Illustration by the awesomely talented Maryanne Nguyen

10 things they didn’t tell you about design management

I’m often asked; What is it like to be a design manager? For many designers they aspire to get into management at some point in their career. The reality of management is often very different to the perception. So, in no particular order, here are 10 things nobody told me about design management before I became a manager:

  1. Management is really about leadership. The title you have and your position in the organisation is usually not what’s holding you back. You don’t need a fancy title to be an amazing design leader. Anyone can step into a leadership role, regardless of hierarchy in an org structure. Don’t wait. Start leading.
  2. Management of people is a craft in and of itself. And like any craft, it’s damn hard work. You need to constantly develop your soft skills. You need to constantly be asking questions of your team. You need to constantly be looking inward and asking yourself how you can improve and help make your team better. It is relentless.
  3. Managers are often referred to as needing shit umbrellas to protect their team from unnecessary crap in an organisation. This is true. But be careful not to over protect your team. If you do, they will never learn and grow from their own mistakes. Everyone needs to get slightly splattered with poop at certain points in their career. Just make sure you support them through this difficult time.
  4. As a manager your job is not to add process and unnecessary structure to your team. As a manager your job is to break down process to the bare minimum that suits the development stage of your team. Provide the right level of support and inspiration, so your team can create amazing solutions for your customers.
  5. Creating the best design doesn’t mean it will actually ship. As a manager, your job is to build networks and trust with your peers in engineering, product, marketing plus many more teams. Effective communication of design and strong relationships are just as powerful as amazing design solutions. Learn to hustle.
  6. As a manager you should spend a metric ton of time interviewing and networking. You need the best talent in your team in order to be successful. You should always be hiring people you think can now, or will be able to take your own job some day soon.
  7. You will upset people by making tough decisions. It’s ok to put your foot down. Too many compromises make rubbish products*. Often you won’t have all the data, or enough time. Learn to be comfortable with this. But also learn to accept that sometimes you will make the wrong decision. Just make sure you learn from those mistakes quickly.
  8. It is not about you. And actually it never was. You are likely no longer the best designer on your team (And maybe you never were anyway). Get comfortable with this and work out how to create an environment that your team can be creative and solve the right customer problems in amazing ways.
  9. It is not your job to know everything and have all the answers. It is ok to say “I don’t know” to your team. It is your job to lead. Bring the right balance of people together to solve problems that match the unique skills they all have.
  10. Great managers empower their team to make decisions for them. As a manager you may actually make less day to day decisions than you did as an individual contributor.

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*Props to Benjamin Humphrey for this one.