senior level career, where does one go?

I was told, “there are no 40year old designers” “there are 40yr old design managers, partners and teachers.”
I am not sure if I buy that completely but the more I look around I see less and less of the forty and above crowd at the designer levels. As I approach the big 40 I have to wonder where should I go with my career?

Being a mid thirties, senior designer I find myself at the career divide. When I look out I see grad school for consumer psych, product development management, strategy/planning or maybe the ole MBA. For financial reasons I do not see a masters of design (according to the statistics this would net me less money than I currently make lol). I see more senior level designer positions that provide the same old design something else. Maybe product management. Also on the vista sits traveling down the small business path or working myself into an analyst type of role at a product strategy organization. For the most part however I look out and see a lot of unknown. There seems to be very little talk about career development in the ID world. A strange vibe of “if you have to ask how much, then you can’t afford it.”

My personal goals are to be an active player. Someone who contributes at a high level both hands and strategically. I am deeply in love with the business of business. I need something that is rewarding mentally and allows for physicality. A career that motivates me while I motivate others. I am looking for a team that is like family and the pride of ownership and responsibility of stewardship. Alas, I have no idea where to start, mostly because my current gig is superb yet lacking a place to go beyond where I currently sit.

The questions I have are, how important are grad level degrees at higher levels of organizations? Does experience play the largest role in career shifting, if not what besides attitude and ambition? and last, what are the tangible benefits of partnership or ownership in a company?


You just described my career. I’m a post-40 designer and can confirm the number of positions dwindles logarithmically after 40. I have an MBA, which helped me land in design management. I can play in both the design and business sand boxes because I speak both languages.

Here are a few tips I can share:

  • Small is better than big when it comes to company size. Become a big fish in a small pond.
  • Start taking some business courses so you understand the underpinnings of profitability. After 40 it will pay higher dividends than an advanced degree in ID.
  • Build your network. I’m in the process of starting my own company, which I could only do now that I have an extensive network of business & design contacts. Experience also helps.

Good luck.

good advice from One word Plastics.

I think that many designers re-evaluate thier career path roughly every ten years. Ten years seems to represent a significant plateau in the advancement of a carreer in Design. That said, the level of achievement is accelerated significantly, what I mean; If we were to go back a decade or so, (generally in Design), It used to require ten years to achive Senior Designer status. Now a five year veteran can accomplish that, and achieve in ten years, Director or Manager. There still appears to be a significant re-examination that occurs each ten years. Certainly has been the case for me as I look back. Nothing proven here, just some off hand observation.


I think that is a good point. The speed of achievement has shifted. Someone once told me “No one thinks or cares more about your career than you do”… assessing where I am, charting a course and checking how far off it I am is something I do every December and I often reflect back on what are my core goals in the long term to evaluate if something I am doing right now is meaningful to me in the long run… but I’m kind of a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People nerd, so I probably take it too far.

Anyway. I think it is important to think about where you WANT to be, not where you “should” be, then work back from there.

You dream team is a good place to start I think.

I don’t know if this will help or sound stupid, but my personal ultimate goal would be to run my own small boutique design firm that specializes in apprenticeships for young designers. Kind of a modern day Taliesin… without the house fires. Will I be able to pull it off? Maybe, but I working toward it. Starting out in a small firm for 5 years was a great foundation. Working corporate for 4 years was a great way to begin to understand business. Teaching part time has helped me develop that side of myself. Now as a design director of a growing division in a huge company I’m learning about running a team and helping to grow a business. 1 year into that I’m starting to feel like I’m getting my sea legs at it. All of the side freelance keeps my networking going and keeps me from solely (no pun intended) a footwear designer (I hope)… I think it is adding up. My estimation puts me at about 10-15 years away from starting up “yo-iesin”, but I’m still young-ish.

I’ve been thinking about the same thing lately myself. I’m in my late twenties and trying to plan out the “next” step. I’ve already passed the “senior” lvl designer and currently hold a fictious title because they don’t know where else to put me.

I have a feeling that the HR dept is restricting me because I don’t have the “credentials” to move up any further. So I’ve decided I’d like to pursue an MBA. I strongly believe it will help me move up within my current company and at the very least it will give me a path of development to follow in the coming years.

I also believe it will give me additional avenues to explore if I have the urge to do so.

