Two Steps Back: Growing Your Career by Embracing the Unknown

Last June, I found myself without a job for the first time in 17 years. I had just left Jawbone, where I designed and built interactive and connected experiences for consumer electronics. The reason I left was simple: leaving would force me to grow my career as a Product Designer and push me in new directions.

To move your career, skills, and experience forward you need to find opportunities that force you to reach, to learn, and to question yourself – or go out and create those opportunities. It’s easy to get comfortable in what you do, but important not to let that comfort lead to complacency: The tools keep changing, the technology advances and the skills of designers coming right out of school are trained in skills well beyond what you learned. Choosing the uncomfortable or unknown is hard. You may have to take two steps back in your career as you adapt to different responsibilities, industries, and ways of thinking. But taking those two steps back — and meanwhile learning new things, tackling new problems, and challenging yourself — can often push you to move forward in your career, rather than coasting along where you are.


This was true when, in 2002, I left a 300-person company with a sizable design team to be the sole designer for a startup. I had gotten to the point where I was comfortable and knew what was needed to do my job well, but I wasn’t growing as a designer and leader. When I became a startup’s only designer, it forced me to learn to present, pitch, and sell designs both internally and externally. I had no choice but to accept the challenge and learn from it each step of the way.

When I started at Jawbone in 2010, I stepped into the unknown again. I knew just a little about designing hardware experiences or about the hardware lifecycle and its challenges. But I was motivated and immersed myself in the space. I grew from a niche Voice User Experience Designer into the role of Product Designer designing hardware experiences and connected devices.  At Jawbone, we were leading the way in the current hardware/wearable revolution, and I felt I grew as the company did.


Karen at Built In Chicago’s D Conference presenting on “Designing for the Experience of Things” (courtesy of Built In Chicago)

Now, nine months after starting to consult, I’m in the process of helping start a wearables company, another new adventure. As the company’s Head of Product Design, I see my role expanding into marketing, business, supply chain management and fundraising. Starting a company is a complex undertaking. I know there will be times I will question myself and my abilities–and that I will embrace those situations as they arise.

You need confidence in yourself to welcome change and make big decisions, and a support network and great mentors to guide you along the way. Having participated in Bridge as a member of the Designer Fund community, I have seen firsthand how Bridge allows designers to take that leap into startups and accelerate their growth. If you’re in a place where you feel stalled, or you’re ready for new challenges, I can’t recommend Bridge more highly.

If you’re interested in more insights about the latest design tools and methods, check out Bridge and keep in touch here to be invited to apply early before applications open September 15th.