5 New Design Careers for the 21st Century

July 22, 2014 — 10 Comments


Fancy a career in design? When I made that choice 30 years ago, the options were limited. You either got an engineering degree and then went to design school, or you went to art school and studied graphic design, architecture, or industrial design, like I did.

Today, things are very different. Thanks to the still-booming Silicon Valley, interaction and user-experience designers have been added to the mix, but those aren’t the only opportunities for design thinkers. Even graduates of non-traditional programs can embark on exciting design careers. To wit, here are five disciplines that didn’t even exist at IDEO a few years ago.

The Designer Coder

Prototyping has always been a critical part of design, but in today’s online, app-based economy, the preferred prototyping medium is increasingly code. Designers who can also code possess a powerful set of tools. There are thousands of positions open to those who have the skills to conceive new ideas and the ability to launch them quickly into market.

The Design Entrepreneur

Combining entrepreneurialism and design is the hot thing in Silicon Valley these days. Every start-up worth its salt has a designer on its founding team. Venture capital firms are including designers in their inner circles, too. More importantly, many of the fastest-growing companies are succeeding because they’ve designed a highly appealing product or service. Just look at Uber or Airbnb. If you have the design skills to craft the right product—and the entrepreneurial grit to see things through—there’s never been a better time to be a design entrepreneur.

The Hybrid Design Researcher

Once upon a time, design researchers came from backgrounds in anthropology, ethnography, or psychology. Deep qualitative research was the secret to discovering unmet needs. While it’s still a successful design-research strategy, these more traditional methods are now being combined with real-time data to reveal user behavior. Knowing how to tap into technology to uncover how individuals and groups really think and act is an essential part of innovation. If you love people and love crunching data, this might be the design career for you.

The Business Designer

Business design may seem like a contradiction if you think about business purely from an operational lens. If you’re a business designer, however, you’re not just looking for innovation from an end product or service. You’re looking at the business model, channel strategy, marketing, supply chain, and a million other things. In truly disruptive innovations, all aspects of the business are up for grabs. Think about the early days of Google. Search innovation was what we experienced as users, but it was by attaching search results to advertising—a business model innovation—that made the company billions. If you have a passion for operations and a desire to flex your creative muscles to create new business systems, then becoming a business designer is the way to go.

The Social Innovator

Creating maximum positive impact on the planet has been my main motivation as a designer. Today, many of those problems—poverty alleviation, access to clean water, financial inclusion, health services for the poor, livable cities, and many more—are in the social sector. Until recently, the only way designers could contribute to these issues was to do small, pro-bono projects or to do research stints within academia. But now, large organization such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and others, have enthusiastically embraced design thinking. At the same time, non-profit design companies like D-RevDesign that Matters, our own IDEO.org, and others are collaborating with social entrepreneurs and NGOs to bring exciting new innovations to those most in need. For perhaps the first time in the history of design, it’s possible to make a career designing for the social sector.

These are just a handful of exciting new design careers I’ve witnessed as of late. Given the urgent, complex challenges our world faces, expect more. Better yet, if you’re a young graduate or looking to change careers, ask yourself:

How might I apply my unique talents to design challenges?

Who knows, maybe next year, I might be writing about you.

What other unlikely skill sets do you think could advance design innovation?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Tim Brown


10 responses to 5 New Design Careers for the 21st Century

  1. Andi Heidenreich August 7, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Yesss; I am a Business Designer, a problem solver, a ‘New ways junkie’. But only to start and motivate, I cannot follow up projects; always gone for new tasks…. I love it….but who would pay me?

  2. on this very day, 22 July, 2014. My research proposal: design thinking to create innovation in nutrition communication, was accepted at AUT University Auckland. Here we go then.. putting theory into practice! Wish me luck!
    With gratitude,

  3. Ivan Pozo-Illas aka Atrayo August 18, 2014 at 4:44 am

    Hello Mr. Brown,

    How about the empathic claircognizant conceptual designer. This may be more sci-fi themed sorta like in “Babylon 5 or Star Trek: The Next Generation” of the empath to gauge your targets emotion or thoughts. (ie negotiations) Basically a psychic medium concept designer to put it in other words for context. The sage like spiritual wisdom is only a plus on the side.


  4. Designer Coder – it is me :), did realize it until this article. I’m really designing by coding either it is UI for web, 2D visualization of math problem or 3D model for 3D printer.

  5. THANK YOU! I just left a conversation with my mentor who, after showing her yet another business idea, said to me, “OK, when are you going to realize that your true gift is not trying to start a company to run, but to develop the ideas for other people to buy from you, like, a business surrogate of some sort.” Then I landed here. THANK YOU for giving it a name!!! Off and running!!!

  6. Knowledge of designing and creativity art

  7. Hello –
    I’ve been learning about the field of Business Design and am considering going to Domus Academy to get a Masters in BD. However, there is almost no information about how graduates of this emerging field fare in today’s workforce, how this school or degree are interpreted by employers, etc. I’d like to continue learning about this field but am really hesitating now because of the dearth of information. Any recommendations of where I can learn more?
    Thank you.

  8. Thank you!…you gave me a light on the path!
    I never could find a career that comprehends what design thinking have.
    I’m glad now I it has a name of what I’m truly are and what I’d love to do from now on.
    As a designer/product developer I felt limited in many ways when people separate the design/creatives from the strategic/operation area in the companies I worked for.
    I always naturally thought and act as they are complementary and now I have a confirmation that my guts were right!

    *How / Where people that just discover (like me!) that it’s possible to work as design thinkers can find a job? I’d love to work for your companies like IDEO 🙂

  9. Having read this I believed it was extremely informative. I appreciate
    you taking the time and effort to put this short
    article together. I once again find myself spending a significant amount
    of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  10. I the below signed, Preyas Mehta, am a blend of Art, Advertising, Marketing, Media having worked in the Diamond Industry on Designing as well as Online Marketing forDiamonds. I shall be interested in furthering the dialogue


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