The short answer: You don’t. And likely, you never will.
But that’s a good thing.
The lengthier but less dramatic take: Congrats on studying multiple types of design — variety will serve you well, no matter what you pursue. I earned a BFA in Graphic Design at the illustrious Indiana University some decades ago, and now I have the honor of being the Director of Creative here at Slack. To be honest, I had no idea the wealth of design opportunities that would become available over the years — based on what I was told, I was destined to work in publishing or advertising.
So I started there. I joined a traditional advertising agency — designing logos, annual reports, billboards, and so on — and gradually grew my skills based on interest and opportunity. I volunteered to take on projects and additional responsibilities that sounded interesting, knowing that every new experience was an opportunity to grow and learn. The agency I worked at needed someone to oversee a state-wide tourism photoshoot, so I led that and added photo scouting, retouching, and art directing to my resume.
I left Indianapolis with a solid agency background. I moved to San Francisco with a desire to try something different.
A few years and one advertising job later, I left Indianapolis with a solid agency background. I moved to San Francisco with a desire to try something different. The tech industry and working at a startup seemed exciting — the fast-paced, collaborative atmosphere all but guaranteed I’d learn something new every day. Between my traditional print-based skills and my enthusiasm for a new challenge, I ended up getting a job as a Sales Marketing Designer. Did I spend my first week learning everything there is to know about Keynote? You bet I did.
With this pivot to tech, I worked on the client side for the first time. I built pitch decks and templatized customer stories. I took photos on my iPhone for landing pages when we had no budget. I partnered with engineers for the first time in my life, which led to a few years building WYSIWYG websites in a Drupal-based CMS. I designed a few T-shirts, illustrated an onboarding flow, then got into paid marketing initiatives.
At some point, I realized there was something that made me happier than designing: helping others succeed. That was the only moment in my career that I really knew what I wanted to be, and it wasn’t a formal decision, nor did I have to make a permanent shift to support it. In fact, I was discouraged the first time I asked about getting into management. My manager and, coincidentally, his manager, both insisted I’d miss “pushing the pixels” and that “no one wants to be a manager.”
But I couldn’t shake it. Deep down I did want to pursue leadership, so I prioritized people management as something I looked to fulfill in my next role, and in this situation, at a new company.
At some point, I realized there was something that made me happier than designing: helping others succeed.
Moving into management changes some things about your day-to-day, but it’ll never change who you’ve been. I was still a designer, and there was still so much to learn. As a Design Lead, I partnered with teams across the company on app store management, product launches, and design systems. I handled RFPs, brought on agencies, mentored designers and directly managed others. I interviewed people, hired talent, and weathered layoffs. Careful communication and organization became some of my best design skills; I had to rely on them frequently.
As the team grew, most of my “I” contributions turned into “we” contributions: We built out a video studio. We launched our first integrated marketing campaign. We invested in a design system. We went through a lot of organizational change; teams were restructured, people put in their notice, priorities shifted. Ultimately I ended up leaving that company, due to a lack of faith in the vision and leadership.
But I had still loved being a manager, and I had developed a newfound affinity for systems-thinking, web, and campaigns. The role of Web Design Manager at Slack was a perfect fit. A few months in, I was neck-deep in a CMS migration, and a few months after that, a global rebrand. Some of these projects drew on existing skills, while others were clear growth opportunities. I felt challenged and I felt energized. We built out our paid digital initiatives, focused on accessibility, added new languages, and launched homepage variations, hoping to discover a winning test variant.
For someone who was once tasked with designing 100 logos in two hours (they weren’t good, and I don’t recommend this), having an opportunity to test creative solutions felt innovative and strategic. As I spent more time thinking about how to attract people to our website, my team grew to help us get there. Systems-thinking became my default — we built internal tools and rewrote processes to increase efficiency and consistency. We even figured out a new way to work during the pandemic, complete with fully remote photoshoots.
It’s been 17 years since my first role at an agency. Since then, I’ve been a communications designer, an art director, a sales marketing designer, a product designer, a UX designer, a design lead, a design manager, a web design manager, and a design director. I’m now the Director of Creative and oversee copywriting, video, and design operations, in addition to design. And I still identify as a designer.
Hear more from Josie on Twitter @jj