Digital Product Design Management as Urban Planning

Design Managers are explicitly not Creative Directors.

Defining the role of a Design Leader or Design Manager is slippery. It requires setting the vision for the design department, establishing effective processes, planning efficiently, and building a highly functioning team based on trusting relationships. However, it’s far more than just resourcing and 1:1’s — it’s about repeatedly evangelizing a set of values that’ll help shape the decisions made by the rest of the team.

In many organizations, this role still caries the legacy title of Creative Director. The concept of a Creative Director in the applied practice of Digital Product Design doesn’t fit, for me — with apologies to the many wonderful designers I know currently working under that title.

The CD is a carry-over from the world of advertising and marketing. It implies that there is one person who’s talent and expertise are able to shape their team’s outputs, or who should be able to claim ownership for the work.

By definition, every digital product is unique — ideally based on sound research, tested both in prototypes and in the wild. The winning design will be the one that performs against identified metrics at a given moment in time.

This is where I can’t really abide the label of the CD, and where Product Design as a nascent discipline diverges from marketing.

In my own work as a Product Design Manager, I’ll identify opportunities and define the work by collaborating with stakeholders to scope, schedule, and resource a project.

I’ll then work closely with our Product Designers to ensure that the team’s methodology is sound, and that each proposal is scoped appropriately against the constraints. We work in cross-functional teams with a high degree of transparency, and check in frequently through the earlier generative, divergent research & design work, and then through the later convergent cycles of prototyping, testing, and refinement.

I consistently challenge our team to justify their decisions at key stages of the design process, to ensure that we’re designing with rigour. I’d never want to make a decision for one of our designers. I hope to help inspire them, and provide clear guidelines for them to work within.

Design Management is fundamentally about defining a design culture that’ll allow for great work to happen — and then protecting that culture within a larger organization that may not share those same values.

All this sounds abstract for someone outside the discipline, and I sympathize. Titles, roles, and responsibilities all vary wildly between companies — and as designers it can be hard to quantify and articulate the value we bring to a business (especially non-digital-native enterprise organizations). In this context, it’s been useful to lean on metaphor to describe what exactly I do.

From the physical to the digital, and back again.

Drawing from my background in architecture, I’ve recently been using the metaphor of the Design Manager as Urban Planner.

As an Urban Planner, a Design Manager helps to define the city grid, installs the infrastructure, and make sure the trains run on time. They work with the authorities to write the zoning guidelines, and ensure that there’s a certain standard of design excellence across all our neighbourhoods. They study settlement patterns, and identify areas for future growth. In short, they think at the city-scale.

Product Designers are the architects, who work at the scale of the individual building. They deal with the functional program, the analysis of context, massing, materiality, and the design systems required to implement a specific project (structure, electrical, HVAC, etc). They zoom all the way in, and care deeply about the shape of the handle on the front door, and the angle of the morning sun through the bedroom window.

Both jobs are equally important, though the architects rightly stand in the spotlight. An effective city must be planned, even if that planning intentionally allows for significant opportunities for improvisation and chance. We maintain a constant dialogue with our residents, and frequently revisit old assumptions to ensure they still make sense in a rapidly-changing environment. Cities must continue to evolve and grow.

As Design Managers we empower our design teams to build the most beautiful houses, that fit in with the neighbourhood, are suited to our time, and address the needs of the people that live there. We streamline the politics, and ensure that clear guidelines are in place from the start. We ensure that individual designers build works that contribute to a larger whole, within clearly defined constraints and toward a clearly defined goal.

This metaphor has been effective in communicating the value in what we do — hopefully it works for you, too.

Caveat: There are limits to the manager/designer::planner/architect metaphor — urban planners are often in conflict with architects, and are not necessarily looking to protect them. Planners never hire or run teams of architects. Planners typically care more about conformance than excellence. As Design Managers we have to be careful to protect the play-instinct within our team. Creativity must be nurtured, and many false paths are inevitably taken before the right one reveals itself.

Hero image via “Taking Measures Across the American Landscape”, a set of essays and maps by James Corner and aerial photographs taken by Alex McLean.

Hackers intro GIF via YouTube, grabbed using Licecap.