moving from designer to manager

Hi All,

I have more than 10 years experience in the industrial design field. I’ve worked in design consulting as well as an in-house designer, but (maybe unfortunately) I’ve done more consulting than corporate, and now I find myself trapped in a hole I am having a hard time getting out of.
I am finishing a graduate diploma in management, and want to make the jump from designer to manager. But the consulting firms I’ve worked for are relatively small, and hence I couldn’t get much experience (nor the possibility ) of doing people management… I’ve done lots of project management, but run the projects all alone…

So now when I apply for design manager position, regardless of how many people are in the design team (even if there are only 2) I am always told that I lack management experience… How to get the experience if nobody wants to hire me! the usual who comes first; the egg or the chicken. On top of that, I live a small-medium size city and there are not that many companies that have the necessary structure for a design department with a dedicated manager…

So should I change jobs, to a bigger company, and simply hope that one day a design manager position will become available there, or should I keep looking and maybe I’ll get lucky one day?

To all the design managers out there, how did it happen for you?
Any advice?



Hi Gerry.

In my experience, companies pay you to do what you can do, not what you might be able to do. It is really difficult to get a position, especially at the management level, if you can not show applicable experience. Sounds like quite the catch 22 I know, but here are a few things you can do that worked for me:

  1. teach for a few semesters as an adjunct at a uni. I worked a deal with my boss when I was a staff designer so that I could have one day a week off to teach. It helped me to develop a leadership style. To command a room full to 20 year olds, direct them, guide them, and tech them is good experience.

  2. get a job as a senior designer in a large company and simply act as a leader. Do this for a couple of years and people there will see your potential as a design leader. Take on extra projects that provide a leadership opportunity. See of you can get involved with HR’s intern programs, new hire orientations, and hitting proccesses. I did all of those things and got to sit in on interviews to see how other leaders interviewed candidates, and got to mentor a lot of other designers. These are all good experiences to draw from and to be able to list.

As with many things, perception is a big part of it.

Hi Gerry - this is a hot topic as we’re moving toward a world of smaller, faster, cheaper, better - successful management of people & projects is a key advantage toward a businesses prosperity.

I, too, was tasked as only a designer for too long and wasn’t given the ability to spread my wings. So, not wanting to switch employers at the time I took the offensive instead (much like Michael says, it is the perception of your strengths that will open doors for you…that ole’ “envision and accomplish” strategy). I observed holes in our development system and watched for weaknesses that weren’t being addressed, people who weren’t getting representation at the table, groups that were being overlooked - that gave me ammunition to convince my boss and HR to utilize me for my biz mgm’t degree by building a team that I could control - the ‘sell’ was that I could unite the dozen or so designers housed in 3 global design centers to find common practices, use common resources, create global departmental data storage, balance workloads across all three groups, etc. None of those ‘hefty ideas’ were being investigated nor did my boss want to mess with it, so they gladly gave me extra work for no extra salary - but little did they know that I knew I could fix what had been broken / overlooked and that the experience was what I wanted, not recognition or money. Two years later the team was a success, I’d hired multiple times to grow the group and it was more efficient and providing more ROI, so I left with the title and experience I needed.

Also as Michael mentions, if your company utilizes interns you’d benefit greatly by organizing and overseeing the process. If your company doesn’t - present to them why they should! Fresh eyes, minimum revenue output, improved community relations, etc.

Give off an air of confidence, provide the perception of authority, grab (or create) opportunities and pave your own road (in somebody else’s company or your own)! Believe and achieve, it’ll work! (no, I did not take a Tony Robbins course, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn express last night.)

Did anybody ever figure it out…chicken or egg? :slight_smile:

I took this route, more or less as Yo has put it except I started as a staff level designer. I don’t have an extra degree in management, but my company has been investing, little by little, in training me with management skills. I’m coming up on 2 years in this position managing 6 designers and have gotten a ton of experience. I think more than anything else though is that this experience has helped me understand things from a management perspective and beyond that what makes for good leaders and crummy ones.

Some great ideas thrown around in this conversation, and I agree, identify problems, issues, or opportunities nobody is paying attention to and take the lead to solve them.

I was trying to avoid getting another designer position elsewhere, as I’ve only been here for two and a half years…but since there is certainly no room to grown where I am (we are 10 in total, out of which 4 are owners/partners), I guess I have no other alternative.
Montreal is a particularly hard city to design manager jobs, as these positions don’t really exist in most companies, but I’ll forge my way there one way or the other.