Design Management

over 3 years ago from , Designer

Hi there. Open question about design management. I am trying to figure out what does it mean to be a design manager. It is clear to me that design management is about sharing a vision with other designers and how to make that vision happen.

Whether is implementing a design process or have a very detailed plan on how to get there. Have a structured way to provide feedback to each others' work, evangelise a design thinking approach across the business, among other things.

I also know there are certain people management soft skills that need to be at play.

I want to understand, from the design community, what do you think makes a good design manager?


  • Andrew C, over 3 years ago

    More often than not becoming a Product Manager is the only true path to moving up for designers. This is unfortunate, because if you're not careful PM can "own the problem space", which removes designers from facilitating real UX and research within their teams. Because it's easy for PM's and engineering directors to make up the majority of higher-level engineering positions the advocacy for the user diminishes (unless the team is inherently design focused which is exceedingly rare).

    In my experience a good Design Manager evangelizes user-centric thinking within product and engineering and opens up the importance of the role designers play to the rest of the company. Ask "what do the designers need to make the experience exceptional?", and help make the answer to that question a reality.

    It's basically process engineering mixed with creative direction.

    7 points
    • Carlos Sousa, over 3 years ago

      Hi Andrew, very interesting answer. Why limit the user-centric thinking just for product and engineering?

      And what about the managing the designers part? What do you think it's fundamental for a design manager?

      2 points
      • Andrew C, over 3 years ago

        Good question! The goal is not to limit the user centric thinking at all, but rather to foster and facilitate this mindset as far as you possibly can. There are forces, naturally, that pop up and oppose a user-centric methodology in the day-to-day operations of other teams. With agile development it's important for both design and devs to work together throughout the process—this means developers should be sketching out ideas with the PM and engineers. This helps with critiques, too, because the designs aren't personal. Lastly, the designer and PM should be doing user research along the way. This makes answering questions relating to the designs a productive, informative conversation.

        Some examples of forces: Customer success often faces time and staffing restraints and must make trade-offs to customer experience, Sales is generally focused (or pressured) on actualizing revenue (and making money (short term) is MUCH easier if you do "just enough" caring about the customer experience). Engineers are focused on implementation, tech debt, scope and velocity. Who owns the user-centric facilitation? Designers are the right person, because they take the results of that facilitation and DO something with it, physically.

        Can you define managing the designers question a bit more? The Mitch Malone post in this thread is a good list to work from about this. Not sure I can add more value than he already has.

        0 points
        • Carlos Sousa, over 3 years ago

          I agree with you. It's always a fine balance between what design and business and one can't overpower the other. While designers needs to understand the customers needs but also understand they are working for a business and a business runs on making money or saving money. On the other hand a business needs to understand they are making money of people, and people have needs, expectations and anxieties.

          The designer needs to be at the middle of all of it and work with all these variables in order to influence the business to make the right decisions.

          Thank you for answering the question.

          0 points
  • Mitch Malone, over 3 years ago

    Some things I think good design managers do:

    • If a designer is having trouble making progress on a project, the DM can help think through strategies/tactics for progress. -If there doesn't seem to be strong alignment in a team or among multiple teams on a single initiative, the DM should recognize that misalignment and facilitate communications among those teams to gain it.
    • If the design work is low quality, the DM should recognize it and facilitate a critique with relevant people.
    • Work with designers to understand their individual career goals and help them toward a path to achieve them.
    • Find opportunities for designers to learn.
    • Push designers to the boundaries of their experience to facilitate growth.
    • Provide clear, direct, and supportive feedback on performance (or just in general).
    • Identify bottlenecks, frustrations, or any friction in design process and work to reduce them as much as possible.
    6 points
    • Carlos Sousa, over 3 years ago

      Hey Mitch, great feedback. I'm glad you went through some of the managing people sort of approach. Regarding design critics, how do you see these set up, since designers generally are attached to their own idea and work?

      I've faced a few times this kind of posture and I sometimes don't know, apart from explaining that these comments are not personal and always refer back to the outcome we want to get. What in your opinion, a design critic looks like?

