Skip navigation

How To Navigate The 7 Stages Of Your Design Career


LAST UPDATED: 07 March, 2024

In my last blog for Aquent, I talked about the many paths for designers depending on their skills and their life circumstances. For example, I was a Head of UX and Consulting at a public service digital consultancy before my cancer diagnosis in 2008. When I returned after breast cancer and leukaemia, I did not have the energy to work more than 3 days a week, so I went back to my technical skills of being an information architect. I chose to move from Manager back to Practitioner because this is what suited my life and health at that moment.

There is another way to think about your career that is not dependent on your role but the amount of experience and the lessons learnt you bring – the Design Career Map.

The career map shows stages in your career and what your experience in design and digital gives you at each moment.

Design Career Map 1  - Mags Hanley.png

Each stage talks about the experience and skills you have and what that means to the decisions you make about your career. The stages do not prescribe being a manager, practitioner or consultant; you can be whatever suits you, but describe the general levels of competency and mindset you should have at each level.

The levels are:

Start (0 years)

This is the stage where a designer is ready to start their professional career after completing their design education. This education could be formal education at a university or a design boot camp.

Change (0 years)

Many new designers are career changers. Their design career will be different to a new or young graduate. They have at least 10 years of experience in the workforce and have family and financial responsibilities that inform the decisions they make.

Learn (0 – 2 years)

This stage is about becoming a professional designer, including learning and applying the craft, working with other tech disciplines under typical project conditions

Build (2 – 5 years)

Designers in this stage build on what they have learnt, understanding themselves and their strengths, and doing as many projects as possible to gain experience

Establish (5 – 10 years)

This stage designers are establishing themselves within their chosen part of the field, and deciding on a path (for now) as a practitioner, specialist, manager or consultant

Stretch (10 – 20 years)

Designers stretch their wings in their career in this stage adapting their careers to the life that is happening around them

Grown (20 plus years)

In this last stage, Designers are certain in what they have to offer, have grown in their expertise and model their values in how they work

So what do these stages mean for your career? 

The stages are guidance on what you will be probably be thinking, the experience you have, the life circumstances you are dealing with and the typical paths. 

For example, a designer in Build who is 3 years in their career are more likely to be thinking about do they specialise or remain a generalist. While a person in Grown is looking back on their career, reviewing previous roles and deciding on which one suits them better for the next stage of their career.

If you want to know more about each stage and the decisions you make as a designer, you can buy the book Career Architecture at

© Mags Hanley