Ask a Designer #13: What Do All These Design Roles Actually Mean?

Published

October 6, 2021

Designer, speaker, and writer Charli Marie is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in design. This week, Charli offers some sage advice to a freelancer on a job hunt and demystifies the many different design roles in the process.

Dear Charli,

I recently graduated from college where I received an associate degree in UX design. I started freelancing this year and am interested in finding a full-time job for the stability. As I search for roles, they all seem to overlap – product designer, UI designer, web designer. Which roles should I be applying for and what are the differences?

Yours,

Some Kinda Designer

Hi Some Kinda Designer,

First of all, your confusion here is perfectly understandable. Entering the tech industry as a designer right now must be really overwhelming! And it’s made even more confusing by the fact that different companies can define a similarly-titled role in different ways, and sometimes there are several different titles for essentially the same role! Oof. 

Let me break down the differences between some of the most common roles for you so that you can get a better idea of where to start your search.

Product designer

Simply put, a product designer works on the design of a digital product. This title has become the go-to general term for a UX/UI designer in a tech company and is one of those cases where the actual scope of the role depends greatly on the company structure.

In smaller companies a product designer wears a lot of hats; they handle decisions about the user experience, the visual design of the user interface, and likely user research too while working across the whole product. When the design team gets larger, each Product Designer role gets more niche and could mean focussing on the UX of a specific product feature, while a different team of product designers create the UI in a design system that you’ll use for your feature. There’s likely a whole separate team to handle the user research in a larger company too.

So, as you can see, reading the job description carefully to check that the scope of work lines up with what you want to be doing is really important when considering applying for a product designer role. 

Overall, Product Designer is a great role to pursue if you want to be working on the design of an application (either on a device or on the web) that people use as part of their life or business. You’ll spend your time iterating on a design to make improvements based on user behaviour or designing new user flows to help solve a problem, and you’ll thrive in this role if you love systems and paying attention to the details that make for a good experience.

UX designer

A designer in this role is focused specifically on the user experience of a digital product or website. They’re figuring out the most efficient and enjoyable way for a user to complete a task.

UX designers spend their time mapping out user flows (their journey through the app or website), creating wireframes and prototypes and figuring out the best information architecture to solve a problem for the user (and the business!). They’ll hand over to a UI designer to determine the look and feel of the product, or use a design system to bring it to life.

If you love the data and science side of design the most, this is the role for you.

As I mentioned above, in some companies a Product Designer will be solely focussed on the UX of a product, so if this is what you’re interested in doing be sure to check out Product Designer job descriptions too.

UI designer

A UI designer is someone who designs the visuals for a user interface. 

This role on its own isn’t super common these days, with most companies preferring designers who have UX capabilities too (that’s why you’ve probably seen a lot of UX/UI design roles, or product design roles listed). In companies where this job title does exist though, the UI designer will be responsible for all the visual design details of a screen; determining the size and shape of buttons, communicating the right mood through the visuals, and ensuring consistency too. 

If you want to focus specifically on the visual side of design, this role will suit you.

Web designer

A web designer uses similar skills to a product design (UX/UI design, information architecture, user research) but applied to a website rather than a digital product. 

In a tech company, this role usually fits in on the marketing (or growth) side of the org structure, where the main project the designer works on is the marketing website. They’ll be responsible for the UX of the website as well as the visual look and feel, and will work to ensure a site visitor can easily find the information they need that convinces them to purchase the product or services the company offers.

There’s usually a little more freedom and creativity involved in the visuals of the website – where you’re trying to attract attention as well as communicate a message – compared to the visual design of a digital product, so if you enjoy flexing your UX muscles equally as much as creating beautiful visuals this might be the role for you.

Marketing designer

At many tech companies the in-house web designer is actually called a Marketing Designer (or Brand Designer) because as well as designing the company website, they’re also responsible for the design of other marketing materials and for evolving the visual brand itself.

Marketing designers make use of a wide variety of skills from UX/UI design to graphic design to illustration so if working on a range of projects within the same brand is appealing to you, marketing design could be a good role to try. 

As with Product Design, the exact scope of the role will depend greatly on the company, because every company employs different techniques to market their product and brand. But no matter what materials you’re designing your goal will be to introduce the product to new potential users, build affinity for the brand, and help people to decide if the product is right for them. You’ll look at conversion rates and iterate on designs to improve them.

This role is a good mix of both the art and science sides of design and it will suit you if you also have an interest in marketing and branding. 

(Side note: If you want more insight into this one, check out my interview series Inside Marketing Design to hear from designers in this role at different tech companies.)

Choosing the right design role for you

While this breakdown hopefully gives you an idea of where you want to start your job search, my best advice to you is to make sure you’re reading the job description for each role carefully to check it fits with what you’re looking for and not evaluate a role based on title alone.

The first job in tech that I applied for was a Marketing Designer role at New Zealand-based accounting software company Xero. I’d never heard of that job title before, and I was a little confused about what it meant, especially because the role was listed on the careers page in the Marketing section instead of Design. I didn’t want to be a marketer, I wanted to be a designer! 

But the role description fit my skillset and definitely seemed like something I was interested in, so I applied and in the interview I asked for clarification on if this was a marketing role or a design role. It turned out that it had been put in the wrong category by mistake, and it was definitely a role for a designer. I was glad I applied! Even more so because I got the job and it kickstarted a really successful career in tech for me.

Whichever role you decide to pursue, I hope you land the job too!

Try not to put too much pressure on yourself for choosing a direction; you don’t have to stay on the same path forever, after all.

I’ve seen marketing designers become product designers, generalist product designers choose to specialise in UX, and even designers who have decided to pursue engineering or product management instead. 

The right role for you is one that will allow you to flex the skills you’re most interested in developing and work on the problems you’re most interested in solving. Best of luck for whatever comes next!

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Do you have a question for Charli about design or need some career advice? Tell us here for the chance to have it answered in this column!

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About the author

New Zealand born Charli is a designer, speaker, and writer based in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about side projects and helps creatives improve their craft and process. By day Charli works as the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and on the side she creates weekly content on her YouTube channel, sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.

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