Did we fail to develop the next generation of designers?

Designing a better experience starts with understanding where we’ve been and where we can go.

Group of black graduation hats gradually morphing into colored birds
Credit: Visual Electric

TLDR: We weren’t always so close-minded to new designers entering the field. We started out as more open. We weren’t always over-focused on visuals. We used to see people’s strengths in other areas. Remember that people’s soft skills matter greatly, and their hard skills, like visual design, are teachable. Why do we have it backwards? Our history has clues, but it’s not too late to change our course.

Much as been written about the design industry regarding its uncertain future in relation to AI, its fall from grace within the tech industry, and inadequate talent coming into the pipeline. These have elements of truth and I’m not trying to take anything away from these points. Still, I think it’s only fair to consider the other side.

As a hiring manager within the UX/product design field, I can’t help but think that some of the blame does belong within the designers who led the way — including myself! Yes, I will admit that I have fallen into these mental traps at one time or another. Disclaimer: I’m sure many exceptions exist and that some companies did properly prepare and develop their teams. I’m commenting more on the general trends that I have perceived.

1. Early stage (2000–2010)

Did we forget our past?

Many who entered the UX design field came from a tangential field. This could be closer disciplines such as visual design, industrial design, or architecture. Many, however, did not. In fact, very few had credentials within human-computer interaction (HCI). I worked with one UX designer who had a teaching degree. I, myself, had a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree. A former design manager of mine had a degree in philosophy. The point is that we were very welcoming of people who were interested in UX, and it was almost like a second family. We were all learning together as we went and filled in each other’s gaps. We looked up to the few leaders we had, like Jared Spool, Abby Covert, Peter Merholz, Luke W, and Jesse James Garrett, who shared their evolving perspectives while balancing confidence and humility.

2. Rapid scaling (2010–2020)

Were we under-prepared for the waves of hiring?

As FAANG companies profited, startups proliferated, and other companies invested heavily in their tech starting in the early 2010s, UX resources were in high demand – particularly experienced designers. Apple had clearly demonstrated that its iPhone was an unmatched sticky product paired with its ever-expanding app ecosystem. The mobile experience was exciting and new UI patterns seemed to emerge every week. With cheap money available, aggressive growth targets drove managers to desperately look for new designers (i.e. unicorns, ninjas, rock stars, etc.) to meet the demand. Senior resources, in theory, required minimal training and expectations were that they would be able to contribute right away.

The spike in jobs posts for UX designers along with at times well-paying salary would not go unnoticed. Boot camps such as General Assembly flourished. The benefit was that people who were passionate about designing for new technology had a viable outlet and did meet a market need. This career pivot particularly made sense for visual designers, industrial designers, and architecture students who had many of the traditional design skills and were starting to feel left behind in the tech push. (Ironically, this was validating for the UX Design field who were finally legitimized by the other major design disciplines who left their own to join it.) Meanwhile, managers had to compete for candidates in this market and be more flexible with their standards.

Credit: Pablo Stanley

The odd thing is that instead of collectively realizing that the talent market hadn’t truly caught up, the posts remained overly ambitious. The most senior-esque people were hired – despite them not really being senior. (I made this mistake with a hire!) This might have been OK with some hires who had previous working experience to develop their soft skills. Still, I imagine it caused tension with people who had been in the field for a while. This tension and dissonance in perceived seniority was further exacerbated by designers who compared their salaries with peers and moved companies to bump up their personal valuations. The peak of this craze appeared to occur during the advent of COVID, when tech companies were the stocks to keep in a portfolio.

Of course, the UX design field should probably have prepared in advance for this rush. We should have hired even more junior designers earlier and mentored them to take our place. We should have taken the time to work with more university educators to develop multi-year UX programs. We should have pushed our companies to create more programs such as Asana’s that exist now. We should have had conversations about how to properly build a design org structure before we added all the headcount into it. But we were already moving too quickly, overwhelmed with the work, and there was little or no time to spare to develop others.

3. Expansion (2020–2023)

Have we become too vain?

The good news we used to preach that UI is not the same as UX gradually eroded. On the one hand, the increase and talent created more specialization, which was a good thing because UX was overwhelming to really master it all.

Anyone remember this graphic? Source: https://erika-flowers.medium.com/ux-is-not-ui-e34fbd8f5060

At the same time, ass standards for digital interaction had matured, UI/visual design became the go-to keystone for people’s belonging within the UX field. It became less about the experience itself, but the feel of pixel-perfect quality in that experience. We had been warned of this. Similarly, Figma’s meteoric rise catalyzed by the pandemic gave us even more reason to conflate the craft with the profession itself.

