Roles in Design
Find a path that excites & empowers you.
Before we dive in on what you need to secure your first job in the industry, let's look at the roles that exist for designers and how their day-to-day looks.
Common Design Roles
While these won't be definitive introductions to each role, they should give you an initial understanding. An excellent way to get a further feel for each role is to look at job postings on places like design job boards and Linkedin. You can also find designers with those titles and look at the types of work they have in their portfolios.
User Experience Design (& User Interface Design)
A User Experience designer is one that, above all, fights to design products that improve people's lives. When a person opens their banking app, and it loads faster and is easier to understand at a glance, or a person can get a car from the airport in a third of the time they were able to before, these are good user experiences.
A User Interface designer focuses specifically on improving those experiences on screen, in the form of rectangles, circles, and more on a screen. They take on the challenge of organizing elements on the screen so that people can understand them without thinking.
For an evergreen read on designing UI: Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think.
Under UX & UI design, there are a variety of fields and skillsets, including:
- Interaction design
- User research*
- Content Design / Content strategy*
- VR/AR/XR design
* As an organization grows, these often become their own roles as well!
A birdseye view of the many fields and skills interconnected in user interface & experience design and beyond. From Careerfoundry's "What is UX Design?".
Frequently when a role mentions either UX or UI design, the responsibilities of both are assumed.
Controversially, some UX design roles may not require a designer to have a developed visual design background.
Example projects a UX designer might work on:
- Designing a new feature, often started by creating a brief in collaboration with a project manager
- Updating a flow that identified in research as problematic
- Conducting user research on an existing product or on conceptual new products or features
As the name implies, a visual designer focuses on the visual identity of a product. A visual designer will own a product's presentation, brand, "feel."
They are responsible for creating the emotional connection between a person and a product and ensuring that teams respect the integrity of the visual system through developing and launching features.
Pure visual design roles are uncommon in the tech industry (with some exceptions, notably Google.)
Do I need visual design if I just want to be a UX designer?
Technically, to be hired at some companies, no. However, in my experience, almost universally, more rounded designers create vastly better work and succeed more in their roles.
When developing your skills, you should try to balance visual presentation with user experience, always coming from a place of empathy for the people you are designing for.
Visual design without consideration for usability can lead to design that looks great, but severely lacks in function. Related reading: The Dribbblisation of Design (an older but classic reading.)
Example projects a visual designer might work on:
- Launching a new visual identity for your company
- Working with systems designers to create or evolve a design system
- Partner with a UX designer on a feature or specific interface
- Work on additional projects beyond digital ones (visual work for events, social media, communication design.)
Research is an integral part of every product development cycle. Its form will vary based on the size of the company or team and other factors.
Often at smaller companies and startups, a designer takes on the role of user research to obtain essential insights while designing a product. If you enjoy this part of the design process the most, you might consider becoming a full-time UX researcher. You might even consider data science if your interest skews towards qualitative over quantitative research.
Note: Some user or UX research roles may require a bachelor's or PhD in a relevant field such as computer science, analytics, or psychology–especially at large companies that publish their research formally (like Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc.)
Product design is a catch-all term used in the industry for a designer who covers all roles needed to build a digital product (app, mobile app, website.) It combines the functions of UX and visual design with an understanding of how to ship a 0-1 product (from idea to launch).
How are UI, UX, and Product Design different?
The term Product Design implies a more extensive set of skills beyond that of UX design:
- A solid visual design foundation.
- An understanding of how products are built (not just designed).
- A seat at the table when it comes to designing and directing the team.
However, unfortunately, these terms are often used interchangeably in job postings and by many people and companies. Be sure to look at the responsibilities expected of a role to understand what you will own.
Example projects a product designer might work on:
- Most projects a UX designer or visual designer might work on
- Identifying a new product opportunity and designing a deck or prototype showcasing it in concept.
- Taking part in (or running) a design sprint to explore new ideas
- Helping design a team or organization at your company (critique culture, team organization, etc.)
Senior Design Roles
Many designers choose to pursue a role in design management after leveling their craft for quite a few years. Design Managers should enable the success of their designers and fight for their seat at the table in all discussions and decisions.
Design managers should expect to be hands-off on actual product work, creating space for the designers they manage to have opportunities to grow.
Becoming a manager isn't the only track for a high-level designer continuing to level up their career. Brian Lovin's staff.design project is a great place to learn more about staff-level designers and how they contribute to their organizations.
Design Systems, and systems designers, are all the rage right now in the design industry. It's tempting to jump feet first into design systems, even at the beginning of a project. But there are a few things to know about design systems:
- Don't confuse a component library, or style guide, with a design system. You can get the benefit of consistent color, typography & components from a simple library of components. Trying to move your product into a design system too soon can cut into creativity and add unnecessary overhead. Read more
- Design systems harmonize an array of products across a system. If you are creating a website with only a few pages or an app with only a few primary features, a design system is often overkill. Once multiple teams work on different projects in parallel, it might be time to consider a system.
- Systems design is one of the most complex roles you can take on as a designer. Even very experienced designers often struggle while launching design systems teams. They require high-level fundamentals, negotiation with other designers and teams, company backing to encourage compliance, and a vast amount of time to consider cases and build standards.
Other Design Roles
- Brand Design, Icon Design, Accessibility Design, Type Design, etc
- Specializations inside a single field (UX designer -> prototyper or systems designer, visual designer -> brand designer)
- Design Operations
These all require going deep on a skill I would consider outside of (but often valuable for!) a designer's core skill set.
Plan and document new ideas, and help organize a team around building them. Your responsibility as a product manager is to keep a team engaged and on time, as well as triage any conflicts your team might encounter.
Designers can become great product managers because, initially, these roles can seem to be at odds. Time and craft often rub against each other but producing a good product takes both. In the product manager role, you have the chance to argue from both sides, helping everyone on the team understand the value of both high-level execution and moving quickly.
Focus on building complex or detailed prototypes for other designers and teams. Prototypers may use a visual design tool like Figma or Origami Studio, an animation tool like After Effects, or even build prototypes in code.
Like building your own designs? Some designers choose to learn the tools they need to build anything they design. These tools could range from learning a web stack to learning a language to build mobile apps like Swift or React Native.