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Over the course of 8+ years of interviewing and hiring designers, I've developed a mental model for evaluating and classifying the performance level for potential hires and prospects. What I've found is that the progression from junior to senior often isn't a reflection of raw talent. It's far more important to think in terms of the tasks you can assign the particular designer, their view on the audiences they design for, and the amount of trust and responsibility you can confer upon them in achieving it.

The simple explanation

If you wanted to remove any nuance whatsoever from the equation, here's how to outline it:

  • Entry-to-mid-level designers do what they’re told at differing levels of skill.
  • Senior designers figure out what they should do.
  • Principal designers decide what others should be doing.

Let's add some detail

At minimum, a designer on a product team needs to be competent enough to execute on their assigned tasks without much oversight. You should be able to tell them what to do, and be confident that they understand the tools and the processes necessary to accomplish what they’ve been told.

Entry-level designers may need some hand-holding at first as they adjust to the difference between the working world and whatever educational background they have. When hiring a junior designer, you're looking for someone who can take a task and run with it. You may have to lay out what they need to do for that task, but they should be capable of doing it on their own.

A designer moves up in seniority when they have developed enough experience to figure out what to do without being explicitly told. If you present them with a problem, they should be able to evaluate it, figure out the best approach for solving it, and either execute or delegate execution to another designer to guide them in completing the task.

Principals or leads should have developed competence in delegating the various responsibilities of the design process. They need to understand what tasks are most appropriately taken on themselves, what level of tasks should be assigned to senior team members, and what can be assigned to junior team members. Also, principals have to monitor the whole team to make sure activities are distributed efficiently while keeping the necessary capacity for upcoming work.

Another view

For the life of me, I can’t remember where I came across this explanation, but it stuck with me. In the spectrum from the bottom to the top level of design skills, you can quickly evaluate a designer based on who they’re working for when they devise solutions.

Junior designers are likely to be designing for themselves. What this means is that they have a tendency to put their needs above the needs of the audience they’re designing for. For example, favoring the exploration of a new style over whether or not the visual embellishments of that style reduce a user’s ability to understand and use what they’re viewing. Or deciding to use an interface element that’s harder for a user to understand in order to avoid “breaking” their design. These decisions aren’t made out of malice. They’re more closely tied to a lack of experience. The more you see a user stumble over the things you create in testing, the more you start to realize where design priorities should lie.

Senior designers have amassed enough experience to realize they are designing for other people. They've learned to remove ego from the equation and understand that the best choice is the one that results in a better product for the user, not a prettier visual for their portfolio. Most designers I know can talk about how that's the right approach, but a senior designer has finally figured out what it really means and is practicing the idea in their everyday work.

Planning for the future

I don’t hire a designer, no matter how talented they are at execution, if I don’t see qualities that will help them advance over time. Those qualities are: having a point of view on how things should be done, keeping that point of view flexible and adaptable as they learn new things, and understanding that underneath it all that we are designing for audiences that probably fundamentally mismatch our own experiences in life.

Good designers understand or are prepared to understand these ideas. Whether you're hiring for skill and experience or you want to grow your own, you need to learn to identify these types people if you're going to move your company forwards. Ultimately, seniority level is less important than the capacity for growth that the designers you hire display. You'll find that learning to identify that capacity is a key component of effective design leadership.