As a result, today the portfolio has become the make or break for any potential candidate wanting to enter the UX field. The portfolio is the biggest barrier for even starting a conversation with someone who could potentially hired. Given the volume of candidates interested and on the market for a design job from boot camps, it’s a quick filter. While portfolios are generally reliable for judging hard skills like visual sense/ability, storytelling, and track record. They are less helpful for communicating other strengths or weaknesses that exist beyond the visual.

What’s more is that being a senior designer is roughly defined by number of refined design projects from well-known companies. It feel very superficial, often unfair, and a difficult reality.

4. Exit (2023–now)

Are we moving on too early?

Many people have left the UX design field out of frustration, disillusionment, or disappointment. Others have been fortunate enough to ride the waves of equity or company stock options into early retirement. Is the golden age of design really over? I would argue, in some ways, we’ve only just begun to tap into the potential of becoming seen as a necessary function within every business. Yes, the UX bubble may have burst due to less funding in tech — but that happens with every investment hype cycle. Now the real work can begin of leveraging everything we learned into other industries.

VC Funding is down

As a community, how can we get back to a steadier path to sustainable long term growth and maturity? What I would love to see is more focus on the following, which are especially challenges within the design field:

  • Critiques & presentations – how to not take it personally and remove ego from the design process, with a genuine desire to build peers up
  • Selling / getting buy-in — how to change the course of a product (and not be frustrated that a recommendation was not taken)
  • Collaboration with developers — how do you actually get developers to listen and build what you’ve envisioned?
  • How to prioritize work — how to cut the fat and focus on the most valuable part of a deliverable (and to not say yes to everything!)
  • Working with urgent requests — how to make the most of something when it’s doesn’t allow for a recipe process (while not becoming complicit and enabling this stakeholder behavior)
  • Inspiring change / influence – how to change a business’ strategy
  • Speaking business – how to gain partnerships and advocates across the organization and up the chain
  • Exposure to new technologies – given how quickly tech changes, we should become experts at experimenting at the fringe with AI

As educators, let’s continue to give designers support and push their seniority with organizations like The Fountain Institute, d.MBA, CDO School, Designer Fund, and ADPList. For the next generation, I would love to see universities to eventually follow suit in incorporating these skill sets into their curriculum. And I would challenge candidates and managers alike to creatively emphasize these aspects within their portfolios. (It’s something I’m working on, too!) Doing so can help to reshape and redefine what it means to have a portfolio.

As design leaders, my concern is that without the skills listed above, inadvertently leaning into “making it prettier” has only gotten us so far and limited our potential. We, as designers, have been frustrated at not having a proper seat at the table and not being valued. We are getting outplayed by non-design teams and leaders who have brushed up on these competencies, instead of getting caught up in creating the perfect Figma variable setup. Designers shouldn’t always be limited to working with marketing, tech, or product organizations. In fact, what if we put our energies into crafting and designing better organizations? (A lot of what’s happening in the DesignOps space has given me hope.)

As hiring managers, are we still look for the convenient plug-and-play designer who doesn’t need any hard skill training? Consider junior candidates out there who have been stalled by their mediocre visual skills in progress who may have some of these valuable soft skills from their prior experience. These are skills often go hidden in their resumes! Couldn’t someone with a sales background be valued for their potential influence on an organization? Couldn’t another be an engaging educator to lull stakeholders into valuable workshops? Still, others could push the new boundaries of UX that depend less on visuals (since design systems are defining much of this anyway) and help us navigate the new tech landscapes like AI without the baggage of our past. Boot camps for hard skills will always have their place, but let’s make sure design teams are balanced with necessary soft skills that most design exercises cannot properly evaluate.

Credit: Liz Fosslien

Therefore, let us all remain open to new designers, new thinking, and find a way to bring them on as advocates rather than adversaries who are at risk of becoming soured by our superficial assessments. We should seek out smart candidates with intangible soft skills and mentor their hard skills, rather than quick filtering for hard skills exclusively and hoping the soft skills are sufficient. And let’s push for multiple open new junior job posts as hard as we push for that well-paid senior designer on the team. We can bounce back from this valley of despair. To expand our reach and progress in the path to maturity means we must patiently continue to include and make room, not exclude.

Did we fail to develop the next generation of designers? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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