Managing designers 101


In their career, most designers will eventually be asked to manage other designers. The assumption is that if you’re good at designing and a bit charismatic you’ll be a good manager. However managing is not something designers are taught in college or even on the job. Designers are just expected to work it out.

With this ‘management gap’ in mind I set up a panel discussion to explore the topic as part of the AIGA’s Design//Work panel discussion series titled Managing Designers 101. The panelists were: Amy Stellhorn (moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Creative Lead, Unity). The following article is based on the discussion held that night…

“Your job is not to be a manager. It is to direct” Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque, Apple

What does it mean to manage?

Firstly let’s look at just what managing is.

Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque started with an interesting point “In Spanish you don’t have the word ‘manage’. We say ‘dirigir’ which means to direct… it’s a much more inspiring word.” She described the process of directing as not solving day-to-day problems or managing people but is in fact looking after projects. Having responsibility as a leader in the creative realm means you are driven by a high level vision of the end solution. It doesn’t mean it’s about you or any control issues you might have. This can be hard because as designers we all want to be artists of some kind. We love creating great pieces for our portfolios that the industry will applaud. But as designers we put form to other peoples’ ideas not our own. As a result understanding both the problem outlined in the brief and the mind of the person whom it’s for are the key parts of leading creative projects.

To illustrate this point Susana described a time when she was an individual contributor working on a commemorative book for someone senior at Coca-Cola who had passed away. She spent a few weeks working on it, all the while thinking she would have a great portfolio piece. When it came to the review with the Creative Director he pointed out that the book was not supposed to be her book but was in fact for the people who knew him well, especially his family. After slowly taking down each printout one-by-one he replaced them with blank pieces of paper, on which he wrote a single word written on them. Those words were ‘Whisper’, ‘Celebrate’, and ‘Thank’ saying “This is what you have to communicate”.

“The most awful bosses are the ones you learn the most from” Jennifer Sonderby, SFMOMA

So, what does a good boss look like?

Everyone wants to have a good boss but just what makes a boss ‘good’. When the audience was asked what phrases came to mind when thinking about good bosses they called out phrases like ’empowering’, ‘listens’, ‘trusts’, ‘gives good feedback’, ‘encourages’, ‘backs up direct reports’, ‘appreciates your genius’ and ‘acknowledges good work and it’s creator’.

A key theme that emerged was that good bosses try to find the right role and work for people to self actualize. This sounds ideal and there was a consensus among the panelists about this. At this point I mentioned that when training new team members I make it very clear that I’ve done a good job only when the designer can think for themselves and do the job without needing my input.

And how do you treat direct reports? Jennifer Sonderby pointed out that it is key to “model the behavior you would like to see”. This is the acme of managing other people akin to following The Golden Rule but with more depth: “I’ve had some amazing bosses. The one I currently have is the Chief Content Officer. Essentially he functions as my support mechanism allowing me to take risks, allowing me to fail when I need to fail, take risks when I need to take risks and excel when I need to excel on my own growth trajectory.”

Good bosses also delegate. A lot. It’s hard to be any kind of individual contributor with even a few direct reports so the key is to teach them to mange more direct reports too. More delegation means you are less stuck for time and therefore able to take the decisions and meetings that come your way more seriously. At the same time you are further empowering your direct reports to make their own decisions too. Don’t be afraid to let go either. It’s fairly universal rule of thumb that it’s extremely hard to manage more than about a dozen or so direct reports. Just look at look at corporate org charts or the size of company boards or even the number of members in the President’s Cabinet.

“People don’t quit jobs. They quit managers” Amy Stellhorn, Big Monocle

What does a bad boss look like?

Your commute to work might be long and the work might be bad but having a terrible boss makes your life a living hell. This is something that most people overlook – the fact that your boss is likely to be the gateway to your happiness. Just as people end relationships that aren’t working for them they tend to quit their relationship with their boss not the job itself.

Why is that?

Well, when asked what they thought, the audience said that bad bosses are: ‘unavailable’, ‘micromanagers’, ‘managing up not down’, ‘contradict themselves’, ‘have no follow through’, ‘bipolar’, ‘made me anxious’, ‘mentally exhausting’, ‘didn’t respect what I do’, ‘most of my goes potential goes unused’ and ‘doesn’t even know what I do’.

Most bad bosses tend to be very focused on the task or goal to be achieved. Often they’ve squeezed out the human part of their relationship with direct reports. Or worse, they know only too well the impact they have on their direct reports and love the power trip of being in control. Having said that a fairly reliable indicator that a team is managed by a horrible boss is the fact that it has a high turnover of staff.


What is it like to manage for the first time?

As mentioned before, designers often get promoted because they are good at a core skill such as designing. Becoming a manager for the first time often means you are still an individual contributor but now have to think about other people, their tasks and their problems. You may be good at managing your own time but now you are responsible for others people managing their time too.

