Being a design manger isn’t that different from being a manager in another type of industry; where you need to be able to lead, inspire, organize, and advocate. However, in the design industry, you’re working with creatives. This means you need to be very familiar with the creative process and how to get the best out of a group of designers with different strengths, skill levels, and aesthetic opinions.
In order to be a great design manager, you need to know your team’s strengths, understand the work, advocate for your team, make room for mistakes, and help your team level up their skills.
What is a Design Manager?
A designer manager is responsible for the project management and deliverables in an agency or in-house setting of graphic designers and other creatives on the design team. Typically, the design manager is the go-between between the designers and upper management. In many cases, the creative director or head of creative will manage the design team; it just depends on the company structure. Depending on the size of the company and the amount of projects there are, there might even be an additional project manager that works with the design manager to prioritize tasks.
Overall, a design manager is there to keep their team on track and to make sure they have everything they need to succeed in the job.
1. Know Your Team’s Strengths
Knowing the individual strengths and weaknesses of your design team is key for allocating projects to the right people and understanding how long projects will take when given to certain people. You might have one designer who is particularly strong with identity design, but not as strong with designing web ads. In most cases, you would give them the identity design projects. Alternatively, you could have them lead a small team on an identity design project so others who are less skilled at it can learn from them.
Being familiar with your team’s strengths is huge for knowing who to give priority projects and how long you can allocate for certain projects. For instance, a skilled illustrator might take a day to do a full illustration, but someone who isn’t quite as good might need a few days to come up with something at the same level.
2. Understand The Work
In regards to managers in general, one of the biggest complaints I hear, even outside the design industry, is people having no idea how long a task actually takes to complete. A design manager needs to be familiar enough with their team and the design process itself that they can give realistic timelines and pushback on anything that is unreasonable. For example, a design manager asking a designer to redesign a logo and present it by the end of the day. I mean, it’s possible to do, but the quality will be terrible and the designer will likely be in panic mode during the whole process.
A number of times I’ve been asked to create designs in such a short amount of time that there really is no time for creative exploration in a visual or conceptual way. When the design was shown to the client, there were always a number of obvious changes that would have been completed before, had there been the time. Occasionally, the idea was rejected entirely, then we would go back to the drawing board. Eventually the project would have taken up more time than it ever would have had we been given a realistic turnaround time.
It is crucial that design managers understand that creativity takes time, and know when to pushback on the higherups that demand things with ridiculous timelines. Even for less creative tasks, like converting a pixelated, old jpg logo to a vector version, for instance, you need to add contingency time to cover any issues that could arise during the project. Sometimes the task of a vectorizing a logo takes longer than you might think because there simply is a lot more to consider. What typeface matches the current one? How do we make the text look the same on an irregular path? What texture should replace the old one that doesn’t reproduce properly when small?
This is especially true when working with new designers who don’t have a clear grasp of their strengths yet and also don’t realize how long tasks take to complete. When I was a new designer I definitely had projects that were considered half-hour tasks that took up half the day instead. New designers are still learning and they need that extra time to do so. Let them learn how to do things properly and well, not just fast.
3. Advocate For Your Team
A big part of being a good leader and manager is paying attention to the needs of your team and advocating for them when it’s needed. For instance, if someone on your team did a lot of work on a project, that work should be acknowledged accordingly. If a team member did something that received no recognition and they come to you with their concerns, it’s important to listen to them. Try to gauge their concerns, and make amends wherever possible.
I once worked with a guy who went above and beyond securing something for our company that was a huge asset for everyone, only to receive no recognition or even a thanks for doing so. He voiced his concerns to me because the manager and CEO at the time hadn’t even thanked him.
Another important part of advocating for your team is making sure they are being compensated fairly. Designers being paid below what they should is a huge issue in the industry. Average designer salaries are still where they were when I started out in design over fifteen years ago. Even if you’re not in charge of what they are making, you should have some say in making sure their compensation is fair.
People work because they need money. If your company doesn’t pay them enough they will go elsewhere.
4. Allow Room For Mistakes
In the creative industry, there are a lot of mistakes and failed ideas. This is normal and happens with any creative exploration. When a team member runs with a bad idea, don’t go at them with criticism. Ask questions, explore why they made a certain choice, and try to understand where they were coming from. Then figure out, together, how to make the concept stronger.
With mistakes like typos, visual issues, or missing information, try to understand why those mistakes happened too. If instructions were given to the designer verbally, consider putting them down in writing next time to make less room for error. If a mistake was passed to the production stage, there needs to be a workflow improvement. Work should be signed off on by the design manager, who checks for errors and makes sure the project fits the creative brief and required deliverables.
5. Help Your Team Level Up
Investing in your team is a huge deal if you want to continuously produce high quality projects. It’s also vital for keeping morale up and lowering turnover; not to mention having a positive impact on the internal brand and culture of the company. What this means is that design managers should be encouraging skills training and the personal and professional development of their team. Send team members to different types of classes, have team subscriptions to SkillShare and LinkedIn Learning, have a design book library in the office, and discuss design techniques and new software updates with the team. Over time, these small gestures can have a huge impact on the mood and skill level of your team.
Ways To Be A Great Design Manager – In Summary
Overall, the best way to be a great design manager is to care about the people you lead. Let them do projects they have strengths in, but also allow them opportunities to learn and grow as designers, and make sure they do so while being compensated fairly.
What do you think is the most important way to be a great design manager? Is it included in this list? Let me know in the comments below!