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Birdie voices: Pencils Down: An intentional move into design management

November 21, 2022
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By Will Thomas, Head of Product Design at Birdie

For many product designers, the reason we found our calling is down to our desire to create. Whether through images, prototypes, or code, we use craft to solve our own problems and the problems of others. For this reason it’s likely that a lot of designers haven’t thought about design management because — in order to do it effectively — there is little time left for craft. This is bad news for design teams everywhere because there aren’t enough designers prepared to lead and manage these teams to success.

But you know what the real kicker is? With just a slight shift in perspective most designers would see they already have the bones of excellent managers, they just don’t know it yet. But we’ll get to that a little later.

As a discipline, product design runs a very broad gamut. From research, discovery, ideation, prototyping, testing, to stakeholder management… there’s a lot to get your head around. When I was a fledgling designer — over a decade ago — I had my mind blown by Ethan Marcotte’s groundbreaking article Responsive Web Design. I couldn’t get enough of this new way of thinking about design, building for phones and desktop computers all at once! When I wasn’t reading how others approached the problem I was either having a go myself, or you’d find me at a local meet up asking others how they did it. I wasn’t asking them how to lead a team. I was focused on craft, and when you’re starting out, that’s a great place to start. And when it comes to craft there’s a lot to get your teeth into, so it’s not surprising that conversations around management and leadership usually arrive too late.

What I wasn’t able to piece together back then, was why I was having so many poor design management experiences myself. I had plenty of design managers that I loved working with, they were excellent crafts people, and I learned a lot just through watching them. However it was rare that my own professional development was on the agenda, to the point where I didn’t expect it from them. I worked with one particular design manager for two years and received as many one-to-ones with them in that time. In the end a project manager I worked with took pity on me and conducted my one-to-ones instead, he didn’t have to but I'm very grateful he did. The problem with almost all my design managers was they were in love with the craft, not the management. Tragically I was in love with the craft too, so that was enough to drive me forward in spite of a lack of guidance. It needn’t be this way.

But why did this happen, why were so many teams lead by designers unwilling to drop their pencils? I believe the answer may have something to do with an idea known as the track system.

When a designer hits a certain level of seniority they have a choice, they can stay in craft — what we call an “individual contributor” or IC — or they can move into management. Which track would you choose? The management track is longer, and you wouldn’t be blamed for expecting the rewards to be greater too. More money, more respect, more responsibility. But ultimately less of what designers really love doing… Designing. But it happens. Designers often take that longer road. Maybe they’ve had the same job title for too long, maybe their team went through a period of unprecedented growth and somebody had to step up to the plate and lead the team forward. There are many reasons why the unwilling make the switch.

But it’s not all bad news, things are starting to change. As product design matures we start to see alternatives to the track system, such as the dual track system, made popular by Atlassian.

As design functions become more and more complex there is an increasing demand for more experienced practitioners such as Principle Designers and Staff Designers. People who can work across multiple product areas, develop processes, and define what quality looks like in an organisation. These are all leadership responsibilities that fall outside of the realm of management, and this means a designer could remain an IC for their entire career. Great news right? Sadly no, this only solves one half of the problem.

With even less incentive to move away from craft, we now have even less design management and that means more unsupported teams. This is only compounded by the fact that many organisations that don’t understand the value of dedicated management want a two-in-one, an IC who can manage. This results in a practitioner who doesn’t have the time to do either effectively and again leads to absentee leadership. Back to square one.

“Design at its simplest is just doing anything intentionally."
Katie Dill - Head of Design @ Stripe

Could a more intentional move into management relieve these problems? If we could accept that putting our pencil down one day could improve our output as a team, would we be more willing to loosen our grip? There are plenty of compelling reasons to be more intentional. The most compelling is that many of a designer’s core skills are directly transferable to management and leadership. All it takes is a shift in perspective…

Will speaking at Design Club about intentional moves into management.

“You no longer design the product, you design the team that designs the product.”

As designers our job is to translate customer needs into value. Now that we’re designing the design team instead, our customer becomes our organisation. So how can a design leader translate organisational needs into value? It’s no different to product design, all our old skills are directly transferable. Book in “user interviews” with department leaders and discuss their successes, pain points, worries, aspirations. Affinity map those observations against other departments, look for patterns. Create “service diagrams” for how departments operate and identify opportunities for efficiencies. Start projects to “Prototype” new teams and processes to demonstrate their value, like guilds and sprint groups.  All the tools we know and love are designed to open up problems and zero in on solutions, designing a team is no different.

If our organisation is the customer, that makes the team itself our product. As with any good product we want to invest in it and improve it over time. We need to ensure it’s performant and making use of the best tech. In the case of a design team that means making sure the everyone is growing, that they have access to the best training, tools, and processes. Think of your team like a F1 team. The designers are your drivers and you know they’re going to drive the wheels off the car, your job is manager is to make sure they have the best car, the best pit crew, the best training, and anything else they need to win.

Probably our most valuable transferable skill as designers is empathy. In order to design truly transformative work we need to understand those we design for. To feel as they feel, to think as they think. As a design manager, if you can open up to your team and be vulnerable it’s quite likely they will do the same for you in turn. It’s only then that your team can give you the candid feedback you need to give them what they actually need, to think and feel as they do.

If you can apply these skills you can identify meaningful work for your team, keep them performant, and keep them growing as practitioners. Product designers already have a lot of the tools to do this very effectively. So for the sake of future design teams everywhere, consider that one day you might put your pencil down so that others might wield theirs with more impact.

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