September 17, 2019

Stepping out of your lane as a designer (Without stepping on toes)


I assumed when I entered into my career as a designer that I would spend the majority of my day, you know... designing.

There was a point not too long ago however when I reflected back on my day and realised: Wait, I haven’t actually moved any pixels around an art board today.

I had spent the whole day doing something I wasn’t actually hired to do.

Did I prioritise the wrong things? Was I distracted?

Nope. I had spent my day creating things of value for our company. It’s just that those things weren’t visual designs.

In the past several months as well as being the sole marketing designer at ConvertKit designing landing pages, changes to our marketing site and other brand design needs, I’ve also done the following:

  • User research calls
  • Learning SQL and working with our data analyst
  • Business and marketing strategy
  • Product QA and feedback
  • Been on the hiring team for our product manager role
  • Lead the decision making process for how we’d handle performance reviews and profit sharing as a company
  • Created marketing automation templates In our app
  • Been on the trial-to-paid taskforce working to improve our conversion rates
  • Been on the diversity and inclusion taskforce (I love a good taskforce apparently)

I stepped out of my lane. And honestly, I’m a better designer because of it.

Bringing value

I know a lot of designers who would read that list above and think: “I became a designer to be a designer, not to work on business strategy.”

If that’s you, I hear you; but I also want to challenge you on that.

As designers, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the value we can provide to a business outside of our ability to create websites or graphics or wireframes. And this is especially true for in-house designers. My favorite thing about being a designer at a tech company rather than working with clients in a freelance capacity or at an agency is the in-depth knowledge I’m building over time about our business and our target audience. It’d be a shame not to put that to use! It’d be a shame to see a conversation about marketing strategy happening and keep my well-formed opinions to myself because it’s “not my job” to create the strategy. Sure it’s not. But that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute.

We can use our design thinking approach to problem solving for more than just the design deliverables we’re creating. We don’t have to wait to be asked to work on something before we take action. I’d even go so far as to say that if you have ideas, or if you notice a problem that needs solving and you don’t speak up because solving it would involve work that isn’t written in your job description; you’re doing the business a disservice.

I promise you, you have more value to offer than you realise. And you have more to learn by stepping out of your lane than you realise.

Increasing your worth as a designer

When you’re first getting started in your career, there is an overwhelming amount of things to learn. Not only are you learning how to be a designer and how to produce work you’re proud of, you’re also learning where you fit in to an organisation, how to work well with clients or with other designers, how to value your work and time... it’s a lot! And because there is so much to learn, we progress quickly.

But once we nail all of that, once we feel confident and comfortable, we can start to stagnate.

This is when we need to find new things to learn and new skills to build to keep some momentum.

And I’ve found veering off the design path and into other parts of the business to be a very productive way to improve my design skills.

I feel creatively fulfilled when I’m working on something I know will have impact or that I’m excited to see the results of. Learning more about how our business operates and having my thoughts heard on company-wide decisions helps me to better understand the business implications of my work, and in turn that helps me to make better design decisions. And that’s not the only benefit: spending my time on business operations projects like the diversity hiring taskforce or discussing what method we should use for performance management makes me feel more invested in the company and my role in it, and quite frankly it makes it a better place for me to work.

At a small company in particular (like ConvertKit) where paths to career growth perhaps aren’t as obvious or well-defined as it is in a larger corporation where there’s several layers of seniority to move up through, getting involved in other aspects of the business is a great way to show your worth (and the learning I did for these “non-design tasks” helped get me promoted recently!).

Stepping out of your lane

So, how do you actually do this? Well first, you take an interest and you ask questions.

This part came easily to me (I’m very nosey, and I have opinions on almost everything). But if you’re less inclined to want to know what’s going on with everything at all times, the best place to start is with one area of the business you’d like to get to know better. Customer onboarding? Hiring? Product decisions? The support documentation?

Whatever you choose, figure out who’s already working on this and join in the conversation.

“Who’s working on solving X right now? I’d really like to learn more about what you’ve tried so far.”
“Is anyone creating X at the moment? I’ve had an idea for one I’d like to make but want to make sure we’re not doubling up on the work.”
“I have some thoughts on X and I’d love to be involved somehow.”
“I put together this doc with some brainstorming on X. Would love to discuss it and see if it aligns with what you’re thinking.”

For me that means joining a Slack channel and chiming in on threads, but if conversations in your company happen in person or behind closed doors you could choose to sit with someone over lunch and ask them about how their project is going.

The point of this first step isn’t to provide a solution, but to listen and get the lay of the land. No one likes the person who comes barging in claiming they have a solution to a problem that’s SO obvious and why did you not think of it before? It’s insulting, and diminishes all the hard work that’s been put in to finding a solution.

Once you’ve developed a good understanding of the problem at hand, then you can start to figure out ways you can help. You don’t need to solve it singlehandedly, you just need to help. For me this can range from something more extensive like spending a day doing research on Jobs-to-be-done theory and putting together a document about customer segmentation, to something as simple as dropping a link to a good article about diversity and inclusion in the Slack channel when I come across one online.

In my experience, once our company directors saw me taking an interest in these other areas, they started to actively involve me in things they wanted my input on. So start small, and build up as much as you’d like.

Of course, you’re still there on the team to be a designer... but as you get more efficient in your day-to-day tasks you’ll have room for the odd “extra-curricular” project and taking part in them WILL make you better at your job.

What do you think? Should designers get involved in other parts of the business? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter and let’s discuss!