Designers mostly grow along a similar evolutionary curve: starting out wanting to learn and get increasingly proficient with the tools at hand, building up their professionalism and gradually improving timeliness and efficiency, and then ultimately evolving into a role where they can apply their acquired skills in a bigger perspective.
The problem is, most of the early efficiency- and professionalism-related qualities are sort of at a price-of-admission level. If we’re playing Devil’s Advocate for a bit here, timeliness and efficiency are qualities that can be replicated just as well (and possibly more cost-effectively) through outsourcing, and so that is not enough for anyone as a professional to build on. What makes the most sense for an employer, in terms of maintaining creative capabilities in-house, is that designers add something beyond mere production capacity. That something is knowledge.
As creatives, we need to become aggregators and keepers of knowledge and insights: insights that are accrued through experience specific to the company we work for, and their clients – insights that are to some degree proprietary, and could only be found there. That way, we present a value-add that justifies our involvement on a deeper level – a resource that is sought out and desired, and not just used for convenience.
Beyond timeliness and efficiency (which are mostly at a tactical level), having a better grasp of the chain of execution, and becoming better at tactical ideation, I would also recommend each individual designer to eventually move his/her development path to into areas of strategic relevance. Connecting creative solutions and ideas to business needs and insights about user behaviors, and expanding the production process to determine not just HOW things are done, but WHY they’re done that way, and how they SHOULD be done, given the business objectives of our clients, is what matters most.
Becoming an efficient and skilled designer is an objective that represents a good starting point. Already being efficient and pro-active in planning out work means an evolving designer would have room to expand his or her perspective and take on work with a broader, more strategic scope. As a designer starts to gain insights into how the output of the work is performing, it will become natural to start questioning and discussing those things at the outset of a project, rather than trying to figure out how to make things work when already knee-deep in it. And as one starts feeling more confident about being involved and active in a larger ideation context, the designer will be able to apply his or her ideas in ways that connect the dots, not just in terms of what works from a creative, communicative perspective, but what actually improves the bottom line results.
I strongly encourage each designer to embark on that journey – of asking why, not just asking how. I write this not necessarily for the purpose of designers climbing some kind of career ladder, but for the understanding of the “why” to inform the design, so that the work is and stays relevant, allowing each individual designer to become more than an efficient creative resource, but also a collaborator whose insights add value. Those are the types of team members who can never be replaced, and that is what a strong creative team needs.
That is the way I see the individual goals of a designer and the goals of a creative team coming together, and this is also how a team together can ensure that maintaining an in-house creative department makes sense for our employers in a business perspective. Because, ultimately, being efficient and timely, while admirable, is what’s expected of us, and that kind of capacity can unfortunately always be found at a lower price somewhere else. So, we need to add something more than that, something that the company cannot put a price on. Figuring out what that “extra” thing is for each individual designer is what is going to be the most important going forward in their careers, beyond their current situation.