In 2014 I started my first managerial role, managing the design team at Fuzzco. I always felt like I could be a good boss, but it really tested my limits emotionally and surprised me with the amount of work involved. Here are some things I’ve learned managing small teams of designers.
Trust & Respect
The key to any relationship is trust. This is the same with the relationships we have with the people we manage. If trust isn’t a big part of your management style, I’m confident you’re doing it wrong. The best projects are produced among people with good relationships, who trust each other. People who trust each other can give honest feedback. People who trust each other can communicate beyond words. People who trust each other respect one another enough to understand the effort going into each decision.
I always say, “hire great people, then let them do their best work.” But if I’m honest, it’s not that easy. There are always communication issues to iron out, mentoring to be done, and … lively … discussions to be had. But deep down, when I look at myself as a manager, I really just love helping great designers do their best work. My management style is casual, respectful, it attempts to meet people on their level. We’re all just humans here. Let's hash it out.
(Research ➡ Experience ➡ Interface)
My background in art taught me how to approach critique. You gotta start wide, then narrow in on detail. There’s nothing worse than someone jumping into a first presentation of something and blurting out “I don’t like the font!” 🙄 Relax buddy.
When I first sit down with a designer to give feedback on something, we first lay the groundwork for the discussion. What are we talking about here? What’s the purpose of this feature, where did it come from? Once we’ve defined its source, then we can move onto the juicy designery stuff. If, in this first stage, we discover that we don’t know why this feature is being built or how it fits into the product, there’s more investigation to be done before the 🍊💦 (juice). Honestly, this is where most conversations happen with the most people. This can be the most stressful part because it’s so ambiguous.
After this initial discovery step of finding out why this is being designed, the conversation becomes more narrow. We might then discuss whether this is using the right components from our system, or whether we’re inventing new paradigms? If we’re inventing something new, what’s the cost to benefit ratio of this new stuff. In this conversation we’d probably get into questions about whether these interactions work for real users—is there any precedence for what we’re designing? Maybe even talk about whether the information architecture is clear which would lead to conversation about what the user is supposed to do on this page/site/app/dashboard. Ultimately we’re trying to determine if the information is laid out in a way that seamlessly guides the user to where we want them to end up. If not, it’s back to heads down discovery mode.
Once this stage of the critique is past, only then do we go so narrow to discuss visual design. Are these colors communicating the right mood? Did you use the standard grid, does it make sense how everything is aligned? There could be discussions about whether something should be an h1 or h3 or more generally whether the typography in the layout is resolved at all
Y’all, bring it in, listen…
Working with a good design manager is like having a designer friend you can bounce ideas off of—someone you can trust and respect. After working together, you end up with something better than what you had before. A good manager is focused on enhancing the work of a good designer and maturing and developing, rather than editing or fixing.