1. Work extra hours
Sure the average is 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. With that amount of effort you will probably stay stagnant and grow moldy (I’m kidding). But I bet if you ask any senior designer or art director if he/she has gotten to that career point on a measley 40 hour/week schedule, that person would laugh. If you’re not willing to dedicate extra time, don’t hold your breath on a promotion anytime soon. Even an hour or two every day will show passion for the job, commitment to deadlines, and attention to detail. And be sure to be productive in that time. Staying late doesn’t mean hard work if you’re just sitting there smiling at the ficus tree. Trust me, people will notice and your extra time will not be in vain.
2. Answer off-hour messages
Going off that note, it’s also helpful to be available when needed, even if it means on weekends or vacation days. As a coworker once said, “I’m taking time off… but I’m not REALLY taking time off.” As much as it sucks to have to do last minute asset-prepping on a Friday night, you signed up to be a team player and the best way to show your contribution is to help out on your own accord without people begging you to work a little harder. So if you want to move up the ladder, don’t be lazy. Pick up phone calls on a Friday, answer emails on a Saturday, or even respond to text messages on a Sunday. It will pay off in the long run.
3. Attend Meetings whenever possible
Now I know sometimes you can’t go to meetings if it’s reserved for executive staff or if it’s about private matters. And sometimes there will be meetings that aren’t really intended for you as a designer and that, heck, you weren’t even invited to. But if you want to take that extra step, make an effort to go to other meetings when you can. So what if it’s an engineering meeting? If you don’t know much about your company’s product or goal, ask if you can attend and at least listen and take notes. Participation isn’t necessary to learn and you might even be asked to not disrupt, which is perfectly fine given that you don’t know much anyway. Showing that you’re eager to see what the company is about outside of your role as a designer is fantastic. Just make sure you don’t go overboard and exceed your working hours with meeting hours.
4. Know your field very well
For some of you, that might be a “please…that’s obvious” tip. But I found out that there’s a big difference to being good at what you’re doing, in this case, designing, versus knowing the graphic design world. For example, do research. Know the ins and outs, the trending topics, the current salaries, the statistics, as much as you can learn about the field of design. Attend design seminars, keep a list of design contacts, even read up on design blogs. To be a senior level designer or an art director, you should be trusted to know these kinds of things, even if you think it won’t apply to your job. But the likelihood is that if you ever get promoted, your boss, who may not know much about design trends or salaries, may look to you for these things. For example, what if he/she wants to hire another designer and asks you what the median salary range is. Would you know that answer? What if the average salary rate is different between cities and your interviewee is coming from New York City to Fresno, where the living expenses are different? These are the small things that shouldn’t be overlooked and are what non-designers assume senior-level designers should already know.
5. Be familiar with other programs
Let’s face it. The Adobe CS is in every designer’s toolbox. But what else is in there? If you were like me and went “Huh? Other tools?” thinking that Flash, Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop were all you needed in your career, then you are absolutely wrong. Sure, if you want to stick to the same routine or if you are extremely talented, stay with the CS series. But the reality is, most directors, senior designers, and creative heads know just a bit more. Whether it be Omnigraffle, Autodesk Maya, Screenflow, FTP progams, or even TextMate (hey, designers who know web development have a huge advantage nowadays), every little bit helps. Ok now I’m not saying that higher level designers are pros at other programs. If they are that’s great. But it’s nice to know the basics. I’ve definitely strayed a little bit from the design world to do some video editing and it was fun to learn. And it’s nice to say “Hey, I can help with that.” next time your boss randomly asks for video help. That will be a big +1 in their eyes, and possibly a big +1 to being promoted.
6. Prepare yourself for a leadership role
I have yet to be in a senior position, but I want to say it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Yes you probably get paid more but “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Ok, enough with the cheesy. If you are seriously considering a higher role, prepare yourself. Is your boss swamped with work and there’s a pile of other stuff to do? Help out. Show that you don’t need to be asked to do things and that you can manage your own projects. See a new employee struggling to find things on the server? Help him out, even if he’s not a designer. These things are good practice for when you step up to that higher position and you will have to help those incoming junior designers. Questions will be asked, things will need to be taught. If you think you can answer those questions confidently and are at that point where you know the company well enough, then you may be due for a promotion.
7. Have an open mind & Get involved
Everyone has a boss, essentially. Even art directors and senior designers. Look at it from a different perspective and apply that to what you want to become. What do you see in your boss that you want to strive to become? Or things that you think could be improved on? The tough part about being a higher level authority is that you’re usually stuck in the middle of having a boss, and being someone’s boss. This goes back to a common sense point but be sure to take criticism well and be sure to communicate well. Also make sure you play an active role in your boss’ daily activites. I know meetings can suck up half your day and the other half you just want to get work done, but keep in mind that you may eventually be mentoring someone else and will have to check in on him/her regularly. Show that you can be a role model by updating your boss with your daily activity. Manage your time well and don’t forget that, when you have the chance, you should never ignore your potential employee.
8. Be voiceful and take some for the team
I think I’ve had a decent share of good and mediocre bosses. The mediocre ones will assign you the tedious projects that nobody else wants to do, let you sit there quietly and finish them, then check in on you a few days later and give you a pat on the back. The great bosses will challenge you with a mixture of tedious and demanding projects, check in on you daily, and reward you with more exciting projects. The better supervisors are also, what I’ve noted, very certain in their speech. There’s no “ums” or “maybes” in the way they talk or even in their emails. They get straight to the point, they know what they want, they think before they speak, and they may come off a little intimidating but it’s because they are confident in how to run things. So adopt that attitude, be strong in your presentations, and happily accept some of the lame projects for the team (because one employee stuck doing the “bitch work,” as some call it, will not be a happy employee, and an unhappy employee probably means you are not being a good supervisor).
I’m sure there are many more tips to landing that promotion. These are the main things I saw from observing all the authority figures I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the past. Please share your stories and add to this! We’re all here to learn and even if you don’t have a tip, maybe even a “boss from hell” story would be a good read.
Susan Jeng currently works as a designer at OpenFeint and also does freelance work on the side. She resides in the Bay Area, California and enjoys arts & crafts and traveling. If you’d like to get in touch with her, you’d best start at her domain.