startups can be notoriously cut-throat. You might be doing great, and you might be a valuable and impactful contributor, but if one executive doesn’t like you they might find a way to get rid of you. Remember: in a startup, everyone is desperately working to turn the company into a cash machine, and if you seem to be in between an executive and their promised riches you may be disposed of.
Working at a Design Agency
Perhaps regular businesses or tech aren’t right for you. Perhaps you’d like to work at a company that exists solely to produce great design. Perhaps you’d like to win some design awards, for a change! Design agencies often promise laser focus on quality…but naturally they aren’t for everyone.
- Design agencies tend to be started/operated by a designer. This usually affects the quality of their output and the expectations of the work produced under their banner.
- You’ll work amongst like-minded professionals, most of whom will also be designers. You can learn a lot from seasoned professionals.
- Lots of variety of projects. You may have clients of all types, looking for work of all types. If variety is your thing, you might love it!
- Some design agencies are highly specialized. If you really like building fun websites or clever apps, there might be an agency that does just that (and only that).
- Some design agencies are really marketing agencies or ad agencies, run by a marketer or advertiser. They weren’t started to explicitly achieve “great design” so much as to help clients sell products. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it may not be what you think you’re signing up for.
- The sheer variety of projects thrown at you could be overwhelming.
- You don’t get to pick your clients. You are simply assigned a project or a client, and you simply do whatever is needed to support them. It’s possible you wind up the lead designer for a company that you personally find immoral, and yet your livelihood depends on supporting them.
- You have to track every minute of every project. Your company lives or dies based on billable hours, so make sure you also track the time you spend thinking about a project.
- Unless you’re a partner at the agency, your payment will be lower than what you’d probably find at both large companies and startups. However, you may find that you are more creatively fulfilled. In this case, you’ll have to weigh what’s important to you.
- Deadlines are set by the client (usually arbitrarily). You may oftentimes find yourself in a holiday crunch to help get a website out in order to meet that deadline, pulling you away from family time. Anecdotally, there is a stereotype about high divorce rates among design agency employees.
So where should you work?
That’s up to you. By now, you’ll recognize that no industry is perfect. That dream job never winds up being the dream you thought it’d be in the end, but don’t let that make you a cynic. Being armed with the knowledge thus far, you’ll be better equipped to make a targeted choice that works well for your life and future plans, and you’ll be a well-informed realist who understands that a job is a job.
The topic of compensation is, on its surface, quite simple: you want to be paid as much as possible for doing as little as possible.
In “Section 1.4.: Big Companies, Startups, Agencies — The Differences” we covered many of the pros and cons in relation to compensation, noting that larger companies tend to be able to pay more while agencies tend to pay the least. In this section, let’s break the topic down further into focused examples.
Product Design Compensation among Large Companies
It’s already been said: you’re going to make the most money at large companies. Period. None of the money you make will be driven by a windfall IPO moment, but instead will simply be a part of your compensation package.
Using levels.fyi, we can see some examples of large company salaries. I’ve focused on Google as one such example. It’s worth noting that Levels.fyi is very engineering-leaning. That said, much of the tech industry has begun to compensate lower-level Product Designers similarly to Engineers, allowing us to infer some level of equivalency in the data.
The data in the above chart shows an L3 employee at Google. This is not an entry-level employee; they are described elsewhere as “Designer II,” which is somewhere around a mid-level Product Designer. However, again, this data is likely skewed by Engineering to some extent, so let’s zero in on just an L3 Product Designer:
As we see above, on average the base compensation hovers around $125k/year, with a stock grant at about $29k and an annual bonus of about $19k. Stock grants cannot usually be cashed out year after year; you usually want to hold onto those long-term to see them appreciate. So for all intents and purposes, the yearly take-home before taxes for this level is about $145k.
If we compare that to the average startup, it tends to track higher (see Startup Compensation below), but not by a wild amount. That said, more money is more money.
Looking at other data, we can plan for career growth. Once again focused on Google, but considering the L5 Product Designer aka a Senior Product Designer, we can see that base salary jumps by about $50k/year with bonus nearly doubling. Stock grant makes up quite a bit more of the compensation package, but again that is not money that can be cashed out right away. For all intents and purposes, the yearly take-home before taxes for this L5/Senior Product Designer is about $210k.
