I'm not sure I or anyone else have a secret map to offer here, but here are a few thoughts I've found to help when I'm curious or anxious for the future:
- I consider what I generally want to do more or less of.
- Having something to track work against will help me to establish a baseline, progress from and progress towards.
- At the same time, I ask myself if the job, experience, etc. I'm putting in front of myself is going to push me a step towards where I want to be next—furthering the narrative I tell about myself and my work, making it richer in some way.
- I remember that I am in control of my personal narrative, and can tell whatever story I want or need to tell.
- I know that once I get moving (and if I'm lucky, perhaps when I reach any sort of destination imagined), I'll probably then want some different things. I allow space for growth and changing my mind; after all I'll be a bit smarter and will probably see things a bit differently at that point.
To this end, I've offered a few facets below to construct some spectrums for you to understand where you currently are and where you'd prefer to be in your practice. I mix and match them to help me broaden types of jobs I look at and problems I may be interested in pursuing.
Pick the few that are most important to you at this point in your career or design practice. You won't ever get everything you want from every job, so it's up to you to know what is absolutely non-negotiable (Location? Company size? Do they have a bandsaw?) or what may be unrealistic, yet aspirational and worth striving for.
My approach is to build a practice with both breadth and depth, based on what interests me most at this time in my life/career (since I'll be able to sustain my enthusiasm for the challenges that all work brings.)
Remember: compasses, not maps will help you in this ever changing world.
Skills / Capabilities / Methods Employed
- This should align with (1) actual skills you have or can reasonably attain, (2) value you can specifically provide, or (3) deliverables you are comfortable producing, (4) outcomes and impact you can demonstrably realize.
- How much do you need/crave?
Client / Brand
- No name? Multinational? (Is it important to make a name for yourself or to work for an established name?)
Culture & Organizational Structure
- Maturity of the team / department you desire (i.e. non existent, has room for input, willing and able to grow, firmly established, etc.)
- Maturity of other teams (i.e. how engineering-led, product-led, strategy-led, design-led is the company? How much education and fighting will you have to do?)
Location Based / Distributed
- Fully distributed, remote first, remote friendly, hybrid, office based
Number of Employees
- 1 / 3 / 10 / 20 / 50 / 100 / 500 / 1,000 / 90,000 / etc.
Funding/Growth Stage (via)
- Early Venture (before Series A: stealth mode, seed, pre-seed, post-seed, pre-A, seed extension, etc.)
- Series A — this is a very significant stage because it's when the company must transition from a company with a great offering that could scale to a company with a great offering that is rapidly and predictably scaling. Building and de-risking the revenue generating capability is the focus of this stage.
- Mid–Late, Growth or Expansion Stage (post Series A, e.g. Series B, C, D, etc.)
- ...or do you want an even more established and mature company?
- Project Budgets ($, $$, $$$, $$$$)
- Project Duration (days? weeks? months? years?)
- Disciplines involved (Data, Analytics, Research, Strategy, Frontend/Backend Developers, TechOps, QA, Editorial, Content Strategy, Visual Design, Product, Service, Experience, Brand, Marketing, Social, Finance, Legal, Sales, Support, etc.)
- Team size (Will you be a sole contributor or discipline lead overseeing 3 other designers? Is this a 4, 14 or 40 person department?)
- Goals, deliverables, tasks, costs and deadlines
Scale & Involvement*
- Numbers of users/consumers affected. (One, Few, Many, Billions?)
- Ownership and Craft. (Do you want a small piece of a big pie or a big piece of a small pie?)
* In a smaller company, you might own the design of a full brochure for an art gallery or design all UI/UX for an app. If you work for Facebook though, you might work specifically on product features within admin tools for businesses advertising on the platform, which might just affect a billion+ people and millions of brands. Or you can aspire to be the VP of the Like Button! My two cents: It’s easier to work on a large stage and scale back later in life, but would be very tough to start small and scale up to larger clients later on in your practice.
- What timescales excite you? (Days-weeks to launch work? Months? Years?)
- What timescales do you need to work at to accomplish the type of work you want to put out into the world?
- Are you a hedgehog (in-house) or a fox (consultant)?
- Consulting, partnerships, in house, self-funded
Depth and Pace of Change Affected
- Your relationship to the work will typically affect the depth to which you can change an organization, the relationship between an organization and its customers, and the timeframe in which you'll see results.
- How many people and layers are between you and the work?
- What ability do you need to have to affect change within the organization?
- How fleeting the work will be?
