Obliquity: Don't assume your career path is A to B

6 minute read

I used to tell my colleagues that if they wanted to make money, there were many easier ways to do it than drug research. How wrong could I have been! In business as in science, it seems that you are often most successful in achieving something when you are trying to do something else. I think of it as the principle of ‘obliquity’.
- James Black

Sometimes the best way to get from A to B is not a straight line. And sometimes the best way to achieve your overall objective isn’t the obvious way. I think there’s a lot of ways to relate this to a career in design, or really, any career. I’m just picking design because that’s where my experience is.

I’ve learnt that sometimes taking a step back can lead to two steps forward. While I’m not some kind of genius for finding this out (and it was unintentional anyways) I think it’s worth reflecting on, particularly for those newer in the industry who are eagerly searching for their first roles.

Here are some of my thoughts on what to consider as you start out and navigate the early years of a career in product design and user experience.

What you do is more important than the job title

If you don’t have a lot of experience, you should look at junior roles. I hate the word ‘junior’ (I think there’s a reason the industry has moved towards ‘associate’), but there’s incredible value in these roles.

They provide an acknowledgement that someone is at the start of their career and therefore more time and resources are set aside to help you grow. There can be a tendency to want to jump straight into a mid-weight role — perhaps you’ve already got some experience in a similar field, for example.

So there’s junior roles to consider, but also roles without ‘UX’ in the title. I started as a digital producer and I moved into a UX role by performing many of the tasks of a designer in my ‘producer’ role.

Through the interview process I realised that the company had no user experience design expertise and were interested in growing this capacity. I was able to carve out a good portion of my time to learning these skills on the job and in time my tasks became more and more design focussed, and by the time I moved on I had enough experience for a mid-weight user experience role.

There’s no rush (part 1)

Your career will last a long time, there’s no rush. While it’s tempting to want to rush into a senior design role as soon as you can, you’re actually denying yourself learning opportunities in the long run.
As a senior designer you’re expected to have a wealth of experience that you can share with your team, lead your team’s design practice and mentor other designers. In the first few years of your career, the focus should be on building up this knowledge and working on your own skillset. Adding to your experience bank. You’re denying yourself an opportunity to learn if you are too worried about moving up the ranks too quickly.

There’s no rush (part 2)

Above I’ve talked about not rushing into a senior role. Part 2 is about not switching roles too quickly. If you want to really make a difference, you have to stick around for a while. You have to learn that being a great designer doesn’t just mean creating a great interface or nailing a research presentation.

Giving a developer deeper insight into your customers isn’t necessarily something you can measure, but it’s important. So is getting two stakeholders who hadn’t met, in the same room to have a conversation which changes the future of your product. The thing is, it’s not as easy as you think to do all this on day one. You need to be around a while so you learn how your company works, who you can speak to, how to get people to listen. You need to build trust so that people listen to you.

Again, take this with a pinch of salt — I’m not saying work in the same place for 15 years if you’re getting nowhere.

I am saying there are no shortcuts to being a leader. Make sure you put in the time. Luke W puts it best:

Salaries will take care of themselves

The average salary for a user experience designer in the US is $93,352 per year. In Australia, the average salary is $102,781. Designers are well compensated. We are doing all right.

When I moved into my first UX role around five years ago, I took a pay cut from my previous role. Within a year of taking that job, I was able to negotiate a pay rise of over 25% and when I moved into my next role, my pay went up over 35% on that.

The point? Sometimes it’s better to go backwards. If I didn’t take that pay cut, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities that came up in the next few years. I believe that by not focussing on salary, it has enabled better results in the long run. Psychological studies have told us that money only gets us so far in terms of happiness anyways.

Am I saying to ignore salary? No, don’t undersell yourself. But focus on making a good decision for your career, and the salary will take care of itself.

“How you do anything is how you do everything”

This quote comes from Ryan Holiday. Ryan talks about how whatever we face, there are three things that we must respond with:

  • Hard work
  • Honesty
  • Helping others when you can

If you want to progress in your career, whether you’re two years in or twenty years in, the above three points will stand you in good stead.

There’s no right way to do any of this

I constantly talk to people interested in doing 12 week UX design courses, asking me which institution they should go with. Or asking if they should go at all. The truth is — there’s no right answer to that. My path was learning on the job. I studied music at university, worked in an Apple store travelling the world for a few years and I’m now a designer. That wasn’t planned.

To conclude

I can tell you how my career has progressed, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be the same for anyone else. It’s easy for me to look back and tie together a coherent story which tells of how I got to where I am. In reality, I was guessing along the way and things just worked out well for me.

I got some good advice, met some excellent people along the way and always did what I felt was right at the time.

Give yourself every opportunity to find mentors and people to learn from. Ask people about their journeys (you’ll find some interesting ones out there) and figure out how the people you respect most, got to doing what they’re doing.

Remember, there’s probably someone out there doing what you want to do and most of them are contactable and will love to hear from you.