The Product Designer Career Path: How To Grow In Product Design

CareerFoundry Blog contributor John Cheung

You’ll find a million articles out there about becoming a product designer. 

But sometimes, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what your career path might look like after you land your first role.

You might be wondering what a typical product designer career path looks like, or how long it normally takes to make it to the senior level.

I’ve written this article to give you a comprehensive breakdown of what your product design career might look like and how you can maximize it.

I’ll start with the basics—explaining exactly what a product designer does. I’ll then look at the typical levels in a product designer career path and roughly when you can expect to reach each one.

After that, I’ll share some advice on how you can keep growing as a product designer and give you some pointers on creating your career plan. 

To skip ahead to a section, use the clickable menu below:

  1. What does a product designer do?
  2. Levels in a product design career
  3. How to grow as a product designer
  4. How to create a career plan
  5. Key takeaways

What does a product designer do?

Put simply, product design is the research, design,  and crafting of new products, with extra emphasis on the “designing”. (You can check out our blog What is Product Design? for more on this.)

Product designers are pivotal in the design and development of digital products, such as apps and websites, as well as physical products and experiences.

Product designers are involved in the full product development journey. From ideation and research to conceptualization and perfecting pixels, they are consistently present. Often, they need to take center stage.

But it’s easy to get confused about the distinction between product designers and other design roles like UX, interaction, and visual design. Design positions often require proficiency in various design domains, which can mean there’s a significant overlap in responsibilities.

Major companies like Meta, Netflix, Apple, and Microsoft have replaced the “UX designer” title with “product designer” in their organizational structures. However, this change doesn’t necessarily indicate a substantial shift in the day-to-day tasks of designers in those roles.

So, what exactly does a product designer do? Let’s examine the list of main responsibilities in a recent (February and March 2024) product designer job description at Microsoft.

We’ve added the bolding, but the rest is exactly as published:


  • With direction, you will create wireframes, journey maps, prototypes and detailed mockups to iterate on product scenarios.  
  • You will seek out and incorporate the feedback of the design team to refine your designs and align to larger product patterns. 
  • You will communicate your work to peers and managers within your immediate team and feature crews. 
  • You will collaborate with developers to ensure design quality
  • You will work with creative team members, program managers, and developers to define product features. You’ll ask questions to learn about the scenarios, features, and requirements for your work. 
  • You’ll apply the fundamentals of design to your work, translating functions and features into good UI and UX 
  • You’ll use visual systems to ensure your designs are aligned with the rest of the product and ecosystem.

Although this job advert is from Microsoft, you’ll find listings that are very similar to most other tech companies.

a job ad for a product designer career path

What we’ve bolded are the key responsibilities of product designers—your day-to-day and week-to-week bread and butter. Here they are again, cut from the rest of the text for easier reading:

  • Create wireframes, journey maps, prototypes, and detailed mockups.
  • Seek out and incorporate the feedback. 
  • Communicate your work to peers and managers. 
  • Collaborate with developers to ensure design quality. 
  • Work with creative team members, program managers, and developers to define product features. 
  • Apply the fundamentals of design to your work.
  • You’ll use visual systems to ensure your designs are aligned.

Although these seven things make up most of what product designers do, it’s worth remembering that—like in most roles—other tasks will sometimes come up that fall outside of your main responsibilities.

It’s also worth remembering that this advert is for a mid-level product designer. Microsoft adverts for senior and principal product designers have a different set of responsibilities, as you’d expect.

Speaking of levels, now that we’ve looked at what a product designer does, let’s take some time to understand the levels in a product designer career path.  

Levels in a product design career

Before we start looking at the levels in a product designer career path, let’s explain the difference between being an individual contributor and a design manager. 

Put simply, individual contributors, or ICs as they’re often called, are craft-focused whereas designer managers are people focused.

Thea Betts, created a cool visual for her great blog  Designing your career as a designer: Individual Contributor or Manager, it neatly sums up the differences between what ICs do and what managers do:

table showing difference between ICs and product designers

Credit: Thea Betts in Designing your career as a designer: Individual Contributor or Manager 

While all product designers begin as ICs, there comes a point in the product designer career path where many have to make a choice between remaining an IC or becoming a manager.

