You paid your dues. You put in the long nights. You suffered under bosses who never “got” design and those who thought they’d invented it. And finally, you got there. You got the director role, the VP title, or the creative director position that you worked for during your entire career.
And this was good. As the department leader, you made a name for yourself. You grew the team and tightened up the company’s design discipline. You mentored junior designers and churned out some fairly impressive work. And then it came time to move on.
It’s right at that moment that it hits you—when you were an up-and-coming designer, there were lots of entry- and mid-level jobs. As a designer near the top of the heap, the opportunities for you now are few and far between. Rarely do these positions open up, and even more rarely are new senior-design roles created. By working yourself up the corporate design ladder, you may have placed yourself in a situation where potential new gigs are scarce.
It isn’t just that you want your next job to be a step up, so that your career continues to move forward. It’s also that you’re being disqualified for positions without an interview, because recruiters assume you are too expensive before a conversation even takes place.
This is all due to your current title. Despite the discrepancies between titles among different organizations, assumptions are made about what terms like “creative director” and “senior vice-president” mean—especially when it comes to salary and expected responsibilities. Regardless of the size of your company you work for, having an executive title places you in a separate class.
Suddenly the prize that you’ve coveted your entire career becomes a potential albatross around your neck.
When you are faced with the challenges of maintaining a forward career trajectory while also keeping food on the table, here are three things that you can do to ensure employment continuity:
Change your most recent title.
This may sound like an extreme step, especially if you’ve worked very hard for that impressive title. But depending on your target gig, you should nevertheless at least consider changing your title to something lower, at least on your resume. If you are starting to look for freelance work, consider calling yourself a web designer. It will open up many more opportunities, put you in play for gigs that you can then up-sell because of your skill set, and open up opportunities for work that others may have otherwise thought were too junior for you.
Plan your career progression.
Just because you’ve been offered a director position, don’t take it immediately. Think about how such a title may affect not only your current job, but the ones you’ll have after it. Are you putting yourself on a sustainable path? If not, consider a more deliberate (as determined by you) career progression. Perhaps taking a lesser title in a larger organization will give you a similar level of income and responsibility while also leaving future career steps more open.
Start your own business.
At some point it may be best to take the ultimate title—boss. Be your own boss and use your own company (be it a one-man freelance operation or a partnership with former colleagues) to get the gigs you want. This route also allows you to give yourself whatever title you want.
Seniority in design is different from seniority in many other disciplines. There are just not that many senior design roles. Once you achieve a certain level you need to carefully plan your next step. Make smart decisions, and plan your career progression wisely, or you may have trouble landing that next gig. The trick is to time the market, keep an eye on open positions, and expose your success to the outside world through blogging, public profiles on the portfolio sites, public speaking, and participation in lively discussion forums. That way, your next gigs may end up coming to you.