How to pick a design specialty

A new designer's guide to understanding the differences between job titles in the design industry

I’ve seen this question appear in places like Tavern, Quora, and I’ve also been asked by designers new to the field how all the various job titles interact with one another. Where do they overlap, what skills are different, what’s the difference between an interaction and UX designer, and so on. I want to weigh in on this confusing question to attempt to bring some clarity to the matter.

Design is the layer between customer and business

When I speak of Design with a capital D, I’m referring to the process of design in the broadest sense. All designers are working on the same thing: to make the experience of a product, service, or marketing message the best that it can possibly be. The experience is the layer — the glue, if you will — between the customer and the apparatus created by engineers and business people. The boundaries of this experience encompass everything from marketing communication to the experience of using an API and searching through documentation.

The way designers describe what they do is impossible to understand outside the context of the product they’re producing and the audience they’re producing it for. A product designer who designs medical devices for the elderly will have an entirely different skillset than a product designer for a consumer ride-sharing startup.

Specialists versus Generalists

One of the easiest ways to make some sense of the field of job titles is to draw a line between the specialized disciplines and the generalist disciplines, and then understand what these disciplines mean in the context of the customer you’re serving and the company environment you’re working in.

  1. Specialized Designers — Those who focus on a particular point in time or a specific aspect of the design (such as a visual designer, who might only work on UI polish, or an interaction designer who will zoom in on the nitty gritty of how users interact with controls). They may work across a product lifecycle, but will generally be focused on a single aspect of it. Specialists thrive on larger teams who can oversee the disciplines the specialist doesn’t cover.
  2. Generalist Designers — Those who generalize and see a product through a wider chunk of its lifecycle (such as a product designer or entrepreneur who will design a product from initial idea all the way through implementation). They tend to be more wholistic in their thinking, often pulling in techniques and findings from unrelated fields to enhance their design, yet not diving as deep as the specialist. They tend to thrive in younger companies where specialization is a liability rather than an asset.

All designers are user experience designers

All Designers are user experience designers, if you care to be pedantic with me for a moment. Since all designers work along the customer-facing spectrum, all designers have the capacity to affect the experience positively or negatively.

Within that umbrella, however, the specialists and generalists break down more specifically like this:

  • Design & User Experience
    • Specialized Designers
      • Interaction designers
      • Visual designers
      • UI designers
      • and so on…
    • Generalist Designers
      • Digital product designers
      • Physical product designers
      • Certain interaction designers
      • and so on…

How to pick the right design specialty for you

When most people ask about job titles, they want to know not only what the work looks like, but also what kind of jobs might be available if they pursue the path.

Though this is just one person’s advice, this is the best method I’ve found for reasoning through this problem.

If you answer the following two questions honestly and accurately, you’ll be pretty close to narrowing down an ideal specialty:

  1. Who do you want to serve with your design work?
  2. What kind of environment do you want to work in?

Who do you want to serve?

When I say “serve” in this context, I mean your end-user. Though design is about flexibly and creatively solving problems in unfamiliar problem spaces, having a connection to your end-user goes a long way toward helping you overcome the more uncomfortable aspects of design. For example, humbly accepting your user knows more about their problem than you do, or seeking the opinion of colleagues even if it means showing unpolished work. These are all things that become much easier when you genuinely care about the effect your solution has on your audience.

Furthermore, this helps you understand the size of the job market you’ll be entering, and what an average day might look like. For instance, if you’re really interested in building products to help small business owners run their businesses more effectively, then you might look at jobs in mobile app design and follow a few companies that successfully deliver products to this customer base.

In broad strokes, here are a few customer categories to consider in the software space (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • B2B customers — Business customers have very specific needs with very specific budgets, and are eager to pay for the solution that fits their needs the best. Business customers tend to be more accessible, fewer in number, and extremely loyal — as long as you can deliver on a demanding feature list better than your competitors. Common companies for designers in this space are usually online, software-as-a-service based.
  • Consumer market — Consumer facing software has a different set of requirements, and carries with it the allure of designing for a massive audience. Designing for the broader consumer market means your design decisions may intimately affect the lives of many. Simultaneously, the consumer market tends to be more fickle than business customers, adopting fad products that are here today, gone tomorrow. As a new designer, it can be difficult to stand out in the overcrowded consumer space.
  • Specific customer vertical — Another way to think about who you design for is to pick a specific demographic or vertical you care a lot about. If you’re interested in wine, then you might build a great career at an agency that does business with a lot of wineries. If you’re more of a social enterprise type, the non-profit world is in serious need of talented designers. Specializing in a vertical (but not necessarily a skillset) allows you to make a name for yourself more easily, which can be a platform for uncovering more interesting design opportunities in the future.

What kind of company do you want to work for?

Different stages of a company’s lifecycle carries with it different perks, responsibilities, and downsides. The following generalizations are almost too broad to be useful, so take this with a grain of salt.

