What makes a senior designer?

Pop quiz: How many years of experience in UX does it take for someone to be a “senior” designer?

  1. Two years
  2. Three years
  3. Five years
  4. Ten years

The answer: Depends on what job description you’re reading.

But I wonder if time is the right metric for measuring experience.

When you get enough drinks into designers, the “how many years to be a senior designer” question gets a lot of play. Older designers don’t think two years experience is anywhere near enough. Younger designers want to move up and can’t understand how they’re not seniors yet after three years.

The problem is exacerbated by designers getting seated in the same organizations as engineers. Engineering is a field where there’s a defined and clear career path that’s evolved over generations of work. UX, by comparison, is still underdefined as a practice, and still consists of so many different practices and skillsets you could even argue it’s not even a “practice.” UX should look to design career progressions that already exist in (e.g. architecture and design agency career ladder models), but even then, we struggle with trying to lay an agency model onto a software development model.

And then there’s an experience problem. The UX population is heavily skewed towards young designers that are new to their fields. There aren’t enough seniors, so to fill senior slots, we see junior designers moved up, perhaps too fast.

The result of all of this is a lot of grousing by designers about “years of experience.”

But maybe it’s not about time. Maybe it’s about skills and experience.

If I’m looking to hire a senior designer, I’m looking to see:

  • Have they lead or driven a design project to completion?
  • Have they ever had a design project fail on them?
  • Can they do more than take criticism: Can they identify the signal in the noise and use it to make their work better?
  • Can they lead a discussion, and can they get that discussion turned into action?
  • Can they defend their ideas, yet acknowledge when their ideas need to change?
  • Do they show the design theory they know in the design practice they do?
  • Do they know how to coach someone to design better?
  • Have they figured out the balance between not being egotistical and not giving in to the Impostor Syndrome?

Some of that we teach in design programs, but most of it we don’t. It’s nothing against top-flight design programs — theory and practice are essential to have a good foundation to build a career on. But theory and practice only give a trained designer the tools to solve design problems; they don’t show them how to solve the problems in real-world circumstances.

Learning all that takes time. How much time? It really does depend — on the project you’re involved with, on the designers you are surrounded with and learn from, on your clients and product owners. Most of all, it depends on how you respond to the challenges in front of you.

I’d love to put a timeframe on how long it takes. I think we all would. It would certainly make writing job listings easier. We draw the line at 2/3/5/10 years mainly because we want to make sure that we don’t waste our time phone screening junior designers who aren’t ready. But I’ve seen people with 10 years of experience that aren’t senior designers. I’ve seen designers with less than 2 years that are more seasoned than senior designers I’ve worked with.

I don’t think about juniors and seniors when I’m hiring. I look for the right fit, for the right experiences, and the right responses to those experiences. Most of all, I’m looking for the “young, scrappy, and hungry.” They may not be young anymore — I’m certainly not — but being scrappy and hungry is less a matter of age and more a matter of attitude.

And, honestly, I’d rather never have to deal with the “years of experience” question. I’d rather instead be asking, “How tenacious do you have to be to be a senior designer?”

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.