The not-so-dark art of design management

As a young designer, I thought managers were like Gandalf: mysterious wizards who spent their days orchestrating important matters in the shadows. Every now and then they’d pop by to check if I needed rescuing, but for the most part I’d slog along on my own.

So when I had the opportunity to take on a management role, I was baffled. What did managers even do? When I asked around, I mostly got vague descriptions like, “You’re unlocking the creative potential of the organization.” Inspiring? Maybe. Helpful? Not at all.

Having now managed design teams at multiple companies, I can confidently say that management is not a dark art. Rather, it’s a role with specific responsibilities.

What is a manager, anyway?

Picture a restaurant during rush hour. If we take a look in the kitchen, we’ll see a bunch of people chopping, stirring, and running about. The chef is the manager of the kitchen and her job is to make sure her crew makes the right food, quickly, with high quality. She does this by hiring the right people and helping them work together to deliver great results.

As Head of Design at PlanGrid, my job is similar to that of a chef. But rather than cooking the perfect meal, we’re crafting great user experiences.

What types of work do managers do?

The work of a chef is different from the work of her crew. Each member of the crew is focused on specific projects, like chopping vegetables or cooking on the grill. The chef plays a different role — she’s hiring, delegating, checking quality, solving problems, and ensuring everything is running smoothly.

Similarly, the work of a design manager is very different from that of a designer. Here are five areas where I spend the most time:

1. Hiring

At the end of the day, I’m responsible for what our team delivers. When things go well, my team gets the credit — but when things go wrong, I’m the one who takes the blame. So it’s incredibly important to build the right team.

One of the first things I did at PlanGrid was to spend time with each team member; both to understand their strengths, and to find out where they wanted to grow. I also looked for broader gaps where we were missing critical skills. For example: I discovered that we didn’t have enough designers to cover all of our projects, and we didn’t have strong user research expertise on the team.

I used that information to create a hiring plan. I worked with my boss to get approval to open several Product Design roles and a UX Researcher role, wrote job descriptions, and trained our recruiting team to look for great candidates.

Today, I spend a lot of time meeting with people across the design community both formally and informally. I genuinely enjoy hearing about people’s journeys, what inspires them, and where they want to grow. One of the hardest things is that I meet so many wonderful and talented people, but they aren’t always the right fit for the current roles and gaps we have on the team. Even when there isn’t that perfect match, I try to help where I can by offering advice or making introductions. That’s not technically part of my job but I see it as part of being a good “design citizen.”

When we do find the right person for our role, I work closely with them and our finance teams to put together a compelling offer. Assuming all goes well, I partner with our HR team to make sure they have a great on-boarding experience and are set up for success from Day One.

2. Coaching

Great managers don’t just hire great people and then sit back and hope everything works out. They create the space and support for their team to succeed. Here are a few ways I approach coaching:

  • Weekly “one-on-ones”: Every week I meet with each teammate for at least 30 minutes. This is a great opportunity to hear what’s on their mind, where they need help, share feedback, and more.
  • Goal setting and growth plans: I’m a big believer in having teammates set their own goals and OKRs. I see goals as a commitment between employer and employee: if my teammate has a goal to speak at a conference this quarter, then she is going to do her darnedest to make that happen, and I’m going to do my darnedest to help support that. When your teammate is working hard to learn and grow, everyone wins.
  • Performance feedback: Everyone, even the most amazingly talented person, has areas where they can grow. As a manager, it’s my responsibility to understand how my teammates are doing and have honest, frank conversations about their performance. Performance reviews are documents that get written a few times a year; performance feedback happens every single day.

In addition to working with teammates one-on-one, I also help to build skills across the team. This might look like bringing in a trainer to run a workshop, or sending people to a conference or class. My favorite approach is to ask a teammate to share their expertise about a topic with the rest of the team. For example, one of our teammates recently led a workshop about OKRs, and another gave a lesson on how to create Windows icons. There is so much that we can learn from one another, and this helps the “teacher” to grow their own coaching skills.

The PlanGrid design team making dope art.

3. Strategy

What separates a good team from a great team is having the right strategy.

A good strategy is a carefully researched and well designed action plan designed to meet a challenge.
— Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

Crafting this requires having organizational awareness, a deep understanding of the team’s strengths and opportunities, and an an inspiring vision of the future.

