How to be a proactive designer

Initiative is a big deal for career advancement for any designer. Initiative is one of the key attributes I look for in high performing team members when it comes to the topic of who on the team I can promote (at my full-time job as UX Director).

So what do I mean with the term “initiative”? Here’s how the dictionary on my Mac defines it:

The ability to assess and initiate things independently: use your initiative, imagination, and common sense.
An act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something.

…Those definitions describe qualities that managers love to see in their team members. Designers who demonstrate initiative advance in their career at a faster pace, and farther beyond those who fail to demonstrate initiative.

It’s assumed that you’ll do what you’re told to do by your manager. That’s not initiative. Only doing what you’re told to do is how you meet expectations. If you want to exceed expectations, you’ll need to look beyond.

When any of the designers on my teams demonstrate initiative and add value that I wasn’t expecting, well… that’s a win for both of us.

It’s a win for the team member because they found an extra way to make themselves more valuable to the company which in turn boosts the company’s perception of them and the department. For me it’s a win because when the department improves on its own without my direct involvement it makes my job easier. Win win.

So how can designers can take the right initiative at the right time to move forward in their career? Perhaps you’re in a spot where you may feel as though you’d gladly take initiative on something if you knew what to take initiative on.

So how do you know when and what to take initiative?

How can designers be proactive with the right thing at the right time?

Let’s dive in…

The right time

If something is small and it isn’t really going to take time to execute, do it! I re-stock the paper towel roll in the break room whenever it’s empty, I tidy up the conference room when my meetings are over, and I name my email attachments with filenames that actually make sense. It’s always the right time to be proactive on the small things.

But what about the bigger stuff? How can you decide if it is the right time to move forward with being proactive on a new idea? Here’s some areas to watch out for before you take action…

  • When in doubt, check-in with your manager. If there is a chance that your proactive initiative is going to catch your manager off-guard, float the idea by him or her first before you jump in. You don’t want your manager to feel undermined, or that you kicked off a new project behind their back.
  • Before taking on a new initiative, you’ll also want to ensure that your core job duties, deadlines, and tasks are on point. Your boss probably won’t want you taking on a new time consuming activity if any of your existing deadlines are in question, or if you are behind on something that they have already asked you to do. You manager would most likely push back on any new time-consuming actives if something they have already asked for is still unfinished.
  • Avoid taking initiative with projects that are opposed to your organization’s goals or strategic initiatives. (Duh).
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin. You don’t want to end up trying to take on extra initiatives to the point where you start slipping. It is better to take initiative in one area and hit it out of the park than to take initiative in a multiple areas and do a mediocre job with them. Taking on too much is a recipe for burnout. Be realistic with your bandwidth, and recognize that not all problems are yours to solve.
  • Use caution when your proactive action could step on other people’s toes. You want to be very careful with areas and ideas that could infringe on areas that other people are responsible for. The last thing you want to do is to achieve “success” on a project that burns bridges with your co-workers.

The right thing

Now that we’ve covered some considerations on the timing of taking initiative, here’s six ideas along with first-hand REAL WORLD examples that have worked for me or members of my UX teams at my full-time job…

1. Deficient areas

Is there an area where the industry is moving forward that your company or design team is lagging behind on? Take it to your manager and pitch them on an idea that would modernize your company’s design process.

Example: Years ago, a high performing Sr. Designer on one of my UX teams presented the need for us to evolve from a style-guide to a design system. He presented the value and the benefits of doing so, and proceeded to spearhead the project as time allowed. I later promoted him to a UX Manager on my team.

2. Making your boss look good

Do things that make your boss look good. While this may seem like a counter-intuitive approach, doing things to make your boss look good actually puts you in a mindset to look for ways to add value to the company. Yes, your boss may get the credit for the work in the short term, but bosses tend to promote team members who make them look good and make their lives easier.

Example: My boss recently asked me to send him whatever UX slides I had laying around for use in an upcoming presentation he had. I sent him the old slides that he asked for, but I also took the time to work on and deliver a new series of slides that were perfect for his presentation. He was very pleased with the new slides I sent over to him, which he used in his presentation. I highly doubt he mentioned me in the presentation, but that is beside the point.

3. Company/department goals

What are the company’s goals or strategic initiatives for the year? Playing a part in helping a department or company achieve a goal is good for the team/company, and makes everyone involved in the project look like a hero. Sometimes company goals are fairly distant from design work, but other times they align nicely.

Example: My team made key UX improvements on an interface that dramatically increased conversions (which was a goal). It wasn’t long before an analytics email giving kudos to the UX team started to get some positive responses from company executives.

4. Software & Tools

Are there better software tools out there that the team or company could benefit from? Would playing around with the tool and its features uncover areas where the software could help improve the workflow, efficiency, or output of the team?

Example: The UX teams I lead were having challenges with Sketch software. A team member undertook the task of evaluating all of the leading tools in the space and lead the effort to migrate the team to Adobe XD (no, I’m not here to argue which tool is better). This one can be tricky of the tool is cost-prohibitive. You can still present the value, but you do want to be careful to not push too hard for tools that the company hasn’t accounted for in the budget.

5. Collaboration

Ever thought it would be good to have closer collaboration with another department or team in the company to help reduce silos and get on the same page? You’re probably not alone. UX/Product/Visual designers can often benefit from tighter collaboration with copywriters, developers, tech leads, product managers, etc. What ways could you initiate closer collaboration with other teams?

Example: I had a UX Designer who could often be found white-boarding with other team members on his projects. Nobody told him to do it. He simply took the initiative to work more closely with the other members of the team/company, and increase the collaboration. I later promoted him from Mid-level designer to Sr. Designer.

6. Growth

See a book on your manager’s desk, or is there a podcast or blog the creative director is always talking about? Read the blog, pick up a copy of the book, or give a few episodes of the podcast a listen. Highlight some key takeaways that you find pertinent to your job. This helps you to get in-sync with leadership, and indicates to them that you’re serious about your role.

Example: Two weeks ago I finished an audiobook book that my boss had mentioned he was listening to. He didn’t ask me or tell me to read it. I learned from the book (always a good thing), and was able to “talk shop” with him on the details of the book and how we could implement some key points at the company.

There you have it. Some notes on what to watch out for before you take initiative along with some REAL WORLD examples of how I have taken initiative, or seen it taken first-hand. Take the right initiative at the right time, and you’ll move your career forward, garunteed.

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