What Is a Design Career Progression?

In this article, you’ll find a career ladder definition, design career path example, and why companies need career development plans for designers.
What Is a Design Career Progression?

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If you are looking for ways to become a better designer or build a high-performing team of motivated designers, you definitely need to know about design career paths.

Successful tech & design companies have already developed and implemented their own career path framework, in order to retain top designers and make better decisions.

Career ladder definition (or career progression)

Before we start talking about how to create a career ladder in your company, make decisions about promotions and help designers skip level and raise grade, you need to define the terms and find out — what is a career ladder, or career progression?

A career ladder is not just a list of positions and responsibilities. This is a systematized career growth roadmap, which inсludes skills, career goals, salary expectations and a professional development plan. To simplify, the career ladder is a way to chart individual career progress.

Roles and titles

Roles and titles are terms that define the place of a designer in a company. However, there are differences:

  • Job role is the area of responsibility of an employee, which reflects what kind of work they perform in the company. The area of responsibility defines the scope of duties: what the employee does at work every day, what kind of tasks they have. Job roles examples: Developer, Designer, Product Manager.
  • Job title is the name of the position that a person occupies in a company. This usually consists of a job level (Junior, Middle, Senior) and a specialization (UX Designer, Marketing Designer, Illustrator, etc.).

That’s what Chuck Groom says about the importance of defining titles and roles in a company:

Chuck Groom says about the importance of defining titles and roles in a company

Levels (or grades)

Job levels (or job grades) denote the level of responsibility in the company, within the job role. The higher the job level, the more expertise, independence and initiative the company expects from an engineer.

Companies use roles to build grades, set OKRs for reaching the next level, and motivate an employee to reach new heights. A simple design levels system looks like: design level 1, 2, 3, 4 or Junior Designer, Middle Designer, Senior Designer, or Director of Design, but as the company grows, it can become larger or even branch out.

Such systems allow a designer to move along their career path and develop within the company. This means that, if a company uses this method, designers have professional growth opportunities and have more motivation to stay with the company.

Design career path example

As we said earlier, a designer career path can be more or less complex, depending on the structure and needs of the company.

When building your own career framework, it is important not just to copy existing models, but to focus on the goals and values of your company, as well as discussing its structure with the team at the formation stage.

Often, small companies and startups don’t feel the need to build a career ladder framework and are limited to job titles. Career development implementations happen as the company grows, are often unplanned, and the KPIs that have to be based on the skills and traits of engineers are unclear.

In this case, designers do not have professional development goals and may lose motivation over time. So, the best talent will go to other companies, where they will be offered career growth opportunities.

The basic (and most common) design career path looks like a change of levels — designers skip from one level to another within the framework of the role approved at the start: Junior Designer, Middle Designer, Senior Designer, Art Director/ Director of Design, VP of Design.

Design career path template in Vectorly
Design career path template in Vectorly
Use Vectorly’s UX designer career ladder template for your tech team for free.

Benefits of building career paths for a design team

Career ladders help to achieve the best results in self-developing both employees and companies. Let’s take a closer look at what benefits the participants receive from the process.

For designers

  • Gain a broader skill base. A well-built career path includes a professional development plan, within which an employee receives an assessment of the current level of their skills and tasks for developing the focus skills necessary for promotion.

Ben Gateley tells about their experience of implementing a career progression framework:

Ben Gateley tells about their experience of implementing a career progression framework
  • Unlock earning potential. Together with a manager, employees can define professional development goals and career goals, including their salary expectations. Then they build a career development plan jointly, that will help achieve these goals in the shortest possible time.
  • Avoid stagnation. A well-defined development plan allows designers to constantly develop and achieve their goals in the fastest way, while increasing job satisfaction and feeling their contribution to common business goals.
  • Clear promotion requirements. It means employees understand what is required to get promoted and get a pay raise. If the career progression framework is organized correctly, then grade raises take place every six months, which allows managers to plan the career path of designers.
  • Opportunity to choose and plan the career path. With a career progression framework, designers are free to choose in what direction they develop professionally — take the managerial track and improve soft skills, or build expertise by moving along the IC track.

For managers

  • Building a high-performing team. Career progression allows a manager or a team lead to create and maintain a growth mindset and continuous learning in the company. So, the team is constantly growing, developing skills and performs better, in general.
  • Increase motivation. Long-term goals motivate the team and help to avoid stagnation. Motivation directly influences performance, while a high-performing team is one of the business success factors.
  • Improve retention. Career growth and professional development are the best ways to motivate employees, save top talent and keep the best designers. For most designers, one of the key factors in choosing a job (or when making the decision to get an offer from another company) is the opportunity for career development and getting new professional perspectives.
  • Ability to make better decisions. Having clear guidelines, a manager can make transparent and reasoned decisions about pay rise, grade raise, hiring, etc. And also to make these decisions transparent, both for the team and for senior management and HR.

For HRs

A hiring bar for each level makes it fairly easy for HR to decide in favor of one or another candidate. It is better to compare specialists with each other, using the system — this is how the company eliminates the human factor.

  • Fairness and transparency in decision-making process. One of the tasks of a recruiter is to find objective criteria for understanding whether a designer is ready for promotion or not. Clear steps towards achieving career goals within the company make employees understand that their growth or lack thereof is a fair decision.
  • Optimize the hiring process. Understanding the professional level of a potential employee allows you to more confidently determine the cost of hiring, identify the skillset and, in general, clarify whether the developer will fit into the team and can contribute to the company’s goals.
  • Transparent decisions on pay raise. If career paths are clearly defined and pay grades are tied to specific levels, then this greatly reduces the difficulty in negotiating decisions on salary increases.
  • Improve a company’s brand image. When a company cares about the professional development and well-being of its employees and is ready to invest in their education, this always increases its credibility among candidates, making the company a place everyone wants to work.
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