You would never think about winging it when it comes to your design projects. You’ve got a project schedule, a budget, hey, maybe even a Gantt chart for that!

But when it comes to having a plan to guide our careers, we creative problem solvers often just hope that the path will emerge, or someone will tell us what our career path should be.

It may be because you’re too busy doing the work to think about what you want your career path to look like. It might be because you believe that the answer is out there – or that our mentors and bosses will show us the next step.

But the truth is, if you don’t define a career path for your creative career – you may end up doing work you hate, paid less than you deserve, and living your Plan B life.

Why you need a career plan as a designer - download my 4C Career Self Assessment

Here are five reasons why you need a career plan – and why it will make your career more fulfilling as well.

1. When you have a career plan, you get to work on projects you love.

There are a million ways to be an architect, or a community engagement specialist, or a graphic designer, an urban planner, or a design strategist.

But which way is yours?

Do you love the front-end of a project when you’re applying human-centered design to a client challenge? Or do you like lovingly crafting the technical details that make something look amazing and function once it’s built?

Do you care about minority youth and their educational opportunities? Or are you passionate about immigrant populations’ business opportunities?

When you get clear on what you like doing—and what you care about—you can identify growth opportunities to do that.

If you’re passionate about better cross-disciplinary collaboration and want the urban planners and the designers in your office to work together better, you can write proposals to go after projects with other disciplines in your office.

Care about work-life balance and supporting working parents? Join the committee at your office to create better parental leave policies and flexibility.

When you know what you’d like to work on, you:

-Can ask to be staffed on the projects that interest you and be able to give specific guidance about what those projects are

-Can identify—and even create—growth opportunities at work that align with your values and interests.

One of my clients, Jennifer McGrory, realized that what she most loved in her day-to-day work was coordinating and collaborating with clients and consultants. She identified a leadership role in which she could do more of this – as a principal in her Corporate Interiors group, and shared her goal with her manager. Today she is a senior associate, meeting with potential clients, and coordinating with others to put together client proposals

2. When you have a career plan, you don’t have to wait to get recognized at work.

When you know what you want in your career, you bring more purpose and direction into what you do. And with that clearer intention, you naturally bring more initiative to your work and ideas to the table.

This approach, proposing ideas rather than waiting to be told what to do, gets you noticed at work. When you speak up more at meetings about how you might convince the client to invest in a sustainability feature that you know is good for their project and the planet, people begin to look to you for leadership on advocating for sustainable design.

If you know that you want to grow into leading on operational efficiency—and you’re constantly sharing ideas of how you made your projects more efficient and profitable— people begin to look to you for solutions on how they can make their projects more profitable.

You begin to be recognized for your expertise.

People start to say things like, “Oh, ask Trina about that.” Your name will be mentioned when you’re not in the room.

And it can happen not only in your company, but in your industry and beyond. My friend and collaborator, Tamara Roy, an architect and principal at Stantec lived in Europe during grad school and became passionate about small-scale living. As she grew in her career she pushed for it on projects, oriented her board service in her industry group around it, and even started a research group in her company that built a real-scale example of a micro-home to show how livable small scale living truly could be.

Not only did Tamara attract client work, but she was even named “the mother of micro housing” by the Boston Globe.

3. When you have a career plan – you can work less and achieve more

Does a 40-hour work week feel like an elusive dream?

Do you worry that a fulfilling career and a 40-hour work week are mutually exclusive?

They are if you leave defining your career direction to someone else, or to fate, and  don’t get clear on what you want out of your career.

A few years ago, when I caught up with Rhadika Mahan, a student of mine and a landscape architect at Sasaki, I was astounded:

She mentioned that she’d recently had a kid, had just gotten a promotion, and was crafting in the evenings.

I was dumbstruck.

What working mother do you know who has enough time to do crafting in the evenings?

The biggest game changer for Rhadika? She got clear on what she wanted to be working on, asked for those project opportunities, and stopped going to meetings she didn’t need to be at.

Sometimes when we don’t know what we want in our career we’re driven by FOMO. We go to meetings we don’t really need to be at. We attend conferences without really knowing what we want to get out of them.

We get a lot done—and get a lot of praise and validation for being so helpful—but it doesn’t add up to the career opportunities we want.

When you know what you want to achieve, it’s easier to let go of the things that make you feel busy and valued but are leading nowhere. 

4. When you have a career plan, you have great performance reviews and can raise your salary

Think about your last performance review. Are you making this common mistake?

You worry about it, think you should prepare for it, perhaps do a little salary research, but generally dread hearing what your boss is going to say?

When you have a career plan you can turn the tables. You can walk in from a position of power seeing the conversation as an opportunity to achieve your career agenda.

Let’s say you’re an urban planner and you’ve identified you want to lead a high profile project involving smart city technology, and you want to be promoted to senior associate. 

When you have a career plan, you can walk and say, “Here’s what I’ve achieved. Here’s where I’d like to go.”

You can walk out with a step-by-step plan to get promoted. 

And when you take ownership of the performance review, you line yourself up to—wait for it…

Ask for a higher salary… and get it.

Because you’ve positioned yourself as a high-potential, initiative-taking employee the entire performance review.

5. When you have a career plan it’s easier to avoid a layoff

Layoffs in cyclical fields like architecture are something you can count on. And if you’re in design? Your job can go just like that if your agency loses a big contract or closes a project and hasn’t gotten enough work in the pipeline.

The best insurance against a layoff as an architect or designer?

A good network.

But how do you build that good network?

By having a clear career direction so you know which relationships you should be investing in and which opportunities to say yes to that will build the right network and visibility for you.

Here’s how a career plan helps you build that resilient network:

  • It helps you figure out who to deepen your relationships with.

Love hands-on building? Ask to get staffed on a project with a lot of custom building. If that layoff comes, those craftspeople you worked deeply with may work with other firms that value craft that they can introduce you to.

  • It helps you figure out what to get involved with outside of the office.

Are you interested in user research? Facilitation design? Joining that committee in your local industry group will introduce you to other professionals who care about that too—and who you can turn to if you need a job.

  • It gives you something to connect over.

One of my clients found a job during COVID through reaching out to senior design professionals and asking for career advice—especially on how to make an ecological impact through her work.

Within a few months those connections manifested into a job offer even in a tough economic time.

And by the way, that network is not only your insurance policy if you get laid off. It’s also your insurance policy against a boring career. When you connect with others about something you care about, you also build more meaning and fulfillment into your career.

Which is probably the ultimate reason to have a career plan, right? You’re only on this earth for a short period of time and a lot of your waking hours are spent on work. 

Want to fill that time with what you love? Want to look back on your career and feel pride?

It all starts with getting clear about what you want—and how you’re going  to make it happen.


Want to discover how healthy your career is? I’ve put together a 3-minute career self assessment to serve as a gut check for ensuring you make the most out of your career.
Click here to access it.

Why you need a career plan as a designer - download my 4C Career Self Assessment

Hi I'm Mia

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.

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