From designer to manager — the trickiest transition

Martyn Reding
The Startup
Published in
6 min readMay 11, 2020

face down on a desk, with a storm cloud above her head

TThe design manager role has grown considerably over the past five years. As design has been recognised as a business value-driver and organisations have increased their design maturity, we’ve seen lots more design management roles being created. The design leadership community is now represented by Slack groups, conferences, meetups, content and books that offer support and guidance for navigating the transition from designer to leader. Through all of this material and rhetoric there is one undeniable theme:

Becoming a design manager is really hard

It’s as simple as that. This shit is really difficult.

People are struggling, stressed out, and having to figure out new ways of working. But why is it so hard? There is a growing demand for community support in this field, in a way that isn’t as overt for product management and engineering. I decided to take a look at why our community is calling out for help.

What makes a good designer

Designers often describe their profession as an obsession. Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘the designers' disease’. People often say that it’s not something that can be switched off and once you open your eyes to design, you’ll see it everywhere.

Tweet showing what normal people see vs what designers see, one pixel out.

The design community has a tendency to fetishise people like Steve Jobs and Stanley Kubrick and pore over stories about them being entrenched in the minute detail — dedicating hours of their lives worrying about the tiniest (some say insignificant) details. Designers who are willing to go to this level of detail are considered to be good at their craft.

Good designers are often anxious people and their desire to design comes from an underlying need to control. Designers take comfort in making sense where they see a mess, and fixing the things around them.

A working designer has the continual satisfaction of seeing their work out in the world. When I recently asked a group…