What’s in a name? demystifying the seniority of job titles

Originally published in 2017

All job titles are marketing. Not figuratively; that is their main purpose. When a company hires for a role, the job title they use is selected to attract the right kind of people. Similarly, when someone is looking for a gig, the title they give themselves reveals how they wish to be seen. As a result, titles also hold leverage in contract negotiations because a title that a company gives you has future marketing potential.

And like all marketing, there can be a bit of a gap between the message and the reality. This can be a big problem when hiring or taking on a new job.

Fortunately being able to look at someone’s body of work gives you a sense of the kind of craftsman they are. A good trick is to make sure that you talk early and openly about what responsibilities a job actually includes. If you’re hiring, put it in the job ad. Don’t assume everyone has the same definition of “UI designer”.

The problem with seniority

But when it comes to the “Senior” or “Junior” in front of those titles, we have a different problem. When looking at a final piece of work it’s hard to know what parts are theirs, what was supplied direction, and what they were pressured to do by a client. So it’s even more crucial for companies and freelancers to be on the same page about this.

The seniority of a job titles (eg, Senior Interface Designer) often signals an expectation of salary or fees while helpfully postponing the dirty business of actually talking numbers. The exact roles might come in and out of favour, but the classical stack of 4 seniority levels persists; junior, midweight, senior, director (or lead). So unlike titles which will change over time, these seniority rankings should have a more consistent meaning.

Here are the definitions I have used when hiring staff in the past, and the definitions we are using in &FRIENDS

Junior – Learning the craft from others

A junior level craftsman has already learnt the basics. They know how to use photoshop, or they’ve studied the elements of style cover to cover, but they’re still in the active learning phase of their career. Companies that hire them should expect to still have to give a lot of direction and possibly training. The craftsman should expect to have their hands held a bit and to be given work that might feel a bit repetitive. It’s not a punishment or a rite of passage; it will actually help them master the craft through practice.

Mid-weight – Practicing their craft

The prefix “mid-weight’ usually goes unspoken, so someone that goes by “designer” or “strategist” alone is usually indicating that they are at this level.

This makes sense because for most people this makes up the bulk of their career. This is the time you’re actively developing your own skills and doing the work you always imagined you would do when you sought this career. It’s the time when people should start making choices for themselves about their own career development, picking specialities and critically examining their own work. They should still expect to be taking direction from others, but no one should be holding their hand any more.

Senior – Mastering the craft, and teaching others

A senior title is often just used to indicate that someone has had many years of experience. his is vital as ability alone does not make up for a wealth of experience.

However, years are not enough to be called a Senior. You must also be ready to pass on your knowledge to others, explaining the why behind work, not just the how. While working on any project they should be able to “set a direction” that others can follow, which is a skill in itself.

Finally, at this point in their career a craftsman should have opinions on the process of work, not just on the work itself.

Director (or Lead) – Guiding craftsmen with the big picture

Once someone is ready to take on a director or lead title, they’re really not working with the tools of their trade any more, but instead they create things though the hands of others. Their main jobs become managing the briefing of people, the process of the work and reviews of work in progress. They’re no longer just pointing out opportunities for improvement like a senior would, instead they’re instilling values and perspectives on a project so that people make the right choices themselves.

Many people seek this role because they wish to have the final say on the work. While it is important that a director level craftsman is able to do that confidently, it is not the main job and it definitely isn’t where most of the time is spent. At this point in their careers, many people start to feel distant from the work itself. Before taking on this mantle you should be honest with yourself about why you want it.

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