You don’t need to be called a designer to be a designer.


Q: Would you take a job without the term ‘designer’ in the title?

A: Absolutely. So should you.

This is a tricky question, because it arrives loaded with a lot of presuppositions:

1: All promotions are good (not true)
2: All jobs have titles (a lot of the best ones don’t)
3: Being called a designer matters (debatable)

I am going to pick apart item 3 and see if I can get you to a place where the title ‘designer’ is the last thing you care about when looking for a role.

My observation is that an overwhelming majority of designers steer their study and then their career toward design because they’re visual people and design is (let’s be honest) a pretty damned great job. This may be a lamentable reason to choose a vocation, but let’s table it for another day and move on. It’s simply true that this is how a lot of us get into our careers.

It can often seem to us — and other people in the organisations in which we work — that our domain is defined by the visual, graphic, interactive, and user experience realms. That seems great initially because it gives us a domain in which we can exert authority and autonomy, but ultimately it may be doing our careers and our organisations more harm than good.

Being a designer isn’t about being called one.

Over the course of a career, a designer will observe a great deal about the world, and will constantly come up with novel solutions to both new and existing probems. But not all of the problems in the world can be solved sitting in front of a Mac. Many of the most important problems are not solved from inside an Adobe product (sorry Adobe!).

Limiting yourself to roles that have the word ‘designer’ in their titles is ultimately going to mean that you’re cutting yourself off from the world of challenging and important things to do that aren’t done inside the corral at a design studio. This isn’t to say titles don’t matter at all (the ever-sensible Daniel Mall has a great piece on this), just that they don’t need the word ‘designer’ in them.

If you limit yourself, you won’t advance, and worse, the organisation won’t learn from you.

It’s also denying the organisations you work with the benefit of your experience. If you are the kind of person who wishes to have a career that advances, accruing more responsibility (and income) as you go, you will notice that there are fewer and fewer roles with the word ‘design’ in the title at the top of most org charts. If you limit yourself, you won’t advance, and worse, the organisation won’t learn from you.


Let me give you a quick aside. For a time in the mid-late 1990s, I worked as a designer in both newspaper and magazine publishing. Publishing was then (and in part remains) an industry that promotes from within — management was largely comprised of former journalists and editors. Designers were very rarely promoted beyond a certain level because they were looked upon as ‘creatives’ whose job it was to push around pixels in Quark Xpress 3.31 (bless) and to get everything out the door by deadline. When the time came that the former journalists in the corner offices realised this internet thing might be a threat to printed publications, they brought people like us into meetings and asked us to make newspapers and magazines, but on-screen.

We did. They sucked.

The reason I tell you this somewhat dispiriting story is because I think that if there had been some people in management with experience broader than the collection and production of news — maybe even some (former) designers, those first online forays might not have sucked so hard, and publishing organisations might not have been cut off at the knees quite as brutally as they have been.

As a designer you accrue experiences through your career that are rare and you develop capabilities that others with whom you work may not have. You can do a lot more with these attributes — help other people, make more money, save an industry!— if you employ them more broadly than just in roles with one particular word in the title.

Being a designer isn’t about being called one — heaven knows we’ve all met “designers” who aren’t capable of original or abstract thought — it’s about being able to identify problems and suggest ways to implement meaningful, useful and practical solutions to those problems.

As you advance through your career you will likely find yourself in a less directly hands-on role — some of us say that means we’re “off the tools” — but don’t think that means you’re not designing. You’re designing at a different level, one where your ability to effect positive change is greater, rather than lesser. And believe me when I tell you that is a great place to be. 📣


Ross Floate works in Melbourne at Floate Design Partners helping clients build sustainable digital capabilities, better products, and damned fine publications.


This post originally appeared at Dear Design Student, a great publication about growing into the field of design, no matter how old you are.

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