Design team

Managing a Design Team: Interview With Seasoned Design Leaders


min to read

Table of contents

The design team is an essential part of any organization's workforce, whether they are in-house employees or an external team. Mainly because their responsibility is to create new concepts or empower existing ones in order to accurately portray a certain product or the company's brand to the general audience.

But having been providing UI/UX design services, for more than seven years without any project manager on board gave us an understanding that admitting the importance of design and managing a design team is not the same and may cause many difficulties and insecurities (and yes, at Eleken we don’t have project managers on our side as we believe our clients and designers should talk to each other directly).

To help those who are about to lead a team of designers for the first time, we talked with experts in the design field who had solid experience in team management, and asked them the following four questions:

  • What do you think is the main responsibility of a design lead?
  • What do you find the most challenging about managing designers?
  • What can you advise those who’ve just started their way as design managers?
  • How does managing a design team compare to being a designer?

Further on, you’ll find tips and insights that will help you discover how to manage a fantastic design team and produce your finest work together.

Marian Fusek, Career & Leadership Coach, Leadership & Design Consultant

After working over 10 years in the design field, Marian took over leadership of the Design Team at STRV. Within two years, he got further promoted to lead the whole Design & Engineering department of 130 people and 13 team managers. Today, he’s a certified Life, Career & Leadership Coach, Leadership & Design Consultant and Design Mentor.

What do you think is the main responsibility of a design lead?

Leaders need to serve the people they lead. It all starts there. Just by mentioning design as a discipline, there may already be a sorting mechanism within ourselves, defining what that specific demographic is and what its needs are. But serving designers is not much different than serving any other profession. So, if the first thing you think about is pushing through that polished design process of yours - well, okay, but no!

For me, the main responsibility of a design lead is a simple understanding that there's a unique individual in every single designer, with their passion for the craft, their ways of learning, getting feedback, working in a team, with a client, and so on. Then it comes down to working, managing and leading them in sync with their ways.

Ask a lot of questions, be curious, create an environment full of energy, potential and mutual respect - the results will be there. Make sure the team is working together. You just have to give them freedom to try.

What do you find the most challenging about managing designers?

While this process can be a truly challenging matter by itself, the other thing that pops in my head is providing the type of design opportunities that make your team fulfilled as the days, months, years go by. The preferences of each individual differ, designers profile their services into specific niches. Saying that, can your company ensure a great project for every designer all the time to really keep them fully engaged?

There are many challenges the leader has to face just because we all constantly change and evolve. As long as you work with the resources you have, provide the best setup for your team, you are set for success. But don't be disappointed with a designer leaving your team every now and then because, simply put, you cannot satisfy everyone at every stage of their lives and careers.

What can you advise those who’ve just started their way as design managers?

Sit, lie down, or go for a walk and think of yourself when you were a regular designer. Ask yourself: if your leader really (and I mean really-really) knew you, how you work, what you love, what gets you going, what brings you energy, what really helps you at times of struggle - how would you work, how would you grow as a designer, how likely would you do something extra, make less mistakes, be excited about every Monday?

You now have people in your team that are just like you from the past. They represent your team every day, they represent you. Do you know them? And I mean, really really know them?

Get to know your team members, get to know yourself and find where the two parties vibe. Teams that vibe will have it easy when getting a product to the next level, staying sane through post-launch madness and covering your back in tough times (you should see my confidence writing this, hehe).

How does managing a design team compare to being a designer?

It goes back to categorizing designers and thinking we are all the same. But Tom is passionate about interactions, Maya about design systems, others about visuals, UX, typography...

I always knew I am a people person. Working with humans is easy for me, I vibe with it (wink). I've been asked many times whether I miss designing more, if I now keep losing track of the newest trends, and the like. Luckily for me, leadership is still design - the design of my team members’ best experience in my team. Designing the right education plan made just for Tom and designing the perfect project setup for Maya… the list goes on.

The purpose of design is to give answers. Make “it” easier for humans to engage with things and each other. So while Tom played with interaction design, I played with team design. Also, stay obsessed with providing the best conditions for your designers and they will share so much with you that you’ll never lose track of the craft or any trends, even if you wanted to.

Richard Strother, Technology and Clarity Coach

​​Richard is about three things: psychology, technology, and human connection. With extensive experience in design, production and technical side in the graphics and print industries, Richard has managed full projects and small teams for other companies as well as for his own agency. His focus has always centered on making information more clear and relatable.

What do you think is the main responsibility of a design lead?

Make sure that everybody is playing the same game. 

