On middle management in design

Middle management is the intermediate management level of a hierarchical organization that is subordinate to the executive management and responsible for “team leading” line managers and/or “specialist” line managers. Middle management is indirectly (through line management) responsible for junior staff performance and productivity. – Wikipedia

After a few years reporting to the founders/CEO of organisations, I find myself in middle management for the first time. It’s really interesting and I thought I’d share some early observations.

  • Saying ‘Yes, but…’  I line manage five Heads of department who work with 15-30 designers each. That’s a big group of designers who are all taught the art of ‘yes, and…‘.  But much of my day is spent being someone who says ‘no’, ‘not now’, ‘leave that with me’. It’s a different way of operating as a designer. It’s not adversarial per se, but it’s not necessarily about making people happy all the time. It’s sometimes about stopping things from happening, escalating only when you must, or redirecting people’s energy. It’s not satisfying in the same way as saying yes but I’m better at saying ‘No’ in my 40s than I would have been in my 20s.
  • Managing the saviour complex I’m going to write about this some other time, but working with designers means dealing with different levels of self-esteem and worth wrapped up in working for public sector organisations and non profits. I saw this a lot in my climate work. It’s a very emotional space to be working in with people who care very deeply about the work they do and their own individual ability to make change happen. But as Anne Lamott said: “Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.” That dynamic creates some very specific situations where I sometimes ask people to be a little more pragmatic and remember, it’s not show friends, it’s show business.
  • Creating guardrails Nobody creative thinks they need processes at work, until something difficult happens. I’ve dissolved a few companies, worked for startups that tanked, and been involved in two lawsuits so I have seen how people react when the unforeseeable happens and what a total lack of process means. Helping a team put things in place to take out the guessing work is both deeply administrative but entirely necessary. And I don’t think it’s something I’m doing because the company is new-ish, that work is done continuously. I was helping the Design Council update some processes and that’s an 80 year old organisation. It’s mostly about keeping the processes relevant and a live document. Like code.
  • Choosing the right time for opinions  Being a little removed from a designer’s day to day client work means I can sometimes be a useful sounding board. Sometimes a designer doesn’t need my opinion, they just want someone to talk to about a problem and all I do is play it back to them. Just like rubberducking. Hosting a conversation, without wanting to solve anything, can sometimes diffuse future tensions later on. You just have to be visibly available which is why I go into the office 4 days a week. As my former CEO used to say: ‘noses in, fingers out’.

If you have some strong opinions, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.


  1. It’s great to see posts on topics! thank you! What resonated for me most was learning to say ‘no’, managing emotional dynamics, and establishing effective guardrails! Agree! Thank you for writing about it. The challenge I’ve encountered is in motivating designers to constantly scrutinise and reassess their work (post handover). To continually question our company’s basic assumptions. It’s important to maintain a sense of curiosity. Often, designers might disengage after a project launch, overlooking the need to continuously evaluate its real-world performance. It’s crucial to assess not only if it’s solving the intended problem but also if it’s inadvertently creating new ones

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