Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Designers, Are You Thinking About Management?

How designers can be better managers right out of the gate.

Cassie McDaniel
Feb 1 · 7 min read

Being a designer and being a manager are more similar than different, so when new design managers (or designers considering management) ask me for advice, I believe they already have most of the skills they need to be a great manager.

  • Do you know how to listen, how to get to the root source of a problem?
  • Can you come up with creative solutions and see them through to resolution?
  • Can you communicate with care, share thoughts and ideas convincingly, and be respectful of other people’s ideas while gently pushing them toward better outcomes?

These are all things good designers and good managers have in common, and so the two career paths are built on the same solid foundations.

But here’s what’s different, and that difference is significant and is one of the most jarring aspects of becoming a manager. All of a sudden, a manager has access. They get to see how the sausage is made: how priorities are established, how performance is evaluated, how conflicts are resolved, and how salaries and hiring decisions are decided. And that access, although it is likely what was coveted as a designer at some point while contemplating this career path (that glorious seat at the table, the power to make decisions, that desire for control) it will feel completely different once you have it. Management is a whole new world of both privilege and responsibility and new managers have an important decision to make: What to do with it?

Because of that shift in access, this becomes the main question at hand for new managers: How will you use your privilege and responsibility? What kind of leader will you become?

Remember: It’s not about you anymore.

Most new managers enter the role without the support they need to be successful. A 2016 Grovo survey revealed a whopping 98% of managers felt they and fellow managers needed more training, and two fifths (or 40%) of new managers felt utterly unprepared for the challenges they faced in their new role. For designers, this can result in spending a lot of time on questions that aren’t ultimately important in the manager role as they spin their wheels trying to figure out how not to — pardon my French — fuck it up.

This was certainly my experience when I became a design leader at Mozilla where I grappled for months with the loss of my identity as a designer. Without proper support, I spent too much time looking around asking myself:

Who am I if I am no longer making and shipping my own creations?

It seems silly in retrospect, but it took me a full evaluation cycle or two with my reports to better understand my relationship to my team, to open my eyes to their desire and need for more of my human support rather than design support. They cared less about my personal ability to ship great design, and more for my advocacy and guidance around their ability to ship great design (including helping them manage their time, focus, relationships at work, and career), which when all is said and done was the most impactful thing I could do as a part of the team.

In short, it wasn’t about me any longer, or the things I created. It was about my team and what they were capable of.

Eventually I realized I needed to shift from centering myself in the process to centering others; this was still a problem I could “design” around, using the skills I’d gained from my years of experience, but the context and objective mattered a whole lot and ultimately influenced the tools I used as a manager. To this day I still consider myself a designer, but instead of using Figma I now design solutions in words, research, listening and reframing, and a lot of documentation and communication!

As a designer, your role is to primarily deliver designs. As a manager, your role is primarily to support your team, including their work and their career. In doing so, you play an important link between the company’s mission and the people who are realizing that mission in their daily work.

What I see with a lot of new managers who are unprepared for the role is that they need to shift how they think about themselves (which is to say, to think about themselves a little less). Yes – being the best manager you can be is important in a manager’s own career progression – but I’ve often seen that take care of itself when the focus shifts to their team: How can the team and the individuals within that team be most effective? The role then becomes not about the manager’s new power or access, but rather what they choose to do with those things and how they focus their energy.

You may be surprised how rare this perspective is in a manager!

Dream a little before you think.

As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think. –Toni Morrison.

I adore this quote from Toni Morrison. To me, it acknowledges the implicit power dynamics of leadership and authority while daring you to be different from the status quo.

If we are just “thinking” about becoming new managers, or strategizing and using our left brain to implement and “do”, or even just to fall in line with someone else’s vision, then when are we using the creative parts of our brains to fully imagine what we and our teams are capable of? And as Morrison points out, when are we better poised to dream of possibilities than in the beginning when we first enter these types of positions?

There is a Ted Talk I also thoroughly enjoy (there’s always a Ted Talk!) with Benjamin Zander, an orchestra conductor, who says that the best leaders believe their teams can do it, that they can rise to whatever challenge you present them with. So while dreaming is important to do before thinking, it is also important to believe. In fact, your teams need you to believe in them — that is the job of a leader.

“It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that (s)he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people (s)he is leading to realize whatever (s)he’s dreaming.” –Benjamin Zander

Dreaming is the beginning of belief. So I believe it is the dreaming part – not the thinking, implementation, or assessment parts (those are important too, but later) – that sets most great design leaders apart from others. Dreaming is the part of the role where managers imagine beyond what people think they need to what is truly possible. It is the point at which design becomes great, and it’s that way for management too.

Try the Need-Want-Wish Framework.

When I began as a manager at Webflow a few months ago, to get to know the new team I used a technique recommended to me by Jared Erondu, Design Director at Lattice. Jared advised me to ask my new colleagues what they believed they needed to do their job well, what they wanted to see happen in the next short time frame, say a month or two, and what they could only wish to have in their current position that may not even feel was possible.

In 1:1s as you get to know folks as their new manager or colleague, it helps to be curious, and this is a systematic way to express your interest in the existing team’s opinions and experiences, to show them you are listening and that you care, and to start figuring out how you can become a part of the team by helping them through existing challenges.

Once you have the results written down, you can assess where to make the biggest impact, what the biggest shared concerns are on the team, and how to help each individual with something they are struggling with. That last bit helps so much as you are earning trust with new teammates, especially for those who report to you and who are entrusting you with their career progression.

Lastly, the “wish” framing reinforces what you are simultaneously doing as you dream about the team’s potential.

To recap how I think new design managers can better set themselves up for success:

  1. Recognize you have everything you need to be a great manager. Only, it’s no longer about you – it’s about your team.
  2. Dream a little before you think. Examine your privilege and imagine what’s possible. Believe in your team to achieve whatever you dream up.
  3. If frameworks help, try Need-Want-Wish. Earn trust with your new team by being curious and helping to solve existing problems.

Our industry needs more great, thoughtful, determined and principled design leaders who enable others to shine and I believe most good designers already have what it takes, even if it requires a mental shift. You can get there with a bit of self-reflection and the acceptance that possibilities are likely greater than what’s already imagined.

If you are excited about this type of leadership and working with a team of supportive design leaders, I am hiring a new product design manager to come work with me at Webflow. We welcome applicants from non-traditional backgrounds or under-represented groups to apply; you have my support and commitment to your success!

If you want to learn more about my own management philosophy, read: Everyone’s Sad and Getting Sadder: How managers can help in truly difficult times and Humans First – Strategies for leading remote design teams (this was renamed to Ultimate-Guide-etc but I prefer the original title).

Thanks for reading and good luck.

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