What’s In A Title Change?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.”
– Mark Twain

Our titles mean so much.
They place us.
In our eyes and in others.
They are the badges the professional world user to rank and rate.
Like it or not, they are a reflection of our status, our competency and our compensation.
Titles are ripe with meaning.
It’s serious stuff.

It’s the stuff I waded into over a 2-month period last summer.
I was an innocent.
I was unprepared.
It was harder than I anticipated.
Here’s my story.

At Mondo Robot, we needed a new title structure within the Experience Design department that I co-manage. Our titles were tired. They were inherited from traditional marketing. They reflected the old school creative pairing of art directors and copywriters. Mad Men era methods of producing campaign work. The titles also contained colors of contemporary digital interface product development. Mix in motion designers, planner types, usability specialists and even a strategist for good measure (who really is an analyst) and we had a bureau of mismatched clothes.

Unifying titles required we employ a philosophical baseline to develop a flexible container. Within the digital design space, we had to consider where we came from and where we want to go. Our Experience Design trade has roots in graphic design, industrial design, library sciences, ethnography, sociology and psychology – so many influences. Now we are groking new inputs and mediums such as machine learning, ambient technology and artificial realities. Our skills as designers must continually embrace and borrow from adjacent methodologies to suit the demands of new data, content and form-factor landscapes.

The landscapes we work on address three project types – products, services and communications. Sometimes a project is only one type. Sometimes it’s blended. We have to hire generalists who can work across all three, as we aren’t large enough to support specialized roles.

With that in mind, we looked at the activities our designers participate in. A user experience (UX) designer is focused on structure and interaction, inside and outside those project types. The visual designer is focused on the use of symbols and relationships that define a visual language. Both designer types must also be adept at interaction design. I believe, interaction is focused on the behavior and animations of the visual symbols that communicate relationships. UX, visual and interaction design deeply influence the customer’s experience.

We are being asked to consider more of the customer experience (CX) as “designable.” We are thinking more holistically about touch-points, journeys and the content along those paths. This broad view leads right to the doors of content production, operational divisions and overhead. When we craft experiences, we address services that affect both the customer and the employees who provide it.

This way of viewing our work is the purview of service design. Though still a bit hazy, service design language is being adopted by holistic creative organizations. We needed to add it to our list of influences. It became one of four discipline categories from which to rummage through for title inspiration:

1. Interaction design
2. Experience design
3. Product design
4. Service design

What is the common attribute? Clearly, it is design. As designers, we play a part in creating visual, interactive, hierarchical, communication systems. We design for others, not for ourselves (to distinguish design from art). We are as objective as possible divining the needs of the intended audience; the content to serve those needs; and a vision that holds it all together. That is the core of design. That is what we do everyday. It gives us license to wear black. And colorful shoes…

Unfortunately, when creating titles for others, humor and whimsy don’t have a place. It’s one thing to name yourself Crayon Evangelist or Creator of Opportunities. That’s your prerogative. It’s another to force it upon others.

A title assigns value to a person’s contributions. It provides standardization when people move between companies. It ties compensation levels to an understood ladder. Title affects our rates which are based on a scaling value system. That value is directly linked to level of experience. Giving all of that, a trite title with a wink and a nod is not a wise idea.

This reinforced the “root” of designer and it was enough for us to create a ladder of positions from entry to executive levels. Once we had our ladder, we could add modifiers to delineate areas of focus.

Level Ladder (with years of experience)

Associate (0-3 years)
Mid (3-5 years)
Senior (5-7 years)
Lead (7+ years)
Associate Director (8+ years)
Director (10+ years)
Executive (12+ years)

Ladder with Root

Associate Designer
Designer
Senior Designer
Lead Designer
Associate Design Director
Design Director
Executive Design Director

Now that we had established the title ladder, we needed modifiers to identify a specialty or strength. We narrowed the modifier list to these three:

  • User Experience (UX)
  • Visual
  • Motion

Our titles would now read like this:
Associate Designer, UX
Senior Designer, Visual
Associate Design Director, Motion

Roles above “lead” level might lose the modifier, depending on the person. We expect our senior people to identify and accentuate the exceptional across all creative areas. While some may continue to specialize, others may prefer to generalize. That flexibility was now accommodated.

Our solution seemed logical.
It put the emphasis on design.
It was clear.
It was truthful.
Frankly, I was excited.

Unfortunately, this titling system had one downside. It didn’t align with tradition. It wasn’t instantly decipherable to those coming from integrated agencies. Where would an art director fit? Can a designer in our model leave our agency and become a product designer somewhere else? It just didn’t conform.

The owner of Mondo Robot has doggedly remained constant – we are a digital agency. He does this to create flexibility. The word “agency” is bland enough that we can be anything for any project. You want VR? We can do that. You want a product that serves a niche community? We can build that. You want a website that promotes and explains a service? We can design that, too. Email, banners, campaign work –ditto. It’s a business model that’s worked. The agency continues to evolve and that’s good for business.

We are four months out from the conclusion of phase one of this exercise. I estimate that in another six months, we’ll be revisiting the subject. In my opinion, the current model just doesn’t fit us. It’s static.

But maybe the solution is more simple than all this… Maybe it just boils down to the color of your designer-friendly shoes? We issue a pair of Pantone colored shoes to each hire. The color delineates your rank. This model preserves the old agency titles and pairs it with an evolved color system suited for the times.

Now that’s designer friendly. I’ll keep that idea in reserve for my next leadership meeting. I think it’s a winner!

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeable, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
– Sydney J. Harris

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