So You Are a Senior Designer?

By Tunji Ogunoye, Creative Director, FourthCanvas

As the design space evolves, we would continue to have conversations around roles that come with growth in the industry. Who is a senior designer? What are the experiences that he or she should have?

Sometimes last year, a new acquaintance reached me via DM on Instagram, he asked me why I was called a Senior Designer and what it entails. This happened just about a year into when I assumed the role at FourthCanvas and was the first time I would ever encounter such a question. So while I answered the question in the best way I could as at that time, it prompted a more conscious effort to study, research and understand the hierarchy system in the creative sphere.

Around the same time, some of my designer friends got employed into different roles in their respective new coys – Graphic Designer, Brand Manager, Art Director among others. According to Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne’s Becoming A Graphic & Digital Designer, there are four levels in a typical design team – Entry (Intern, Junior Designer, etc), Support (Design and Art Director Associates, etc), Creative/Senior (Senior Designer, Art Director, Senior Art Director etc.), and Managerial levels (Creative Director, Chief Creative Officer, Design Director, etc.)

However, the Senior Designer role or its equivalents across different departments and setups is the heart of the Design team. It is the threshold of real significance in any career. The centre and pivot of the team—a lot revolves around him/her.

If you are on the design journey and or excited about better understanding the role of a Senior designer, here are some characteristics of the level across leadership, mastery, experience, and process.

Leadership is 360-degrees; as John C Maxwell taught in The 360 Leader. The Senior Designer, being the centre of the design team should lead up, down and sideways. Lead up to the managerial level by taking directives from him, helping him provide guidance for the junior level and, lead down to the support and entry levels by providing guidance on tasks and their overall growth career-wise and lead sideways to his peers—other Senior Designers—by sharpening each other towards mastery. Overall, the Senior Designer should prepare himself to take up Managerial roles on the team.

The requirements for the Creative Director role are beyond skill mastery or experience. Leadership is key here and the best time to prepare for leadership is before you attain the position.

Photography by Aluko Brown for FourthCanvas

Mastery of skills – the Senior Designer is not one who is unsure of his skills and strengths or who is still shaky in design thinking, problem-solving and execution—the Senior Designer doesn’t just know, he or she is assured. Mastery is a product of sheer understanding of the basic as a master doesn’t outgrow the basics. Because the design field has different specializations like branding, Ads, Digital Ads etc, there is usually a temptation to try to master all. Although the senior designer may, in addition to his mastery of the subject of ‘design’ have an idea of all forms of design, he must, however, pick a niche and exhaust it as much as he can—this is true mastery.

Experience – the consistency of result at a particular level and a track record of growth over time. There are works to show for the level—has a portfolio to show for what has been learnt over the years. A senior designer’s body of work should show consistency at a high level including personal experiences to back up most of his deepest philosophies, standards and perspectives. The Senior Designer has to be able to teach, guide and speak from experience, both his/hers and others’ he has learnt from and experienced as entry-level designers should be able to learn from all these.

Process ensures success can be replicated. It ensures that the result is not a hit in the hit-or-miss roller coaster. The truth about teaching is that you cannot teach shortcuts as they’re not replicable or sustainable. The process is a major evidence of true success as if you can’t explain how you arrive at your results or solutions in a way that is tangible and measurable, it is safe not to trust your results.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

In conclusion, creative departments, everywhere, must be clear on roles and hierarchy between the team, this isn’t to create an unnecessary class or undue protocol but with an understanding that proper hierarchy within the team gives room for learning, feedback and order. At any time, the aforementioned characteristics can be used to select people into their proper role.

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