Why I Stopped Chasing a Senior Designer Promotion | by Eric Chung | Mar, 2023

Reflecting on why I wasn’t ready to be promoted

A person sitting on a white couch with her arm on the armrest and smiling.
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

As an early-career designer, it’s natural to want to climb the ladder and aim for a senior designer position. But looking back on my own experience, I might have been rushing to the top without first mastering the mid-level designer role. In my pursuit of a promotion, I realized that it’s not just about the title or the salary increase — it’s about being prepared for the challenges that come with a senior role.

Many companies inflate titles to keep employees around longer and give the appearance of career growth. But this can be misleading for designers who believe they’re ready for a senior role before they’ve truly become a senior designer. After seeing my peers and former classmates get their senior titles after three years of experience, I got caught in the trap of comparing myself with others. And you know, as they say, “comparison is the thief of joy”.

I started pushing for a promotion before I was truly ready, and I’m glad that I was given more time as a mid-level designer to fully grow within my boundaries and become more comfortable operating at a higher level.

My first UX position was at IBM. Shortly after I joined the company, I attended Patterns, a six-week boot camp that familiarized new designers and product managers with the design thinking framework, as well as cross-functional collaboration. This experience was a major turning point for me, as I gained confidence in my technical craft and designer skills working in a professional setting.

Before I received my mid-level promotion, I worked closely under the guidance of a senior designer. As a mid-level designer, I was not only executing designs independently but also had a good understanding of the design process, from ideation to execution.

Throughout the years, I’ve worked with many talented senior designers. They have a higher level of responsibility as they’re expected to lead and take on more complex projects. Some characteristics that I’ve noticed they all have in common include:

  • having a deep understanding of design thinking as a framework instead of a linear process
  • exhibiting strong leadership skills, as shown by facilitating meetings, communicating their vision, and delegating work to team members
  • being able to mentor and lead junior to mid-level designers

Senior designers are responsible for contributing to design strategy and should be able to guide the team toward meeting business goals. They should also be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders and clients to understand their needs and requirements.

As I’ve learned more about how product development teams operate, I’ve come to realize that being a designer isn’t about creating mockups or designing user flows. You’re essentially helping an organization run its business by providing value through design that ultimately leads to achieving the company more revenue.

Whether you’re a designer, a product manager, or a developer, part of your focus aside from your core discipline should be on the business. For designers, that means figuring out how design connects the dots to help the business achieve its objectives, whether that’s landing more deals, increasing customer satisfaction, or supporting its product strategy.

To me, this is the exciting part of being a senior designer. It’s less about being told what to design and more about defining a vision and working with your team to make that vision come true. Honestly, who really wants to be told what to do all the time?

It would be wrong to ignore the elephant in the room. A common talking point in the Canadian tech market is the relatively “low” compensation in comparison to the cost of living.

A table comparing Toronto and Vancouver average salary ranges for designers at the Junior, Mid and Senior level.
(Source: UX Design Institute)

In the mid-level range, a designer in Toronto (where I live) makes on average up to $84,000 CAD, while an average house in the city costs well over $1,000,000 CAD.

When considering the ratio of house price to annual income, mortgage lenders are suggesting purchasing a home that is no more than 2.5 times your annual income. Using this number, a senior designer earning the top end of the average salary range would not be able to afford the 12X house-to-income ratio. According to the guideline, they should stick to purchasing real estate under $300,000, which is pretty much non-existent in Toronto.

So renting isn’t so bad, is it? Following the well-known 30% rule, spending anything above 30% of your pre-tax income is considered unaffordable. For a mid-level designer’s case living in Toronto, a pre-tax salary of $84,000 leaves $2,100 a month allocated toward rent. That might sound like a lot, but just recently, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto exceeded $2,400.

An infographic from titled “National Rent Rankings February 2023”. It shows a map of Canada with numbers over cities that rank the most expensive average rent.

I don’t mean to turn this article into a rant about Toronto’s insane cost of living, but this plays a major factor in workers trying to push for a promotion or switch companies for a higher-level position in order to unlock larger paychecks.

Despite receiving excellent performance reviews, I didn’t have the experience necessary to handle different situations on my own. Senior designers are expected to lead teams and take on more complex projects. Without enough experience under my belt, I was struggling to facilitate and contribute to complex working sessions. I felt like I was failing to meet expectations and ended up feeling overwhelmed.

Designers who are promoted without sufficient meaningful experience can have difficulty leading a team. They may not be able to effectively communicate with stakeholders or clients, which could lead to misunderstandings and delays. They may also struggle to develop a design strategy that meets business goals, which could result in missed opportunities and lost revenue. In some way, shape, or form, often they lack in areas that might have been overlooked or ignored during the promotion process.

Additionally, being in a senior position can be lonely if you haven’t had the chance to build up your skillset. You may not have higher-ups available to mentor you, and you’ll be expected to have deep UX expertise. You’ll be leading a team and taking on more complex projects, which can be overwhelming if you don’t have enough experience.

In contrast, as a mid-level designer, you have the opportunity to work closely with senior designers and learn from their expertise. This is a great opportunity to build up your skillset and be better prepared for a senior position when the time comes.

It can be difficult to resist the temptation to chase a senior designer position too quickly. You may think that jumping ship to another company that will offer you a senior title is the right choice. But taking the time to learn and grow in the mid-level role will also provide you with valuable experience and prepare you for the demands of a senior position.

Although the Canadian cost-of-living circumstances aren’t ideal, many professions make considerably less than designers do and have more serious concerns to worry about. If you focus on perfecting your craft and becoming an expert in your field, money will eventually come to you.

So, from my experience, my advice is to seek out mentorship from senior designers and take on new challenges to build up your skillset. Get comfortable with operating at a higher level. Don’t ask for work to do, go out and make your own opportunities. Build a strong foundation first that will set you up for success in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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