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Leadership

Managing Designers When You Aren’t One

When you create for a living, so much of yourself is embedded into the work. Managing creatives is to hold someone’s essence in your hands. You need to handle it with great care by showing respect and understanding what their work means to them.

One of the places I’ve been trying to grow professionally is taking on more speaking engagements. When I think about speaking, a giant wave of imposter syndrome washes over me, but then my other, higher self takes over, and I fill out the form.

This time the challenge was the Women in Tech conference. My LinkedIn had been bombarded with requests to submit a speaking proposal. I took some time thinking about what I would want to share. Then it hit me – I manage a designer even though I’m not one. I have a lite version of Photoshop that I’m not allowed to use. But I love, love user experience and user interface design and could talk about that for hours.

In one way or another, I’ve been managing creatives’ needs for more than 20 years. 

I have won, and I have lost. I have been hasty and hurtful, but I’ve also been patient and understanding. 

When you create for a living, so much of yourself is embedded into the work. Managing creatives is to hold someone’s essence in your hands. You need to handle it with great care by showing respect and understanding what their work means to them. 

When you create for a living, so much of yourself is embedded into the work. Managing creatives is to hold someone’s essence in your hands.

As a leader, you need to help them reach for the best possible solution while keeping all the reality – business, revenue, timelines, dependencies –  in focus. It’s challenging work, but absolutely work worth doing because it matters to your company – of course – but also matters to your people.

WHY IS MANAGING DESIGNERS SO HARD?

Well, like a lot of problems we face at work, it starts with empathy.

Maybe you don’t fundamentally understand the work – I mean, when was your last art class?

Sometimes our designers can be delicate about their projects or decisions. That can lead you down a tricky road – do you hold your tongue, so you don’t set them off? Or do you say everything in hopes that you break them of this bad habit? Neither work, really. 

You need to figure out why they feel defensive or frustrated. Very often, it’s a failure of leadership or process that causes designers to turn rude

The details matter to designers – the text, color, space. These details may feel trivial at first blush to a non-designer but they are the building blocks of your user experience. The padding and font size are a part of what makes technology work for humans. 

Sometimes a project you think is simple could turn into a surprise game of 21 questions.

With all those questions and specifics, seems that design doesn’t make things better. Maybe it just slows everything down! You might be tempted to visually solve on the fly or go around design. Ask for forgiveness later. Don’t be fooled. Design makes things better.

So, why does design matter? Really…

Well, if you want to look at it from the revenue perspective, design-focused companies just perform better. McKinsey gathered 2 million pieces of financial data and 100,000 design actions over five years and found that design-led companies had 32% more revenue and 56% higher total returns to shareholders compared with other companies.

Great design has a home in any company that wants to stand out from the pack and perform. We have reached high saturation in many industries and consumers from all sectors expect an experience that’s on par with the ones they enjoy every day with their iPhones. Design is that difference. 

So by now, I hope I have you keyed up and ready to talk about how to better lead your designers. So let’s get into the good stuff, my – 11 Real Tips for managing creatives.

RESPECT THE WORK

If you are going to get the best out of designers and other creators, you will need to respect the work. A real, honest respect of what it takes to make something from scratch and also to reiterate under a variety of constraints.

You need to understand how difficult it can be to let go of something you know isn’t perfect. Without that respect, your partnerships with designers will be tense and unproductive. So do the work early and throw on your empathy boots.

GIVE QUALITY FEEDBACK

I asked my husband, a long time designer and illustrator, what he’d want leaders to know about managing designers. This was his big one. No piecemeal edits. That means you take the time to give the highest quality feedback on all the pages at once.You don’t do a little here and a little there, or wait for the final version and then come through. Those rounds of edits cost you time. It’s not just making the change.

But why, Rachel, why? Alright, picture what your little edit means for your designer…

You open the program, the file, you make the change. Then you have to move things around to accommodate the change. Then you export. Then you put it up on InVision for review and wait. 

You can skip a middle mess of steps if you make it an internal policy to give whole edits

But let’s take a step back. Before you ask for an edit, ask yourself, ‘Is this critique or change actually important?’ Is it a preference, not tied to a business outcome? Maybe you let it go. 

Then your designer doesn’t feel like every time they put something up for review, a second guess sleigh isn’t pulling up to harass them. It could make the wheels of design turn a little smoother.

And finally, how you ask about a design decision that you aren’t jazzed about matters. A tactic I employ is ‘Would you consider…’ It shows deference to their experience, it doesn’t attack their choices, and it leaves the door open for the best decision to win.

GIFT THEM WITH CONTEXT

What do your creatives want? They want to know the goal. They aren’t design monkeys. What is this really about? It’s not just a graphic, a button – it’s someone’s use case and they want to understand it. 

