How to pick your design career path: a guide to modern design roles

With the help of the Gusto design team, Jason created this guide to help you navigate the complicated landscape of design careers — mad-lib style.

Jason Marder
November 1, 2018
Design process

“What kind of designer am I?” is the most common question among young designers. In this guide, we break down the types of design roles and hear from active designers in those roles to help you find your answer.

The definition of design can alter across contexts, companies, and even agencies. This is because there’s a lot of variation in the language used to describe who designs what — and when.

As you can imagine, this grey-area of “design” makes job descriptions feel overwhelming and over-complicated. Many of the young designers I mentor through Out of Office Hours wonder how well-suited they are for a given role and — more importantly — if they’ll actually like it.

To help you navigate this complicated landscape, I’m breaking down today’s common design roles, mad-lib style. Why? Because it’s important for you to be able to fill in your blank: I am a ___ designer.


1. Product designer

This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing. (Read: everyone)

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"When I discovered product design was a combination of everything I enjoyed: visual, UI and UX design, collaboration — but most of all, problem solving — it was like the scene in Tron where Kevin Flynn finds a way into The Grid. I was in."

Ann Chen, Product Designer at Gusto

You might be a product designer if …

  • You prefer to think top-down and bottom-up
  • You care as much about user needs as you do about pixel-perfection
  • You understand and, more importantly, can communicate the business value of design
  • You believe good ideas can come from any department — and you aren’t shy about hunting them down
  • You know the “design process” is loose and fluid. You treat it more as a toolkit than scripture. You can quickly diagnose which tools you need for a given problem or project
  • You want to stay involved throughout the build process, and you’re down to pair with engineers to translate your designs to code, even though it’s not part of your job title

"Before I moved into product design, I was frustrated I couldn't spend more time with customers to get feedback and iterate. I was drawn to product design because of the iterative nature and closeness you’d get with your customers."

Zac Walberer, Product Designer at Gusto

2. UX designer or interaction designer

This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing.

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"I started building web apps with friends when I was in school. I was fascinated by the value they offer so many people all over the world. Understanding people, making things that solve problems, and delivering them continues to inspire me to this day. I see product design as an essential practice for doing that."

Will Tsui, Product Design Lead at Gusto

You might be a UX or interaction designer if …

  • You like to put yourself in a user’s shoes.
  • You can recite the Norman-Nielsen Usability Principles in your sleep
  • You’re supremely knowledgeable about mental models and interaction patterns. If someone asks “what’s the best way to design an accordion?” you immediately know the article to send them
  • You think in terms of flows more than screens
  • You care deeply about affordances, feedback, signals, and error prevention
  • You can explain the difference between UX and UI design

"When I started my career, there was very limited information online on how to become a designer. I also didn’t know what kind of designer I wanted to be. I relied on books on a variety of design-related topics. One of those topics was psychology, and particularly human behavior: what makes us tick, how and why we make decisions, how we perceive things, etc. I was hooked. That’s when I realized I could use what we now call product design to help people interact with software in an intuitive, delightful, efficient way."

Vlad Georgescu, Product Design Lead @ Gusto

3. UI designer


This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing.

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"I’m still exploring different parts of design. I joined a team where you had to do a bit of everything (visual, UX, front-end, etc). There were no specific roles, and I had to put in work where it was needed the most. I discovered a passion for front-end and coding — they bring my designs to life. Without trying a bit of everything, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today."

Sam Ojling, Product Designer and UI Engineer at Gusto

You might be a UI designer if …

  • You can spot a one-pixel misalignment from a mile away
  • People often describe you as precise or detail-oriented
  • You also describe yourself as precise and detail-oriented
  • You obsess over color, typography, and visual hierarchy
  • You can explain the meaning of every visual decision
  • You understand and can explain the difference between UX and UI design

"Growing up, I had two main interests: drawing and computers. Professionally, I’ve always lived between the two worlds. I’m interested in leveraging color, type, and imagery to tell the stories of brands and products."

Natalie Schoch, Digital Designer at Gusto

4. Brand designer, communication designer, or visual designer


This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing.

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"Looking back, it should've been obvious that I was meant to be a visual designer and letterer. I made posters for school projects, branded my side hustles (best lemonade stand in town), and iterated on my handwriting style weekly. I considered myself an artist, but I had no idea I was a designer. I got into an art and design college where I incorporated custom lettering in design projects to avoid expensive font licenses. I had no idea lettering was a thing, let alone a career. I quickly fell down the lettering rabbit hole and became deeply focused in that specialization."

Jenna Carando, Brand Designer and Letterer at Gusto

You might be a brand/communication/visual designer if …

  • You were (or still are) a graphic designer or illustrator
  • You think the Adobe Creative Suite is … sweet!
  • You find the same joy in showing off an elegant new serif as you do in recommending a new song  
  • You can design an icon set in your sleep
  • You’re obsessed with the Chobani rebrand … and have an informed take on it, of course

"I grew up 15 minutes from Disneyland and my parents couldn't really afford to take us there when I was a kid. When they finally saved up enough to take us, all I remember is the joy I felt. I was too young to know everything was designed to cause joy. It wasn't until high school that I realized that it took thousands of creative folks to cause something as simple as joy. It's why I majored in illustration and why I illustrate for a living today."

Camellia Neri, Illustrator at Gusto

5. Motion designer or prototyper

This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing.

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"My mom taught me how to draw princesses and mermaids when I was in elementary school. Ever since, I was certain I’d be drawing in some form for my career. In my last job, I designed instructions for installing door locks — that's where I really got excited about motion. I was creating static illustrations to communicate the installation process. When we tested animated instructions with users, it became so clear to me how valuable motion can be for guiding users through a process."

Sara Berry, Illustrator and Motion Designer at Gusto

You might be a motion designer or prototyper if …

  • You know what microinteractions are and you absolutely love them — but you hate motion for motion’s sake
  • You may code your own prototypes or use Framer as your prototyping tool of choice
  • You’ll refresh a web page 10 times before you’ve gotten your fill of its elegant loading interaction
  • You might even delete apps to experience a particularly thoughtful onboarding flow all over again
  • Linear motion makes you cringe

"I guess I just found myself gravitating to motion design. I actively found ways to explore motion in my work. I wanted to keep working when I got home in the evening. It was the also the work that most inspired me. When I used a product with great motion design, it would actually make me smile."

Jordan Townsend, Product Designer at Gusto

6. User researcher or UX researcher

This role is more generalist / specialist.

You’ll most commonly collaborate with designers, product managers, engineers, customer support, operations, sales, marketing.

You’ll most likely work on research, ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, user testing.

"I was once the only tech person at a nonprofit. I had super-smart coworkers who felt stupid and self-critical around computers. My experience learning code and design taught me that it didn’t have to be that way. That sparked my interest in UX research — I wanted to raise awareness and use research to unlock design practices that work well for everyone."

Yelena Cope, Head of UX Research at Gusto

You might be a UX/user researcher if …

  • User’s pain points are candy, and you have a serious sweet tooth
  • You carefully observe how your product is being used
  • You can make just about anyone feel comfortable in your presence
  • You’re insatiably curious. Open-ended questions flow from you like the Nile River
  • You could win a Pulitzer for the participant screeners you write

"I was excited when I realized UX research centers around understanding people and improving their lives through systematic investigation. I've always wondered why people do things. I appreciate good design — it's so obvious when something has been made without me, the user, in mind — and like contributing to it and seeing tangible results in the real world!"

Danielle Cleaver, UX Research Coordinator at Gusto

Now, stay focused

Now that you’ve (hopefully) filled in your blank and found your fit within the grey area of design roles, stay focused on it. The job search process can drive you … well ... crazy ... but also in a lot of different directions.

When you’re applying for a job, avoid retrofitting yourself to a job title if it doesn’t match your preferences. And when you’re preparing to apply or interview, make sure the work and learning you’re doing relates to the job you want. For example, you don’t need to learn how to code a portfolio from scratch to be a product designer — that’s what Webflow is for!

You’ve got this

I’ll be the first to tell you that searching for a job is draining and difficult. My best advice? Stay curious. Stay hopeful. Stay at it. And most importantly, never sacrifice your authentic desires just to fill in your blank.

If you want help crafting a strategy, DM me. Let’s grab coffee or something.

One last thing!

If you think you’re ready to fill in your blank alongside our incredible design team at Gusto, hit me upwe’re hiring!

Jason Marder

Designer at Gusto. Former sous chef. General life enthusiast.

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