(For more on the decision and transition between being an IC and a manager, have a look at the excellent blog When will I know that I should be a manager? from Adil Dhanani, a Staff Product Designer at Slack.)

The choice you make at this stage affects the levels in your career path as you progress (often more in your job title rather than the rate at which you go up the level).

So, we’ll outline the typical levels and years of experience as both an IC and a manager.

a table showing the different levels along the product designer career path

You’ll notice we’ve excluded Junior Product Design/Associate Product Designer from the table, this is because many companies now ignore those roles and simply start at Product Designer.

It’s also worth saying that this table is just a guide. Most companies follow similar seniority levels but probably use slightly different titles. Some will merge levels, while others will separate them for more granularity.

The years of experience required to reach each level can also vary significantly. It depends not only on the company culture and size, but also on your performance, competence, ambition, motivation, self-marketing, confidence, and a multitude of other factors. 

As a very general rule, you can move up more quickly in smaller companies. But at the same time, if you work at a tech giant, you might be in what’s on paper a less senior role but have more responsibilities and a higher salary.

There’s a great resource for comparing seniority and salary levels across tech companies: Here, you can see side-by-side comparisons of the career progression at Microsoft, Google, and Amazon:

a table showing salary levels across the product designer career path

Now that we’ve looked at the levels of the product designer career path, let’s look at some ways you can ensure you keep growing in the role.

How to grow as a product designer

Let’s talk about growth as a product designer.

As in most industries and careers, growth as a product designer can come in many different ways and be sparked by many different things.

Let’s have a look at six things you can do that should help you keep growing as a product designer:

  1. Work as a product designer: OK, captain obvious. But top of the list of things that will fuel your growth as a product designer is actually working as one. There’s a reason why companies ask for X years of experience—it’s because, as a general rule, the longer you’ve worked as a product designer, the more you’ll have grown and the stronger you’ll be. Both in terms of the processes and principles and proficiency with the tools. Working as a product designer will almost certainly lead to a lot of natural growth and give you opportunities to do the other things on the list, which will also help you grow. This applies doubly if you’re in a gig with a good management team and mature product design practice.
  2. Ask for feedback, especially from experienced peers you respect: Getting feedback on your work—in design critiques, 1:1s, 360 reviews, sprint reviews, or even after it’s been shipped—is absolutely crucial to your growth. Yes, it can be very tough. Sometimes, your work will be ripped up (hopefully not literally). But getting insights from your peers is both enlightening and probably the fastest way to uncover your blind spots. (And by “peers”, we don’t mean just other product designers—product managers and owners, UX researchers and writers, and engineers might all have valuable feedback). A word of caution here though—remember feedback is just data, it’s not all equal in value, and it’s up to you to filter it and decide what to take on and what to discard. This will get easier as your career progresses.
  3. Get exposure to a wide range of projects: Working on diverse and challenging design problems is a surefire way to push yourself and grow consistently. If you’re working in an agency, this will often happen naturally as clients and projects come and go. If you’re working in-house, especially at the enterprise level, you might end up working on the same feature for a very long time. This has its own advantages—it means you can develop a more specialized skill set—but it’s still a good idea to get exposed to as many challenges and different requirements as you can.
  4. Learn independently: Whether it’s taking courses, attending conferences, or just listening to Lenny’s Podcast at the gym (other podcasts are available), continually educating yourself in product design and adjacent areas (product management, software development, content design, ux research, etc.) will help you grow. Your employer might have a budget for this—if so, take advantage of it.
  5. Make time for self-reflection: Giving yourself regular time to reflect on everything that you’ve worked on, what’s gone well, and what hasn’t, can really help you grow. In the same way that product teams hold retrospectives, you can check in on yourself too. Always remember to reward yourself for your progress and focus on the good stuff more than the bad: Hit 2 years in your first product design job, reward yourself with a weekend away!
  6. Find or become a mentor: Naturally, whether you’re the mentor or mentee will depend on where you’re at in your career. If you’re just starting out, a mentor can help you with big decisions and issues and provide a whole host of other advice. You can read Emerson Schroeter’s excellent blog The Importance of Mentorship for more on the topic. At the other end of the spectrum, you might be at the stage where you want to help other product designers by becoming a mentor. Many mentors say this helps their growth by reminding them what they know and keeping them connected with the community. It’s also often said that teaching something can help crystallize that knowledge.

