I never thought I would enjoy being a design manager as much as I do now. Going from the lone wolf designer to the person delegating work and guiding the creative vision was a stark change. I went through a lot of internal debate the moment I was managing my first designer. As my team grew, I tackled a wealth of problems, all while being a hands-on asset to the company. Now that the design team is in a better place and being handed over to a new manager, I wanted to share some of the things I learned along the way.
You have to trust your team
Relinquishing my iron grip on designs was my first major hurdle. The only way I could do it was to believe in the skills and work ethic of my team. Trust came with time and many conversations with them. As I watched how they worked and interacted with others in the company, I could see where they could apply their time most efficiently. As our relationships grew, they learned what I expected of them and vice versa. They wanted a director who can give them career guidance and put them on the right track to achieve their personal design goals. I wanted a team that didn’t need me over their shoulder. That all came with time. With time came the trust we all required to operate like a well-oiled machine.
A design manager must get over your perceived imposter syndrome
For a time, I wondered why anyone would want to listen to me as a manager or mentor. Why would such smart people ask me for advice or guidance? I used this self-doubt to drive my design advancements. I started reading more about fields I didn’t work in like motion graphics or photography. I scoured the net for answers to design questions I didn’t even have. I absorbed the interests of my designers and researched the ins and outs. All in case they asked me a question on an unfamiliar topic. I wanted to be prepared to look knowledgable. What ended up happening was I became more knowledgable, and the queries that came my way were directly related to my experience. And when the questions covered things I knew nothing about, I told them that. Which leads me to my next point.
Communicate and be transparent
There is nothing worse than poor communication when you are a team leader. It leads to mistrust, and eventually people jumping ship. As a manager, I wanted to make sure I told my team everything I knew, good or bad. Especially the bad.
If I didn’t know something, I was very clear that I didn’t. I would, however, point my team in the direction to find answers. Acting like you know a thing that you don’t, or rambling to make yourself sound like you do are tactics people pull when they let the self-doubt mentioned above creep up on them. Be confident in the fact that you don’t know it all and tell your team. They will respect you more for it.
Be the advocate
Be your team’s loudest, most fervent cheerleader. It sounds simple, but it’s even simpler to let your team get buried in unnecessary work, put them in no-win situations and look dumbfounded when things turn out poorly. If your organization is not getting requirements when they need them, respectfully get all up in peoples faces and find those requirements. Celebrate the team’s victories and shield them (as best you can) from the distractions that frequently pop up. I wasn’t always the best at this, no matter how hard I tried. But I tried, and will always try to be my design teams #1 fan and protector.
Get comfy with clients
#1 rule of client relations in the book of Carl. Remember that are people too. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the scope of a project and forget that your clients are just folks trying to get their job done as well. They leave work and have lives just like you. Treat your clients as people and not like a revenue stream. Things will run a lot smoother; not easier, but smoother. Also, communication is critical. Tell them everything you can about the project, both good and not so good. It’s better clients hear good and bad news from you than find out in their travels.
Listen and know when to step in, and when to step away
Sometimes it’s better to be a soundboard for your team. I have listened to designers talk themselves in the right direction more times than I have had to tell them. Speaking through a problem out loud can lead you down the right path after living with it in your head. Then there are other times when you need to point out the flaws and give them all those creative nuggets to get them where you need to be. The key for me is to listen to their problem and ask them all the why’s you can muster.
Foster a fun, creative environment
Don’t be the crazy mean design manager. It’s easy to abuse power and go all design tyrant. The hard part is building a place your designers feel comfortable and safe to explore new ideas and challenge your own. I crafted a small design community around my team in the hopes that they will want nothing more than to work together to solve problems, which is our goal. Little things like random drawing sessions, GIF parties in the team Slack channel, or a simple lunch outing. It all adds up and sets you apart from other organizations that may not make the same effort to foster team bonds. A happy designer will create the most beautiful, most validated products around.
Today I am building a new design team, and I will lean on all my learnings from my previous experience. I hope I end up with as excellent a team as I had before. Let’s hope I have the magic twice.