I recently started managing designers. It felt weird at first, like starting from scratch in some ways. Or like being tested for an exam you never studied for (we’ve all had that dream, am I right??). To date, I have been evaluated as a designer by the quality of my work and my ability to collaborate effectively with others. I felt like I had clear expectations on what makes a good design. I also knew when I produced good work.
Managing is a completely different skill set (duh, you say) - one with parameters that felt much more vague at the beginning. As someone who likes to measure the impact of my work, how did I know if I was doing a good job? How would I define success? How did others define success for me?
I have a lot yet to learn, but I thought this was a good opportunity to reflect on the past nine months and document a few processes that have been working well so far as a manager.
You are not alone. There are other people who have gone through this process before, and have probably had similar feelings about it. This is a good time to check in with your support system and strengthen relationships! When I first became a manager, I felt a sort of “okay, now what??” moment. I fell back on what designers do best: user research. I began to treat the transition as an excuse to connect with people at my organization and beyond and hear from them about their own transition and priorities.
I made a list of cross-functional people at my organization that I admired and thought I would benefit from speaking with. I scheduled calls and asked the following questions:
I realized I was operating at a different level now. Instead of being embedded on a single product team, I was across teams and working with different cross-functional partners. My day-to-day priorities had changed and my thinking and schedule prioritization needed to change along with it.
The first thing I wanted to do with my team was have a sort of “level-setting” conversation. I held an initial conversation with each of my team members that focused on communication and feedback. I wanted to establish expectations for us both from the start of our new relationship, especially around preferred working styles. Even though we had been working together as colleagues (friends, goobers, buds, you name it) up until this point, our relationship had changed and we needed to get to know each other in a new way. It was a nice excuse to check in and get back to basics.
I asked the following questions in these conversations:
One question that I didn’t ask that I wish I did: Tell me about the relationship you had with your previous manager. Were there any in-progress conversations that I should know about? Are there any initiatives or goals underway that we should continue to work towards?
Oh feedback. So easy to talk about, so hard to do consistently well. I credit my years spent at a creative agency for teaching me to be more receptive to feedback — nothing makes a designer more resilient than saying “thank you for this feedback” to a client who hated your designs, then crying in the bathroom at their office am I right????
In all seriousness, feedback is important to consistently share. It also goes both ways — it is as important for my team’s development as it is for my growth as a designer, leader, and manager. Below are a few tactics I use when providing feedback.
When it comes to design work, I try to regularly provide constructive feedback on my team’s work without micro-managing. Note: this is hard to do and also depends on the 1. relationship you have with your teammate and 2. type of feedback they prefer to receive and when they prefer to receive it. I try to document and be specific about what I liked about the designs and what needs improvement. I learned from my manager (shoutout Scott) to ask clarifying questions about work before providing feedback, instead of immediately jumping into critique mode. I try to first understand what the designer was trying to communicate in the designs before providing thoughts of my own.
Here are a few clarifying questions I’ll ask when providing feedback to my team:
The player-coach mentality refers to a mindset where the designer not only creates the design but also takes on a teaching or coaching role to help others understand and implement it. I’m sure this comes from sports, but I don’t watch sports so I wouldn’t know. Well, if Ted Lasso counts as watching sports, then I’ve learned a lot about player-coach mentality. This can involve providing guidance, feedback, and support to team members or stakeholders involved in the design process.
I’m sure the phrase player-coach mentality comes from sports, but I don’t watch sports. But if Ted Lasso counts as watching sports, then I’ve learned a lot about player-coach mentality. Player coaches [design stuff] but also [teach stuff] which can involve providing guidance, feedback, and support to team members or stakeholders involved in the design process.
I try to pay attention to when to lean in and when to get out of the way. I’ll give my boss more kudos on this front (shoutout Scott). He is a great example of a player-coach. He probably watches sports too, than son-of-a-gun. Oftentimes, he will show us a new trick in Figma that we didn’t know ourselves. He doesn’t overstep and micro-manage our day-to-day work, yet is also able to call attention to an element of a design that should be rethought. He also makes himself available to collaborate with team members and participates in our team design challenges.
I believe this approach started with our VP of Product (shoutout Lucy) and has caught on like gangbusters at Storyblocks. Once a month, I started doing “Keep Doing / Do More Of” sessions with my team, where we each bullet two to three items under each category for the other and talk through them during a 1:1. I love these sessions for a few reasons:
Designers work best in a collaborative environment. As a design leader, I try to foster this culture of learning and sharing by creating opportunities for designers to learn from one another, share their ideas, and provide feedback to one another. This can help generate new and innovative ideas, leading to better work. A few tactics I’ve used include: