Abby Doerr
Publication Date
Nov. 24, 2017
Abby Doerr
Publication Date
Nov. 24, 2017

The title of “designer” is becoming increasingly esteemed and sought-after in a variety of industries, but what is unique about the rise and increased popularity of this position is that it has evolved without a defined path of how to get started. There is no clear definition of exactly who falls into this role, or a rulebook outlining how to succeed. Its an ever evolving, complicated label which no longer solely ascribes an individual who spends her time crafting graphics or dreaming up product ideas for brands.

The role of a designer has now stretched itself deeper into positions like those concerning user experience and development. It has begun to touch unexpected industries and reach into varying company sizes. Gone are the days of “designer” being a trendy title for those who focus on aesthetics and branding.

So what is it like to work in this landscape of undefined boundaries, in a role with rough draft definitions, surrounded by booming demands and trends?

What is the transition like for those who have considered themselves designers for a while but are just now being acknowledged by the majority? What are some of the changes one might face when shifting from a one-man job, to a team of a few, to a corporation of many? Luckily there are individuals who are experiencing this shift and what it means to be a “designer” in this era of growth who are sharing their stories as they contribute to the evolution of the design realm.

Popular content brand Refinery29 was created in 2005 to serve as a digital media content site for young women. Before the brand raised enough money to create its own in-house product team, the company had placed itself at the mercy of outsourced work from agencies and freelance programmers.

Meet Dave Epstein.

Dave Epstein was a part of Refinery29’s user experience investment into an in-house team. He remembers vividly how it changed both the Refinery29 brand and shaped his creative work as a designer.

Previously we had just used agencies , and honestly half-assed stuff and then they (Refinery administrators) were like ‘we raised some money’ so we brought in an in-house team. For us, In-house meant in-house programmers, in-house designers people like that. I was a part of that team and we built, talked to our users, evolved and constantly iterated. It was new and it was really cool for everyone.”

Exploration and trial and error inevitably accompanied the addition of this team to the Refinery29 establishment, but for Epstein the coolest thing to come along with being a part of the initial team and in a position of leadership was creative freedom. The power and freedoms that were alloted to Epstein as a designer are not always easy to find, and he himself is beginning to truly experience how being without them can affect an individual’s design process.

I left (Refinery29) in January or so because I was a little burnt out. Essentially it (Refinery29) is a content site and after the election I didn’t want to be in content anymore. A friend of mine worked at a financial startup, which I thought was the biggest non-content thing I could think of, so I started working with him. It was a cool new thing, a new experience.Then, we (the startup) got bought about a month ago, which has been a weird adjustment going from a 25 person company to a huge thing. I am definitely still adjusting.”

"[It] has been a weird adjustment going from a 25 person company to a huge thing."

In the span of a few months, Epstein went from working on a small team in a leadership position, to an even smaller team at a startup, to being a part of a large team within a huge corporate brand. This job shifting is not uncommon, especially now with the increasing focus on design among all industries and businesses. Designers everywhere are establishing themselves, their titles, and their roles within company culture. Along with this recognition also comes adjustments made within individual designer mindset.

“At Refinery I helped to establish the brand and had a pretty limited approval process. I had been there long enough I could ship things without having to have anyone look at anything. The mindset was more like ‘Ok , this is what we can do. Let’s try it.’ Here (Bond Street) that is in fact not the case, and everything I do has to get as far approved by seven people if not more. So it’s a little bit of an adjustment, but for me it’s kinda interesting just to figure out what life is like in a big ass company. I don’t know how I really feel about it, the jury is still out, but I’ve been here about a month or so and I think I am starting to figure it all out.”

As the role of the designer becomes more intrical to brand experience and overall company reputation, how does a designer incorporate his or her voice without overlooking critical branding styles? The experience is of course unique to each individual designer, but with the value of streamlined branding and customer experience becoming more prominent, there are some things that are growing to be more consistent in the design process.

“To a certain extent you can’t completely incorporate your own voice. Working at a big bank, I don’t have as much flexibility. For instance sometimes I like bold colors I can’t use or I’m not allowed to use gradients just because that’s not what the brand is. That said, I can try to affect change subtly from the inside. The way I’m discovering to do that is to basically just do it. Don’t ship it, but do it and show people and then kinda get them excited about it too.”

"I can try to affect change subtly from the inside."

Another major component of design that is being shaped by its takeoff in popularity is the consistency of evolving trends and updates. As a designer one of the most prominent focuses is to provide new and updated designs without leaving the customer in the dust, but Epstein says that no matter the change, it’s all about fundamentals.

“Shit changes, but it’s important to realize that sometimes things are changing that are cool and the gravy on top. You have to look to see if the foundation, the base is changing. If it’s just everything else that comes on top or as a flourish it’s ok if you choose not to be all for it.”

That said, Epstein ultimately emphasizes the importance of recognizing the affordances that this field offers.

“I always view this digital shit as something you can change."

“Content is always an important consideration but I always view this digital shit as something you can change. If you want to change it we can change it, it’s not like we are building a building so let’s experiment. And that was a lot of culture I took from Refinery, where we were just like ‘oh let’s just try some shit,’ and if it doesn’t work people will forget about it tomorrow anyway so let’s not be overly precious. I think that’s a good overall way to view the world, in my experience at least. I’m still trying to figure out how that fits with where I am now, but I’m learning and I think it should work.”

So now, in life after a startup, after working and living in a “no approvals” process, Epstein is left adjusting and learning. He is left riding the wave that all designers are on as the world of design grows, shifts, and evolves. A world where nobody knows where it might go next.

Abby Doerr

University of Georgia
Emerging Media Masters