Do you have to give up designing to be a design manager?
The art of balancing your craft and scaling your impact
There’s this discussion going around the design community that I’ve been struggling with. It’s the idea that as a designer grows and matures they have to leave being a designer behind in favor of becoming a manager.
I struggle because it's been a hard transition for me personally—but also for another reason. And it has a lot to do with the definition of design and what we want to get by practicing design.
What if design is craft?
Being a craftsperson is a blue collar job. A blue collar ambition. Let that sink in. Very very few craftspeople end up in white collar positions—not in fame or money or size of responsibility.
But designers have been demanding to have a seat at the table. They've been making white collar claims. Saying they can do way more than just craft. Saying they can move billion dollar businesses.
It's blue collar ambition with white collar responsibilities and money.
This causes a huge decision that we have to make. I think the decision has a lot to do with how we define design. It seems that the predominant definition that raises this conflict is one that is much more synonymous with the word craft. So do we leave design (craft) to become design managers? Maybe we need to expand our definition of design to include more than just the craft of design. Or maybe we need to be more honest with and true to ourselves and just be content to be makers, craftspeople, contributors that make something we are proud of without trying to be executives.
What if design is solving problems?
The alternate definition of design is way too broad and probably sounds something more like "a system used to creatively solve problems". I can see where that's unfulfilling but it allows design to be something more than just craft. It allows designers to move beyond craft into problems that are more abstract—like how to build a big design team or how to use design to earn a company their next $100 million.
In this definition, designers can move away from craft and into management without losing their soul and feeling like they aren’t “designers” anymore.
There are a lot of ways to slice this one and a lot of other necessary conversations. How do we create career trajectories for people that want to just be craftspeople? How do we raise great design leaders that aren’t great craftspeople? How we figure out which one we want? Etc.
But I wanted to put out this idea that design and craft are not necessarily synonymous and acting like they are is limiting our ability to let a lot of designers move into something bigger than the craft of design.