So You Think You Want to be a Manager

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“Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.”

When I made the shift from designer to manager, I had no idea how to make the transition nor did I have anyone to guide me through the changes to my role. I didn’t know that to be a successful design manager I had to change more than my title; I had to change my mindset and look at design differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but, thankfully, I have had staff who have been very forgiving as I have grown into the role of being a manager and a leader.

With that in mind, I want to share some tips and thoughts about managing that I wish I had known as I made the move from one aspect of design to the other.

You can’t design anymore

Big surprise. Just as you get to a point of comfort and expertise as a designer, you are promoted to a manager—right out of the role you are really good at—into a role you know nothing about. Now other people do the design, but they look to you for guidance. As a manager, a big part of your job is to delegate and early on, it will be hard. It will take longer to explain a project or task to an employee than just doing it yourself, but you have to remember that your job is not to do, but to guide. It’s uncomfortable and awkward at first, but that goes away with time.

I had a great employee early on (an individual I considered a peer) who would question any project or task that I took on myself, and ask, “Isn’t that something you should or could delegate?” As a new manager, I kept forgetting that I didn’t have to-and shouldn’t do-all the work myself. Every time you sit down to do a task, ask yourself, “Can this be delegated?” “Is someone else on my staff better equipped to do this?” “Would this exercise be a great growth opportunity for someone on the team?”

Giving orders is costly

As a designer, you are responsible for all the little pieces and all the big decisions that go into producing a successful solution. You had a specific way of working, and that process made you successful as you moved up and gained experience. Now this is all out of your hands. You must cede control over all these little decisions and think about the big picture.

As a manager, you must remember that your way of working is not the ONLY way of working. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling someone HOW to do her job rather than offering guidance and feedback on the outcome of the work or to create the vision and space whereby your team can succeed. If you micro-manage your team, they will resent you. They won’t learn and grow, you won’t learn and grow, and you will see a turnover rate that isn’t healthy for the business. Remind yourself of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

You are always sending a message

It’s hard to let go of the design work, but you have to remember that employees look up to you for guidance and a framework within which to do their work. You empower them to be successful and to do great work. They can learn from you. But it is also important to remember that they bring their own experience to the table and they may just teach you something new if you let them. Let them teach you.

A good manager lets go. It isn’t about CONTROL. Success is about giving your team the space to be brilliant. Your job is to create that space and to deflect and filter the distractions that could create roadblocks.

Shaping careers

As a designer, you are responsible for advancing your own career. No one is going to do that for you. As a manager, it is part of your responsibility to help your design staff craft and grow in their careers. Even though I just said the designer is responsible for her own career, many often float from one job to another without thinking about actively shaping it. Despite that, designers can be poked and prodded and guided into taking that responsibility.

Ambitious people will already be doing this, but other folks will just muddle along without thinking about where they are going, or how this job moves them to the next or the one after. They need to be thinking about what will they be doing in five years, and you can help them craft a plan to get there. Of course, decisions such as projects, conferences, and training should line up with both the company and employee goals.

In addition to quarterly and yearly goals aligned to the business goals, I ask my team to also develop personal goals that help them to continue to grow and contribute back to the team. Additionally, I challenge them to think about their five-year goals, then partner with them to make choices and provide opportunities and projects that can help them achieve those goals. This is important because you want your team to stay fresh and continue learning. I believe this curiosity and desire rolls back into the work.

You are still designing

When you practice as a designer, you are solving a client’s problem, fleshing out an interaction to address a user task, or creating a communication vehicle for a message. When you practice as a manager, you influence these things but you also are designing something different. Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.

Just as you need to understand the media you work in as an individual contributor, you must understand personalities, temperaments, skill sets, and other factors about the people you have to work with. That understanding is critical to put together a good functioning team that will be successful together as well as individually. I find this aspect of design to be quite challenging as well as rewarding. When one of my teams creates a great design that they are happy with, our users are happy with, and the other cross-functional teams are happy with, and the process was smooth, then I know I have done a good job in my design role.

Managing versus Leading

So you are asking yourself, do I want to go into management? Is this the only way to move ahead in my career?

The answer is no.

You can move into very senior individual contributor roles. Many organizations have principal designers or design strategy roles that allow individual contributors to have an impact and affect business and product design at a broad, sweeping, strategic level without actually having to manage people.

You can be a team lead or an art director and lead a team and design projects without actually having to manage the other people on the team. In these cases there is sometimes project management in terms of setting expectations and milestones and providing design feedback as necessary, but not direct people management.

Managing versus Leading

No this is not déjà vu. It’s important to remember that as you move into a management role you are actually accountable for a couple of different facets of the job.

