How to Manage a Design Team: 5 Tips Based on True Stories

Kateryna Mayka

Managing a creative team is challenging, especially for those who’ve just shifted from being a designer to being a design team lead. Burnout and impatience, along with tight restrictions, are only part of the design team's problems. People of creative professions often painfully perceive criticism, they are constantly tormented by doubts, and the muse does not always come to them at the first call. The remote work, which remains in most companies today, only exacerbates the situation.

Still, it is possible to make the work of a design team effective with a competent management approach based on empathy and active participation in the life of employees.

We’ve asked our design lead at Eleken how to manage a design team and what advice he can give to those who’ve just started working their way into a creative lead role. 

As we are going to give you recommendations based on our design lead’s experience, we want to first explain what a design team at Eleken looks like.

Design team structure at Eleken

First of all, it’s important to state that Eleken’s team composition is not a typical one. Usually, when building a design team structure organizations search for:

At Eleken, our team consists of product designers, who are responsible for user experience, visual design, and UX research, and a design lead, who performs a supervising and mentoring role. But we don’t have design team managers. Each of our designers is assigned to a specific project and communicates directly with the client, without any intermediates. This way, we believe there are no misunderstandings during the design process. 

Here’s how the design department organization chart looks like in most companies:

design department organization chart
Image credit: uxpin.com

At our SaaS design agency, the design team organization chart looks like this: 

design team organization chart at Eleken


Now it’s time to introduce Maksym Chervynskyi - our lead user experience designer. Maksym has been involved in UI/UX and graphic design for more than seven years, two of which he has been working as a design lead at Eleken.

Take a look at his main responsibilities:

design lead responsibilities example


Now let’s see what answer Maksym gave us on how to effectively manage a design team. 

Recommendations on design team management

Moving to a new leadership role is not an easy transition. You essentially go from performing your regular design duties to managing and mentoring designers. And in most cases, there is no coach to help you master this new position. 

But don’t feel too stressed, and confused, here are five things to remember when you start managing a design team.

Understand your job

job responsibilities
Image credit: morunda.com

You can’t manage others properly if your own tasks aren’t clearly defined

For sure, there will be a substantial learning curve when starting a new position, especially for first-time managers. But get in there and figure out what you are supposed to do as soon as possible so you can start being an awesome leader. 

Understand that your main responsibility isn’t to design anymore

Instead, your duties are now probably more about project management and client relationships. So take care of the bigger picture and support your designers in their roles. You can monitor a designers’ projects and progress, but don’t micromanage, that is don’t get involved in your team members’ day-to-day tasks.

Remember that your performance isn’t measured by your solo achievements anymore

Now your progress indicator is your team’s achievements. So your job is to inspire your team to do great design work.

Communicate 

one-on-one communication
Image credit: dispatch.m.io

Communicate your role

Tell your team what your job responsibilities are as a manager, on a regular basis. Just like designers give you an update of what they are working on, you should give them an update of what you are working on as well.

Communicate the company goals

Tell your team about company goals and big picture projects. Sharing big plans with employees makes them feel a part of something important. That’s how they become more motivated in their daily work and understand the “why” behind each task.

Speak with your team about potential new clients, profits, and plans for the nearest future.

Communicate issues

If issues arise, you have to communicate in a clear, constructive way. There can be situations when your employees underperform or fail a certain task. Don’t keep silent, talk to your designers. To build a strong team, there's a need to always discuss every single challenge faced by designers. 

As you get to know each designer, you will find the best way to communicate with them. Every individual responds in different ways so have some empathy, and accommodate each employee.

Communicate one-on-one

Speak to each designer one-on-one at least once a month. At general meetings, employees may be embarrassed to talk about problems and bottlenecks that prevent them from providing good results or working effectively as a team.

At individual meetings, you can discuss projects, successes, and failures, give your recommendations and support. In addition, one-on-one conversations are also a team-building tool: after them, team members begin to trust the leader more.

But what if your team is too big, or you are overloaded with different tasks and physically can’t conduct personal meetings each week/month? Here is a recommendation from Maksym:

“At general meetings, when we discuss regular updates, I listen carefully not only to what designers are currently working on, but I also pay attention to each employee’s tone of voice and emotional state. If I feel something’s wrong, for example, a designer seems tired or disappointed, I contact them to have a personal conversation.”