Product Design Compensation among Startups
Because startups are private companies, it’s more challenging to gather accurate salary data. Some employees of startups will intentionally over-exaggerate, or even under-exaggerate, their compensation on websites like Glassdoor. Because of this, the most accurate data is going to come from services that help startups understand what they should be paying their employees, given an average of similar startups. Pave is one such service. According to Pave (an industry compensation tracker), startup compensation among Product Designer roles has been seeing an increase as of late. However, this data is from 2021, before recent tech layoffs began en masse. Still, it’s worth taking a look.
According to the above data, most Product Design jobs saw a small increase in average pay (perhaps driven partially by inflation and partially by the Great Resignation), though the P2 designers (usually billed simply as Product Designers without a designation like “Senior” or “Staff”) actually saw an average decrease. Furthermore, a data point not visualized but mentioned in Pave’s article notes:
For junior designers, compensation hasn’t changed much. In fact, for P1, entry-level designers, compensation has decreased YoY. This isn’t surprising considering how much new talent looking to gain experience has entered the market in the last year.
Other Methods to Gauge Compensation
One other valuable, though somewhat limited method to determine fair pay for the role you’re seeking is to visit Salary.Design, which is a user-submitted survey of roles, levels, regions, and of course salaries. Like other user-submitted compensation data (as I’ve mentioned before) you should take this data with some degree of skepticism. But, when reviewed on average, you can get a sense of what your role is worth in the region you’re looking to work.
Compensation for Remote Work
The rise of remote work has created some challenging compensation conundrums for designers and businesses. My personal point of view is that a role is equally valuable to a business no matter where the person fulfilling the needs of that role may reside. In other words, the output is worth some price point to the company whether the person doing the work is in San Francisco or Miami. However, businesses don’t always see things this way, and even if they do they are sometimes bound by local regulations (or legal concerns) that set the fair market value of a role based on physical locale — a business in Los Angeles might have to assume the fair market value of that role is whatever it costs, on average, to fill it in Los Angeles with local people, and then carry that salary out even to remote workers.
Using a similar philosophy, some businesses have decided to adjust salaries based on the residence of the remote employee. This is unfavorable to the employee but beneficial to the business, which may subsequently favor candidates in less-expensive areas of the country (or world) to keep their budgets happy.
Compensation in Summary
Thus far, what we’ve shown is that entry-level and lower-level Product Designers have salaries that are roughly similar between Large Companies and Startups (with Large companies offering a slightly better wage), but that more-senior Product Designers see their salaries on average increase quite a bit at those Large Companies. In other words, the ratio of pay between Large Companies and Startups grows ever wider as your seniority increases. However, what the charts don’t tell you is Startups will give you equity—if the startup grows and sells, that equity may be worth quite a bit more than the large company. For some people, the promise of a windfall can be exciting, but for others, it can be a total liability.
If you are starting out in Product Design, perhaps straight out of school or as a new career path you’d like to explore, the promise of a Design Bootcamp can be very attractive: compared to a larger University or Trade School, you pay relatively less money and come out the other end of the Bootcamp with a certification that you are qualified to be a Product Designer. Sounds great, right? Well, in my experience the truth is almost always less glittery.
Having personally received hundreds, if not thousands of resumes from purportedly-qualified Product Designers who basically just went to a Design Bootcamp I believe that many graduates of these programs are quite simply being fleeced. Here’s why I believe that:
- Design Bootcamps exist to turn a profit. They are in the business of enrolling as many candidates as possible for as much money as they can get away with. It’s a business, after all, but you cannot fault a business for trying to make money…unless it’s to the detriment of its customers.
- Bootcamps are very quick. Often dubbed as immersives or intensives, the Design Bootcamp will throw a ton of information at you in about 10–13 weeks. It’s challenging, nigh impossible, to truly develop design taste in that period of time.
- Bootcamps are largely focused on skill development and software proficiency, NOT the development of taste and thinking. Going to a Bootcamp to learn about a software program (with that as your core goal) is wonderful and I highly recommend it. But if your goal is to learn how to be a Product Designer, you will be left wanting. Successful product design is perhaps only 25% about using the software. The remaining 75% is soft skills, well-developed taste, competent user empathy, an understanding of statistics and data, and much more. These are things you cannot cram into a person in 13 weeks. More on the importance of taste later on in this article.
