Running before walking.

I’ve been fortunate enough to secure full-time employment at a growing company as the lead designer (a.k.a. their only designer). They have grown 30% YOY for the last 3 years, largely due to a handful of soft goods. I have a May start date but have come down with a large dose of regret and imposter syndrome which has pushed me to consider the possibility of terminating my intentions to work for them.

I’ve been told over and over to land a small growing company that employs great people but may be lacking a clear design direction. That this particular scenario is a great opportunity to influence design across the entire organization and reap the rewards of doing so.

I agree with this sentiment but I have some reservations regarding my personal growth as a designer.

I’ve never been employed at a product design firm or company before. I’ve worked most of my first-year post-graduation as a freelance designer which has led me to this opportunity. My classmates are employed at rather notable firms and companies throughout the country (Smart Design, Motorola, Continuum).

I’m afraid that I will miss out on all the soft design skills and hard rearing that happens the first 1-3 years working at a legitimate product design firm or a company like my classmates work at. I feel I’m prematurely stunting my growth as a designer by not being in an environment where other seasoned design professionals can push me against the ropes and correct and direct me. It frightens me that I may leave this position in 1-2 years, behind in normally acquired knowledge working as a junior designer on a design team.

I’ve envisioned solutions like meeting up with local designers and treating them to meals or coffee to pick their brains for an hour or so. I’ve made a list of books to buy and read but I’m unsure if these tactics will fill in the gaps of working those first years at a firm or company. I’m legitimately afraid that I’m trying to run before I walk and stunting my growth.

Any insight or suggestions on navigating such a problem is much appreciated, including books I should read or people to reach out to


Uncertainty and doubt.

You pretty much summed up my career in new product development over the last 30-ish years. And I just stepped into again with a new position starting last January 1. 2 months in and I certainly don’t know if the move is “good” or “bad”.

But I have always been the type to enjoy the journey without concern of the destination. Well, at least I have developed that skill over the last 30-ish years.

So is it a problem or opportunity? That is entirely up to you.

I worked as a lead designer before working as a staff designer. The skills that you learn as a staff designer are over-estimated, don’t worry about it.

I think I learned a lot more being the lead designer. Everyone ended up dropping work off on me that I dind’t know better than to accept. I ended up doing packaging, page layout, marketing briefs, engineering analysis on parts, logistics, project management, negotiating, etc. The staff designers might have picked up some Solidworks and photoshop tricks, but it’s nothing compared to the knowledge that one can gain as a lead designer. Especially if you say yes to everything!

Most important is to develop a vision on design of your own, while of course being aware of the field. With clear thinking you develop the arguments to create new products and bring them to market, furthering the company’s strategy. I think the job would be a unique opportunity to learn the place of design in an overall business, which is much more important than developing the practical ingredients for developing individual products. A more important question for you perhaps is, does the new job pay better :slight_smile:

I think this is true, once you have built your core skills. I know a few designers who were the sole designer in engineering departments right out of school. One of them worked at a medical ME/EE consultancy who did a lot of work with Smart Design and a few others… the partners got the idea that they could cut expensive firms out of the mix so they hired a talented green designer right out of school. He struggled in the engineering lead culture that wanted to get right to solutions and not really think about user centered solutions. They ended up paying me to mentor him for two years so he would have some regular interaction with another designer to build his skills and thinking processes. When I went to frog I had to sever the formal mentorship relationship because I didn’t want to have a conflict with what I was doing for a consultancy. 3 years later he was my second hire at Sound United.

The second was in the same situation for a consumer electronics company. Great designer and very talented, but after 10 years of working on his own within an engineering org I inherited him. He essentially had to be thoroughly retrained. It turned out the guy was a total rockstar designer, but we had to break a lot of bad habits and rebuild some core skills. Not his fault, he was just working in a culture that din’t value user research, portfolio/brand level thinking, or concept exploration. The engineers would basically design the UX and set all of the mechanical hard points and say “connect the dots on this, don’t change anything”… not really deep design, and as the only designer he was spread to thin to do anything but his first thought.

Those are my cautionary tales. That said I think you can do it as long as you go in with eyes wide open. Don’t worry about imposter syndrome, likely it will always be with you. It is always with me and I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and have been through lots of therapy :slight_smile: If you are pushing yourself and stretching your abilities, you are going to have that. Here is what I would ask for:

  1. plan to increase the department in 12-18 months if you can prove design’s value
  2. paid mentor with weekly sessions by phone, Skype, or in person
  3. networking budget to go to IDSA/C77/Square1 conferences
  4. 1 day per week devoted to exploratory design activities (trend research out of the office, ethnographic interviews, retail visits, concept projects, every week compile a report on this activity and share it out)
  5. after 6 months, present what you feel is design’s value to the larger group and lay out a concept for an ideal process

Those are a few thoughts off the top of my head. I think it is a bit of a risky first job, but you need to get a first job. Jump in, have fun with it, and remember they are paying you to be a designer. Be the voice of design with in the organization and advocate for expanding that.

I’m so appreciative of all the feedback from everyone. I feel more confident in the opportunity thanks to the insight shared here.

Since I last posted, I’ve proposed a budget for consulting and continued education. This has received a positive response and will likely take effect. I started following the IDSA San Francisco account to find when meetups and events are taking place. Sacramento is about 1.5hrs away but they seem to be hosting some pretty cool events. I’m pretty excited and again appreciative of the responses.

If anyone is in Sacramento, CA please feel free to connect.



I’ve read some studies that show the higher someone rises in their career, the more they feel like a fraud. Every time I find myself feeling like like a fraud, I get a smile. It must mean that I’m getting further in my career!

Thanks for that nugget, Ray! I’ll remember that.