From Designer to Design Manager

So I typed up a big long post on my iPad and went to post and lost signal a poof it was gone. To sum up the long post…I wanted to put a post up around the challenges of moving from designer to design manager. i think this is something we all deal with as our career grows and I would love to see the stories, advice, and mostly communicate ways to adjust to the challenges that come along with this career growth.

I have been a design manager now for about three years and am very comfortable with being at that point in my career. Although I know that as we grow and start to take on management roles we have to start mentoring others (which I love) and letting go of the day to day design work. The issue is that I am finding it hard to do that. I still find myself trying to jump in and start doing the work. The issue with this is not only does it take up time that I should be spending on other business related issues, but I sometimes feel I am getting in the way of the ones doing the work. My question to the the veterans here on the boards is how to you keep this in check? What are your tips on directing? We all eventually get to this point (some quicker than others) but the transition can be a bit difficult no matter how prepared you are. I pride myself on being a hands on design manager, and still take on pet projects, but would really love to hear from others on how do you balance being a hands on design manager without being an annoying design manager.


After posting this I did some thinking. I don’t really think the issue is the management acts themselves, I think it is more the personal issue of getting over that you are no longer hands on. As a manager you start to pick up other no design business related tasks, you are now directing and guiding others to get design task accomplished, and you become further removed from the act of being a designer. This can be a hard transition.

I also wanted to get a feel on how others put managed project in their portfolio. The projects are being managed by myself, but the work itself is not done by me. Do you just call that out as “Design Management”?

I really enjoy/enjoyed my transition to manager. As a designer, I was limited to the number of different projects where I could work. As a manager, I can dip my toe in many more projects as breadth has taken over depth. I personally prefer that, YMMV. I also get great joy watching the fear in the youngsters’ faces when I tell them I’m going to do “designer” duties. Nothing is more frightening than an old man saying, “Let me show you how we did this back in the day …”

Another advantage in management is your involvement in the NPD process becomes more strategic and less tactical. So for your portfolio question, you show the exact same images and use the words “I directed this …” instead of “I did this …” Again, that is what I prefer.

If I get an itch for tactical “design” work, I have plenty of personal projects to fulfill the need. On deck for this winter is a new bed and a couple of cycling accessories.

I am really enjoying the management side as well. I love it when I see a product/package really come to life all because I directed someone down a path that we may not have been exploring before. Or when I step in and by injecting design direction into a process the entire process flows much easier and better. That brings lots of satisfaction.

That kind of touches on your strategy point, but what I found is that I am more involved in the fuzzy up front strategy work. More consumer work with understanding behaviors and emotions that come with the consumption of our products. Then working with cross functional teams in identifying opportunities and creating products to fit them. This I have extreme passion for.

This exactly.

I see creative direction as having an analog to a composer/conductor. Bethoveen could not play every instrament in the orchestra, but he understood them to the point in which he could compose and conduct a piece that the orchestra could not have written themselves. He also could get busy at the piano like no one else and would still play his sonotas on occasion. Similarly I think a good director builds a diverse team that goes beyon his or her capabilities and learns how to compose for and conduct that team. It is still largely a creative act. I think a director should also know his or her particular skill and passion (piano for Beethoven) and be able to swoop down an get more hands on when needed or wanted. On my teams I set up a lot of critiques because I preffer that style of working and I enjoy the debate that comes from critical group discussion. I can do that over several parallel projects, and while we do crits I can be doing overlays on top of CAD, red lining strategy diagrams, analyze our language and so on.

There are many management tasks that need to be done in the background, and it can be tough to keep the balance, but it is important to remember that those tasks are part of a management process that is intended to facilitate a better result in terms of people, process, and products.

As far as portfolio, there should be some overarching theory, philosophy, or language the director is most involved with that can be documented. The tactical design work is then a direct result.

Design Manager = Miles Davis. Find the best sidemen to articulate and enhance your vision.

nice analogy.

Thanks Mike. I really like the way you put that and actually you have a very inspiring way of looking at it.

I think where I am struggling is that I am a corporate design manager. I have quite a bit of strategy work that I manage and am very heavily hands on with (and love), but when it comes to nuts and bolts design, I am giving the direction, but turning it over to a design firm to do the development. So I think the difference in the above is you are the director at the firm that (the client) am using. It seems that you get to be a bit more of a hands on director than me.

This is where I struggle with the portfolio piece because you are the one doing the design but on the other hand I am the one creating the strategy and directing you based on that. Maybe I just answered my own question. :slight_smile: