Orginally posted on Medium

Most of my career I’ve worked for startups or small agencies. I wanted to take the leap to a bigger company, so decided to go work at a large retail brand for 2 or 3years. It was hugely eye opening for me. It’s when I realised that the role and impact of design can differ depending on the size of your org. I quickly realised that startup life suited my personality, so jumped back to where I was.

Startups and startup culture gets a lot of press. But, a lot of the design conversation is lead by folks at larger companies. These companies may call themselves “startups” but their resources, headcount and user base see them closer to a huge multi-national rather than 5 people in a basement. Furthermore, the guides on how these two roles differ and the change in focus you need to move from one to the other is hardly documented.

So here’s what I learnt when moving from a startup to a big company:

Designing at a startup you will

  • Be involved end to end on new projects

  • Help create the design culture

  • Optimise for speed and learning

  • Go more with your gut than data

  • Be a generalist

  • Create things from scratch

  • Prioritise founders requests

  • Have to quickly change direction, often

Designing at a big company

  • Be involved at certain stages of a project

  • Optimise the design culture

  • Go more with data than your gut

  • Be specialised in your product area or skillset

  • Build on work that came before

  • Become a company-expert at one problem

  • Prioritise multiple stakeholders requests

  • Move at a slower place

Startup to Big Company

If you’re looking to make the transition from a startup designer to working at a bigger company, I suggest focusing on these things:

  1. Getting the best out of a tighter, narrow scope Learning how and when to push back on things, and how to get the best of tight requirements will make your career at a bigger company a success. It’s very rare you’ll be given time and scope to experiment and build something completely new. Learn to make the best of the narrow scope you have and make smaller, incremental improvements.

  2. Learn how to document really, really well Depending on how your team is structured, you might not know every one on your team personally. You won’t have the luxury of always sitting next to the engineer or PM to discuss ideas and show work. To keep a good cadence and velocity, documenting your design work and reading documentation from engineers and PM’s is a vital skill. Also, as a designer at a big company, you’ll probably be working with other designers on the same project. Make sure you document your design work and make sure that you can share it with your team.

  3. Get good at understanding data Data is key for any company to grow. However, as discussed earlier, larger companies have bigger datasets to use to drive their decisions. A big part of your role as a designer will be helping to optimise the experience of existing products. Understanding A/B testing, quantitative data and how big companies like Netflix and Airbnb use experimentation to drive optimisation will help make you a more successful designer.

You’ll need to get buy-in for everything you want to do

The difference is how you get that buy-in. Forming the right relationships inside your company is critical. Who you form those with and what those relationships look like will differ depending on what company you’re at. One key takeaway here is to understand there is no right way for a design team to operate and it depends on what their goals are.