The Do’s and Don’ts of Managing Designers

By Kristin Skinner

Are there common personality traits among designers that should shape the way they’re managed? Design managers naturally think about what they need from their team, but Bob Baxley, a design executive in Silicon Valley, believes it’s more interesting to consider what designers need from their manager in order to thrive. Baxley is a keynote speaker at this year’s Managing Experience Conference, March 29–30 in San Francisco; I sat down with him to preview his thoughts and experiences on the ways designers want to be managed and the environments that maximize their productivity, creativity, and morale.

Why are you excited about speaking at the Managing Experience conference?

How designers want to be managed is an incredibly important topic that’s not getting much attention. Most companies think about management from a manager’s perspective and not an employee’s perspective; I have a different idea of how managers should work, and believe that companies should exist to serve the creative capacity of the individuals they hire. To try to flip the traditional hierarchical model on its head and look at it from an individual contributor’s point of view: what sort of environment is going to help them excel and thrive as a creative professional? It’s a very interesting and relatively unexplored topic.

What are your thoughts on the specific challenges design managers and directors face that they may not even be aware of?

The thing that I really have visibility into is Silicon Valley, and there are two large models for how creative organizations in Silicon Valley work. One is highly authoritarian, and the best example is Apple as a hierarchically controlled company with a clear “path to yes.” The model on the opposite end of the spectrum is about autonomy for the individual teams, which is what you see at Google and virtually every start-up I know.

The question that I think is really interesting is: can you produce Apple-quality products and experiences using the highly autonomous environment you see at Google? It’s not clear to me that you can or can’t. I think it’s an interesting conversation that’s happening around where to sit on the control vs. autonomy spectrum. Many of the companies I’ve talked to want to empower their teams, but at the same time they still want to have executive creative reviews every week. They seem to be seeking a sort of “autonomy with oversight” model and I’m not sure how you balance those two objectives. Certainly though, having a larger conversation on this issue, particularly with design managers, is a good first step.

Tell us a little bit about what this year’s MX theme, “It’s not about you,” means to you.

It kind of goes back to what I started with: how do we empower the individual creatives? There’s a wonderful book about being a creative inside a non-creative company called Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. He talks about different organizational structures and how corporations of old were structured like pyramids: the company served to fulfill the desires and wishes of the people at the top. But then he had a second model, which was more like a tree: the purpose of the tree is to produce fruit, and if you take that as a metaphor for a company, it’s really the role of the managers to be the branches and the roots, making sure nutrients are getting out to the edges so that the tree can be productive and bear all this great fruit. I think that’s a much more interesting model for creative companies that need to produce a broad variety of different ideas.

For me, the conference theme is about pushing this tree metaphor: what do we need to do to make sure our teams and individuals are developing, blooming, and being productive? How can we help the people who are ultimately responsible for coming up with all these great ideas?

What do you hope people leave with after your talk? What are some ideas you hope they take away?

Mostly I hope people walk away and go, “Wow, I never thought about what it was like from my employees’ point of view…what it’s like actually sitting in the chair, maybe I’ve lost touch with that.” Some of these cultural things that we assume–like open seating–do they really serve the personality of a designer? Which, I suspect, is actually an introverted, quiet type of person. Have we globbed onto certain ways of behaving in the office that could potentially squelch the very creativity that we’re trying to unleash?

My goal in the talk is to challenge assumptions. When I walk around Silicon Valley I see a lot of assumptions inside companies that have to do with open seating and hyper-collaboration, metrics-based decision making, extreme amounts of autonomy, polling to find business goals, free food for everybody,we all have breakfast together, we all have lunch together–there are a bunch of assumptions that are very Google-y in their makeup. And again, if you look at the products that everyone talks about the most, they tend to generally be Apple products which come from a completely different process.

I think there’s this interesting question of: can you get there from here? Is it actually possible to create what we would identify as world-class, game-changing, holistic user experiences using the cultural norms of a company like Google? Which is fantastic at creating certain types of innovation but maybe not the singular big-bang breakthrough innovations that we’ve associated with companies like Apple in the past. I’m not trying to judge one model or the other, I’m trying to say that they’re two different models. The process that Google uses produces some great products, but I’m not sure it would have ever gotten you the iPhone, any more than the process Apple uses for the iPhone would have ever gotten you Google Maps. I’m not sure people are thinking about these cultural components of their company and what kind of products they’re naturally going to lead to.