There are things you probably know, but maybe didn’t think to share or have a business reason to do so. Things like use cases, examples, business goals, stakeholders list, intended audience, timing reasons, and market data. Maybe they will glance at it, or maybe they will come to you with a powerful question about how the solution can be better. You will get the time spent here back when better designs come out round one that more completely address your intended use case. 

SHARE THE DATA

Beyond context, show them how you will measure the success of your shared project. Show them what people are doing now – either in your system or in others and then get into the use funnel or the gaps.

Don’t be a gatekeeper – be a connector that makes things awesome

CREATE PROCESSES

Your co-workers like design, but maybe they don’t understand it. So they will try to tap into design resources without thought and strategy. This is a mistake, and you can help

Here, a little well-placed friction can go a long way. A couple of years back, well-intentioned staff were giving our designers some half-baked graphic requests. We’re talking one sentence Trello with due dates that were hours away. It was up to the designer to track down the requirements, gather the details and turn up something for the requester to react to. Then the requestor wouldn’t be happy, and the designer would have to do it again. Everything was taking far longer than it should, and all parties were frustrated with the process and the outcomes. 

It was insanity.

So I decided to put the burden of requirements on the requestor. I created a form, fields required, that asked the requestor to fill out what the art was for, what the project goal was, what product it supports, added information on the format, etc. This form isn’t neverending. But you do need to know something about your project before you can request it. This has really streamlined our process, and the designers like getting better thought out requisitions. 

Once you have a process, keep working on it. Making it better. Be on the lookout for bottlenecks or unintended frictions that you can smooth out.

ASK GOOD QUESTIONS

This is really about knowing your designers and what makes them tick. How do they think about issues? What do they need to succeed? Do they feel bummed or empowered after an interaction with you? And if your designer is facing a daunting task, sometimes the best thing you can ask is, “what do you need from me?

GRANT AIR COVER

So you might have found and nurtured immense respect for the work. But not every single person will. It’s your job to teach them. 

You did this by being honest about timelines, processes and scope. Don’t shortchange or shorten the process. Make it known that great stuff takes time. Here at Cerkl, one of our co-founders, Sara, has a saying, “do you want grape juice or wine? The only difference is time.

Sometimes a designer needs more time to make something great. Show your designer that you can give them the time, but the result has to be amazing or above average. And as things progress, communicate with stakeholders about what’s going on. 

And above all else, protect them from nonsense by making it known how important their work products are to the business. 

GAS THEM UP

If you’ve got a tough one, tell them why you chose them for the project. Recognize that not all projects are a trip on the light fantastic

When possible, show and tell – that is to say, show the before, or the goal, show the process that got you there: wireframes, iterations drawings, and then show the result.  And if you have something you can measure and report on, do it. The C-Suite loves data.

Praise should be deserved, of course, don’t be cheap with it. But when they shine, tell anyone who will listen what your designer made possible.

LEARN THEIR LANGUAGE

If you are working with UX or UI designers, what’s their preferred design system – Carbon, Material, or something of their own creation?

Take the time to familiarize yourself with the software they’re using – Sketch, Figma, Adobe. There’s no such thing as perfect design software so try to understand the challenges they face in creation, handoff, etc. We are Sketch and Zeplin, and to stay on top of the new offerings, I am on both email lists and read them religiously.

Every design team has an internal language – learn it. Heck, make a slanguage dictionary if you have to. It might help you capture all the acronyms and shorthand that is flying around Slack. 

And finally, an idol can tell you a lot about a person. Find out who their design idol is. Where are they speaking? What are they up to? It can make good design conversation!

UNDERSTAND THEIR PROFESSIONAL GOALS

These people work hard. They make you, your company, and your stakeholders look good. 

So it’s our duty to know our designer’s professional goals. When possible, assign tasks with this in mind. It might be iffy sometimes, but try to help them see how today’s project can lead them to tomorrow’s big move. 

ASK FOR THEIR HELP

Designers like to mix it up. Don’t we all? Ask for their help on non-visual tasks that align with their personal interests and professional goals. Designers can be great partners for any sort of creative thinking. Some of them have a passion for data or strategy that hasn’t been properly tapped into because their visual work is so strong. Let them have the chance to shine.

If you have a decision you need to make, but don’t have a strong opinion, try on having your designers decide for you. You might be surprised what they bring to the table that you don’t. 

And just like you, the non-designer is being tasked with leading designers, don’t sleep on designers for leadership roles, even when those they will be leading aren’t designers. Designers can make great creative, strategic leaders who know how to play internal chess and balance 20 projects at once. 

Designers can make great creative, strategic leaders who know how to play internal chess and balance 20 projects at once. 

Managing designers and design processes is wonderful, fun creative work that requires empathy, organization, and a love of the work. I hope these tips help you get the most out of your working relationship with your design partners. 

By rachelfolz

Writer, webmistress, Wordpress enthusiast.

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