- Will it exist for a heartbeat, a minute, a night, a season? Only if someone tunes in, or is it just going on in the background when someone tunes out?
- Automotive; B2B; Beauty; Beer, Wine, Spirits; Cultural Sector; Education; Energy; Entertainment; Fashion; Financial Services; Fine Art; Food & Beverage; Gaming; Government; Health & Wellness; Healthcare & Science; Home, Furniture & Garden; Hospitality; Kids; Luxury; Media & Entertainment; Mobile; Multicultural; Music; News; Nonprofit & NGOs; Pets; Pharmaceutical; Professional Service; Publishing; Public Sector; Real Estate; Retail & Wholesale; Safety & Science; Small Business; Start-Ups; Sports; Sustainable/Green; Tech/IT; Technology & Engineering; Travel & Tourism; Transport
Macro Trends and Forces
- Digital Transformation
- _____ as a Service
- Smart Homes and IoT
- The Future of _____
- Solving any number of the world's most wicked problems (eg)
- D2C, disintermediation of established supply chains, etc...
- Low Code No Code
- Real-time internet
- Insights as Features, Automated Decisions, Edge Intelligence
- Humanity-centered design
- Trust, security, identity, data portability / ownership
- AI applications for 'X'
- Web3, DAOs, Blockchain
- etc, etc, etc...
Below are some examples of boxes checked with certain projects or jobs I've held.
In 2012, while working in house in the marketing department at New York City Ballet, I checked a few boxes for myself:
- Skills / Capabilities / Services employed: Extending and maintaining a Brand Identity Systems (across media including Digital / Print / Environmental / Motion), Print and Large format Signage Specification & Production
- Industry: Arts, Cultural Sector, Nonprofit
- Depth and pace of change affected: days to weeks, seasons; deepening of the relationship to its customers, but little to no structural change of the organization
- Scale: NYC, thousands
Consulting on the digital touch points for American Airlines’ 2015 rebranding, I then checked off:
- Skills / Capabilities / Services employed: Brand Identity Guidelines, Production Specifications & Requirements, Design Direction, Interface Design, UI/UX
- Industry: Transportation
- Depth and pace of change affected: months; surface level—little personal effect on the organization itself
- Scale: Millions
In 2019, I was consulting to envision the future state experience of Pfizer's clinical trials and flexed some very different muscles:
- Skills / Capabilities / Services employed: Ecosystem Design, Service Design, Research, Experience Strategy, Client & Stakeholder Management
- Industry: Pharmaceutical
- Depth and pace of change affected: deep; provided future state vision work for the global experience team to enact organizational change
- Scale: hundreds (patients), with the possibility for millions if more drugs come to market faster than the typical multi-year research cycle
I believe that everyone is creative. Part of my personal narrative includes democratizing design and building creative tools for more meaningful storytelling; to this end, I've built many design systems for brands and publishers (CNN, NBC News/MSNBC/Today, The Outline, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, ESPN The Magazine), and am currently working at an organizational level within Squarespace as we strengthen our platform offering for our customers.
- Skills / Capabilities / Services employed: Ecosystem Design, Research, Experience Strategy & Design, Creation of Design Systems, Client & Stakeholder Management
- Industry: Publishing, News, Tech, Startups
- Depth and pace of change affected: Deep; from reimagining editorial/design workflows and scaffolding internal teams to build better product design practices, to building net new products and CMS systems to power them, to enabling organizational change within a company working to democratize design tools
- Scale: Thousands to millions
- Autonomy / Ownership and Craft: No project takes fewer than ~30 people to realize on my side—core working team, plus direct and indirect stakeholders. (Many more if you include all of the internal partner teams within each organization!)
- Culture & Organizational Structure: Maturity of other teams I've partnered with were either non-existent or at varying levels of maturity in some areas (tech, product, design); In 1–2 rare cases all teams were exceptionally mature (eg the Outline, but while product, engineering and design were stellar, the business' operations, financial model, and editorial approach were all being figured out concurrently, which complicated things from different angles!).
- Funding/Growth Stage: From early venture to mid stage to much more established and conservative brands
- Disciplines involved: Literally all of them!
- Ephemerality: Some structural changes stick around for years (CNN), some are the foundations to be iterated upon (NBC News); others were integrated into the parent company's larger offering to scale across multiple properties (The Outline → Bustle Media Group); some lost the leadership that championed the change in the first place, so TBD if they will wither away or be replaced eventually without the proper maintenance and support (NBC, CNN).