Seeking career advice from Sr. designers: hitting a ceiling?

Hi all and thanks for the views,

I’m searching for your advice and perspective. The topic I want to talk about is hitting a ceiling.

I have some challenges I am mulling over at work and would be grateful to gain some wisdom.

Here’s the context:
(or skip down to the takeaway)

Holding a bachelor’s degree, I am currently 2 years into my first serious product design job at a multidisciplinary design consultancy, where I have stayed because the Principal (ID trained and an amazing wellspring of creativity) is so incredibly talented. Working with the Principal I observe and learn a LOT, some of the best lessons of my career so far, better than any class I ever took in undergrad.

We are growing, which means more middle managers and less one-on-one time with the Principal (much busier now), who I have always seen as my important mentor. I am glad for the firm, which I care about and have invested in, but feeling uncertain for myself.

Unfortunately, the middle managers are less than effective. While they are competent designers, objectively speaking, none of them has any managing skills (just not their background/strength), except for one, who is quite good at project management. Unfortunately, his background is in advertising and his design POV is very far away from the nuanced, ambiguity-friendly ideology I personally identify with. My ability to learn from these managers – who are respectable and great people, just not super creative, nor attentive to the growth or development of junior designers – is something I question a lot.

The dominant philosophy here on personal career growth and development seems to be “figure it out as you go along” and “put in the time (eg. multiple years of status quo without any concrete goals) and you’ll eventually improve.” :confused: Something feels wrong, but I am too ignorant to be able to put it into words.

I have studied ideas on core competencies such as Chris Conley’s
“The Core Competencies of Design: The Basis of a Broadly Applicable Discipline” ( ) and very much want to prepare myself well for the future. I want to become a mentor one day who can inspire young designers as the Principal has inspired me. I need to learn and grow in order to become that person.

So for the past six months I have been struggling with these issues as I’ve begun to perceive a sort of ceiling on my growth here. Sometimes it feels clear to me that I need to escape this feeling and leave my company soon, but then the problem is that the picture of the next step – of what I would look for next or where I would go from here – feels fuzzy. Other times, I am enthusiastic to stay if changes can be made, but again, what would a new, better structure or better resources look like? How can I prioritize my “ask”. What is really most important for my own development as a designer? The picture is still not quite clear for me…

Would you have perspective to lend on, at the level of day-to-day work, what resources or attention should a young designer be advocating for?

What points should I make in conversation about design careers in general to best arrange assets around me for my own growth?

Particularly since I am two years in and feeling like I’m hitting a ceiling, do you have any advice on the the transition from Junior to Senior designer? What is the typical evolution? Sadly I feel school did not quite give me a good understanding of this.

For the quick TL;DR: What are the most important things a designer should do to maximize personal growth at work?
Thank so much! :smiley: I value your perspective, and hope this might evolve into a good discussion on some of these topics. I will keep asking questions as I form them, and am all ears to hear anything you might be able to share from your experience.

With gratitude,

Unfortunately for you, I am the first to respond. I am most definitely a cynic and generally a real downer with this type of subject. The reason being is that I have a very cold attitude towards business. Its business, its not personal. Personal is my family, and they are most definitely not business.

That said, the purpose of a design business, is to obtain more business. If mentoring you can obtain the business more business, then it wins. If mentoring you doesn’t obtain more business, then ts. The single best way to obtain business is to cultivate relationships with your clients. So I will ask you, this “mentoring” you are yearning for, how exactly does it foster a relationship with the client? Because if it doesn’t, why exactly should anyone be wasting their time mentoring you?

And please don’t give me some line about making awesome designs. People have been making awesome designs for hundreds of years before you were born and will continue long after you are dead. No, that is not a unique selling factor, it is dime-a-dozen.

So again, what will you do to bring in more business? That is exactly what every mid-manager and your principal wants to hear. They will mentor the hell out of you. So instead of asking what they can do for you, you should ask them what you can do for the business. No more hand-holding after 2 years. That will make you a senior designer, you are not there yet.

Did you ever talk this freely to the “principal” (owner?).

What hinders you to tell him directly, that you enjoyd working with him,
want to keep learning from him and also asking him about HIS advice how
to grow you into a more senior role within the company, that you would
only reluctantly leave to pursue a senior position elsewhere?


