What is a mid-weight designer?

It’s your first ever job and your purpose is to soak everything up.

Just like a foundation course at college, being a junior designer is all about understanding the foundations of your craft, picking a specialism to hone into and becoming a T-shaped person; or in the case of UX design comb-shaped.

The average duration of a junior role is around 3 years. Beyond this point you will often start to see adverts for positions described as a mid-weight designer. You may even be in a place where this is how you are described today.

The question I have been posing to myself and have opened up through The UX Coach podcast is, what does that really mean?

Is it time to drop the 10,000 goal?

For most people moving into a creative career, our goal in life is to become a master craftsperson, an expert practitioner.

Through repeating design efforts we become efficient in our discipline  and During this period of your career you are becoming highly skilled in a specific area, or if you’re a UX designer maybe a few areas of deep knowledge.

For a long time we’ve talked about this as developing your 10,000 hours; the length of time Anders Ericsson in his paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance back in 1993 claimed it took to become an expert at anything.

You could argue that the concept of being a mid-weight designer is the act of becoming a master. Using this derogatory labelling of mid-weight can lead to people feeling they are not good enough.

The truth is we are simply designers.

By allowing ourselves to be bought into the concept of the 10,000 hour theory is that it is virtually impossible to gain this in a linear fashion.

Unlike a concert violinist for example, who will only ever play violin and even a specific style, a UX designer is likely to learn a multitude of instruments, some with a basic grasp and others with strong proficiency.

Being classified as a mid-weight designer can make you feel lesser, and is emphasised in the workplace by the fact that in many cases, whilst carrying this label you will be unable to access other areas of design or the business that you may in fact excel in, or be truly passionate about.

How do we overcome the mid-weight rut and get access to strategic senior roles?

Beyond being a designer is the notion of a senior designer.

Asking a variety of people throughout the industry what this means, gets mixed opinions. A conversation with Mark Branigan for The UX Coach podcast, gave me the best framing I’ve heard so far.

Seniority should be driven from your experiences – not time. One person can have the same experience over a decade as another has within just a few months.

Context is everything when it comes to seniority. Unfortunately for most of us being senior comes with pros and cons.

In most organisations being senior shoulders you with responsibilities you are unlikely to be experienced or equipped to handle because you’ve spent your career perfecting your practitioner craft.

  • Being responsible for people
    Leading a team of individuals of varying capability and experiences
  • Managing a department, or team
    Involves finances, money in, money out. Costing out projects, budgets, you may even be responsible for generative the income streams for the business
  • Strategic thinking
    Being senior usually entitles you access to work that is of a more strategic nature, or considered to be complex

From this list, the responsibility for people; their work and their wellbeing, and the ability to work on strategic work are where I have decided to focus my research of late.

It seems crazy to me that we are missing the opportunity to have incredible talent supporting others in management capacities, and working on strategy because they haven’t earned their stripes.

The Designer Career Path doesn’t involve people

The learning and career paths for digital design disciplines is infantile. Much of our practice has existed for less than 10 years, and an international education system that is failing new designers with outdated course materials, even more outdated modules and a distinct lack of understanding as to what is expected of today’s workforce.

What is troubling me of late is that whilst we have hundreds of pop-up businesses providing training for career switchers, side-movers and graduates to develop the foundations of digital design it is only increasing the knowledge gap.

We now have far more people who want to be practitioners than we do people that want to support and enable others to do great work.

Staying for longer in a company should mean you become a Manager of people

Purely by staying in one spot for long enough people are elevated to positions of Manager, Senior X or Lead but rarely have experience in what it means to be responsible for other people. It’s not often I find there are any tangible training and learning opportunities for these people to gain those skills either.

Equally as common is finding out these people never wanted this responsibility. It isn’t their passion or desire to be developing and supporting other people to do great work – They are confident and impassioned by doing that work themselves.

These roles manifest or are taken on by practitioners because it bumps their salary and because it is considered to be an acknowledgement of their experience.

When this happens it can be a big problem for everyone in their team as they may not get the support and development they need. It’s just as important to consider the stress and strain that can take on the individual suddenly responsible for them.

This is when I find I am being contacted the most.

The disconnect between practice and enablement

There are no clear opportunities for people to explore within the earlier stages of their career roles that relate to management. It means there is no career path that is intended for leaders or managers – people who want to enable others.

Gia Puha Lihua laid this out well in her post Mapping your UX career trajectory.

Career progressions in the Practitioner and Managerial route by Gia Puha Lihua

The diagram shows that these are laid out in two distinct camps but highlights that there are no obvious joining paths from column A to column B.

I believe we can change this story.

How the ‘Ops movements might save us all

Last year, along with hundreds of people across the world I became part of the ResearchOps (https://twitter.com/TeamReOps) community. A group that has become increasingly aware of the need for operational support for people working in user research.

I took part in the first international workshop in London before co-hosting another. Workshop were carried out all over the world with 100s of attendees.

Almost all the participants were research practitioners.
Results to the workshop questions resulted in the same things emerging when it came to our point of global synthesis – practitioners wanted support in various ways in order to get on with their jobs – the craft.

As a result, one question kept coming into my mind.Do you want to help others do great work?

At some point in time you should reflect on what you enjoy and what energises you.

Do you find that the thing that gets you truly amped is knowing that today you’re going to go in and be helping a colleague learn something new, or overcome a challenge they’re facing?

Then I would say you are destined for a successful career in some kind of managerial design role and we certainly need more of you to step forward.

What can we do next?

Be clear and honest with yourself about what gives you passion.

If the idea that more of your time is going to be spent ensuring others can be successful and very little is going to be carrying out studies or designing interfaces, then think twice about accepting that lead design or head of design role – and don’t be ashamed to admit it.

You can explore this at any point in your career because there will always be something you have to offer others. Become a mentor, volunteer your time to work with someone in your company, or outside of it.

Setup a mastermind group within this community here, or register yourself at the UXPA and offer your knowledge back to others.

There’s some work to do for company founders and leadership teams too. Let’s not get them off the hook too easy.

I believe that:

  • Senior shouldn’t mean responsible for people
  • Shouldn’t mean able to now work on complex projects, systems design, strategy etc
  • Management and leadership roles should be considered earlier in career development
  • Title does not dictate behaviour (Thank you Kevin Smith)
  • Age does not equal wisdom

I want to keep this conversation going and ideally to help with the eradication of the derogatory label of mid-weight anything.

To do this, I put these thoughts and a few questions out to the design community and got an overwhelming response.

This has resulted in the creation of The UX Coach, a podcast series to hear how others feel about this, what their career paths have looked like, what the future holds and advice on making those difficult decisions on roles and responsibilities.

You can subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and pretty much anywhere else. And if it isn’t where you download your podcast feed from, let me know and I’ll make it happen.

Further reading

The Role of a manager has to change in 5 key ways

The Brutal truth about becoming a design manager

How to become an expert at anything (Anders Ericsson)

Mapping your UX career trajectory Pt1