When I joined PlanGrid, I met with designers, members of other departments, and the leadership team to understand the current strategy and goals. Then we held a design offsite to talk about our team’s strengths, opportunities, and vision. This helped us create a set of initiatives to focus on throughout the year, and to ensure our work is aligned with the bigger picture. We continue to refine our plan as we encounter new challenges along the way.

4. Quality

Designers play a unique role in upholding the quality of the user experience, and as a design manager I am responsible for setting and articulating a certain bar of quality. Fortunately I have a great team to help me do that! Here are a number of things we’ve done at PlanGrid to raise the bar on design quality:

  • Design critiques: The whole design team meets every week to share andcritique one another’s work. This helps each designer strengthen their craft and deliver great designs, while also creating a shared understanding of what we define as high quality.
  • Design QA: When designers are involved in the development process, it helps to raise the quality of the experiences that we ship. At PlanGrid, we are experimenting with different ways to provide design input throughout the development process, from Lean UX to attending QA-led bug bashes.
  • Design system: We are building a design system to help clarify our principles, style guides, components, and more. This makes it easier for us to design high quality experiences and is also a great tool for educating our non-design peers about quality and consistency.

Creating a design system and component library to increase design quality.

As a manager, I also set clear expectations around quality:

Being a successful designer doesn’t just mean delivering great mockups — it means shipping great product.

This expectation is a two-way street. It means that a designer’s performance is tied to the quality of the work that their team ships. It also means that I’m there to support them if they’re pressured to ship 💩 to meet aggressive deadlines.

5. Communication

Communication is one of my most important responsibilities. I’m very much on the manager schedule where much of my day is spent in meetings, one-on-ones, and informal hallway conversations. That’s not time wasted; it’s time spent gathering information, synthesizing it, and using it to inform decisions.

My teammates also need to make informed decisions, so I err on the side of over-communicating. When I’m in meetings, I take copious notes and share highlights with teammates afterward as relevant. I also hold a weekly design team meeting where I share a well-prepared TL;DR of information I’ve collected throughout the week. I encourage people to ask questions, and when I don’t know the answer, I do my best to figure it out.

I also help people outside of the design team understand what we’re doing and why. This includes highlighting projects that we’re working on, talking about staffing, and explaining what designers do and how we fit into the broader organization. This also includes finding opportunities for designers to be able to share their work, such as inviting them to present to executives or at an all-hands event.

How do managers spend their time?

Every team is different

A manager’s areas of focus can vary across teams and organizations.

There have been times when I’ve managed small teams as a “player-coach”: spending part of my time managing, and the other part doing hands-on design work. Given the limited hours, I spent most of my management time on teammate check-ins and reviewing design work. My manager filled many of the gaps around hiring, strategy, and communication across the broader design team. My schedule looked something like this:

A typical player-coach manager schedule

There have been other times where I’ve managed larger teams and spent 100% of my time managing, without personally doing any design delivery. At PlanGrid, my time look more like this:

A typical full-time manager schedule.

As I learn more about my teammates, their skills, and where they want to grow, I also delegate certain responsibilities. For example, I’ve asked our Design Lead to run point on certain Quality projects. This plays to his strengths while giving me more time to focus on hiring and strategy.

Every day is different

The needs of my team are ever-changing, which means I’m constantly monitoring and adjusting my priorities to match. One day I might be focused on hiring and interviews, while another I’m dealing with a tricky HR situation. There’s a seasonality as well: performance reviews, roadmap planning, and budgeting all require attention at different times in the year.

Should I become a manager?

Design management could be for you if:

  • You want to scale your impact beyond yourself
  • You love helping people grow and do their best work
  • You’re deeply empathetic and a strong communicator

Still not sure? Try working with your manager to take on a low-risk opportunity, such as managing an intern or contractor. This is a great way to learn the basics of management while allowing for a graceful exit if you find that managing just isn’t for you.

The reality is: you do give up certain things when you go into management. I haven’t touched Sketch in months, my notebook has more meeting minutes than wireframes, and I can’t remember the last time I ran a user test. However, I find so much joy in managing — helping people grow in their careers, do their best work, and accomplish big things together — that it makes it all worth it.

Learn more

Here are some management resources to help you on your way:

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