For enterprises, startups, and agencies building out a design practice, it’s common doctrine that senior designers are your most valuable design asset as a business. It’s a well-known sentiment because it makes sense: To produce high-fidelity work, you need experience on your side. That’s something I’ll never argue with.
However, after spending 20 years deeply involved with companies and design practices of all sizes, I’ve noticed there’s an equally, if not more valuable, asset that is often overlooked: junior designers (I’m referring to designers with less than three years of experience).
“What are we doing to foster junior design talent?” isn’t a question you’re likely to hear ringing throughout boardrooms in 2019. But it’s one that has helped my wife, Natalie Armendariz, and I build a profitable, agile design agency named Funsize that serves a variety of clients in different verticals. So, for all you decision-makers out there wringing your hands in desperation to find that senior designer who’s going to solve all your problems, I want to provide a different perspective.
Hiring a larger team of mid-to-junior level designers who report to a design lead solves the problems in three key ways:
- It lightens the design workload of the senior designer and allows them to thrive in their position, doing what they do best (thereby decreasing the likelihood of them wanting to bail).
- It gives companies insurance. If a senior designer decides they do want to leave, there are mid-to-junior level designers who understand your product and can pick up the workload until you find another senior.
- By slightly lowering the experience threshold for positions, companies save money.
My goal isn’t to discount the importance of senior designers or dissuade you from hiring them, but rather to highlight the importance of junior design roles and how they can benefit your practice.
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Longevity, churn, and paychecks
Design teams function optimally when each person’s role aligns with their personal skill sets and career aspirations. Although it’s certainly possible for three senior-level designers to operate well together, the chances that their workstyles and expectations will work well enough to justify their larger paychecks and provide a long-term staffing solution aren’t the best.
In general, I recommend establishing a clear hierarchy of authority for design teams that suits each individual team member’s needs. Doing this allows senior designers to provide direction, feedback and high-level project management without getting lost in the weeds. It also provides lower-level designers with the chance to improve their craft and have a clear path for growth.
Many senior-level designers who are brought into a situation where they’re handling all aspects of design will look elsewhere in a year or so. They’ll find a better opportunity that doesn’t spread them so thin and limit their ability to do their best work. That leaves businesses in the same place they started: On the hunt for someone else to do the work.
Culture, passion, and innovation
Just as junior designers help with the longevity of a practice, I’ve found that they bring a passion to their work that can do great things for a company’s culture. If you’re able to find quality people who are early on in their design career and give them their big break, they’re going to be excited.
These people are often grateful to take on the minutiae of design work that those further along in their career have grown tired of. They’ll want to prove themselves and are driven to go the extra mile. Oftentimes, if junior designers are enjoying the opportunities given to them, they can help in the hiring process by recruiting others to your cause. Multiple Funsize hires have come from pre-existing friendships. I’ve found that this strengthens culture and makes the office a place people are excited to walk into every day.
(Intrigued? Read How to stand out as a junior designer)
Many of the current leaders at our agency started here as juniors. They now help us find, hire, train and grow other junior designers. We have one former product design apprentice (now design lead) who runs our apprenticeship program, helping early-stage workers develop into hireable designers for Funsize and other local companies.
Because junior designers are still in a development stage, they’ll bring new perspectives to projects that more experienced designers, who are more set in their ways, won’t have. This can be a breath of fresh air for a design practice (as long as there is a design lead in place to keep things on the tracks).
Decision-makers building design teams should also be on the lookout for career switchers. Just because someone is a lower-level designer doesn’t mean they’re not resourceful and professional. Funsize has had great results hiring former architects, marketers, screen printers, and more. They bring diverse perspectives and new ways to approach problems that can be extremely useful to your team.
Design in local economies
Product design is exploding right now in pockets throughout the country. Talent is everywhere. But, as I mentioned, many hiring companies automatically limit themselves to talent in the Bay Area to find a potential transplant.
Because these designers expect higher salaries, I think it can have a bit of an inflation effect on the value of design in growing design cities. This increases the barrier-to-entry for local talent with less experience.
That’s tough to say. Because as a designer, I can’t overstate the importance of design to businesses and I’m a huge supporter of its proper valuation. However, it’s more important to me that design leaders provide opportunities for local design talent.
Do we really want to force talent out of our local economies by making California and New York the only options for building an incredible career in design? Doing so limits the growth potential of startups who don’t have the money to poach Bay Area designers. I think it also stunts the growth of larger designer communities throughout the country.
What if, when the Amazons of the world opened new offices in different parts of the country, it precipitated an explosion in design opportunities for local junior designers rather than being a magnet for existing talent elsewhere? If we were able to provide more opportunities for growing talent, what new ideas and products would take shape? How much more quickly would our craft advance?
The next generation of designers and workers, from all over, will help answer these questions, and all of them will start as junior designers. It’s time the current vanguard embraces that.