Now that we’ve explored how you can keep growing as a product designer let’s look at how you can create a career plan.

How to create a career plan

Creating a career plan for your life as a product designer is tricky, especially if you’re just starting out in the field and you don’t know exactly how things work. If only you had the knowledge and experience of your future self to get it right. 

But in the meantime we’ve put together five tips—they’re a mix of ideas that can help you not just create a career plan, but also be prepared for inevitable ups and downs your career will bring.

  1. Use the seniority table, but be flexible too: The table in section two can be a useful guide to know when it’s typical to hit certain milestones in your career path. If it’s taking you significantly longer, it could raise some points for you to think about. But it shouldn’t serve as more than a very rough guide. Your product designer career path will probably not be strictly linear. You can plan a linear career path, of course—and taking steps up the ladder at typical intervals until you reach the top in your thirties does happen for some people—but it’s not a great idea to get too hung up on your career going exactly to plan. Make space for things to turn out differently, and don’t attach your self-worth to your job title.
  2. Understand wider market conditions: Most product designers—in fact most people in any line of work—experience periods of stagnation or even regression in their careers. Often this is due to wider market conditions, which can mean higher than normal levels of lay-offs and more competition for fewer product design roles. It’s unlikely you’ll get through your whole career without, at some point, being victim to a downturn in the market, so try to be prepared for it both financially and emotionally.
  3. “Make hay while the sun shines”: This is a phrase that will serve you well in your career, especially in being prepared for setbacks. If you haven’t heard it before, it means making the most of the good situations when they happen to you. It means not to assume that good situations will continue indefinitely. You might go through rapid growth when your career accelerates, and you find yourself earning more money than you expected. This could be due to being in the right place at the right time, working on a product or with a team that genuinely excites you, or just getting a new level of confidence in your skills that helps you shine. Take this opportunity to get a financial buffer and excellent case studies for your portfolio.
  4. Stay in jobs the right amount of time: This is something that doesn’t fit into a neat career plan and is much easier said than done. And, of course, you can’t always know if it’s definitely the right time to move on. However, the “earn or learn” test is a simple rule that can help. If you’re doing both, stay. If you’re doing one, stay and see if you can get more of the other. If you’re doing neither, you might want to start thinking about a change. At the same time, even a 4/10 or 5/10 job is often better than nothing, so be very wary about leaving a job unless you have a better offer lined up.
  5. Don’t climb more than you want to: It’s important to remember that there’s absolutely no shame in not being a VP or Senior Principal. Many product designers won’t want or need to go to the very top. Luckily, you don’t have to be there for product design to be a very well-compensated, challenging, and rewarding career. Like other careers, life at the very top often requires sacrifices that might not make sense for you. Being a VP will probably mean your job has much less of the designing part of product design and a lot more budgeting, negotiating, and stakeholder management. Being a level or three down might often give you a more balanced life.

Ok, so now that we’ve looked at pointers for creating your career plan and being prepared for some of the different ways it might unfold, it’s time to wrap things up with a few key takeaways.

Key takeaways

Product design is a challenging, varied, and stimulating career. It’s rewarding and intellectually challenging. Often—to borrow a design phrase—the “cognitive load” is high.

It’s also a field that is changing fairly quickly, even if many of the principles that underpin it may not have changed. Because of this, it’s important to keep growing as a designer and to keep challenging yourself.

At the same time, over-investment in your career plan (and career in general) isn’t healthy. Keeping a balanced, pragmatic approach will help you maximize the good times but remain circumspect and patient during the not-so-good ones.

Some of you might forgo the career plan altogether—and who’s to say that’s not a totally valid option too? Especially if you’re the kind of person that would rather follow your instincts. 

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