Design team management requires a different playbook than other leadership roles. Trust us, we have over 120 designers across nearly all creative disciplines, and in over 50 countries. Fostering a creative and collaborative environment while also keeping everybody on track is not an easy feat. It also doesn’t happen by accident. The best design leaders understand that they need to be incredibly intentional with both their leadership approach and the people they bring in.
One of the big mistakes early on was just thinking that management meant that you had to be authoritative and you had to act like a know-it-all instead of the insight that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and in fact, you’re going to earn more trust with vulnerability.
If you’re new to managing designers or are looking to strengthen your leadership skills, you’re in the right place. In this post, we’ll go over:
Let’s dive on in.
Depending on an organization’s size and scope, a design team could be a team of one or a group of 50+ designers and other creatives working together in their own department. At some companies, you may even find designers scattered across departments, such as on marketing or product teams. The bigger teams also tend to include many types of designers, each with different responsibilities and skill sets.
Here are some of the typical roles that you might find in a design team:
Keep in mind that not every design team has all of these functions and roles. If you’re building your team from scratch, the best place to start is to think about the different products and experiences on the market that you like. Then, research those companies, find out how large their design team is and what kinds of roles and skill sets they have.
You should also look into companies that are similar in size to yours to compare and contrast. From there, you can start to put together a plan for your design team management and structure that will have the talent you need to achieve your desired goals and outcomes.
Ultimately, a design team manager’s role is to support and empower their employees while ensuring they’re working effectively together to support the company and its strategic objectives.
A common mistake new or inexperienced managers make is thinking that they must be very authoritative and always have all of the answers to be a good leader. Depending on how fresh of a design team manager they are, they might also feel a little unsure of how to navigate the shift in responsibility from delivering great design to facilitating great design.
However, the best design leaders are servant leaders who see their employees as more than ‘cogs in the machine’ and put the needs of their team ahead of their own. This leadership style requires a lot of trust-building and vulnerability. People in design team management don’t just delegate tasks or review design deliverables. They also don’t need to be the best designer in the world or know everything there is to know about design. A design manager’s job is to help their team do its best work.
Think of it as a coaching role. While there will always be deadlines to meet and projects to launch, design managers should also help their employees develop as professionals and give them opportunities to grow and refine their skill sets.
Now, let’s get to those impactful design team management secrets!
Great design team management means creating an environment where your designers can thrive. This ideal environment is chock full of mutual trust and respect, which can take some time to develop (but can also quickly be lost with a few “sour” actions).
Getting talented people to work effectively with one another takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time.
To cultivate this kind of environment, make sure that you take the time to connect with each of your direct reports while also allowing them to share their thoughts and ideas. Make them feel seen and heard.
Designers know that creating good work takes time. However, when you manage design professionals, you may start to assume that others are being lazy or lack commitment when it takes them longer than expected to finish a project.
That’s why Peter Sena, founder of digital marketing agency Digital Surgeons, recommends managers always build a little padding into their deadlines for emergencies.
If you know you have until Friday for a design, the internal deadline you set should be Wednesday or Thursday. (Of course, don’t explicitly state this fact or you will never receive anything on time again!).
Speaking of deadlines, if you find that your team is struggling to keep up with their work, it could be your design processes. For designers specifically, they’re often fulfilling on a project outline for another team member. Ensuring your designers know exactly what you expect of them from the outset can go a long way in keeping your team happy and your projects on track.
You should also be setting these exact expectations with the other teams you work with as well. Nobody wants rogue design requests coming through without a proper process in place, or last minute feedback that sends a 90% complete project back to the drawing board. We recommend using a design or creative brief to ensure your designers always know what exactly is expected from them! We made one that you can simply duplicate and use for your own briefing—check it out below:
Your management approach shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. The best managers build relationships with each of their direct reports to understand their needs and goals and find the best way to support them.
The best way to do this is to meet with each employee, one on one, and ask open-ended questions to understand their motives better. Once Rayana Verissimo, Design Leader at GitLab, started spending more time consulting with her designers and following their work, she got a better sense of what people were prioritizing and (more importantly) what type of support they need.
Getting to know what each designer needs individually - and building that relationship is a job of its own.
Lift up your designers and give them confidence in the work they’re doing by recognizing their achievements. Regularly celebrating wins big and small can breathe life into your design team by keeping everyone motivated and aligned to the company’s mission and values. You can do this in small ways by sending a private ‘good job!’ message/email or sharing it in more public ways like shouting out a colleague in a company Slack channel, or giving your team gift cards to celebrate a successful project.
Whatever your method, just make sure you’re taking the time to recognize your team’s hard work. This of course goes for any role, not just design!
Whether it’s learning a new software program or mastering a new skill like motion graphics, providing growth opportunities for your team can help them achieve their professional goals while also adding value to your design team as a whole.
As a manager, it’s not your job to define your employee’s career path for them, but you can (and should) offer guidance, support and provide recommendations or connections to learning opportunities that they may not have known about otherwise. Your job is to not only ensure that their role is serving a key purpose on the team, but also to help them reach their goals and career trajectory.
Whether you joined a team with designers already on it or you’ve built the team from scratch, as a design manager you need to ensure that:
From career development to design critique, the true role of design managers is to facilitate great work. Design teams are capable of incredible things, but you will need to give them the right amount of support, encouragement and guidance to truly unlock their potential.
And just like any position, there will always be room for improvement. Just keep working at it and create an open rapport with your designers. Managing a team is not a one-way street. The better your communication with your team, the better you’ll be able to help them succeed.
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