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How to Get Ahead in Your Design Career

We explore some of the skills that design leaders and innovators need to master.

What’s the difference between a great designer and a great design leader? 

Here at Northumbria School of Design, that’s a question we regularly ask ourselves. It takes more than just excellent design skills and business talent. Leadership is about vision - and that’s something that can only be developed by exposing yourself to the highest level of design thinking and innovation. 

If you want to get ahead in the world of design, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the skills and knowledge you need to build. In this blog, we highlight some of the things you’re going to need to master, whether you're looking to pursue a career as a creative director or a design manager, build your own business or reach the top as a chief experience officer or chief design officer. 


Stay inspired

Inspiration is a big part of what drives the best designers to excellence. Just like your design skills, though, inspiration is something that needs careful cultivation. How do you ensure that you never lose it?

The answer to this question is different for everyone. However, keeping in touch with what is going on in the wider industry, exploring some of the best design pieces in the world and trying to figure out the thinking behind their successes is a great start. The Netflix series, Abstract: The Art of Design, takes a closer look at the work of some top-tier commercial designers, and is one of the many shows you could watch. 

You could also draw inspiration from podcasts that feature great designers and design thinking in action. The following is a good list to start off with:

AID Network Logo - Design Podcast

  1. The AID Network - this daily talk show explores how creatives ‘design happiness into their professional lives’. It’s one for designers of all levels, ages and niches.
  2.  99% Invisible - exploring the ‘invisible world of design’, this fascinating series captures all the things regular people don’t really think about - but designers do.
  3. North v South - this quintessentially British podcast brings together two designers to talk about everything from the principles of quality illustration to the best-tasting pies in Northern England. 
  4. Design Matters with Debbie Millman - not many design podcasts can claim to be the world’s first. Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, however, has grounds to do so, as well as the experience to deliver a fantastic listen.


Understand the role of design in business

Any challenge that businesses face today can be positioned as a problem of design, from the design of financial structures and teams, to products and marketing funnels. Increasingly, the best business leaders are turning to design thinking to solve complex business problems, while the best design managers can draw on the way they think to advise on wider commercial issues.

But how do you get started learning the ins and outs of designing both in and for business? Books are a great place to start. We've taken the below titles from our Design Management Masters course reading list, and each one could help you get ahead of the curve.

Vision and Values in Design Management Front Cover


  • The design experience: the role of design and designers in the twenty-first century, Press, Mike; Cooper, Rachel 2003 - Explore the roles and practices of designers in today’s world. The interaction between customers and their experiences of design is at the heart of this excellent work.
  • Vision and values in design management, Hands, David 2008 - Understanding design as a strategic resource is fundamental to the skill set of a top-tier design leader. Discover how design assets interact with complex and ever-changing market needs.
  • Designing for growth: a design thinking tool kit for managers, Liedtka, Jeanne; Ogilvie, Tim 2011 - ‘Design thinking’ is an abstract and misunderstood term. Here, our authors clarify how the designer’s mindset can provide a framework for practical business development.


Become a first-class strategist

It takes more than just artistic merit to make a design successful. The best designers understand that their work fits into an existing landscape of market demands and competition. Learning to position yourself against this backdrop and create cutting-edge offerings is a crucial skill. To do it well, you’ll need to understand a variety of business models and be able to analyse them using proven frameworks.

Developing your skills as a strategist, and being better able to explain the value of design as part of a larger strategy, will help you to capture the imagination of markets and employers, and help you to change the way your industry is viewed. Remember, no design exists in a vacuum. Learn to play business needs to your advantage.


Get the right credentials

While many hiring managers today prefer to judge candidates on their work, having an advanced, postgraduate award or a specialist design management course could help you to stand out from the crowd and land a management-level position. Being able to demonstrate more than just practical skill is important; you need to be able to show you can succeed in a commercial landscape, build strategies, manage workflows, test working prototypes and more. You may also be expected to illustrate your understanding of how design impacts other aspects of a business and how you can interpret business needs in order to create effective solutions. The right course can teach you all of this, and more.

To learn more about our online Masters, and how it could be the course you need to get ahead, take a look at our Design Management MA course page




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