You need to be a manager-managing projects, schedules, people, careers, and so on. You also need to remember that you are a leader. You are leading this group of people you manage, and you need to remember that leading is done through example and by having vision and strength. This is the hardest part of the job.

Sometimes it is a lot easier to just manage the day-to-day, push the papers, write reports, and go to meetings than it is to really lead the team and have a vision that inspires them to do their best work. It’s harder to inspire people to rise above the crap that often accompanies us in the real world of work.

Keeping sight of what success looks like, creating the space for brilliant work, and inspiring your team are all part of what it takes to be a leader. It also means making hard decisions based on what’s right for the business and the overall company vision. Sometimes your team might not like those decisions, but it’s important to help them understand the context behind the bigger picture. Sometimes it means standing up for the right thing, for the product, or user even when your boss or other executives don’t agree. It’s important to back your team up and stay true to your ethics.

You can be successful in the most challenging environments, and you can nurture a talented and successful team.

In the end…

It is important to realize that you can progress in your career without ever having to manage people. And that’s OK—lots of people do it and are very successful. But if you do decide to make the move, do it consciously and thoughtfully and with as much grace as you approached your role as an individual contributor. Remember the advice I have shared, seek out your own mentors, and embrace the ambiguity and discomfort of your changing role. It will reward you significantly in the long run.


Also check out “Three Pronged Fork” to learn more about career choices.


  1. I recommend reading Tom Peters’ “Professional Service Firm 50”. Great little book on how to be an outstanding service firm as an in-house department. Lots of good ideas and inspiration for anyone who manages a creative group.

  2. Erin,

    Very grass root level points here. I fundamentally believe that the organizations must provide both dimensions of a growth path – horizontal and vertical. Horizontal being where one remains an individual contributor and growth comes from increasing area of influence to handle more and more complex challenges and verticle where one grows through management ranks. I have not seen that in many organizations though.

    Also, leadership is independent of role and title, one does not need a team to be a leader. Leading is about leading onself as much as it is about leading a team.

    very relevant article!

    Alok Jain

  3. Erin,

    What I like most about this very thoughtful and insightful article is that I know first-hand that you are walking-the-talk with your team. I hear about your guidance, inspiration and guru-ness, especially after a staffer has just emerged from a 1-on-1 with you.



    (Sarah Browne, Redmond Browne Research Group)

  4. Erin-

    Nice job describing the ethos of becoming a successful manager of design professionals. While I agree that the primary objective of a manager is to delegate work and provide opportunity for staff members, I also fnid tremendous value in continuing to work on a diverse cross-section of projects as a contributor. The key is to make sure that management tasks and objectives are met before rolling up your sleeves.

    It’s also important not to “cherry-pick” taking the most interesting or high-profile projects away from your team members. If you are going to step on the field of play, try to do so as a role-player, delivering great design (as you should) why learning about the process of design and the corporate culture from a first-hand perspective.

    This is a technique that is proven to be effective by companies that require all staff members to periodically work in the company call center, getting customer feedback first-hand and learning about the challenges of after-market support. The investment company Vanguard requires everyone to participate in what they call “Swiss Army”, from the CEO down to the entry-level staff. It’s become a keystone of the corporate culture.

    I would also add a couple suggestions to your article. The first is to dedicate more time than you ever did before to reading and attending industry events. A big part of leadership is constantly expanding your professional vocabulary.

    Thanks for posting such a well-crafted article.

    Dante Murphy

  5. The timing of this article is really great, so thank you. Our company is growing and we are constantly bouncing between hiring managers from within and hiring outside people who have “chops” that their soon-to-be reports will respect and admire.

    “You are still designing” is right…only what you design is shifting. For those of us who have the generalist’s curse, and know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a focused area; sometimes management is the best path. A lot can be said for having a very candid conversation with an internal candidate about what gets them going every morning. Is it the design, or the design process? Is it the work, or the collaboration and your ability to inspire it? We’ve found that only by having these conversations can you create an environment where people feel like they’re advancing their skill focus or their skill breadth.

    Thanks for this article. I’ll be sure to pass it along.

  6. Like teachers managers have another responsibility…inspiring (removing the obstacles from your contributors so they can succeed)…

    “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William Ward

    Erin, Great article. All of the points are relevant in many aspects of one’s life not just in a work environment. Thanks!

  7. Great article Erin! I too remember the days when I switched from being an individual contributor to managing a design team.

    One other comment I’ll make is that as design manager in a corporation, your job is to push forward the design strategy of an organization in a unified, cohesive fashion (this is less true in an agency where your team members are working on projects for many corporations). This can be extremely hard, given that designers are typically half-artists and artists tend to sway toward individual work and less so towards the cohesive whole. You may find yourself trying to bring a bunch of individualists along the same path, when they are itching to break onto their own side paths!