Motivate

how o motivate your team
Image credit: accent-technologies.com

Make your designers feel appreciated, respected, and supported

“My team knows that they can address me anytime with any type of question/issue and find, if not an answer, then at least a piece of advice in which direction to move to find a solution. The least I give my employees each time they come to talk to me is moral support and the opportunity to speak out.” - Maksym says.

Keeping up office morale is a big part of team management. Morale has a huge effect on productivity and general well-being. Low morale can lead to decreased concentration and increased number of mistakes. Also, it can lead to a higher employee turnover rate.

Be your team’s biggest advocate and give them credit where credit is due 

Here’s what Maksym tells:

“There are moments when designers are ready to give up because of complicated tasks they’ve never faced before, or discrepancies in design vision between them and their clients. I never let them think they are not good enough professionals. I say “Try more variants. You will cope with everything. You are doing everything great, just a little more effort. You can do it!” and so forth. I am my designers’ biggest advocate in any situation and they know about it.” 

In general, managing a team is a lot like a relationship: 

  • get to know your designers
  • understand their strengths and weaknesses 
  • help to highlight their strengths 
  • understand their life goals 
  • never stop supporting them

Don't forget about feedback

giving feedback to your employees
Image credit: blog.trello.com

Develop a culture of feedback in your team: don't leave any question unanswered. It is not always easy to share your opinion efficiently. Sometimes, feedback can inadvertently demotivate a designer. Here are some rules to keep in mind when evaluating your designers’ works:

Do not correct, but ask

Before making any adjustments, the manager should ask why the designer decided to do it exactly that way.

Do not use the word "but"

It automatically crosses out the praise in the first part of the phrase. “You’ve done a nice job, but...” Sounds like you didn’t do anything correctly, right? 

Don't put labels on your designers’ works

High-quality feedback is not built on the words “beautiful” and “ugly”. You should always provide arguments.

Here’s a word from Maksym:

“I never tell designers that they’ve created something awful, or that they can’t correctly perform their job. Even if I see that the developed interface looks not that good (such a thing often happens with newbies), I prefer to say that this design is not quite what we need, and then I provide arguments why I think so. As well, I give my employee some advice, in which direction to move to correct the situation.” 

Give designers freedom to make decisions

Limiting a creative person or putting them in a rigid framework is a direct path to burnout and loss of interest.

Do not give direct instructions

“From my own experience, I never try to give people ready-made answers or direct orders. I strive to show them a direction and let a designer come to a solution on their own. And that’s not because I blindly trust people (though I always trust my team), but because independently they usually find unique and interesting decisions, that I personally, would never think about. The ability to make decisions and take responsibility lets designers grow professionally quicker.” - Maksym

Instead of solving the problem yourself, it is better to ask the designer's opinion or give directions for the solution. This will allow the specialist to develop soft and hard skills. To fix the problem in a piece of design, you need to point out mistakes that violate the design principles and let the person solve the problem themselves.

Allow designers to leave projects

To keep designers interested and prevent them from creative burnout give them the opportunity to leave projects. Let your team members know that if they feel devastated and run out of ideas, they can ask you to change the project.

“I feel comfortable working on one project for several years. However, it doesn’t mean all my colleagues feel the same. There are people that get bored and tend to experience burnout after spending four-six months doing the same thing. That’s why at Eleken we try to “leave the door open”, where possible, and let designers quit projects, if it decreases their productivity and emotional state.” - says Maksym.

P.S. Of course it doesn’t mean you have to constantly switch designers from project to project at their first call. This rule works in case you had a one-on-one conversation with your employee and understand that continuing working on the same project is affecting their productivity.  

Final advice for those who just start their work as creative leaders 

Final piece of advice from Maksym:

“Trust your team and do not be micromanagers. That is, don’t control each step of your designers, but rather create such a work environment that would let your employees blossom. Your task as a design lead is to direct people. Give your employees autonomy, but let them know you are always there, ready to help.” 

Your task as a leader is not to give orders, but to create conditions that would give all your team members the ability to develop, improve and strive for better results. All the employees should understand that they work in a safe environment, where they can come to you in any situation and receive the support they need.
To sum up, even though our designers are dedicated to their specific projects, they all collaborate with one another, get their works reviewed by colleagues, brainstorm new ideas, and help each other solve problems and create better solutions. Learn more about us.

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