Ultimate Guide: Transition from Designer to PM
How to make the switch
When I was at Epic Games, I met one of the best PMs I have ever worked with.
After years of crunching as a designer late into the night for big game releases, he had gotten tired of being responsible for the visuals.
He was more passionate about setting the direction for the game.
So after 6 years in the field, he hung up his designer boots. He vowed to not open Unreal Engine again.
And he became a PM.
When I met him, he had only been a PM for 1 year, but he had quickly grown to massive scope.
And his impact was far larger than his scope.
Why? Because designers listened to him. Unlike the rest of the PMs that had to do their best to curry favor with and influence designers, he spoke with such conviction and gravitas about design issues that everyone listened to him.
It didn’t hurt that he could evoke stories like:
When I designed a team move like this for World of Warcraft, our core players went crazy.
He was speaking their language.
Designers Are Well Positioned to Be PMs
It’s not just in gaming.
Across all sorts of product management, designers are well-positioned to become PMs. They have core skills that translate well into PM tasks.
For the 8% of designers who become PMs, their design skill becomes their superpower.
The Two Paths of Becoming a PM
There’s two paths to becoming a PM as a designer: internal transfer and external transfer.
The internal transfer path is much easier than the external transfer path.
This is true for all career transitions, but it’s especially true for product designers. They’re literally working with PMs day in, day out.
Since these paths are so different, we’ll talk about each separately.
As a designer, there’s no long interview prep or something you really need to go through.
Read up on PM newsletters like this, practice for interviews, and pick your path: internal or external transfer. That’s all you need to do.
So, we’ll go deep on the three tough things along that path:
How different design experience translates
So you know what roles to target for an external transfer
How to position an internal transfer
So you know the easiest way to transition internally
How to answer interview questions
So you can nail all the tough transition questions
1. How different design experience translates
As an internal transfer, you can snag a role at the same level as a designer. I’ve seen numerous designers do this. If not at the same level, you can move just one level below.
On the other hand, if you’re an external transfer, things are a bit trickier. There’s two categories of design experience when it comes to external transfers:
Type 1 - Product Design
This is the super valued type of experience.
Even with an external transfer, you may be able to bag a job at the same level. Product design experience translates incredibly well. This is especially true if you’re willing to go to a slightly less reputable company.
I’ve seen multiple people do this:
Director of product design to director of PM at a smaller competitor in the same industry
Lead designer from FAANG to lead PM at a rapidly growing VC-backed startup
If you want to stick to a company at your level, you may need to take a level hit. But this is up to your networking prowess (more on that later).
What falls within the category of product design? Any design work where you are working on the core product used by users (not the marketing) and are actively thinking about how the product works - not just how it looks visually. The game designer example I gave is within the subcategory of product design.
Type 2 - Visual Design
This design experience is valued, but not quite as much.
Who falls in this bucket? If you were working on product but mainly the UX, then you fall in this bucket. If you were any other type of designer, you also fall in this bucket.
As a visual designer, you will generally have to take one level lower. If you’re already at a top FAANG like brand, you may even have to drop two levels.
Director of Brand Design to Lead PM at FAANG
Manager of UX to Senior PM at a smaller company
Lead Designer to PM at a similar company
There is way to avoid taking a level drop. That is to go to a company significantly less competitive. So I’ve seen people go from big tech to banking, for instance. If title matters a lot to you, try that.
But my recommendation is to be okay with the temporary career hit. Companies at or above your current level will pay more in the medium and long terms. It’s not a problematic down-level.
If you want to become a PM, you can, and you can grow quickly after a few years.
2. How to position an internal transfer
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