- Not all Bootcamp types are created equal. A Coding Bootcamp is much more likely to net you a job writing code than a Design Bootcamp, largely because coding is seen as a skill while good design is largely influenced by well-developed taste. Try doing a google search to determine the employment rate of Design Bootcamp graduates and you will A) find that the vast majority of results are marketing blog posts from Bootcamps themselves or from websites that promote the general industry and B) find that nearly all of the posts are about Coding Bootcamps.
- Having spoken to many graduates of Bootcamps, anecdotally the biggest focus of the course is to create a few demo projects and then build a portfolio, using the projects as case studies. In building the projects you will be given a hypothetical scenario (e.g. design an app to help users schedule therapy appointments) and hand-held through the process of identifying your target audience, creating user personas, wireframing your ideas, testing these ideas (with fellow classmates), designing a high-fidelity design, and then prototyping it. You’ll be told that these are just as good as real projects because you went through all the steps, just like professionals do. Then, you’ll compile these into a portfolio built on Squarespace or Wix and you’ll believe you’re ready to land a high-paying job in tech. You aren’t ready.
Again, the preceding is my opinion based on my real-world experiences. Can some people go into a Design Bootcamp, develop a decent portfolio, and then land a job? Of course! But the people who have done this already have some design experience. Perhaps they have played with app design before on their own, or they have been avid consumers of design RSS feeds. An individual with no exposure to Product Design before who suddenly, on a whim, decided Product Design sounded like a great career shift—this person is not likely to succeed in a Design Bootcamp and find a great job afterward.
Additionally, if you do attend a Design Bootcamp, please temper your expectations. Your 13 weeks of Bootcamp will not qualify you for a Senior Product Designer role. By all means, do apply to roles that you might feel underqualified for, but keep your expectations in check. The best you are likely to do, with only a Design Bootcamp under your belt, is an entry-level role. For many, that’s more than enough. But for some, they may be surprised that the Bootcamp didn’t pay off in the way they’d hoped.
The difference between a mediocre Product Designer and a great Product Designer is largely one of well-developed taste. Sadly, a Bootcamp is not going to help you develop a lifetime of good taste in just 13 weeks. Speaking of taste…
In the prior section, I briefly mentioned the importance of taste, and that it’s not something a BootCamp can download into your brain in 13 weeks. Before we discuss portfolios, let’s first discuss taste—what it is, why it matters, and how you develop it. Then, we’ll segue into portfolios because taste impacts your portfolio.
Taste. What it is.
Perhaps the best way to describe taste is to first describe what it isn’t. Taste is not “best practices.” Taste is not the latest trend. Taste is not what you see on the home page of Dribbble. Taste is not craftsmanship. Taste is not what a stranger thinks is good. Taste is not homogeny. Taste is not a template you download when you’re out of ideas.
Instead, taste is kind of all of those things. It’s all of those ingredients…but applied through the wisdom you’ve built up over time, filtered through your own personal lens. It is, in a way, your aesthetic, your style, and your point of view, but executed in a way that lands with such impact that the quality and the appropriateness are undeniably correct.
To use a tired analogy, tasteful design is a lot like tasteful cooking. In the kitchen, anybody can learn how to use the tools—how to chop, how to turn the oven on, how to put out a fire when they burn the chicken. Children learn this stuff. After you learn the kitchen tools, you start learning about ingredients. Again, anybody can mix ingredients together, but only some ingredients pair well with others. When children first start playing with ingredients, they make some pretty bad food. Just…inedible things. They do this because they haven’t sampled enough things and made enough inedible garbage in their lives to learn what works; to learn what tastes good. But, over time, after innumerable failures and chicken fires, they start to figure it out. They start to realize that certain flavors should never be combined and that others are always good together. Given enough time and practice, those children you’ve unwisely entrusted with full access to a dangerous kitchen, well they start to produce delicious food.
