What does it take to be a great design lead/manager?

Hey guys, so I’ve been thinking about this topic for a little while now.

For managers: what are the things that you’ve done that yield the best outcomes for your teams? What are techniques that worked well? How would you describe your day to day work, and how does that work differ from someone who is an individual contributor? When I say individual contributor, I’m referring to someone who doesn’t manage anyone, and instead works on completing design projects. I know that design leads can also work on completing design projects too, but I’m more interested in hearing about what other stuff you do, and how you have successfully achieved it.

For people who are managed by a design lead: Can you tell me about the best thing(s) your design manager has done for you? What are some things that really helped your professional or creative growth? What about things they did poorly? Are there things that you see design managers commonly doing that you think is bad for your organization or the design team as a whole?

I have been a manager of people for quite some time. My manager thinks I do OK. My associates say the same, but take that for what it’s worth.

My management .02

  1. Exploit strengths - Make it easy for your associate to be a hero
  2. Downplay weaknesses - Why have someone do what they can’t do?
  3. Listen - What does the associate want out of their career? Help them do that. The only caveat is justification, what’s in it for the company.
  4. Communicate to upper management - If your associate is great, let them know. If your associate is not great, let them know and inform them on progress or lack thereof.

Not “designer” specific, but it shouldn’t matter.

I have been managed both by senior designers and professional managers. The best is to make people feel they are doing something important, never playing down their effort even if it seems something tiny. A great manager gives everyone a say and is the one who guides decision making, while keeping everyone motivated to meet rewarding deadlines - since this is generally not what drives designers and why they need managers so drastically.

I second what Ralph says: make people feel like they are doing something important. I think that was the best thing I did as a manager. It even helps to keep the team motivated on the more routine tasks.

The biggest difference between being a designer and a manager is thinking about the big picture. I think design is about fussing the details and triple checking everything. Being a manager means leaving the details for the team to fuss about. The managers that I’ve had from a design background have almost universally struggled with this.

Another thing about big picture is figuring out how to plan for other people. I know how long it should take me to do a render, but as a manager I’m going to have to plan for how long I think someone in the team will need. It’s easier on routine things, but harder on the conceptual tasks (concept development, physical modeling). If you are looking for advice, I suggest looking at kanban from manufacturing. It’s the best philosophy that I’ve seen for ID work.

Last thing that has had an impact both managing down and up is keeping track of KPI (performance indicators). I don’t think I did a good job getting buy in from my upper management, but keeping track of our successes and failures both motivated the team and showed us where we needed to improve. As an aside, I’ve been told that big selling profitable designs that I’ve done were failures by upper management and slow selling cash losers were winners. I can’t think of anything more frustrating than moving the goal posts for the team based on feeling. Accounting has all the data to show you what sells and what makes money. Use the data!

As an employee, I think these are the things that have helped me most:

  1. Managers that didn’t care. It’s counter intuitive, but a manager that doesn’t care will allow you to explore and experiment. I can’t think of a faster way to improve than by doing. In fact, I’ve seen other designers struggle because they were always told how to design. When you toss a project to them that requires they make the basic decisions, they struggle. They have no idea why the last enclosure was PC, because they just accepted it with no understanding.

  2. Managers that managed up to create a safe space for employees. I’ve worked in both safe offices and toxic ones. The toxic ones are a race to the bottom as everyone tries to cover up mistakes and make other people responsible. Nothing ends up getting out, except the steady stream of employees finding new jobs.

  3. Managers that ask why. I never learned from someone telling me the answer. I learned from them asking why I had made a decision. If I didn’t have a reason, I needed to go do some work to support it. Now, I’ve internalized that and it’s always served me well.

  4. Managers who knew when to tell me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I think everyone should be told this once a year during the first 5 years of a career. Mind you, this has to be used rarerly and when merited.

Ralph and Ray. Several points you bring up are great, but they fall in line a specific type of associate and cannot be used carte blanche. I think having global objectives, tailoring to the individual is the best approach. You probably already knew that though.

And the more I think about it, good people management simply aligns the interests of the associate to the interests of the company, and vice versa. The trick is those interests are always changing so adapt or die.

Ray. Would you share some specific KPIs? We have 1-5 years sales numbers, but do you do anything with project progression? How do you quantify day-do-day activities?