The over-40 designers seem to be all of the ‘rock-star’ archetype; by this I mean characters like Starck, Kreem-Rash, Lovegrove, Newson…who fit more into the business-owner and product-maker category than any of the other career options. The thing that I like about these characters is that they have gotten the world to respond and desire the unique style and vision they espouse; never mind that they have an army of interns to do the actual work.

I don’t know that I personally have the head for this kind of self-promotion, but it probably beats the effort of getting an MBA.

By the time I got to 33, I was fed up being an employee, unlike Yo, all the contracts I’ve ever had for employment in the UK, didn’t allow me to freelance (that’s the norm, over here), which made me stagnate a bit.

I missed designing (I was a design manager by then). I knew the closer I got to 40, it might start getting tricky.

So I went freelance, nobody asks your age when you’re freelance, I think they definately judge you on your work more than anything else (which is great).

For a full time role you could be judged as a ‘bad fit’ in the team - wrong sex (happened to me - he didn’t want another woman when most of the team were already women - he didn’t say that, but it was pretty obvious!!), wrong age or whatever. If you are freelance it simply doesn’t matter.

By the time I’m 40 I’m gonna develop something of my own. I reckon I’ll have made most of the bad mistakes in my career by then! :laughing:

I am 42 and I took this teaching gig in Hong Kong to give me a period of time to think about what I want to do in the future. It also gave me time to get a Masters in Design and I am planning to also get an MBA.

All of this has changed my points of view on may things. I am now developing my career to design new cultures within business versus designing products or services. More the Design of Strategy. I am reading, researching, writing papers and presenting on the subject. In my current position it is giving me a chance to test my ideas and further refine them.

After that, I will go back into private sector and do the above for corporations, moving my way toward CEO. Thats the plan.

And to slippyfish, many of the really interesting over 40 designers are not trying to be the “rock star”. People like Chuck Jones (Whirpool), Bruce Claxton (Motorola), Mark Dziersk (moderator of this forum), Yao Yingjia (Lenovo), etc, etc Who are making the world better through design and for design. These are the people who do not have the “ME, ME, ME!” attitude and instead have the “WE, WE, WE!” attitude that makes them more important than the flash in the pan rock stars.

i am approaching 10 years in the biz with a 50/50 split among firms and corporations. i am an unofficial “senior” in a department that was formed shortly before i arrived. i am well-compensated, but i do not have the means to achieve an MBA currently. my role in this current company has become that of right-hand-man to the VP of design. if he isn’t here people come to me.

our skills and styles contrast and compliment each other. he likes to keep the designers in an ivory tower, i prefer a more ‘in the trenches’ approach. i am a bit more technically proficient, he has better knowledge in manufacturing (for this market). i am not a yes-man, but i know how to pick my battles. the VP prefers a long, drawn out political powder keg scheme. i am fairly straight forward and to the point.

i know the VP has expressed his mid-range goals to leave. i am not certain i want to take his position, if offered, but i feel like i need to get some management experience to really move onward in my career, particularly if i am 5 years from the so-called 40 y.o. barrier.

i have had some great success in the 20 mos i have been here and have developed into this workhorse for the department. i have earned the respect of the other departments, sometimes moreso than my boss. he doesn’t feel threatened by me, nor i by him. it is a mutual respect and degree of trust that i have found rare in my career. he knows i make his position easier and the department’s performance better.

i do miss the freedom and pace of the firms, but i am cautiously comfortable where i am, especially given the economy and the field i specialize in.

i have been contemplating where i should go next and i am at a sort of crossroads.

Sounds like Corporate Design Strategist via MBA is the only way to go after 40 if you don’t teach or start your own business.

I’ve been out of school for 12 years (35 years old), freelancing for the last 7.5 of that after both corporate and consulting experience.

I just took a full-time job with one of my clients as a Design Director. I must say, I will not miss freelancing. I enjoyed it when I was doing it, but got really burnt out. I’m excited at being in a position where I’ll balance BOTH creative and management/leadership work. I couldn’t do it if I was 100% management and not “on the board” as they say.

I also feel lucky to have gotten out of freelance - I was afraid I may be stuck there forever.

One-word-plastics has great advice there - I agree with every word of it.

Ah yes, the “stressed when you’re too busy, stressed when you have no work” thing.
I’m going through that right now. I’m thinking my days of freelancing may be coming to an end soon too.