I started a new role 9 weeks ago at TPXimpact, a digital transformation consultancy born out of the merger of a mix of agencies that included FutureGov. My boss is Ben the Chief Designer and I’m Design Director. We work with 108 designers with a wide array of experiences and backgrounds across four practice areas: research, content, service and interaction design. It’s super fun in a very administrative way which I wanted to write about because no one really talks in a detailed way about the business of making design work happen. We (people in management) end up bellowing out on Linkedin about generalised management concepts when I think there’s a lot more we could be saying. Here are three things for now.
- Managing designers is not like managing other people. Designers develop processes, solve problems, debate ideas and do user research every minute of their day. So whatever you’re coming in with, they’re receiving as an employee but also judging you as a designer. They will have opinions about every single touch point of a managerial experience. If I didn’t have nearly 20 years of experience, this would be daunting, but it’s ok, I get it. It’s about being aware of the designer’s need for an empathetic, co-designed process when other dimensions (time, money, politics) are also placing demands on you as a leader. Often, I choose the ‘don’t let good be the enemy of great’ when I can, and work with people in a way that invites feedback but doesn’t slow things down. It’s delicate balance to strike.
- We’re all accidental managers Most of my design peers across the design industry never got formal management training. We didn’t get MBAs, or HR certificates, we just started running design businesses. I started hiring people and running a studio when I was 26 so I learnt as I went, with some unpleasant and difficult experiences along the way. That lack of training means we’re all working with our own experience to inform us, but there are limits to this (and biases). Thankfully, we have lots of great tools at our disposal: hosting conversations well, deep listening, capturing actions in a visual way, and great HR colleagues. But we should put our hand up generationally to say we’re still figuring this out. It’ll help everyone we manage or work with to give us more feedback or send us on a course. We probably need it.
- Giving up design work is hard but there are many kinds of design work still to do What keeps designers away from starting businesses or becoming managers is often the lack of ‘doing’. That’s fair, but I’ve grown to love a good conversation well hosted, a well laid out budget, a nicely worded email just as much as I enjoyed figuring out a product experience. It’s a totally different area to grow into but just as powerful. Giving up ‘making’ makes space for other forms of convening too and I’d love to see more designers rise up in management and politics so we have people in Parliament with a design background. Wouldn’t that be fun?