In our latest story, we chat with Dan Shilov, Product Designer at Instacart, Author of Land Your Dream Design Job and Mentor through RETHINK Programs. Throughout his career he's struggled a lot with interviews. Since then, he has courageously turned his challenges into purpose by launching "Land Your Dream Design Job" - a book for new or senior product designers and educators to help them take an intentional approach to their career and guide them to a role that plays to their strengths.
In this interview, Dan talks about a different approach to understanding your design skills shape and how to translate these skills to create value in their organization.
Welcome Dan. Can you give our readers a little background of your design journey and current role?
My journey towards design is somewhat circuitous. I started back in the web 2.0 days, teaching myself CSS and HTML, building sites for small businesses. I studied business in school, but the allure of design was too great. After graduation, I landed a role in a tech rotational program and structured my experience to get as much UX exposure as possible. I hit a point where my professional growth has slowed, so I went back to school to do a master's degree in design and reboot my career by moving to Silicon Valley.
My design journey in the Valley has been turbulent to say the least. I worked at several startups that have either shut down, got sold, went through layoffs or both in a short period. Throughout this time I learned what it takes to interview and present design work.
When I ended up at Instacart, the tables had flipped. I had the privilege to interview candidates across design, research, content, and product.
What is your approach to understanding your design skills?
Different models exist out there to map out design skills. It's a rough science and more of an art. IDEO popularized the T-shaped designer—someone who has in-depth knowledge and expertise in one or two areas (for example, interaction design and research) but has a breadth of experience in other places (e.g., service design and brand design). Larger companies, usually with bigger teams, are composed of a mix of designers. Some of those designers tend to be I-shaped—deep specialists in their domain (motion graphics experts, for instance).
The modern designer will typically have a variety of skills at their disposal. It's easy to progress at a skill in the beginning, but it gets harder to reach an advanced level and even harder still to become an expert. It's important to prioritize which skills are important to you.
As you're going through them and thinking of specific skills, consider:
- How important is this skill to me?
- Where do I want it to be?
- What skills do I want to develop next in my career journey?
- What skills play to my strengths and interests?
- What combination of skills will help me stand out as a designer and make an impact?
What is your advice for product designers to translate their skills to create value in their organization?
Not all skills are essential and your needs and industry focus will change. What's important is to be explicit about what you know, where you want to go, and what's important to you.
Beyond understanding your skills, you need to also think about how your skill sets translate to an organization's needs. At the end of the day, you'll be hired to solve another company's pain point that they cannot solve themselves. These pain points vary, but there's some consistency depending on the company's maturity.
Smaller companies, such as startups, can't afford to hire many designers, so they typically bring a senior generalist to start. Typically this designer will have a firm grasp of interaction design and research and some visual design skills. They'll help establish a design direction for the company and ship product, while integrating design process into the broader development cycle.
As the company grows, they start to fill out the rest of the pillars based on need. Specialized roles get brought on, such as brand designers, visual designers, researchers, and content strategists. As a team, their diversity and specialized talents allow them to create high-quality products.
If the company starts rapidly scaling, more and more designers are brought on with similar skill sets. At that point, it's important to hire more people because there's more work than any one designer could do. Sometimes these roles might get filled by contractors if it's a temporary project or if recruiting is lagging. At other times, if growth is continuous, more full-time employees are brought on.
By understanding where the company is in its growth cycle and its current pain points, you can match yourself appropriately.
Recently, you’ve launched a book "Land Your Dream Design Job". Congrats!
In what ways does the book help product designers overcome career growth challenges?
The key message of this book is to help designers take an intentional approach to their career. You might be already in a role that you once loved or you may be tempted to jump ship. In either case, it helps to look inward first before you leap. Where do you want to grow? What do you want to improve? Taking the quality time for some introspection will help you choose the correct course of action.
You might discover that your current job satisfies most of your professional goals, and it's a matter of making a few adjustments. Whether it's taking on more work or expanding your work, you can work with your manager to properly align your skillsets. Alternatively you may consider looking for a new role. And if that's the case, this book will help you navigate this sometimes turbulent process with ease.
In his book, I've outlined different approaches on how to solve tough design interview challenges. The tools and techniques I share in the book arm designers with solid frameworks on how to present their work in the best light possible during interviews.
| Your interviewers want you to succeed.
Initially, I thought of interviews as this adversarial process. It was you, the candidate, against them, the interviewers. But the reality is that your interviewers want you to succeed. If you made it to the final round, the chances are high that you'll land the job. Of course, you still need to take the time to prepare, show that you're genuinely excited about the role, and bring your best work forward in the most favorable light.
This book will help guide you to a role that plays to your strengths while providing enough support for professional growth.