  • Early Stage / Small Product Companies (Startups and companies usually with fewer than ~50 people) — Designers in these types of companies tend to need a more generalist skillset, a bouyant spirit, and a willingness to tackle new challenges for which they might be ill-equipped to handle.
    • Good for:
      • Product & Interaction Designers — These specialties thrive at small startups whose main, and sometimes only offering, is a single product or experience. These designers relish the opportunity to practice their skills across the entire spectrum and are frequently delivering prototypes that look, behave, and sometimes are coded exactly like the final product.
      • Visual Designers — Many visual designers in smaller companies get a wide variety of work, from marketing and communications design to UI and web design. The upside is that you might get the opportunity to design a pet favorite project like an icon set. The downside is that if you want to only work on projects you like, chances are you’ll be too busy with a million things to focus on just that.
      • UX Designers — UX design as a broad category is a role frequently seen at small companies. Similar to product designers, the UX designer’s responsibilities may extend even beyond those of the product designers to also consider the documentation and support process, and may also take on more of the research and customer feedback responsibilities. In a lot of cases, the UX designer may take on product management responsibilities (or the other way around) until the company grows to a size where separate roles for product management and UX are required.
  • Mid Stage / Larger Product Companies — People will draw the lower line of what defines a “mid-size” company as anywhere from 50 people to 500 people depending on their experience. However, the general rule of thumb is that once a company graduates from its startup phase to its grownup phase, designers are encouraged to specialize their skillset. This effect becomes more and more pronounced as company size and maturity increases.
    • Good for:
      • User Researchers — If you are more interested in the research aspect of the design process, you will likely be happier in a larger company that has the budget and wherewithal to conduct proper user research and actually execute on the discoveries uncovered. Smaller companies typically don’t have the time, bandwidth, or budget to yield satisfying results in my experience.
      • Visual Designers — Visual designers in these types of companies have more of a chance to specialize, and frequently have more structure and mentorship in their design process. The upside is there are layers of managers to both shield you from the whims of management and help you learn; the downside is there are layers of managers.
      • UI Designers — Though UI designers thrive at startups, doing UI design at a larger or later stage company affords you the luxury of diving more deeply. For instance, you might be able to analyze all the ways you can code a link underline for maximum aesthetic viability, whereas that same behavior would get you thrown overboard at a startup.
      • UX Designers — UX designers at larger companies might use similar tools as UX designers at small companies, but they can go into significantly greater depth when at a company that invests in user experience and design. There is typically more time, rigor, and formal testing that goes into an enterprise-level UX process.
  • Agencies, Studios, and Consultancies — Agencies are a bit of a different animal. Agency designers have to be skilled at communicating about design more so than their counterparts, as project stakeholders rotate on an ongoing basis. On the one hand, agency life results in a wider variety of projects. On the other, many describe it feeling very impersonal, and that they have no connection to the end result other than the paycheck. Most of the job titles mentioned above can be found in the agency world, and the company size rules apply as well. Larger agencies are more likely to work with larger companies, and designers in that world will likely be more encouraged to specialize. Boutique agencies are more likely to work with smaller companies (though not always), but these designers will always be called on to be multi-disciplinary.

Conclusion

To sum up, while the job titles in the design world are diverse, they’re largely made up by designers attempting to communicate the process of design to a world that doesn’t think the same way.

It’s confusing and will require some research to wrap your head around. However, follow these principles as a jumping off point for your research and you’ll have a much easier time of it.

  1. Decide if you want to specialize or generalize your skillset
  2. Decide who you care about working for, and
  3. Decide what kind of company you want to work in

Finally, make sure to take advantage of design communities to ask for advice and critique as much as possible. This will minimize the time you spend bumbling around.

Hi, I'm Zac Halbert. I'm a digital product designer and lifelong learner living in San Francisco, California with my wife, son, and sheepdog. I currently run the Product Design & UX track at Tradecraft, where we train smart people to succeed in traction roles at high-growth startups.

I also own independent product design consultancy Scout Hawk Product Design Studio, where I help entrepreneurs turn hazy ideas into concrete digital products, and Foliotwist, a portfolio and marketing SaaS company for visual artists. I also advise a number of companies on the intersection of user experience design, product design and management, and rapid prototyping and idea validation that draws heavily from the Lean Startup philosophy.

My background is a mixture between formal graphic design and fine arts education, mixed with a long history of self-taught frontend programming skills. I began to learn HTML, CSS, and UI design at age 12 (I was a huge nerd), and got my first job as a web designer at age 15 — and have been doing it and loving it ever since. I eventually got my degree in graphic design, but have diverse interest in nearly every field that blends technical and creative work.

While I'm not very good at keeping my portfolio or blog up to date, I always love connecting with fellow designers, entrepreneurs, and developers. Here are just a few of the companies I've had the pleasure to work with.