Over time (years and years) in the kitchen, the cook becomes so wise that they evolve beyond simply producing edible meals. They’re no longer focused on making simple omelets, spaghetti, and unburnt chicken. They start to develop a point of view. Perhaps they become obsessed with the power of balsamic vinegar, or the way citrus can affect different vegetables, or they choose to drive around the country in a classic red car eating greasy food. Whatever it may become, it’s their perspective that defines their value as a cook, and that’s the reason people begin to long to eat their food. Any cook at your local restaurant can whip up an edible meal, but it’s the wisdom to craft an amazing recipe that makes somebody a star chef.
Bringing the analogy back to the world of design, a new designer is just like that Kitchen Child™. A designer can be taught the tools, but this isn’t taste. A designer can play with ingredients, but this isn’t taste. Given enough time, a designer can begin to produce things that work, that are objectively good, and that are just like the standard omelets, spaghetti, and unburnt chicken. This is, unfortunately, also not taste. Businesses do not long to hire these types of designers. These types of designers produce work of equivalent quality to templates on Canva or Vistaprint (not to diminish the value of templates). That’s not you, or at least that’s not who you want to be seen as.
To slightly reiterate my point from the perspective of a musician (not a cook), here’s a video of Finneas speaking about taste.
Now, this is where the cooking analogy falls apart. Cooking (and maybe music production) and design are not the same things for one simple reason: the purpose of cooking is for eating — for sustenance to maintain life and hopefully be joyful and delightful at the same time. Design, on the other hand, is about effective communication. Product Design is about effective communication by building effective tools and experiences for an end user. Cooks want to feed people, product designers want to enable people. Similar, but different.
Why Taste Matters
Quite simply: taste defines your impact, and impact defines your value. Speaking personally about my own hiring practices, I have seen thousands of resumes and portfolios over the years. Thousands. But I recall only a scant handful of them. Those that I recall were impactful, memorable, interesting, and—yes—tasteful. Skills can be taught, but taste cannot be. Hence, most of the best hires I’ve ever made, and the best people I’ve ever worked with and continue to go back to again and again, are those who have great taste. They then pair that taste with either incredible skill or the clear aptitude to learn incredible skill. Again, I can teach skill. Skill can be learned. You’re great for having skills, but better—and memorable—for having taste.
Taste is a byproduct of a number of different traits, all of which are also valuable: cleverness, intrigue, passion, wit, self-awareness, empathy…the list goes on. Software skill doesn’t bring you cleverness. Nor does it reflect your passion. Nor does it bring you self-awareness and empathy for your user. These things are developed over time, and over time you develop taste.
How to Develop Taste
Time + persistence × (opportunity × exposure) = Taste.
I made that formula up. It’s not real. But I can explain, I promise.
First, to develop taste you need time. Time to play around. Time to try new things. Time to fail over and over again until you realize what makes sense, what works, what solves real problems, and what ingredients go together. And yes, time also allows you to build skill.
Second, you need persistence. Persistence is the willingness to keep going, even through failures. It’s the byproduct of passion and genuine interest in what you’re doing. So many brilliant, capable people never reach their fullest potential purely out of a lack of persistence.
Third, you need opportunity and exposure. Opportunity is very much a factor of luck—the opportunity to use digital tools, the opportunity to visit art museums, the opportunity to access high-speed internet, and the opportunity to download and use lots of apps. Such opportunities are not evenly distributed to all mankind, which is one reason why less than 3% of all designers identify as Black. Exposure is a byproduct of opportunity, meaning opportunity intensifies the value of exposure. Exposure is, plainly, how much design you have been exposed to (good or bad—both count).
So, you’ll need lots of time. More than 13 weeks, I’d say. At least a few years or so. Then, during that time, you’ll need to be doing design work and persisting through the valleys of despair and failure. Along the way, you need the opportunity to have the time and the opportunity to have the tools to be exposed to lots of different design and new ideas. Over time, you will subsequently develop taste.
How Taste Applies to Your Portfolio
I told you I’d get here…eventually.
Within the field of design, it’s well understood that you need a portfolio in order to apply for and land a job. Hiring managers and bosses want to take a look at your portfolio and get an understanding of what you can do. They look at your portfolio and imagine that you’d apply that same work quality to the work you’d do with them.
That, as they say, is the rub. A portfolio cannot represent the work you’d do in the future because you don’t have a time machine and you’re not psychic (unless you do have a time machine, and you are psychic, in which case please email me). Because you can’t peer into the future, you can’t solve problems that do not yet exist using design systems yet to be built for customers you are yet to have.
