Hold on, but should design managers design…?

Design management is a spectrum, not a single clear-cut role

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
Design Bridges
Published in
9 min readMar 21, 2024


First, I stepped into leadership while working at Ukrainian digital consultancies. Then, I delved into design management at an Estonia-born urban mobility company. Now, I lead a team of designers at an enterprise software firm headquartered in the Netherlands. And you know what? In various companies, design leadership takes on diverse forms, each entailing unique expectations.

Before talking about different shades of design management and factors that define your managerial profile, let’s start with a simple question: where do design managers come from?

It often seems that design management is an upper stage of a designer’s career track. You start as a junior, grow to a more senior role, and then boom — you become a team lead or manager.

But hear me out: management is not a natural continuation of design. It’s a different skillset that cannot be automatically obtained while working as a designer. The reality is closer to the meme below:

Let’s take a look at the skillsets expected from designers and design leaders. Those who opt for a managerial career path will inevitably see a decline in their hands-on skills as they engage in less and less practice. From what I’ve observed, managers typically find their design hard skills plateauing at a moderate level.

Job title conventions vary, but I believe we can all agree that reaching the senior (or sometimes lead) level is a pivotal point in one’s career. At this stage, further career growth often hinges on the decision to either remain an individual contributor or shift toward management.

Of course, transitioning into a design manager wouldn’t make sense if it solely involved losing crucial design skills without any gains. That’s why it should go hand in hand with acquiring specific managerial skills that a designer either lacks or possesses to a limited extent.

On the contrary, when a rookie design leader attempts to outperform the team in designing, he or she is on a path to failure.

Choosing the leadership track means a lot of changes in the mindset, tools, and methodologies. Simply put, less designing — more communication, planning, and strategy. A vivid illustration of this phenomenon is a drastic change in tools one uses daily.

But one of the most interesting shifts is from design-oriented frameworks to people-focused frameworks. Compare the famous Design Thinking process with the Employee Lifecycle, which is no less renowned yet most designers haven’t heard about it before:

  • Design thinking: Empathize → Define → Ideate → Prototype → Test → Implement.
  • Employee lifecycle: Attraction → Recruitment → Onboarding → Development → Retention → Separation.

While individual contributors own design decisions and solutions, leaders should take responsibility for their teams that make those design decisions and deliver design solutions.

Unfortunately, an equal combination of hands-on work with managerial tasks is possible only to a certain extent. Both areas demand dedication, so one of them will inevitably win.

But what exactly is design management? As the term implies, it resides in the intersection of design and management. So, let’s delve into both components of this role.

  • Design side: design quality, vision, strategy, user journeys, UX metrics, discovery, methodology and tooling, etc.
  • People side: skills, promotions, hiring, onboarding, collaboration in the team, crisis management, etc.

The proportion of design and people-related components defines your profile as a design manager. It’s not a limited set of types; rather, it’s a continuous spectrum.

Apart from the “design↔people” axis, we can also add another dimension—the experience of a person in the role. In this way, you can embrace the diversity of design leaders. For instance, some are deeply immersed in hands-on work, especially if operational tasks are managed at a higher hierarchical level. Conversely, other leaders prioritize team management over direct involvement in design since their team members are senior enough and don’t require much control.

Your position on the spectrum is influenced by a multitude of factors:

  • Business model: agency, consultancy, digital product company.
  • Company size: small, medium, or large.
  • Business stage: startup, growing business, or established company.
  • Area of responsibility: you manage all designers or only one of several design teams; your team includes all designers (UX, branding, motion, marketing, etc.) or only one type.
  • Org structure: you report to the product or engineering vertical, or there is a separate executive for design.
  • Design model: your team members are permanently embedded into cross-functional teams or they are “design as a service,” responding to prioritized requests.

Of course, this is not a complete list; the place where you work can have additional unique features that would shape your role in a certain way and set the expectation around the value you bring to the table.

Let’s delve into three managerial setups to get a flavor of how differently people with the same job title can work.

Example 1. “Perfect balance”

You combine an equal amount of practical design tasks (for most complex and impactful projects) and managerial work (only onboarding, mentorship, and skill assessments, but no the full set of responsibilities).

