A Different Animal

Am I still a designer if I’m doing less design?

Tom Creighton
Jun 11, 2014 · Unlisted

The Problem

For most of my adult life I’ve considered myself a designer — I’m employed as a designer, I introduce myself as a designer, I see everything in ‘design-o-vision’. I have dual-wielded Pantone swatchbooks in real life.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with that self-designation.

Last year I joined a new crew and started working on a pretty hot problem: bringing data-driven, customer-validated design to the world of enterprise-y clients. It was big, it was new, it was scary: all things guaranteed to keep me feeling like I was becoming a better designer, like I was doing something.

This year, I thought I knew the score: another big client — remote this time. Tackling the problems inherent in working with a distributed team, a time zone delay, and a process we were defining even as we were implementing it. No sweat, this ain’t my first rodeo …

… but something else was happening at the same time. When I joined the team, we were six people. When we kicked things off with this new client, we were fifteen. More of my time started to get carved out for scheduling, strategizing, directing — helping to make sure our expanded team worked at peak awesomeness.

I also started taking on a few more big-new-scary things: organizing an event and guiding an internal startup. Both things I definitely wanted to do, but less time heads down at my desk, doing what I thought of as design. Increasingly more hours per day were spent wrangling e-mails and spreadsheets than pushing pixels. My self-identity as a designer really started to fray around the edges.

The Realization

I felt uncomfortable and paranoid, like I wasn’t pulling my weight, even though I was leaping with both feet into new creative territory. I wasn’t producing the volume of “work” that I had been. How could I reconcile doing things that legitimately excited me while doing less design?

There’s a lesson here about being too precious about our labels for ourselves. My self-introduction as designer wasn’t doing me any favours — in fact, it was a diminuation of what I could be. Spending some of my time corralling, channeling and directing creative thinking has just as much weight as the other types of work I can do. In hindsight, this should have been obvious: I work with a number of brilliant project managers, and not once have I thought that they were any less valuable (or busy!) than I was. I just thought of myself as a different animal.

Turns out I can bring more value to the table, creatively speaking, as a hybrid than if I were solely within the designer camp. In my mental Venn diagram of doers and organizers, I had to make a conscious step into an overlap that I’m still mapping out.

The Toolkit

How am I getting comfortable under my managerial hat? Here are some skills I’ve picked up from my more experienced peers. I’m still pretty shite at most of them, but I’m learning and trying not to screw up too badly.

Shut up and listen. Everybody has opinions, everybody has ideas. Take everything onboard and let it percolate. Seems obvious, but it’s easy for me to dismiss things out of hand when they don’t line up with my pre-conceived notions of how something should be put together.

Have a plan. Planning tools are a vessel into which you can pour anything you like, including ways to coordinate information and people. There’s just too much to keep it all in my head. This kind of organizational work will pay dividends later when I need to remember why I made the decisions I did.

Feet down, eyes up. I need to be aware of the day-to-day executional stuff that moves a project forward, but also be able to look ahead and steer toward strategic longer-term goals. Insert your standard proverb about tap-dancing on quicksand here. It’s so, so easy to lose sight of one or the other.

Build guideposts. I might have a clear vision for the work to be done, but my coworkers aren’t telepaths. Unless I tell people what my expectations actually are and what I want them to produce, things will go off the rails, guaranteed. The managerial hat means I need to learn how to tell people where to apply themselves, not just expect they’ll sort it out.

Stay on target. Where expectations have been too vague, my guideposts not very guide-y, there needs to be a course correction. It’s possible that somebody needs to rethink some work… and that’s generally okay as long as they understand why I’m asking, what outcome I’m trying to drive. Every time I suck at explaining goals and expectations, it’s an opportunity to get better.

That’s just the Bat-belt of tools and techniques I’ve picked up so far. There’s a lot of good knowledge out there I still need to soak up and assimilate. Already made the transformation from designer to manager? Fumbling through it along with me? Let’s talk and make it a little easier.

By Heist

Pieces written by the crew at Heist

Thanks to Scott MacGregor and Nathan Garvie.


    Tom Creighton

    Written by

    I think hard about design and usability to produce happiness.

    By Heist

    By Heist

    Pieces written by the crew at Heist