Or, what the hell do you actually do?
One of the fun things about conferences is getting to hear how dozens of people like you or with similar jobs introduce and describe themselves. You get to experiment and adjust your own introduction as you meet more and more people. I was able to attend both XOXO and Brooklyn Beta this year, and was reminded (again) of the difficulty in introducing yourself as designer, and describing what you do in a way others understand.
In a classic case of the “the map is not the territory”, job titles have a nasty way of…not being useful. I’m looking at you, creative technologists and digital prophets ಠ_ಠ. Job titles try to be both a concise description of a person’s professional responsibilities and a signifier of distinction. They imply a person’s competence using rank as a proxy for experience (senior x), while attempting to describe their professional responsibilities in just a few words. Add to that the gulf between belief and reality, or meaning and usage, and you might as well skip titles altogether and go right to a sentence describing what it is you do and why anybody should care. Plus, everybody wants to protect their ego, impressing the listener with their impressive role and well-rounded-ness. Don’t pigeon-hole me, brah!
Designers in the (Web) Technology Industry
Design in the internet technology industry is one of the worst offenders, with titles going in and out of style like Internet memes. You could simply say you are a designer, if you like wasting time; you will definitely need a follow up description. (“So…what do you design?”). If you are—or maybe just want to be—an artist who works under externally applied constraints (for money, lol), being a Graphic Designer or Visual Designer will work for you until you get tired of people saying you just make things pretty. (“I solve meaningful visual problems!”) Or maybe you realize you are more marketable as a User Interface Designer or UI Designer. That is probably the most accurate title of the bunch, it being a fair description of what most designers in the industry actually do. Presumably the listener can then go on to hear what that entails at a particular company, or assume they know enough from what they’ve heard before.
For those designers who don’t art so good, Interaction Designer is the flavor of choice. The implication is they focus not on “pixel perfection” but on workflows. They might favor working on sequences over individual states, and their final artifacts skew towards wireframes over mocks, and plans over “looks-like” prototypes. I fundamentally disagree with the idea of being a designer who stops so far from the final, intended result, as ideas are a dime a dozen and execution is everything. The only thing that matters is what made it out into the real world, what the user actually interacted with.
There are some more exotic variations on the interaction designer title like Digital Interactive Designer or Behavior Designer which can swing either way, either implying a deep knowledge and expertise of what drives human behavior and how to design for specific behavioral outcomes, or nothing, because we’re all trying to make people do stuff.
But Lo! How can a designer bear to be described by such a tiny piece of their potential, we can do oh so much more! We’ve grown into unique snowflakes capable of creating anything in the world. We can create any service, any manifestation of an idea, any experience…as long as it is a website or an app. So now we have User Experience Designers, or UX Designers, who, yes, design interfaces (“but we think about so much more! Please listen to my keywords: user research, data, ideation, blah blah blah”). The issue here is one of marketing. We want to show we are great designers, and great designers use tools (as appropriate) like user research and data to identify problems and build empathy. They consider the entirety of a user’s experience with a product over time and multiple contact points at both a high and a low level of detail. They consider everything from cultural contexts and cognitive ergonomics to the exact right shade of blue.
But the user experience designer moniker is inherently flawed. We are not truly “designing experiences”. A person’s experience is deeply personal, subject to their perspective, feelings, and even what they had for dinner that night. We are not affecting it directly, but hoping to influence it through the filter of their perception. The same way job titles are only loosely related to what people actually do, a user’s experience is connected to, but not entirely defined by the designer’s choices. To quote Tim Brown:
Plus, it is an entire product team’s responsibility (the entire company’s, even!) to help create a positive user experience through the parts of a usage situation they can control.
I think the general vagueness of a term like user experience design, or perhaps the fact that few designers who label themselves as such have sufficient expertise in such a broad range of skills, is the impetus behind the rise of the Product Designer title. It has certainly come into vogue over the past couple of years. I personally understand and use the term to mean a creative expert in the design process who is both a visual designer and an interaction designer; the product designer is a professional who can take barely formed ideas from conception to completion within the business constraints of time and money. Alas, even with this term there isn’t a solid definition. Some people mostly agree with me, while others see it as a higher, more conceptual level of design when compared to interaction or visual design, or put the focus of a product designer on understanding behavior. Still others use it like user experience design, as an umbrella term that contains and subsumes other, more narrow definitions of design.
One thing is clear: these days, designers in the internet technology industry need a broader set of skills than ever. Both in terms of soft skills like creative problem solving, emotional intelligence, etc., and “hard”-er skills, like Illustrator mastery, typesetting, etc. The tools of the trade are becoming easier and easier to use (thank god for Sketch), and companies like Apple have helped bring the experience of good design to the masses. That means that more and more, designers must think about higher order problems, like whether their design problem is even the right one.
Job Titles and Your Personal Journey
Every designer follows their own path to discovering the right label for themselves, all the while those labels change around them as time passes. You simultaneously figure out what your job title means to you as you figure out what it means to other people. It is a continuous act of self discovery as you gain wisdom and skill, designing a career while learning more about your craft and how you like to practice it. There is a tension between what you actually are and the person you could reasonably sell yourself as, between the skill sets you actually have and those you could have, or what you have accomplished and your potential. Not to mention fitting that square peg into the round hole of the job market or the needs of any one particular company. The effect of a job title on your marketability is not insignificant, and the proof is in the dollars:
Once you get in the door at that company you would like to work for—and that is a difficult task that might require a certain…personal brand—it is your portfolio that will seal the deal. Concrete proof that you can execute is your biggest asset.
I think the wide variety of ambiguous designer job titles reflects not only the wide variety of skills we can possess, but also that ever-present insecurity many designers and creatives feel. Let us all strive to be plain-spoken about our work and what we aim to accomplish, with both others and ourselves. The next time someone asks about your job, try just saying “I’m a designer” and following that up with a short and sweet description of what you do and what you care most about.
And don’t worry, we are all just figuring it out as we go along.