Any sport has positions. But why do we need them? Because everybody has got their strengths, and all of us are good at something. As a leader, you’re allowed to switch your team members around, and let them try other things, make mistakes, and develop new skills. This way leaders make sure everybody’s playing the right sport in the right position. And that’s the greatest purpose of a manager/leader: you have to be the one to bring everybody together on that one vision.

You should be like “I trust you guys to do the job, but if you need anything - let me know, and don’t be afraid to come to me. I don’t care if it’s just a joke you want to tell, or there’s some difficulty you face - I’m here for you!”

You know, there are people who are given the leadership title, but they are terrible at managing. On the contrary, there are people in teams (I call them sparks), who have no authority but everybody goes to them. Why? Because they are the leaders. They are the ones who have their fingers on the pulse and know everybody in a team. These people keep the right spirit, the team’s morale. If you happen to have both the title and the spark - oh, wow, your team is going to do some incredible things.

So, make sure everybody in the team is on the same page, working together rather than in silos. You, as a manager, don’t have to just split tasks. Your team members are all experts in what they do, and what you as a manager want to see at the outcome requires the skills they all have. The more they learn from each other, the more you get new ideas and innovations. And you don’t have to pay more for that, you just have to give them the freedom to try. 

What do you find the most challenging about managing designers?

Scheduling is tricky. 

Designers tend to be artistic folk, and designers tend to be big personalities, especially when we’re talking about timetables and scheduling. And that can get very tricky because, as a design manager, I need to know at what point in their work my team members are and I need my designers to keep me in the loop. I’m like “I have no problem if you are a day behind schedule, just tell me where you’re at, so I can move to the next stage”. And some of the designers are terrible at it. Absolutely terrible. They are just like students that wait until it’s the last minute before an exam. 

You need to make sure the designer you’re accountable for is good at communicating. You don’t want to chase your designer, right? You have to build this relationship on trust. You need your team to understand you’re not just a guy who gives them a contract, you’re in this together. It’s really about keeping in touch: “I’m not going to tell you how to do your job or check your every step, but don’t leave me in silence.”

Money can be tricky too. That’s why I need to be very clear about my expectations. I don’t pay for designers’ hours, I’m paying for a result, so I need it good and I need it on time. Am I willing to flex a little? Am I willing to adapt to the designer’s style? Yes. So, to resolve the money issue, you have to have a really good work agreement, with clear expectations. In that case, designers will understand what needs to be done, and you’ll understand what you’re paying for.

What can you advise those who’ve just started their way as design managers?

  1. Make sure that you’re organized, well-centered and know your role. You should know what your designers have to do and should be always focused on the outcome. Our entrepreneurs have a terrible habit of “I have to do everything myself”, while the best skill the design lead has to get good at to survive and thrive is delegating. They have to learn to say “I can do that, but out of the six tasks I have here, there are two that only I can do, because it requires the information that only I know, and so on.”

Imagine an office where one person tries to be a receptionist, a boss, and a worker. It doesn’t work. You hire the receptionist because they can take the phone calls, and filter them down to the messages the worker has to deal with. The worker, from their side, goes to the boss for the one or two things on that list that only the boss can cope with. That way everybody has a respective amount of work and you’re not trying to do everything yourself.

  1. Learn to communicate what result you expect to see and stay objective-focused. You should have impeccable communication skills because you need to be able to tell your designers what it is that they’re going to do, and what you expect from them in return. And you really have to be focused on what the outcome is. You shouldn’t care how your designers got to that outcome, with Photoshop or whatever. You just need to be specific about what you need as a final result and bring that one vision to the whole team.
  2. Say “thank you” to your designers. Simple phrases like “thank you for your work”, “I love how you handle this”, or “have a good evening”- such little interactions can go a long, long way. The team will be ready to make that extra step for you when they know they are appreciated. Let your people know they matter and that will make a huge difference.
  3. Don’t become best friends with designers. Don’t get me wrong. Have good relationships, but the problem with friendship is that it may become a manipulation point. I don’t want to make people feel bad, but if you screw the contract, I’ll have to tell you about it: business is business, and friendship is friendship. So if you are about to work with a friend, make sure to sign a contract which says what you expect, what is to be delivered, when, how much (full stop). No exceptions.
  4. Treat your designers well. Working with designers, you’re not curing cancer or solving world hunger, like, you’re not solving the great problems of our time. That doesn’t mean your work isn’t relevant, to you and your client - it is, but if a designer turns to you and says “look man, something happened in my family, I’m going to be a few days late with my tasks” or “I need help”  - that’s not a problem. I have no problem calling a client and saying that due to certain circumstances we ran into some delays, and this is how I foresee the timeline changing. Remember that a missed deadline isn’t the end of the world, so stay human to your teammates.

