10 things I’ve learnt moving from being a design practitioner to design manager
7 minutes read
18 months ago I made a big decision. Rather than continue my journey as a product designer I decided to take the turning, marked ‘lead product designer’. Now I’ve changed job titles plenty of times over the years, but this was much more than a case of updating my LinkedIn profile. Those four additional letters might not seem like much, but they’ve fundamentally changed my role. Whereas before I spent the vast majority of my time doing design, now I spend the vast majority of my time helping others to do it. Whereas before I was primarily a design practitioner, now I’m primarily a design manager.
As anyone who has made the transition from practitioner to manager will tell you, it’s a challenging, and somewhat discombobulating change. Just because you’re good at doing something, doesn’t mean that you’re good at helping others to do it.
I’ve made (and continue to make) many mistakes as a new design manager, and learnt some important lessons along the way. Lessons that I wanted to share for those also making the transition from design practitioner to manager, or perhaps thinking of doing so.
1. Don’t try to be a player manager
I’m a keen football fan (‘soccer’ to any readers outside of Europe). Like the world of design, the world of football tends to favour managers who were previously practitioners. Whilst it’s not unheard of for football managers to have never played the game professionally (José Mourinho is a famous example of one) the majority have previously been players. In fact, some such as Glen Hoddle and Bryan Robson (shown below in a fetching suit and football kit combination) even combined the two roles towards the end of their playing career as player managers.
Picking the team and playing for the team might seem like a feasible thing to do, but there’s a reason that football player managers are now a thing of the past. Being a practitioner is a full-time job. Being a manager is a full-time job. Being a player manager is therefore an impossible job. Whilst I’ve found hanging up my boots and letting go of doing design work to be painful, it’s been necessary. Whilst I’m still involved in some of the design work, I now try to keep this to a minimum as I’m conscious that I should leave the playing to the players, so that I can focus on the team.
2. Focus on soft skills, not hard skills
I’ve previously written about the sort of skills that a designer needs (see What makes a good UX designer?). Whilst a designer undoubtedly needs a mixture of hard skills and soft skills, for a practitioner the focus tends to be on improving their craft. For example, getting better at UI design, user research and service design. Whilst I think that it’s important for design managers to keep these skills up-to-date, I’ve found it more important to work on my soft skills, such as leadership, coaching, feedback, influencing and stakeholder management.
3. Trust your team
Design managers tend to be very experienced designers, after all it’s often a pre-requisite of the job. As a designer with countless years of experience its often very tempting to tell less experienced designers how to do their job. However, I soon learned that whether you’re the manager of a football team, or a design team, shouting directions from the side-line is much more of a hinderance than a help. No one enjoys working with a micro-manager and a designer that is just executing directions from their manager is not learning to think for themself. I’ve learnt that as uncomfortable as it feels for a design perfectionist like myself, I need to trust my designers to do their job.
4. Favour questions over answers
As the saying goes…
Give a designer an answer and it will feed their needs for a day. Teach a designer to answer their own questions, and they can feed their needs for a lifetime.Old proverb (probably)
When a designer asks me what they should do I used to tell them what I would do in their position. The problem with this approach is that it means that they don’t have to think for themself. Instead, I’ve learnt that a better approach is to put the ball back into their court by answering a question, with another question. Ask them what they think they should do, and then work with them to help guide their approach.
5. Get to know your organisation
As a designer it’s important to understand your organisation, and how design fits into it. As a design manager it’s not just important, it’s essential. No more can you pretend that as a designer you don’t really need to know about the wider business world, about the mysteries of sales, marketing and gulp, HR.
Along with building and fostering relationships with other parts of my organisation, I’ve found it to be important to learn more about the role each part plays in the wider business context, and how design fits into this.
6. Get a mentor
As a new design manager I’ve found that it’s the ‘manager’ rather than the ‘design’ part of the job that I struggle with the most. Given that I’ve been a designer for over 17 years, and a manager for only about 18 months, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me.
In a bid to sharpen up my management skills I’ve been working with a couple of mentors, one an experienced product manager, the other an experienced development manager. Neither are design managers which Interestingly has worked out well. It helps to give me an outside perspective on things and forces me to articulate and explore challenges in a way that a non-designer will understand.
7. Use your design skills to tackle problems outside of design work
Becoming a design manager has made me realise that my design superpowers (humour me here) such as the power of user research, user-centred design and design thinking are not just useful when it comes to tackling gnarly design challenges, but gnarly business and organisational challenges as well. Need to improve a business process? Why no whip out the design thinking toolkit. Need to encourage collaboration between product teams? Why not whip out the user research toolbox to better understand the problem? As a design manager I’ve been doing a lot less design work, but I’ve still been able to practice my design skills by applying them to problems elsewhere.
8. Protect your time
Ah, I remember what my calendar used to look like before I was a design manager. I’d frequently have whole mornings and afternoons free, sometimes even a whole day with only a few meetings. Alas no more. My calendar now looks like a perverse game of meeting Tetris, with the meeting blocks rapidly filling up at an alarming rate.
Rather than saying yes to every meeting I’m invited to (it’s amazing how popular I’ve become!) I’ve had to be much more selective. Do I really need to attend? Can someone else represent the voice of design, if indeed it needs a voice at that particular conversation? With a heavy heart I’ve accepted that attending lots of meetings is part of a design mangers job, but not all the meetings!
9. Find an outlet for your creativity
I didn’t become a designer for the money, the fame, the glamour or even the free lunch that I get when working in the office. No, I became a designer because I like to design stuff. It therefore sucks a little when you become a design manager and realise that you won’t get the chance to design as much stuff as you used to. Sure, you’ll be involved in the design process, but probably not the nuts and bolts of the process.
It’s therefore been important to find another outlet for my creativity. The energy that I used to put into creating wireframes and pushing pixels, I now put into designing presentations, diagrams and writing articles (like this one).
10. Embrace the uncomfortable
Becoming a design manager has been a journey that has taken me about 20 years. Most of that journey has felt like a meandering road trip. Sure, the surroundings and scenery have changed as I’ve moved role and company, but the language and culture has remained largely the same. The last 18 months however has felt like getting on a plane and travelling to a far-flung part of the world. Suddenly as a design manager I’m in a strange country, with a language and culture that is much more foreign to me.
As any adventurous traveller will tell you, you must embrace the uncomfortable to be able to thrive in this sort of an environment. I’ve accepted that I’ll be outside of my comfort zone much more than I’ll be inside of it, but that’s ok because a career spent purely in my comfort zone is not the career for me.
- Don’t try to be a player manager (or attempt the suit, football kit combination). Let your designers design so that you can focus on managing the team.
- Focus on soft skills, such as leadership, coaching, feedback, influencing and stakeholder management.
- Trust your designers to do their job. Support them doing it, rather than getting in their way.
- Rather than telling a designer what to do, answer a question with another question. Ask them what they think they should do.
- Learn about different parts of your organisation and how design fits into the wider context.
- Get a management mentor so that you can learn from others.
- Use your design superpowers to tackle problems outside of design work.
- Protect your time because no one else will.
- Find an outlet for your creativity because all work and no design makes Jack a dull boy.
- Like a traveller going to a strange country, you must embrace the uncomfortable and accept that you’ll be outside your comfort zone in your new role.
- The tough road from Designer to Leader (Matt Godfrey)
- Moving from IC to Manager: What 4 months of being a Design Manager has taught me (Ben Brewer)
- What I’ve learned about being a design manager (Valerie Paur, Sainsbury’s Experience Design)
- ‘UX Leadership Skills : A short guide for busy people’ by James Chudley