Attendees at the conference will be at different stages in their career paths. Most of them will have been in leadership roles for quite a while, many will be trying to figure out how to get there. What are some of the myths or misconceptions about design management that you’d want to dispel?

I think there’s this whole idea about how managing creatives is somehow different. Other people ask me all the time, “What’s it like to manage creatives, they just seem so flighty.” I don’t really buy into the idea that creatives need to be managed differently than everybody else. I think creatives need structure, need to know what the expectations are. Design in particular is a problem solving skill–it’s not art–and as problem solvers designers need to understand what the constraints and parameters are.

I see a lot of executives wanting to give the creative team an unbounded canvas to go play on, which has always struck me as a recipe for disaster. Designers don’t know what to do with that much open space. They’re trying to solve a problem; if you just give them a big giant field they don’t really know what to do, so they end up creating their own constraints, which may not be the constraints the company wants.

Everybody needs to be really clear on expectations. Whether or not an employee is clear about what’s expected of them is far and away the number one predictor of job satisfaction. With rare exception, if you give any particular person in the company infinite reign they’re going to be fundamentally unsettled because they’re not really going to know what they’re supposed to be doing.

What are some of the strengths or struggles that a designer shifting into a leadership or managerial role might face? What advice would you give them?

Designers shifting into managerial roles understand how to be sensitive to the emotional vulnerability of the design role. I think designers are in one of the few if not the only role where it seems everybody in the company feels that they have a right to comment on your work. There’s such a culture of critique around design deliverables that doesn’t exist with any other deliverables. For designers, a typical day is everyone telling them what’s wrong with their work. And while that’s the job, I think you have to be careful to respect that dynamic and create an environment where it’s safe to critique the ideas without critiquing the individual.

The whole culture of critique around design is nuts; most people in most companies thinks design is just opinions. They think it’s a big subjective cesspool, and so if you’re living in a data-driven organization there’s this belief that all opinions are created equal–which is absolute bullshit–but everyone thinks they can say whatever they want about the design and somehow the designer is supposed to respond to that. And it makes them nuts, or at least frustrated.

I also think design managers should be mindful about this new environment we’re in where a lot of the design decisions get made by metrics. Metrics are a certain way of making decisions, but as I’ve said many times, if you do something great the numbers will change; if you try to change the numbers you’ll never do anything great. I don’t think we can identify a single product that any of us would think of as breakthrough and game-changing and something we deeply, passionately love that came from a metrics-based decision process. That’s not to say that many products haven’t gotten incredibly well-honed and perfected using metrics-driven decision processes, but nobody’s ever created something from the ground up that inspires that emotional response using metrics.

That’ll get me shot–or at least looked at funny–in nine out of ten companies, by the way.

If you do something great the numbers will change; if you try to change the numbers you’ll never do anything great. I don’t think we can identify a single product that any of us would think of as breakthrough and game-changing and something we deeply, passionately love that came from a metrics-based decision process.

What do you hope to learn or take away from MX?

What I hope to take away is a bigger sense of community. I think most people in design leadership roles are fairly isolated, especially in start-ups where there might only be a single director. As I’ve met other design leaders and interacted with them, I’ve felt it was a really disconnected set of islands, even though everyone had a really similar set of problems they were working through. For design, it’s really early game for us, so unless we get together as a community and start talking through these issues, understand the commonalities, and benefit from each other’s experiences, it’s going to be hard for us to develop and be as productive as we need to be if we’re going to have the level of impact to which we all aspire.

Bob Baxley will deliver the keynote and moderated panel: Pioneers, Professionals, and Prodigies: Managing Designers at this year’s Managing Experience Conference, March 29–30 in San Francisco. Register for MX16 here.

A team of designers focused on the capabilities of human-centered approaches to improve products, services, and systems.

A team of designers focused on the capabilities of human-centered approaches to improve products, services, and systems.