On top of that, recruiters reportedly spend just 3 minutes looking at your portfolio, while hiring managers reportedly spend only 5–10 minutes. This results in you having very little time to make a great first impression while also selling your ability to solve future problems. Yikes, that’s hard.
Fortunately, you have taste.
When building your portfolio, consider that reflecting and selling your taste is going to matter more than your specific projects on display. But one other element is crucially important: articulation.
Your ability to articulate why you made certain design decisions and the impact they had on a project’s outcome will reinforce and justify your good taste.
It’s appropriate to say that taste is a subjective concept, but it’s also reasonable to say that your taste can have a massive impact on a product’s success (or failure). Those who do not inherently have the ability to articulate why something is “good taste” or “bad taste” will inevitably still be in a position to judge your work (recruiters, managers, bosses, CEOs) and so your ability to articulate the impact your design decisions had on business objectives will help to sell your vision, skills, and value.
In other words, though these non-designers will be able to feel the taste (which sounds gross, I know), it isn’t enough to simply rely on your work looking good. You will need to explain yourself in ways that go beyond the subjectivity of good taste. You will need to have good taste, but also explain the science behind your tasteful decisions.
Taste in Summary
You may see how taste, which again is highly subjective, is a challenging subject to master and explain. But ironically, tragically, and mystifyingly, it is so important to the value and impact of a designer. And what’s most frustrating is that people without taste will forever tell you how the work you’ve done is not good, but without the benefit of design experience or a design-centered vocabulary to elaborate. This is why articulating your design decisions in scientific, not-so-designy terms, will help you go far. Your portfolio, which reflects your good taste, is your primary opportunity to summarize who you are and the impact you can have within a job.
Our last and final section will be brief. Herein, we will discuss your resume and how to prepare yourself to look like a legit designer.
Thoughts on Business Cards
Don’t make these. They are useless, and you will never need them. Just wanted to clear that up right from the get-go. In school, you might be excited to design business cards for yourself and have all these clever ideas in your head, but within the realm of digital design, there is absolutely no need to spend time and money to produce a business card for yourself.
The Purpose of a Designer’s Resume
Going into this, I’ll assume you know what a Resume is. That said, a Designer’s Resume is different from a Regular Resume. That key difference is that a Designer’s Resume needs to look like it was made by a designer. Surprising, I know.
When making a Resume for yourself, this is yet another opportunity to show off your design chops. In fact, the Resume is your first chance to show a Recruiter and/or a Hiring Manager that you know how to design. Using your Designer’s Toolkit, you’ll already know about visual hierarchy, proper text formatting, designing for legibility and readability, and more core principles…all of which you’ll want to put into your Resume.
The Makings of a Great Resume
There are a million articles and instructional videos discussing how to build and format a great resume, but these are created for the 90% of the world who aren’t designers. For them, the resume is just a list to be ingested into a recruiting system. You are not like them, you are a designer. So let’s discuss what should, and should not, be part of your resume.
- Make your name nice, large, and stylish
- Include your basic contact information: phone number, email address, LinkedIn URL, and URL for your portfolio
- List the job experiences that are relevant and most recent. Just the latest 3–4 will do fine unless you worked someplace really special a long time ago.
- Include the company you worked for, your job titles, and the years you worked there. You don’t need to include the months. E.g. “Web Designer, Magazine Website Inc, 2020–2021”
- Explain your job functions briefly and emphasize the outcomes you affected. E.g. “Worked on Magazine Website’s registration system. Designed a new sign-up form that resulted in a 200% increase in user registrations.”
- Include your education and the degree you received, if any. E.g. “School of Cool Dudes, 2018–2020, BFA in Coolness.”
- Include a 1–2 sentence description of yourself. This is what you write that adequately communicates your value in the case that nobody reads any other part of the resume. E.g. “Product Designer with 2 years of experience in Web and Mobile app design, highly motivated by building efficient and revenue-generating experiences that are also fun to use. I especially love working in community-centric products, where I feel I add a lot of value.”