This is a super complex question, and really there as many right answers as there are organizations, leaders, and teams. Every org needs something different, ever leader has their own style, and every design team is going to be a unique cast of crazy characters.

That said, here are the “4 P’s” that I always think about:

  1. Philosophy. What are you trying to do, for who, how will you do it and why. It is hard to score if you don’t know where the goal is.

  2. People. Who do you need to accomplish those goals. What are their key characteristics? How can the org chart facilitate adherence to goals? Who is currently on the team and how do their personalities map? What is the succession plan?

  3. Process. Now that you know what you are going to do, who you are going to do it with, how the heck are you going to do it? What is an ideal process, what are the short cuts? What will you stick you your guns on?

  4. Product. Don’t forget you got to design stuff. What are the quick wins? Remember, the point of a process is to get to the destination. If the products are not turning out, the process needs to be tweaked.

Bonus, 5) Communication. Everyone needs to be constantly told what the 4 P’s are, up, down, and horizontally through the org. You should feel like a broken record. My old boss, CDO at Nike, once said, “leadership is saying less things more times” … simple but true.

There are some nuggets in here! Thanks guys.

I especially like : - “I can’t think of a faster way to improve than by doing.”

Most important steps in my view are:

First: Create a common goal (purpose) “Why are we doing it.”
(Can get pretty philosophical (Talk about the big points behind the next goal.)

Second: Create a safe working environment for your team.

Third: Always tell the team the truth.

Fourth: Lead by example.

It is pretty basic stuff: Imagine you are sailing a boat with your team to shores unknown.
What would you do?
What would you expect from every team - member?



Fifth: Say as you do and do as you say.

Sixth: Stay course.

Seventh: Be elastic with your approach, not the course, not the goal.


  1. Simple one is how many projects are completed and how many are active per quarter. I know that this varies on complexity, but you’d be surprised at how much it evens out over 3 years. The value in it is just seeing what your through-put is and how it is changing. It will also give you an indication of if the company is losing focus.

  2. How many projects are successful. Start with asking management what a successful project is. Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s market share. Don’t assume, get somebody to actually say what it is.

  3. Time tracking per project. It’s one thing to know that you’ve completed 6 projects last quarter, but how much time was spent on each? Sometimes there is a “mission impossible” that is stuck in your project backlog. Seeing a KPI show that 30% of your hours are going into something that’s been hanging around for a couple of years can shake the cage a bit and get those projects killed off.

All of these can be further broken down. At my old company we did some knock-offs, re-designs and new to the world products. It’s revealing when you start to see where the successes and failures come from.

One last break down would be where did the idea originate (sales, engineering, design, marketing etc).

Those were my big ones. In a different company, I might add an expenses KPI. In home decor, prototypes are pretty cheap, so it’s not worth tracking. Now I’m working in electronics where functional prototypes can be tens of thousands of dollars, so it is worth tracking.

Wow. Great feedback, everyone. I’ll definitely keep this in mind. As a teacher, I think I have the mentorship aspect of management more figured out than, say, the KPI’s that Mr 914 mentions.

Also, I notice that managers really like numbered lists :slight_smile:


  1. I write a lot of email to Asian suppliers and numbering the list makes it more clear what I need them to do.
  2. People that make lists get things done and less prone to forgetting. Even if their (my) desks are messy.
  3. I have to be careful writing to my wife. These lists make her feel like I’m an angry dictator.

HA! I’ll have to adopt that technique. I’ll let you know how it goes in my KPIs.

Seriously though, are there any books or articles that you guys have read that helped you? Or did you mostly learn this stuff from other people and past experience?

Also, this one may be hard to answer since most of you have always been in design, but are there any things that are specific to being a DESIGN leader (versus other disciplines like marketing/finance/engineering) that you think are important?

I think managing creative people can be a bit extra. :slight_smile:

I’m not big on management and leadership books (I always think you can get everything you need by reading the first and last chapters), but I found the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People really helpful… if I remember correctly there are multiple chapters that focus on lists, so it must be good.

Rework - not really a management book, but I think it describes motivating creative groups

Creative Change - Some tips on how to manage up creativity

Managing the Design Factory - The most analytical of these books. It’s a good summary of managing big creative projects, but from a more engineering perspective. The only frustrating thing is that the author touches upon some techniques, but then doesn’t give enough detail to actually implement the techniques.

I read a few leadership books, but they all boil down to being an empathetic human being.