Emerging role in design orgs: The Super Senior Individual Contributor (Principal Designer, Design Architect)

As design organizations scale, many design leaders are realizing that they’re missing a key function—strategic thinking and creative direction that can make sense of the effort of a design team that is working across many products, or distinct parts of a customer journey.

In the book, we implore design orgs to deliver at all levels of conceptual scale:

Design executives (VPs of Design, Heads of Design) operate at the level of the Big Picture and often expect their reports (typically Design Directors or Sr Managers) to oversee Strategy efforts. However, Design Directors, who may have 10-20 people in their orgs, find that they’re spending all of their time focused on their people (managing down) or cross-functional relationships (managing across), and have little time left for strategic or creative leadership. And what time they do have is devoted to their specific silo, so there’s no view across the organization.

In my work supporting design executives in a range of organizations (massive financial services, big public technology companies, scaling pre-IPO startups), I’m seeing many of them are feeling the pain of not having anyone who is a) senior and b) focused on strategic and creative matters. And some of them are addressing this by establishing what I call “super-senior individual contributor” roles, people who are expected to lead work efforts, but not have the people management responsibilities. As this is an emerging role, things are not settled, but typical titles for these roles are Principal Designer or Design Architect.

The Different Types

In helping design executives shape this role, what I’ve seen is that not all super-senior individual contributors are alike. I have identified five distinct types. Before you open a requisition for someone like this, make sure you know exactly what you need.

Strategist

Someone who can inform product and business strategy through research and design efforts, establishing a viable vision for future offerings. This person needs to be a strong communicator, persuasive, good with cross-functional relationships, a facilitative leader who is able to bring a range of people together.

Service Designer

This person is charged with integrating the efforts of teams across silos (whether those silos are departments, business units, phases in the customer journey, etc.) They bring human-centered practices to understand the journeys that users and customers are on, and work with marketing, product, front-line, and service teams to make sure what they’re delivering is coherent. While this role informs strategy, it’s not necessarily strategic, nor persuasive. This is a role for a systems thinker, able to handle complexity, strong with cross-functional and cross-departmental facilitation. I tend to see this person as more top-down, going from journey to the details, the complement to the…

Information Architect

Where the Service Designer orientation is top-down, the Information Architect operates from the bottom-up, inventorying and assessing the user-facing details across all products and services, identifying redundancies and affinities, and helping make sense of the inevitable hairball that is a company’s suite of offerings once it gets beyond a certain size. (A VP of Design at an enterprise software company I work with, where acquiring companies has been an express strategy, refers to the product mess as a “rubble pile.”) This is a role for your more introverted systems thinker, less interested in facilitating workshops, more oriented to documenting large systems and looking for opportunities to re-shape and streamline.

Creative Director

There is a kind of senior creative leadership that isn’t strategic, but instead is obsessed with establishing and upholding standards of quality. In the book, we identified this role as Creative Director (recognizing it’s a different application of the label than is common). This person is focused on design language, quality, and making sure that product design appropriately reflects and expresses brand. In a large team, they likely have a role in Design Systems. They ensure critique is happening as it should. That everyone, across design, understands what “good enough” actually looks like.

Big Project Team Lead

The prior roles were specialists addressing different aspects of that “Strategy” layer in an effort to cohere efforts across a large team. The Big Project Team Lead is more of a generalist, a super-senior designer given creative authority over a large scope of work, and directs (but does not manage!) a team of designers in seeing this work through. In many organizations, this is what is expected of Design Managers and Design Directors, but, as I wrote earlier, often those with managerial responsibilities don’t have the capacity to deliver the kind of creative and strategic leadership that a team needs. I’ve written at length about the Team Lead, so I won’t repeat it here.

Additional Thoughts on Establishing These Roles

These roles requires a ‘dual-track’ career ladder, where you can grow either as an individual contributor, or a people manager. From what I’ve seen, Principal Designer (Sr Manager or Director equivalent) is typically one level junior to Design Architect (Sr Director or VP equivalent).

Unless your organization is truly massive, I would expect that your Super Senior Individual Contributor will be a mix of some of the types above. The point is for you to identify where you have unaddressed gaps, and structure a job to fill them.

For too long it has felt that within in-house design orgs there was only room for managers and detailed product designers, and as an Old School UXer with a bent towards strategy and information architecture, I’m heartened to see more of these roles coming on the market. These roles will help design teams establish themselves beyond production and delivery, and expand their mandate toward uncovering new value for customers and the business.

I haven’t seen much else written about Super Senior Individual Contributors. The only other resource I know of is “Creating a dual-track leadership structure for large teams” by Scott Mackie when he lead design at Athenahealth. If you know of additional resources, please share them in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Emerging role in design orgs: The Super Senior Individual Contributor (Principal Designer, Design Architect)

  1. The broader adoption and implementation of these roles may be emerging, however they have existed for quite some time. I created a Principal Designer role at Sears (~2009), Walgreens (~2013) and Kohl’s (~2016). Each effort was an attempt to provide our most senior designers a path forward as individual contributors and not be forced down the management track. These designers were exceptional in what they did, wanted to continue investing in their craft, gain more influence, and be recognized for their contributions. Domain and method specific knowledge, mentoring and project leadership are aspects of their strengths, and the role was also an opportunity to formally recognize their broader contributions. Establishing and formalizing these roles, at each company, was no small feat. Partnering with HR (carving a space into the rigid nature of HR software) socializing with other functional leadership roles (to explain why we needed to be on the same level playing field), and gaining executive support was at times both exciting and beyond challenging. I can say without hesitation that each and every time we were able to implement the role, on behalf of the individuals and teams we worked with, have been career highlights. The work I’ve led and been part of to formalize super-senior IC roles has created career paths where none existed, raised specific awareness at these companies around the skill, acumen, and dedication it takes to achieve this status, and broader recognition of the achievement for these individuals and their colleagues. I’ve gone on to integrate the Principal role into broader career frameworks for these organizations which have been foundational for the UX orgs in supporting career pathing and individual development conversations between IC’s and managers.

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