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Things I Wish I’d Known Earlier In My Design Career

Too often, our individual goals and plans are left far behind the company’s goals and product development roadmaps. Here are some things to keep in mind to avoid surprises down the line.

Too often, our individual goals and plans are left far behind the company’s goals and product development roadmaps. That’s not right. Below are some of the tips around design career that I wish somebody had told me earlier in my career, and that I hope will be useful for your career as well.

Plan your negotiation strategy ahead of time.

You need to plan your negotiation strategy ahead of time. Estée Janssens.

1. Never Tell Your Salary Expectations First #

Usually it doesn’t take long until a recruiter or HR manager asks you about your salary expectations. Of course, you’d like to make a good first impression, and my first instinct has always been to provide a slightly discounted ballpark figure.

Salary isn’t everything, but it’s important. Be very careful and strategic when negotiating your salary. It should be fair and comparable to your colleagues. If asked about your expectations, politely reject and ask for an average salary for your level in the company instead.

Also, do your research upfront (via TeamBlind,, Glassdoor and know what to expect as a minimum.

2. Pay Close Attention To Your Job Title #

We often think that titles don’t matter as much as the work that we are actually doing. Yet throughout the years, I’ve been proved wrong over and over again. Titles do matter. They define salary levels and your growth opportunities.

Be very careful and strategic about the role you apply for, and make sure it matches the role stated in your contract. There are vast differences between UX Designer and Senior UX Designer roles, for example, and growing from one level to another can be quite difficult.

3. Always Have a Comfortable Salary Range in Mind #

Don’t focus too much on your current salary as it might not account for inflation, gender gap, and other costs. Instead, explore what a reasonable salary for your role is and for your level of experience in your region. You might even increase it a bit to leave enough room for negotiations.

Ask yourself what salary would make you enthusiastic enough to be heavily invested in the product and deliver your best work. But never provide a number on the call, and defer it to an email if you must.

4. You Can’t Have It All #

Who doesn’t want to have a lovely combination of ownership in the team, a decent salary with stock options, stability, great managers, fantastic people, and a good work-life balance? It was quite a surprise to me that getting everything neatly packaged in one job opening was quite an unrealistic expectation.

  • In a start-up, you might have a lot of ownership, but with it often comes slightly chaotic management with last-minute changes and mid-night fixes.

  • In large corporations, you would have a reasonable salary and stability, but you probably won’t feel like you make significant contributions to the product. But you learn a lot from your team and grow significantly as a professional.

  • As a contractor or freelancer, you always need to chase your projects, and with it comes a healthy dose of accounting, estimates, scopes of work, and eventually, last-minute changes and deadlines. This adds to the pressure and stress levels that you might want to avoid.

  • In an agency, you’ll learn a lot about different knowledge domains, but you’ll be jumping from one project to another, sometimes working on multiple projects at once. The salary might be lower than in a product team, and you’re likely to work on deadlines.

Be clear what is more important to you, and what combination are you after: team, culture, ownership, flexibility, stability, salary, work-life-balance. You rarely will find a perfect match, and you will have to compromise. Just have your priorities clearly defined.

5. Keep Record of Your Achievements #

Why is it so difficult to grow from one role into another? Well, we often think that if we just work hard enough, we will get noticed, and we will be promoted to senior positions. But your growth heavily depends on how attentive and caring your managers and your company are.

However, in many companies managers change, companies evolve, teams get restructured. You might not ever get a chance to have a proper conversation about a promotion.

Maintain an up-to-date record of your achievements, milestones, projects and learnings, workshops and trainings you’ve attended, articles you’ve written and talks you’ve given, your help with onboarding new employees, your contribution to weekly UX meetings, etc. (a Google Doc would do). This will help you argue better in your 1:1’s with your manager(s).

6. Test The Company During Your Probation Period #

Watch out for red flags. Do people leave for strange reasons? Do managers change frequently? Do people get promoted at all? Are designers being listened to in the company? Track the impact of your work, and anything that stands in the way.

7. Switching Companies Is How You Make More Money #

Jumps from one company to another help climb the career ladder and improve salary, yet as a result, you might end up without any ownership at all. Just because you don’t get enough time to contribute and see the impact of your contributions in real projects. And to me, that’s always been very important, and more important than the salary.

In the industry, it’s common to be jumping between companies every 12–18 months, and in fact that’s how you usually would make more money. But if you feel valued and appreciated, the team is great and salary is fine, stay. But: make sure you don’t leave too early or too late. Leaving after 8 months will raise red flags in your future job interviews.

8. Think About Passive Income Early #

When you are in your 20s, it’s easy to dismiss the notion of passive income. After all, you have all the time in the world to make your financial decisions later. But I can’t stress it enough: do think early about your passive income.

The earlier you start investing into ETFs or creating digital products, the more you can accumulate over the years. You don’t need much money to start building up your passive income. Even putting aside $100 a month will pay off long term. Be visible by writing, sharing, open-sourcing. That’s a great investment of your time for decades to come.

Wrapping Up #

Don’t put your hard work and efforts into something that might not even be worth your energy. You are talented, skilled, and hard-working, and there are plenty of good uses for your skills out there. So settle for a while if you must, but never stop looking for options that would suit you better if you can.

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