Designing vs. Managing Designers

Why I’m not ready to give up creating

My boss broke eye contact and let his eyes wander around the room, looking for the words to explain his take on management.

“You know, the way I see it, what I’m creating isn’t one particular thing, but a team, a system of people.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way before. There were probably other aspects of management I hadn’t considered. What about the opportunity to create my own culture? What about mentorship? Multiplying my own efforts by shaping the techniques and sensibilities of talented up-and-comers. All the glory without any of the tedious pixel pushing. Their success would be our success. What was stopping me?

“I just feel like my passion is in the actual creative part. In coming up with the solutions myself.” I said.

He leaned back, realizing something.

“Taylor, you can spend the rest of your life trying to be the perfect designer. That’s a noble pursuit, it really is. But it’s limiting.”

It bothered me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of managing. Was I a born follower? Do I lack the guts to give tough feedback when it’s needed? Here was the guy in charge trying to give me a boost up the ladder and I was kicking his hand away. It felt a failure, a mistake. Like going against everything you’re taught growing up.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I’d hit a wall at some point trying to execute my own work; my career eventually leveling off into an unrewarding plateau of mediocrity.

“I’m definitely interested in giving it a shot, but I know that I want to keep producing my own work and don’t want my position to complicate things.” I said.

I thought about why was I so adamant about not giving up the steering wheel. On a basic level, there’s the flattery of creating something that makes people stop when they walk past my monitor. But it’s about more than just a dopamine rush of validation.

Design is meditative. Therapeutic. It’s about the nearly audible humming sound in my ears when typography is balanced and everything is composed just so. It’s the joy and confidence that comes with being able to do something that not many others can do as well. It feels like contributing to the rightness of the world, creating order from chaos.

And then you’ve got trust. Candidly, I don’t believe that a project will turn out as well if someone else designs it. Which is not only ridiculous, but immature. Particularly when you work with gifted designers and art directors every day. Still, the idea of losing direct executional control over my work makes me squirm. I need to get over that and I’m not there yet.

I took stock of the people in the industry I admire, and with few exceptions it was people working with their own hands: building their own products, designing their own interfaces, carving their own woodcuts, etc. The only figureheads or leaders I truly look up to are former bosses of my own, or superstars in the mold of an Elon Musk who I know have the ability to take the gloves off and execute if it ever comes down to it.

To be clear, I love good managers and have had the privilege of learning from many of them. I have a respect for the art of good management. It’s a talent that requires dedication and practice like any other. I’ve also learned plenty about what not to do from the less great ones. But I’m just not ready to walk away from creating. Not yet. I hope I never am. And if it means I’m stuck at my current salary level, so be it. Consider it the cost of therapy.

What about you? Have you found management to be as rewarding as execution in the design field? How so?

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