From designer to manager — the trickiest transition
The 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.
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 of designers what was the most satisfying part of their jobs, 95% of them said it was ‘seeing an output’. The work of a designer has a visible outcome. A designed solution that, more often than not, will be built/produced and shipped. Thus creating a body of tangible work.
What makes a good manager
Getting painstakingly close to the details and focussing on outputs are not the traits of a good manager. With around 85% of today’s design leaders coming from design practitioner roles, you can see why the switch can prove difficult. In short, the skills that made you a good designer, will not make you a good manager.
The outcome of a recent study by Google, confirmed that a good manager ‘empowers the team instead of micromanaging’. The manager role is no longer responsible for taking care of the micro-level details but is now also measured by the output of their team. The body of work now belongs to the designers in the team, not the manager. Instead, a design manager is responsible for fixing all the invisible problems and messes found between people (e.g. org design, workflow, tools, role definitions).
A designer shifting to a manager role has to shift his/her toolset from Figma and Framer to strategy communication, team reputation and skills development. You will have a wider remit, but less control of the details.
According to Forbes an essential quality of a great leader is decisiveness. Citing that “ bosses who aren’t decisive are often ineffective”. This does not play well with the design philosophy of continual iteration, test and learn cycles and in-depth discovery phases.
The impact of transitioning from IC (individual contributor) to design manager
I wanted to understand more about the impact of transitioning to a management role on designers’ wellbeing so I ran a survey with more than 175 design leaders from around the world.
While the majority of respondents (74.5%) said they were satisfied with their current role, 60% also said they wouldn’t be happy taking a bigger role, indicating a state of unease with their position.
As we all know, feeling supported is a key part of being comfortable in any role, however 73.4% said they have no mentor or coach, and 38% said they did not feel adequately supported by their manager. When you consider that feedback it’s no wonder that a whopping 84.7% of design leaders surveyed said that they feel a lot of pressure in their roles and 83.9% have felt burnt-out. So the evidence supports the opinion that people have been struggling.
These numbers paint an unpleasant picture, but there is a bright side. The majority of respondents stated that they feel (emotionally or socially) close to the people they work with, feel optimistic about their future and most importantly are keen to be better managers. All are all key aspects to good mental wellbeing according to the NHS.
Help & guidance for navigating the storm
Today the design practice is not mature enough to have pure management track all the way from education to retirement, but what follows is a list of tips that I’ve relied on to help transition from designer to design leader.
Make an outlet for your creative cravings
You shouldn’t switch off your enjoyment for creating and seeing outputs, so look for a new channel e.g. side projects, learning new skills, sketchbooks.
Change what you wear when you get home
This small action has proven mental health benefits. The process of discarding your workwear helps distinguish you, from your work. Also, think carefully about your lanyard. When the day is over remove it from your body, so you’re no longer tagged by your employer.
Interject your book pile with non-work titles
Learning more about your work and developing your knowledge is important, but should not be your only source of learning and growth.
Keep a notepad close by, especially by the bed
Get good at lists – particularly at the end of the day. Carrying work thoughts around is exhausting, so get them out of your head.
Don’t send messages out-of-hours
By all means, draft notes or messages when inspiration or clarity strikes, but don’t send anything late at night or very early morning. It sets a bad example in your team and a precedent that you’re never out of contact.
Own your inbox and your calendar
A manager’s time and attention are precious. It’s very easy to get swept away with ad-hoc demands. Try setting times for dealing with emails each day and holding time in your calendar for getting tasks done.