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The brutal truth about becoming a design manager

(and why it’s all going to be fine)

Martyn Reding
Sep 21, 2016 · 4 min read

1. Your team complain about you.

The armour you formed for dealing with design feedback is needed now, but for another matter. No matter how sociable your relationship with your team appears to be, you are still the focal point their work complaints. It’s natural to focus frustrations with work on one person and ‘the boss’ is most likely target. It’s important to accept this and use to strengthen your team. Instead of getting caught in paranoia, get out of your chair and seek out concerns/frustrations/worries amongst your team. Be proactive and provide an environment in which they can approach you with their ideas and work complaints.

2. Nobody is more invested than you.

As excited and enthused as your team may be, you are still the person with the most riding on the team’s success. So naturally you’ll be more passionate and more invested than your design team. This allows you to lead by example. You now set the standard for creative behaviour. Be the beacon of positive energy.

3. Your ‘hands-on’ design skills will fade.

This is the next step on your design career path. More of your time will be devoted to managing, guiding, defending and discussing design. Less of your time will be spent actually creating designs. As you won’t be practicing design so frequently your skills will begin to fade. This is ok. Don’t panic. Your skills in directing, thinking, presenting and managing design will naturally improve. You will become more rounded and equally vital to the design world. These are not your “sunset years”. Your skills will develop in important new ways.

4. You will have to be the janitor.

Becoming a manager of designers does not mean you will leave behind menial jobs. In fact the more you actively deal with the ‘dirty work’, the more your team will understand that you’re there to serve them. Being a design leader is not about being a Tom Ford style creative dictator, it’s about facilitating the design team and helping them create their best work. So tidy the studio, chase tech support to fix problems, rename those files and your team will begin to love you for it.

5. Most of your time will be spent with non-designers.

The long days in the design studio are over. The comforting warmth of a creative cocoon is gone and the cold reality of a commercial world is where you now live. Your days will now be spent in meetings with people who don’t understand design and some that don’t care about it. Interestingly this now means you (and sometimes you alone) will represent design in these new environments. This is your opportunity to either embrace or disprove the stereotypes of being a designer.

6. Any designers not performing well, reflects on you.

The idiom that ‘you’re only as good as your last piece of work’ has shifted for you. You’re now only as good as your team. If one member of your team is struggling then it reflects on your leadership. A team manager does not have the luxury of writing a team member off. But as a team manager you have the great advantage of being able to bring your team together. A team is, by definition, a support system. Your team has the ability to equalise itself and you alone are perfectly placed to create that balance.

7. You’re not Don Draper.

The role of a Design Lead is very different from a Creative Director. Your task is not to find the one inspirational concept. It also involves surprisingly little drinking and few ties (sadly). The need for one hit creative campaigns is dwindling with the rise of interactive systems. Now the real creative ‘mad men’ are the designers who are defining the digital experiences that surround us. I believe this is the golden era of design. Being a part of this community is more exciting than any TV spot.

8. It’s your neck on the line.

You stand alone. There is nowhere to hide when a design fails or the design process comes apart. The buck stops with you. When it goes wrong (and it will go wrong) you will feel the most pain. On the flipside when it goes well the glow of success is yours to bask in. Your team’s accolades and triumphs will bring more than enough satisfaction to wash away the tough times.

The role of a design manager varies wildly across organisations, so these cannot be universal truths. This is simply a list of things to consider when making the step from designer to design leader. It’s an incredible challenge, not for everyone, but entirely worth the work.

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