Hi and thanks for the tough love! :slight_smile: I appreciate the POV.
It’s a very good point that mentoring me is no one’s business objective.

I don’t want to have someone handholding me at every step. But I do want enough guidance that I can focus and gain more depth— with confidence that I’m digging into an area of real value (I am not confident that I can yet “prospect” those areas on my own). I guess that would be “this mentoring you are yearning for.” Are strong mentoring relationships typical? It sounds like you might see them as occurring more rarely, at higher levels, and as optional and not required for personal development. If there’s a particularly good way to grow without direct mentorship too I’m also interested to hear.

To your point about company growth, in some way, don’t you think a large part of growth is people (internally)? And having the right people there? My thought was we can get more business if our teams are working like a well oiled machine.

I completely agree with you, my designs are not my selling point, no way, and actually are far from amazing. I am good, but so are most people who make it in industry, and many are better than me. That’s why I want so much to develop further in the actual craft— in the thinking, framing problems, setting them up, analyzing and inventing possibilities. My biggest selling point is probably how well I can help hold a project team together and maintain high-level momentum. (My soft skills just happen to be above average, by personality. Pity that I am more interested in developing other areas.)

It’s interesting what you said about bringing in new business. Actually, since I’m a clear communicator and pretty good socially the owner has been giving me more responsibility on engagement teams pitching new clients. It’s exciting to get that more senior, outward facing opportunity, but I’ve noticed that the time commitment there is impacting how much I’m able to be integrated throughout an entire project. I’m not so much a plug-and-play kind of person, and one growing concern is that spending the time on client development is hurting my chances at getting more experience through the actual project work. We get some really awesome futuristic briefs. It’s cool to help with bringing them in, but damn I want to work on them! From the beginning to the end, ideally.

Thanks for the good advice mo-i. I have talked with him and I know the issue is more that he doesn’t have the time, while he does have some interest. I am pretty open with him, probably too open in some instances (different from iab’s case, there are quite some blurred lines between business/personal which also complicates my thoughts about transitioning), and we have a good relationship, although complicated at times. I think he sees me a little bit as a protege, but wants to push me to grow more in the direction of founder/manager than designer. I am sure he has his POV for a reason, but if it is too incompatible with mine I understand I will have to leave.

So as we approach this impasse, I also want to understand his side more. From his POV, is it better if I leave, with my 2+ years of knowledge about the company and it’s DNA, 2+ years working towards its growth and success, and 2+ years of strong relationships I’ve built with care with other employees (including those pesky middle managers), relationships which I can and do leverage to get folks to rally around HIS goals? I am definitely asking objectively and curious to know.

What do you think, am I hitting a ceiling in terms of developing through project work, or is this a normal phase in career development?


Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems you want to be on the tactical end instead of the strategic end. And that’s fine, it is your choice to make. Have your eyes open though, sticking to the tactical will limit your long-term career. The “traditional” rising career involves doing less and less work and telling other people what to do. Again, that’s your choice and no one can advise what is best for you.

As for guidance into value areas. At 2 years, I would expect you to be doing that yourself. I would also expect you to “fail”. But that is a part of the design process, if one idea doesn’t work, move on to the next. It has been written on these boards many times a career should be approached as a design problem. So at 2 years, I want you to figure it out, if you get it wrong, I want to know why it didn’t work and apply that knowledge to something that does work.

And of course the only growth a consultancy can do is through people. The vast majority of billing time is through people. Even if you have an in-house shop, your machine-time billables will be a minimum of the total nut. You could be speaking specifically of organic growth - as an individual gains experience they become more productive. And yes, the company grows when that occurs, but remember, all positions - juniors, seniors, middle management, directors, ditch diggers - have their value. So if you grow out of one into another, you should not leave a vacuum. That would be poor business planning.

Ah great questions/topic. I do somewhat agree with putting in the time, at least as far as improving your design skills, what is it something 10,000 hours doing anything and you’ll be master level? There aren’t that many hours in a year so be patient, you’ll get there if that’s the path you want to take. It sounds like your leadership has identified strengths in your that dictate a different path, one which will likely result in more financial compensation later in your future if that’s your sort of thing.