- Include what’s interesting about you as an individual, but as a small 1–2 sentence quip. E.g. “I’m a fan of Local Hockey Team and never miss a home game, and my favorite thing in the world is my dog, Rambo. I can’t wait to show him to you.”
- Export your resume as a PDF, with fonts embedded.
- Keep your resume to 1 page. This is very important, actually. Not only do you need to demonstrate an ability to keep information simple and easy to absorb (this is critical to being a designer) but you also have to know your audience: hiring managers and recruiters who do not have time to read a multi-page resume.
- Make linkable items actual links. Using Adobe InDesign, you can make blocks of text (such as your email, your website, or your LinkedIn URL) into actual, clickable links. Do this to save your reviewer some meaningful time and demonstrate how forward-thinking you actually are.
- Keep color use to a minimum. Sometimes resumes get printed out on office printers, which don’t always have the greatest color accuracy. You want your resume to reproduce nicely, every time. So, keeping color variety low, and actually leaning heavily into Black & White will ensure your resume looks great no matter what.
- Make your name illegible or overly stylized. Your name is meant to be read, after all. So, don’t overdo it with your name’s aesthetic.
- Include a headshot. What you look like is irrelevant. You’re not auditioning for an acting job.
- Include images or photos. Keep this light and text-centric. You don’t need to include your portfolio in your resume.
- Include skills unless directly relevant to the job description. I.e. if a job is looking for a designer who also knows a bit about photo retouching, include that skill. But otherwise, leave the skill lists out.
- Speaking of skills, do not include skill percentages. What does “75% expert at Figma” even mean? It sounds insane and naive. A reasonably-experienced hiring manager will know that nobody is truly an expert at anything, and if you know Sketch you can learn Figma, etc.
- Outline your fonts. You still want this resume to be read by a resume import system, and you want to support copy-paste functionality from the PDF. So…don’t outline fonts.
- Try to cheat the 1-page rule by scaling font sizes down to a minuscule size. Fonts need to be legible and comfortable to read. I know you feel you have a lot to say, but keep it simple and do not cheat the 1-page rule!
- Export an automated resume from LinkedIn. Yes, it’s true that LinkedIn does have a feature to export your profile as a resume. But it looks like it’s from LinkedIn, and it looks lazy. This is a surefire way to be ignored.
Delivering Your Resume
If you’ve followed the Do’s and Don’ts above, your resume PDF file should come out to about 50–100kb in file size. Tiny! This is easy for including in emails and linking on your web portfolio. Don’t be hesitant to share this when speaking to Recruiters, and don’t wait to be asked for it. Your introductory email to any Recruiter should include it. Even if you message somebody on LinkedIn, you can attach a resume. It’ll simply save everybody time and energy.
Thoughts on Applying to Jobs
In this industry, your best bet is probably not to apply for jobs. We covered some of this in Section 3, where I emphasized that Recruiter relationships and Referrals will garner the greatest success. That said, applying doesn’t necessarily hurt, and there will undoubtedly be roles you want that just don’t have simple paths toward Recruiter and Referral connections. With your resume prepared properly, applying will be more of a breeze. But even so, applying means you’re throwing this resume onto a pile with potentially hundreds of others. Before you submit that application, do what you can to find alternative paths to an interview.
Resumes in Summary
In theory, Resumes are simple. There are, in fact, millions of “Best Resume Templates” available to download and review on the web. But don’t be fooled. Most of these templates are not for designers and will actually harm your prospects—they’re complicated, boring, stiff, and generic. As a designer, your talents for type, hierarchy, layout, and simplicity must be on full display in your resume to even hope for any chance at a new job. Anything less than your best effort will be evident.
There’s so much more to say, so much more to explain about this process that could cover a whole book. Truth be told, many books have been written about similar, if not identical topics. I hope you’ve found some value in these thoughts, guidelines, and recommendations, as they represent many of the tips and tricks I’ve seen go underutilized or ignored by so many talented, promising designers. If you have any recommendations or gripes, please feel free to comment.
To wrap it all up with a bow, think of all you’ve learned:
- What Product Designers do
- How to find the right job for you
- Who to contact about that job
- Where you’d like to work to ensure your success
- How to figure out what you ought to be paid
- That Bootcamps might not be your best bet
- How to prepare your portfolio
- How to set up your resume