Although this perfectly balanced profile is a reality for many design leaders, sustaining it over a prolonged period presents challenges. As tasks on both plates of the scale pile up, one day, you may find yourself overwhelmed and on the brink of severe burnout.

This profile is often seen in design teams that have rapidly grown, only recently established this position by promoting the most promising designers, and don’t yet know what to expect from design managers.

Example 2. “Design guru with bonuses”

You combine most of the “design-as-usual” tasks with a little bit of managerial responsibilities, such as mentoring junior team members and conducting design critique sessions.

While this setup isn’t inherently flawed, someone should cover the remaining aspects of managerial work, including such sensitive topics as salaries or employee retention. Usually, these topics fall under the purview of a design leader’s boss or HR. However, this design leader type can be ideal for early-stage startups, where everyone is expected to pitch in regardless of titles or hierarchy.

On the other hand, the role of a “design guru with bonuses” could indicate a person’s reluctance to fully embrace managerial responsibilities. Such leaders may be afraid to step out of their comfort zone rooted in hands-on work where tangible value is readily apparent and navigate the unfamiliar realm of management.

Example 3. “Designers’ leader”

You prioritize work with the team and hold responsibility only for defining the design vision, goals, and strategy, rather than caring about the entirety of design tasks, including hands-on work.

From my experience, the “designers’ leader” often emerges when the team is sufficiently large and experienced to handle practical design tasks autonomously, but there is a need for alignment, standardization, and common direction. When designers are already strong in their craft (each of them separately or generally as a team), there is no need to add one more hands-on design guru to the mix.

However, like the previously mentioned managerial profiles, this one also has its challenges. A design leader fully immersed in managerial responsibilities may get overwhelmed by operational tasks, leaving insufficient time for strategic projects and vision-setting. Operational work (vacation approvals, meeting arrangements, performance reviews, etc.) never ends, while a leader’s key value lies in driving strategic initiatives and positive changes.

It’s crucial to recognize that the spectrum of design manager types isn’t about personal preferences but rather about meeting the needs of a given company. Each type arises from the unique context of the organization, and grasping it is key to effective management.

For example, if you manage designers at a design agency, you’ll definitely focus on their skill development because skilled designers will attract projects with a bigger price tag to the company and let it thrive. But probably you won’t be involved in UX metrics that much because your team members work on different projects with a limited access to customers’ web analytics, which is commercially sensitive data they’d rather keep closed.

Besides, you don’t work in a vacuum. Various other professionals collaborate with your team to ensure its success:

  • talent specialist/recruiter,
  • HR manager or people partner,
  • product manager,
  • engineering manager,
  • design director, etc.

That adds some complexity, doesn’t it? Ensuring there are no duplicating functions and no responsibilities left unaddressed requires careful coordination and clarity in roles and responsibilities.

By listing everyone who has a direct or indirect impact on your design team and mapping their involvement across stages, you can see what to focus on and where to rely on others. This will also help you communicate your value and contribution to others.

As you can see, there is no single standard of who a design manager is and what this person is supposed to do. Your profile is defined by a variety of factors, but it also means that you can always find a company that will fit your leadership aspirations.

There is only one caveat to take into account: your perception as a leader by the team depends on how well you solve team members’ problems and enable their success. Here is a quick test of who people perceive as a de facto leader regardless of the official position: who is the first person to learn about designers’ problems? Do they bring it to you, or do you learn about it through someone else?


  1. Design management is a vibrant spectrum, spanning from hands-on designers performing separate leadership tasks to full-fledged team leaders focusing solely on strategic design work.
  2. Your leadership type depends on the context in which you operate: the nature of the business, its organizational structure, design team setup, the company’s maturity level, etc.
  3. While one may hold the title of manager, the “perceived leader” is usually the one to whom team members turn to entrust their problems, regardless of official processes.

So, if you’re a designer contemplating a move into management, try to explore not only leadership in general but also the specific type of design manager needed within your organization.

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
Design Bridges

Design leader and somewhat of a travel blogger. Author of “Design Bridges” and “5 a.m. Magazine” ·