    Heavy handed management can be successfully employed by some design managers, meaning “You’ll design my way, which is the company way since I’m boss, or it’s the highway.” But this can lead to dissatisfaction among the team members and ultimately a high turnover rate.

    I would recommend another way. This would be setting constraints and expectations as early as possible, and then employing the concepts in your section, “Giving Orders is Costly.” By early as possible, I mean that during the hiring process you need to let potential hires know clearly that they will be designing to the corporation mission and their ability to express themselves individually will not be the way, but also emphasizing that there is still room for creativity within the corporate mission. Then, you should create and employ design standards which are approved by the organization as a template within everybody operates, and hopefully is flexible enough to let creativity flourish as well. The design standards will set everyone clearly on the same path thereby releasing you as manager of the headache of dragging everybody onto the same path, and they are free to walk the path in an individual fashion, and also the way you help manage it.

    Last note: A word on creativity: designers are creative by nature; to deny that is to deny that part of their DNA which is natural and essential to their well-being. Creating constraints, such as design standards, which leave almost no room for creativity will have the opposite effect and produce a dissatisfied design team just like if you were to employ the heavy handed method of design management. Find ways to leave flexibility in the design standards for creativity and teach and encourage people to be creative in a constrained environment, even when they think they are being handcuffed by the standards.

  8. Nicely done, Erin. It’s an important topic that many of us find ourselves in at one time or another. Often it’s not that we want to be managers; we end up having to become managers, whether it’s because of a promotion path or need for a new job with higher salary.
    A lesson I learned in Chicago years ago as a manager of a small team came from my great boss, the VP of development. He said, “As a manager, you don’t get to do the fun stuff.” Instead, you have to delegate, you have to mentor, you even have to let people fail.
    I would also postulate that being a manager and being a leader are even more distinct than you make it. Rare is the person who’s adept at both. Too, most companies really want managers, even though they bloviate about wanting leaders. Manager wrangle resources; leaders inspire people.
    Thanks much for this article!

  9. Hi, Erin.
    Your article seems spot on in my situation– I know I’m good at something but I have to step aside because I’m called for things for a “higher purpose.” I miss designing and I’ve only been on the job for a few months. Your article, in some ways, allays my fear that I’ll never be good at what I’m doing.

  10. Its great to get the message out that you don’t have to be a manager to progress and grow in your career. So many people think that you have to be a manager to get paid more, recognized by an organization, etc.

    Another point people should also know is that the path of a manager or an ic (individual contributor) for that matter, is not fixed. At different points in your career there is nothing stopping you from moving back and forth between the roles. This is especailly true for the dynamic places that we work in today.

  11. Great article! And the reality is that one has to live through being a first time manager to recognize the importance of some of the points made. Sometimes we may think we’re letting go when we’re actually controlling more than we should.

    I agree with Dante’s point that in many organizations one can be a manager on one project and a contributor on another. Sometimes that’s a good way to balance the urge to design and the interest in leading a team or an initiative. Other companies don’t necessarily allow for that. Personal projects are also one way to stay in touch with actual design!

  12. Yes, really good article Erin. I have recently had to experience the reality of going through this trasition and have found it to be a welcomed challenge, albeit a little frustrating. Taking to helping other designers grow and learning to lead and inspire has been a great part of this transition. The difficulty isn’t always managing my employees but the act of managing the other managers and being sometimes caught in the middle.

  13. Erin,

    Thanks for a well thought-out and supportive article. I’m a writer but in my business I’m responsible primarily for running it, which means a LOT of delegating, not just to other writers but designers and other creatives. Curiously, I project manage as well as produce, although now I am really trying hard to delegate the project management role to someone else on our team, b/c the workload has simply become overwhelming. So a lot of what you say rings very true, and I appreciate your having taken the time to write this piece.

    I thought I would add a little from my own experience… it’s not just about the right attitude and people management, it’s also about having the right tools. In our company, for example, we do print design, web design, photography and communications. So on a daily basis we handle very disparate and diverse projects. About a year and a half ago we were desperately looking for some kind of online project management system that would enable us to track time and our work properly. After several failed trials with a number of application we found it — Intervals ( — and have never looked back since. I have to admit one of the main reasons we love it is b/c it’s designed so well! But in all seriousness… it’s helped us pull our team together and pull out a fair amount of billable hours we would have otherwise lost (as in, not even known they’re billable).

    But the trick there is not to let the tool take over your life, either… you still have to keep the person front and center and not treat him or her like a mere resource. That’s where the human element comes in, and you’ve captured that quite well.

    So, again, thanks so much for taking the time to write this — I’ll keep an eye out for your other pieces!

    All the best,
    Birgitte (writer turned producer)

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