Design Teams Management

As a designer, I have always found it very hard to find documentation on how to make the jump from maker to thought leader. So this article is my attempt to tackle two things at once: try and provide this information and also share how I approach management in design.

When you’re doing design every day, It’s easy to showcase your talents with some nice-looking renders. As I became more senior, I slowly shifted my role into a more strategic one, so it became harder to showcase my new set of skills without the shiny pixel-perfect asset.

So I decided the best way to share my process is just to write it down.

I leveraged a lot from the OKR framework that Google made famous. I love it because it’s straightforward and measurable, so it’s a great way to track progress.

I use this as a template with senior designers who can help me scale the career management practice to the entire team.

Skills and seniority assessment

To do my best work, I need to know who I’m working with. If, for example, there’s a need for some specific type of illustration or some prototyping, can I work it internally, or do I need to hire a freelancer?

Whenever I join a team/squad (or someone new joins), my first step is to have a one on one meeting with each member of the squad and go through their portfolio and side-projects to get a better understanding of their abilities and passions. A designer’s bar for quality is always high, so I like to speak “designer-to designer” to build trust and show them I can walk the talk.

One on one meetings

The goal here is to nurture the personal and professional growth of designers and help them take their skills to the next level while building rapport. Conversations should be recurrent, and the main topic is always their career, not the current project — for that, we have dailies/stand-ups.

I try to keep it casual and enjoyable. If possible, we go out for a coffee to make for a more relaxed conversation. Designers need to know they have someone who cares about them and is committed to helping them grow.

Let’s write some goals

Designers need to establish goals for their careers. When clear objectives are defined, we can track progress and development and course-correct if necessary. But how do I help designers in establishing those goals, you ask? Let me tell you how I do it.

Goals should be hard and yet attainable.

Think of it as going to the gym:

  • If the lifting is too light, you’re not getting any work done.
  • If it’s too heavy, you won’t be able to make it.

Remember OKRs? That’s when they come into play. For each objective, there should be 3 or 4 steps (key results) that help the designer’s progress.

Let me give you an example:

I want to learn [insert a tool]

This is not a good goal. You’re expected to know the tools of the trade. And in Toolsville, things change rapidly so designers should be able to work on multiple platforms at the same time. Also, that tells very little about your thought process, which is what makes people want to work with you.

This here is more like a goal

I want to design a music streaming product concept by Q4

This is looking a lot better.

  • Remember the software from the previous example? In this context, that could be a key result
  • It’s measurable
  • It’s time-based
  • It’s relevant
  • It has the potential to show some thought process

Follow-up meetings

Regular goal check-in. These are the questions I like designers to ask themselves:

• What have I achieved?

• What I want to do more of?

• What I want to do less of?

• Goals check-in and course correction (if needed)

• How can my mentor help me? — help your mentor to understand what you need from them. Keep it constructive.

  • Discussion

A little help from the Talent team

Imagine this: a designer has spent a full year reaching their goals while doing excellent client work, and now they’re asking for a promotion and a raise. As a mentor, you may or may not have the final say, but if the Talent team is not on board with the process, then you’re risking to waste time.

In every organization, no matter how big or small, design managers should always have help from their talent teams to make the experience as optimal as possible for everyone involved. A design manager usually doesn’t have the only saying in things like promotions and raises so, even the more reason to walk hand in hand with Talent.

Written by

I’ve been doing that design thing for about 20 years now. I’m currently based in the beautiful city of Helsinki where I lead the design team at Mirum

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