So far I’ve talked about the mental leap of understanding things from your direct reports’ point of view but there’s also a a leap in how they see you. After all you may have been ‘just one of the team’ up until recently. They will already have a good sense of what you are like dealing with time pressures, working with others or getting things done under pressure. However once you get promoted above your peers it can create a huge amount of hubris.

Amy illustrated this point with an anecdote. She had to promote one of two creatives over the other. It seemed to go ok until she asked the one that wasn’t promoted “How do you feel about X now being your boss?” To which she got the reply “Oh I don’t see X as my boss” Amy had to explain why this person was promoted and how the two roles suit each of the two designers’ personalities and abilities. Amy realized she had to make it clearer that both designers had a defined career path with growth built into it.

“As a manager problems come to you all day, every day so stay calm” Rick Byrne, Unity

What’s the difference between leading and managing?

As designers we are often expected to both lead and manage so I thought I’d explain difference.

The short answer to ‘what is leading?’ is that it’s driving the creative direction and the steering the whole team month-to-month or year-to-year. A key point to remember is that you don’t need to have ’director’ in your title to think like a leader. Meanwhile managing is more about taking care of the day-to-day problems that arise or how a finite project gets finished. As before, you don’t need the word ‘manager’ in your title to do this. In fact you’re probably doing this already by thinking about what your boss would like you to do.

In further describing the difference between the managing and leading I used a fictitious example from my military past. Leading is about providing overall direction as officers do e.g. “We need to take this hill because the enemy are using it to ambush aid convoys”. Managing is more about how we achieve the main goal like NCOs (non commissioned officers) do e.g. “First section will provide a diversion at the base of the hill while the second section will sneak up the side in order to launch a surprise attack from the flank”.

Crystal clear? If not here’s an anecdote from the design world to make it more concrete:

There was a time when I had to provide creative direction on a project for a stakeholder who could be quite difficult. I prepped the designer by explaining that in order to get something approved sooner rather than later we should do three concepts.  The first concept needed to be too plain yet ticks all the boxes in the brief. The second concept needed to be really out there – “let your flights of fancy take you wherever you want and it can go in your portfolio” I told the designer. “Next, create a third version that is just right (and somewhere in the middle of the other two)”. I went on to explain that the stakeholder will kill off both the plain and fanciful concepts. “Once they feel empowered by killing off the first two concepts they will naturally pick the one that we think is just right” I explained. In the actual meeting the designer struggled not to fight for our two sacrificial goat concepts. Yet by doing so the meeting went exactly the way I had stage managed it in advance.

“It’s surprising how often you can buy your team more team” Brynn Evans, Google

What do you do when you are stuck?

Sooner or later you’ll get stuck with a problem. It’ll either be not enough time, the brief isn’t clear, your resources are shrinking or there are technical problems. All of these lead to panicking or frustrated direct reports which means they aren’t doing their best work. No matter what the problem is you will be the one expected to come up with a solution.

Bryan Evans talked about how someone told her “Your role now is to be the shit shield. You’re going to hear a whole bunch of shit and you’re never going to want to pass that on to your team” when she first became a design manager. She strongly disagreed with that concept saying “I don’t believe that because I always found that if I know a little bit about what is happening beyond me I could do my job better. I try to relay the stuff that I think is important to people so there are no surprises forced on them. If something big is happening next week they can think about it now.”

Evan had some of these gems of wisdom to ask when there’s a problem:
– stay calm
– find out if it’s a tech problem.
– draw the solution out of those telling you the problem causing the hold-up.
– buy more time for the team if you can
– talk to people outside the team as to how they impact your team
– be transparent: put work up on a wall for reviews so everyone can see
– if you don’t have a specific solution say “I’m not sure but I trust your judgement on this”


Tips on managing

– Always remember birthdays
– Model the behavior you want to see in your direct reports
– Give credit where it’s due and don’t steal it for yourself
– Don’t panic – pause to take deep breaths
– Stay fresh by being hands-on on a few projects
– Manage up and down not just up
– Connect with direct reports once a day, even if over something small
– Be authentic: don’t change your feedback in front of non team members
– Don’t leave it to last minute to review work – no one likes late nights
– Reward time spent on drudge work with a more creative project

The panelists summing up to the audience


Hopefully if you’ve read this far you are ready for the mental leap that managing/leading creative teams and projects takes. Maybe you’ve made the leap already. Personally I see managing as more of an extension of design. You can do so much more if you magnify the positive energy and creative ideas that leading a team brings. In many ways it’s like being a parent. It’s very hard at first, taking up so much of your time and energy. But once you hit your stride it is very rewarding being there for their failures as well as cherishing all their great achievements.

*Panelists: Amy Stellhorn (panel moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Rick Byrne, Creative Lead, Unity).


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