Moving from managing pixels to managing people isn’t a straightforward decision. Many of us underestimate the change in pace, scope and challenges that come with a design management or leadership position.
Here are some tips for those who find themselves at that proverbial fork in the road, unsure whether to go right or left.
First, some home truths
What got you here won’t get you there
Simon Rohrbach, Leading Design 2019
As designers we take years to hone our craft. We gain experience that improves our abilities and capabilities. We use and create new tools, products and services. We collaborate with others to improve processes and outcomes. Being a designer blends soft (durable) and hard (perishable) skills into lasting outcomes.
Yet at some point for the senior, principal or lead designer, their career path will result in that fork:
- Remain an individual contributor (IC) forever, or
Jump, fall or tumble, feet-first into management
Taking the IC route means doubling-down on craft.
I’ll never forget a colleague who — when asked if they intended to go into management — replied with a vehement ‘no’ without hesitation’. Their path would be IC, no matter what. The world of design needs more contributors than managers, hence this route being the natural choice for many designers.
Taking the management path presents a paradox. It comes with a seismic shift in different responsibilities and accountabilities. Some tools and skills can carry over, like stakeholder management, mentoring or juggling of priorities. But full-blown management means you’re now responsible for people and all their intricacies. A far cry from pixels.
1️⃣ Appreciate that people are complex
Designing experiences and interfaces for end users is challenging in its own right. Design — rightly — is becoming more entrenched in everyday business. As a result designers are — rightly — playing a more pivotal role. Whether they’re improving a user’s experience or increasing conversions, an IC’s design role can be complex.
When conducting qualitative user research, designers are reminded just how complex people are. Humans are intricate and multifaceted. Yet when we’re interviewing or researching ‘people’ for a project, it’s often a means to an end. At some point in the project those signals and inputs get turned into artefacts. They manifest as design decisions for a project or product roadmap.
Design leadership by contrast stays in that people phase.
People have problems and issues outside of work. They have expectations and requirements of their employer and colleagues. They have real needs like compensation, respect and recognition. People have differing or opposing communication styles, and complicated inter-personal relationships and emotions. They are intricate and multi-dimensional, all in a way that no design project can match.
One hundred years of Figma, Sketch or Axure won’t prepare you for managing designers, developers, project managers or researchers… anyone who might work in a modern design team.
If you’re heading into design management or leadership, you’ll need to learn how to best communicate with a myriad of personality types. How to actively listen, and how to cater to a professional’s needs to help them grow and prosper. Never underestimate how complex people are, and how management needs to serve those people to achieve the best outcomes.
2️⃣ Language matters
How you conduct yourself — managing both upwards and downwards — is so important. Coming from design backgrounds we know the importance of communication, persuasion and critique. Thankfully these skills aren’t wasted in management.
Your style of communication is one of your most important traits. Good leadership doesn’t favour extroverts or introverts, loudness or charisma. It favours those who are able to communicate and articulate clearly.
The importance of language in leadership echoes Kim Scott’s ‘Radical Candor’ theory. If your style is too abrupt, harsh or direct, you venture into the obnoxious aggression camp. If you’re too sympathetic or too reactive to people’s feelings, you’ll flirt with ruinous empathy. You need to use your gut to find the right balance, keeping in mind that everyone you interact with is different. There’s no singular way of managing a team. Every team member requires a different management approach, one that suits their needs.
Think of Goldilocks, with each of your team a unique story. Each person requires a ‘just right’ communication style that caters to them. Show respect by adapting and calibrating to their style, appreciate their efforts, and help them grow.
3️⃣ Experience matters
Steve Jobs once decried that good managers have to be excellent at their craft. Whilst I agree, there’s an important distinction: time.
Design leaders must have lived experience to lead design teams. With a career in practicing design, the deep contextual knowledge gained means you share a lingua franca with your team. But your design portfolio then won’t be your portfolio now. A shift to leadership means you’re happy to focus on processes, workflows and recruitment. The notion that design leaders need to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to everyday work is a fallacy.
Your team is your product. Hiring correctly and nurturing growth your focus. Getting involved in everyday pixels can lead to loss of perspective of the bigger picture. Your role is to carve out the time, space and environment for your team to do their best work.
4️⃣ Celebrate the wins
We’ve all had a boss who took management one step too far. They worked the team too hard, or in some cases took all the credit. Worse, there are bosses who give little room for appreciation or recognition, focussing only on getting the tasks done.
Designers can admittedly be a precious bunch. And these archaic forms of industrial revolution-type management won’t work.
When managing design teams, success is a team sport. Shining a light on the wins from your team should be natural, seeing as it’s them doing all the work. Often the wins might be micro-sized, but this shouldn’t make them any less important.
At a previous company we had a hugely-successful slack channel called
#being-splendid. The studio could give ‘kudos’ to colleagues who had achieved something worthy of praise, whenever the situation arose. The behaviour bred a positive mindset and celebrated wins of all shapes and sizes. It was a great way of sharing successes rather than one person assuming the credit.
5️⃣ Feedback’s your friend
Annual reviews. 360 degree feedback. Anonymous feedback. If any of these things make get a bit uneasy, you’re not alone.
Yet feedback is integral to growth — both personal and professional. As a leader it’s your job to foster an environment where feedback is part of the wider process, not a cause for anxiety.
Inviting introspection can create long-lasting, positive outcomes. The ability to provide and receive feedback is a great way to build trust and candour, both of which are core tenets to high-performing design teams.
A word of warning: be aware that the depth of feedback lessens with an increase in hierarchy. In other words the higher your role, the less candid feedback you’ll receive.
As a manager you might naturally focus on providing feedback for your team. Don’t forget that it’s a 2-way street. Ask for feedback for your own style of management. You won’t always get it right.
I once wrongly assumed a team member wanted to talk only about work in their 1:1s. I thought it best to discuss their projects, priorities and processes and how we could improve them. As it turned out, they wanted more discussion about their personal life, and how it balanced with their work. Remember to be honest and open, able to course-correct based on the needs of your staff.
6️⃣ Fight for their right
As a designer you’re used to defending your work. In a critique session you state the case for the user, and accept feedback… knowing it can improve any final design.
When your work becomes people, the same rules apply, just in a different context. As a leader/manager you need to defend your team as though it’s your own project. Managing both up and down is the name of the game. Management isn’t only about direct reports. It’s how you interface with the rest of the business around you. How you represent your team and its needs or challenges. You need to make the case for the design you’re doing and how you’re doing it to senior stakeholders. Or defend a decision to use certain processes over others across disciplines.
In most businesses, design is still a nascent discipline. Though growing, it still needs its virtues and positive outcomes reinforced every step of the way. Whether managing one designer or an army of them, the same rule still applies: You need to fight their corner.
🏁 Embrace the challenge
This article started with the notion that you must throw away everything you know as a designer. ‘What got you here won’t get you there’. But as a design professional you’re a step ahead of others coming into management from other backgrounds.
You know how to build empathy with your users. You’re able to frame problems and find a solution in a process-driven way. You’re used to critique, gaining buy-in and communicating complex problems articulately.
If you chose to go into management at that proverbial fork in the road, you’re not alone. Thousands of other newly-minted design leaders and managers are learning on the go. They’re sharing their experiences, adjusting to their new surroundings and not looking back. After careful consideration their pixel projects have been replaced by people.
If it’s a decision you’re currently facing or you’re an old hat, I hope these reflections and insights have proven useful.
May 12th, 2022