Article
July
2019

Career goals: Designer™ or Designer Leader™?

If only it were as simple as writing in a planner

Reading the background of über-accomplished design leader John Maeda got me thinking: could I ever see myself doing what he does? Among his roles are:

  • Chief Experience Officer at Publicis
  • Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic
  • First design partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
  • President of Rhode Island School of Design
  • Professor at MIT Media Lab
  • Curator and artist
  • Publisher of Design in Tech Report

I realized that right now, I can't — but not just because the positions he's had are so impressive (which, jeez, they definitely are). It's because he's focused on leading design as a field. I'm all on board with pushing digital product design as a field, and I truly appreciate all the wonderful content other designers put out (often completely free of charge); I spend a good chunk of time staying abreast of new developments this way and find it helpful to my work and career.

But I think it would be a mistake to try to be a Design Leader™ at the outset. I think that as a designer, a better goal is to have a hand in a product that is so good that it has an outstanding positive impact on its users, and if we're being ambitious, on the world. In a just world, you get recognized as a design influencer when others recognize what an awesome job you've done, thus anointing you Design Leader. (Whether the world is actually just is another topic. I mean, we don't know most of the names of the designers at Apple — just Jony Ive's. And this is partially by design on Apple's part, or so I've read.)

But it is easy to focus on the wrong things when trying to become a better designer: the titles, the fancy notebooks, the self-branding, executing the exact right process du jour. All I'm saying is that perhaps getting it all exactly "right" isn't quite the correct goal. It's to embrace the immediate challenges and focus on the outcome of the work. And if I need help getting there, I can look to the John Maedas of the world for guidance.