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Simple list with approval feature. Members are set that they can only view and edit their own. I have also one set of approvers that should approve. However the approvers do not see the items. I have to upgrade them to designer to let them see the things they need to approve.

Is this normal?

When I tick 'who can see items' as 'approvers and the item creator' I supposed that the permission profile called 'approver' would be enough. Instead I need Designer or above.

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Yes this is normal, users need the Manage List permissions, which is included in Design. The list settings specifies this:

Note: Users with the Manage Lists permission can read and edit all items.

You could edit the Approver permission to include this if you wanted. Site Settings, Site Permissions, Permission Levels, click Approver and tick the box for Manage Lists and click OK.

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