How does managing a design team compare to being a designer?

Being a good designer doesn’t make you a good manager. Management is its own skill. Well, a good designer with the right skills makes a good manager, but good designers usually want to do everything themselves. And being a design manager means that you’re no longer a designer, you trust others to do the job, and you’re in charge of making sure that they perform well and work towards the same goal.

Imagine you’ve got the best accountant, and you put them in charge of other accountants. They no longer perform the accounting job and, most probably, they’re going to fall into one of two traps:

  1. They will be like “Never mind, I’ll do it all myself because I know how to do it.”
  2. They’re just going to do the job and then get caught in the middle between whoever is about them and the team where they are not actually managing anyone.

Your job as a manager is to protect your team and make sure your designers have everything they need, I mean not only the resources, but also the healthy environment, to make their lives easier and their work pleasant.

Finally, here is also a statement about the difference between managers and leaders: managers ask you to do work, and leaders ask you to give them results.

Maksym Chervynskyi, head of design at Eleken

Maksym has more than 8 years of experience in UI/UX and graphic design. In 2018 he started his career in Eleken as a UI/UX designer and was promoted to senior user experience designer and then to lead user experience designer within 2 years. Now Maksym’s responsibilities include leading a team of user experience designers, participating in hiring and evaluation processes, supporting and mentoring junior designers, as well as sharing knowledge and expertise with the whole team.

By the way, there’s a separate article in which Maksym shares his experience of being a product design manager.

What do you think is the main responsibility of a design lead?

The main responsibility of a design lead is to do everything in your power to provide your designers with the most suitable and comfortable work conditions that would allow them to deliver high-quality results. 

I mean, you have to create a safe environment that will foster professional and self-growth. This includes giving your team access to relevant knowledge, teaching them to find actionable design solutions on their own, helping them master new skills, and giving them a sense of support, no matter what challenges they face.

What do you find the most challenging about managing designers?

The most challenging is to learn to trust your team and their ability to create cool things. It’s quite complicated to stop giving your designers ready-made answers every time they face some difficulty, but to let them search for a solution on their own. 

If you watch each of your designer’s steps and think you know better how to create a great user interface, you don’t give your team members a chance to improve and develop their own design style.

So, every time you want to “slightly” modify your designer’s idea - get over yourself, stop micromanaging, and let the team unleash their creativity and feel the responsibility for their work. Be ready that their solutions may differ from what you expected to see, but that doesn’t make them poorly made. 

What can you advise those who’ve just started their way as design managers?

Trust your team and let them know you’re available to help at any time. That means, on the one hand, the conditions you create should give your designers freedom of action, but on the other hand, your team should understand that you serve as their lifeline and that they are never left alone with their problems.

You should be the epitome of stability for your people, someone who is always on their side ready to lend a helping hand. They make independent professional decisions, but know that they can turn to their design manager, if necessary.

How does managing a design team compare to being a designer?

Being a designer means that you have your individual daily tasks to complete: you’re the one to make decisions and choose methods you like to come up with the solution. Being a design manager means that you have to delegate all the responsibilities to your team.

And again, it’s all about trust. Your role is to clearly communicate what you expect to receive, but believe that your designers’ individual decisions will result in a great outcome without your constant involvement (in fact, the result may happen to be much better than you expect). And it shouldn’t matter to you what path they chose to deliver that outcome.

Of course, you can teach junior designers your own methods of work, but in the end, each team member will have their own unique approach. And that’s what stands behind the professional development of an individual employee, a team, and consequently, the whole company. Diversity of design talents doesn’t let your business stand still and allows you to create truly innovative products. 

To sum up

All the interviewed experts gave us a lot of food for thought (kudos to Marian Fusek, Richart Strother, and Maksym Chervynskyi). Even though all of them have their unique experience in managing design teams, we can see some common thoughts that repeat throughout the whole text no matter who comments on the topic. This way we can distinguish the three pillars of a successful design team management and they are trust, freedom of action, and taking care of each individual designer.

  • Trust your designers as the experts that know how to do the job.
  • Give them enough freedom to create, experiment, make mistakes and consequently bring more innovation to your company.
  • Remember that all your designers are individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, problems, and desires, and treat them accordingly. Create a safe environment for each worker and watch your team grow and thrive.

And if you are looking for a trustworthy and dedicated team of designers for your SaaS product, extend your team with Eleken.

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