      1 point
      • Mitch Malone, over 3 years ago

        Critiques are about making the design better and they should be a regular part of the process.

        They consist of a group of people who have a stake in the project's success and have the requisite knowledge in order to ask good questions. Critiques are about asking questions after all. Deep, thoughtful questions about the decisions that went into the design. If the reasoning behind the question can't be supported (by evidence or otherwise) then the designer can take note and reconsider the decision.

        However, asking questions like these (especially about why they made certain decisions) is inherently antagonistic and people will become defensive. This is not good. So make sure you phrase questions about the work and not the designer. All feedback must come from a place of support and compassion. It takes practices to do this consistently but it is well worth it. For example, don't say, "Why did you design the flow like this?" Instead, say, "Talk about how this flow works well to achieve the desired outcome." Both of these questions get at the same point but one is about the person and the other about the work.

        Overall, this kind of nonviolent communication is key to creating a psychologically safe space for people to work. When people feel safe, they will be more open to critique and more willing to contribute. Safety also lets people be more daring and courageous in their ideas which can lead to innovative designs.

        To go back to my point point above about "low-quality work", the good DM would not go to the designer and tell her that the work isn't good. Instead the good DM would simply recognize that she needs help and facilitate activities that will get her back on track. Critique is a good tool for that, though not the only one.

        2 points
        • Carlos Sousa, over 3 years ago

          Thanks for the comprehensive answer. I'll kep this is mind when setting up the design rounds. I too agree the approach breeds to be about the work and not about the designer. Having also the evidence and being able to justify based on the goal/desired outcome is key for a successful conversation. The challenge is in fact how to avoid the space of getting personal, it will be an art on it self and adjustments will be made so these activities can be as productive as possible and an opportunity to grow professionally.

          I think the biggest challenge the DM has, specially if she comes from a destination background, is how to develop those people soft skills to support the team. Designers are introvert or very scientific, pragmatic by nature, specially ones who have been on the job for a while. I wonder what and how does one develop such soft skills. Any thoughts on this?

          0 points
          • Mitch Malone, over 3 years ago

            Gaining soft skills is hard. They are rarely taught explicitly in school or elsewhere. You or your employer can hire consultants to teach you how to do this well. There are also a lot of good books on the subject (Emotional Intelligence, Radical Candor, etc). Jared Spool has a lot of good writing and talks on this stuff.

            The best way to learn is to practice.

            The good news is because soft skills are so hard to acquire, if you've mastered them, you are extremely desirable in almost any company.

            0 points
  • Tiago FrancoTiago Franco, over 3 years ago

    I'm not a Design Manager, but I've climbed the ladder up from Developer to CEO. I've also hired DMs and helped people grow from Intern to DM position (took them 5 years).

    Most issues that you'll find will be about leadership and soft-skills. Assuming that you already have good technical skills and be able to justify your decisions when challenged (and you will be challenged by your team from time to time).

    From a soft-skills perspective, I would recommend a few books, that I always ask people to read when they enter a management position in my team.

    1- The New One Minute Manager - Easy to read (can be done in a 2h flight from Lisbon/Dublin). A great framework on how to help people do their work and get out of the way.

    2- Small Unit Leadership - About leading small teams. It's a book written for the military, but no one knows more about getting small teams up to speed and give them autonomy to take fast decisions when in the trenches.

    3- Something about Project Management from the Project Management Institute (PMI) - In our field, everything is either a Process or a Project. The PMI Book of Knowledge is the best Framework you can find for Project Management. You don't need to apply it, but it's crucial to know that these tools exist and their respective goal and limitations. I always give a 3 day training on this as soon as people get promoted to Senior level (one position before becoming DM).

    1 point
    • Carlos Sousa, over 3 years ago

      Tiago thank you very much for such a prompt and straight forward answer. Glad to chat with you about this a bit more on my next visit to Lisbon. I'm going to take your book recommendations and we'll chat about this.

      Hope things are going great with your 'new' project. Let's catch up one of these days.

      0 points
  • Slavo Glinsky, over 3 years ago

    Do not forget United Designers slack channel https://uniteddesigners.chat/

    0 points