You’re already on that path by coming to the Core boards to ask :wink:

To add to iab’s comment, it seems your passion is the tactical, but your head is strategic. If you identify the need for a well oiled machine to tackle more business at 2 years experience then you’re already looking at the big picture. I agree with this statement and it ties exactly back to iab’s comments about business, and no business can be a well oiled machine where decisions founded on personal bias preside over business decisions.

That’s a tough one, but I was there once, I loved getting in the zone and improving my design skills and taking on interesting projects, admittedly getting lost in them for a while. I’m in management now and I don’t get to do hardly any of that anymore, and I do miss it sometimes because I was very good at it, but if you keep doing something you’re very good at for too long you run the risk of stunting your growth in other areas. I am not very good at what I do now, but room for improvement = room for growth. Sometimes your interests and your strengths are at odds and you need to find a balance. I’m not going to recommend you play to your strengths and steer right towards the management path without having the design chops, you should have a solid track record as a designer before you can lead them. A designer colleague told me years ago that chops weren’t important, he was a sub-par designer and he left to pursue the management fast track at an agency that was offering management/leadership training. I continued as a designer for a few more years and got the job he tried to fast track to, he went out of business. So, balance, it’s important if you have an eye on leadership.

I hear you here, I have to resist the temptation to take on projects like this as a manager, it’s tough, but taking them would be selfish if my staff were to get valuable experience from it and grow whereas I would simply have the satisfaction of working on something cool. The owner is giving you those opportunities because they see your strengths it it, sometimes mentors see things in you that you have yet to discover for yourself, but you have to decide whether or not you enjoy it.

From his POV (being your mentor), I would question why you would leave if you have so much going for you. I also had a designer colleague who was being groomed by our mentor for the leadership path, we all saw it, but suddenly this person left and our mentor was clearly disappointed with it. That’s not to say it was a burnt bridge, but it can be tough as a mentor to invest in someone’s growth and then see them leave before they reach some sort of potential.

My bottom line advice, stick around a while, don’t sacrifice happiness today with worrying about having it in the future. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. That said sometimes great experience can be gained from observing dysfunction, if you see it, learn from it, or better yet find ways to effectively correct it, that’s how the machine gets the oil.

And with that i’m out of fortune cookies for the day.

At the end of the day, your employer has zero obligation to making sure you grow as a designer. You were hired for a reason. It’s simple bartering; you give them your time and experience and they give you money and (hopefully) insurance. I still haven’t figured out why ID’ers act like diva musicians when it comes to getting better. I’ve personally felt that way before but have since come back down to earth. And when you get back to ground level you will find that there are many, many ways for you to not only grow as a designer but also as a businessman. And that is far, FAR more important for your career. Everyone is creative. Ask all the marketing guys!! snicker But there only so many people out there that can pull everything together. THAT is what you need to focus on. That’s where you become valuable. And that’s how you push your career to the next level and beyond.

If your current job isn’t conditioning you for that, don’t fret. It’s not like they have to. That’s up to you.

If you go out searching for a new job, find one that will challenge you right from the gun. Sure, that’s terrifying but you didn’t know what college had in store for you at your first 9am class Freshman year either. You need to be thrown head-first into the pool in order to learn to swim. If your current job is no longer challenging you or putting you in uncomfortable situations, find one that does!


Your only motive to invest in people is to build the business. Nothing else. It is a completely selfish motivation. While mutually beneficial, but to be perfectly clear, if there is nothing in it for management in terms of real ROI, it won’t get done.

From what I gleaned from the OP, the owner wants the OP to move in a direction that does not interest the OP. The OP does not get to dictate someone else’s business.

The simplest way to put this is you get paid for what you can do and not what you want to do.

If what you CAN do and what you WANT to do do not align, it is on you to correct that. Part of that is making it known that you want to shift, and seeking out advocates and mentors within the company. A good company will invest in you, but you have to do the work and make all the steps. You have to make it happen. It won’t always happen, and you have to know when your goals diverge from the place you work. They may need someone in your current role, it will help if you try to solve that problem. They may not need anyone in the role you want to have, then you need to make a tougher choice.