A list of seven different jobs, all called designer

18.19, Tuesday 13 Apr 2021

Back in 2009, I wrote down all the different ways I heard “designer” used as a job title. There were seven types.

I just went digging through my notes, having half remembered it this afternoon. Here’s the list.

  1. Where the designer specialises in a particular material or object, and design is matter of creativity and taste: graphic design, book design, furniture design, interior design.
  2. Where the designer exists as a job role between, say, architects and engineers, doing technical drawing and mechanically finding the space between rules.
  3. Where the material is metaphorical and the approach and methods are designerly: service design, interaction design, experience design.
  4. In strategy/consultancy, where “design thinking” is a way of approaching problems in product, marketing, brand, organisational change, etc with a method that combines intuition and rationalism.
  5. In design operations/management, giving direction and explaining but not working on the material.
  6. Designers who create “design objects” which are closer to art than problem solving.
  7. A transitory role; a name for any person who performs any act of design, no matter how briefly or in what context. Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order – Victor Papanek.

In my notes I’ve also got a reference to the “big-D Designer,” the person who is the holder of the vision, and often uses all the other types (and other job roles besides) to bring that vision about. I think the big-D Designer can fit into any of the above roles; it’s dependent on the person and the context.

The purpose of this list was to understand confusion. If you told someone else you were a designer, what else could they believe that you meant?

This isn’t meant to be a typology with hard edges. It was a list made from observation.

Since I made the list in 2009, twelve years ago:

  • Design started being taken seriously by business, outside the creative industries. I’ll credit IDEO for legitimising design thinking, as an approach to strategy, and Apple’s success for for cementing design’s commercial importance.
  • Software ate the world, and the “product” role emerged from technology firms. My take is that you can trace a path from design, to (software) product/interaction design, to a widened conception of the domain of design which became called “product”, and finally to the mini-CEO role which is the modern product manager. Engineering was another tributary to this unique role, but I feel like there’s a good strong “designer” part of the lineage.

So I don’t know what these trends have done to my list. There are a lot of roles that I would say are design-adjacent, that once could have functionally been performed by a designer, but they have many paths in and are increasingly their own distinct roles. I’m thinking of roles like product marketing, and interface copy.

Does the list still hold up in 2021?

Are there any new ways that designer is used in job titles?

I’ll also make a distinction between designer-as-job-title and designer-as-vocation.

Designers who have been to design college have become part of the culture of design. They have visceral understanding of method (the brief, the material, the crit), and training (which gives not just technique but a particular perspective), but also a connection to design as a historical conversation, which combined means that the designer can go on and be an author or a racing car driver, but they will always be a designer.

Whereas I have (back in the day) co-founded a design studio, but haven’t been to design school, so while I could inhabit a “designer” job role, in the same way I could inhabit other job roles, I would never be a designer in the vocational sense.

I think.

This archeology of my notes prompted by reading Org Design for Design Orgs (2016) by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner, which I’m reading as a chaser to Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love (2018) by Marty Cagen.

Inspired is a fantastic handbook to the product role in tech companies from startups to behemoths like Google. (Thanks Sippey for the recommendation.) It’s basically a giant outline of the product role, hugely practical, with minimal extraneous words, from a place of deep experience – high signal/noise ratio. My favourite kind of business book.

I’m reading around the topic of design leadership, in its broadest sense, in tech companies, so any recommendations of companion reads to Org Design for Design Orgs (which I’m greatly enjoying) will be gratefully received.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.