You spend years developing your skills as a designer. Then one day you start managing and quickly realise you can’t push people the way you push pixels.

Transitioning from a ‘human who designs’ to a ‘human who manages designers’ is a challenge. We pour years into mastering our repertoire of design skills. But for designers taking on management responsibilities, we are often ill-prepared for the shed load of unique skills and considerations required for the role.

Things I wish I was more aware of when I started managing designers:

When I started managing designers about 9 years ago, I quickly learnt it requires just as much awareness and nurturing as any design skill. Like a healthy relationship, the “manager-managee” bond is built on trust. It’s something earned through spending time together and getting to know what one another cares about.

It’s not always easy to know if you’re doing the right thing, but I’ve learned that if my efforts are contributing to them improve the work or developing their careers, then I’m on the right path. If you’ve recently started managing designers, here are some things to consider:

Find out what crushes them

I’ve seen great designers come and go. Sometimes for what felt like the right reasons, other times it felt like I could have done something about it.

If you’re building a team, finding common ground between what a designer cares about and what you and your company value, means you’re setting yourselves up for a fruitful relationship.

How to find out what crushes them

It’s not always easy to put into words what’s important to us, but it usually becomes pretty clear at moments of agitation. For example, maybe your designer values the big picture:

“Do I really care that my presentation slides looked a bit sloppy? It’s the overall message that’s important.”

Or perhaps your designer is all about the details:

“If this UI isn’t perfect, we can’t share it with the client.”

That feeling they get when they’re being affronted can be a shortcut to understanding their values. When starting off with new designers, one of the first conversations I have focuses on this. If they don’t know, I ask:

“What is the number one thing I could do to demoralise you or make you feel crushed?”

If our values chime nicely then we’re off to a good start. When the pressure’s on, you can make decisions knowing you care about similar things.

Be a beekeeper, not a gatekeeper

Like most designers, I care about delivering high-quality work and so have often found myself compelled to pass on specific nuggets of feedback like:

“Before you share the UI with the client, check you’ve replaced the profile picture with an image of Persona A and proof-read everything”.

My rationale for this feedback goes something like:

“I’ve seen designers share inaccurate work with clients before. Surely it’s my duty to protect the integrity of our studio’s work? If I have opinions, shouldn’t I share them to maintain standards?”

This is wrong for two reasons:

How to be a beekeeper

Of course, it’s important to share your views — but at the right moment. Management is about creating the right conditions for good work to happen. Like a beekeeper, it means tending to your hive and helping your colony grow strong.

This means talking, mentoring and coaching others day in, day out so that they understand what’s important to you and your organisation.

Whether it’s quality, experimentation or timekeeping, finding time to establish and maintain the acceptable standard spreads the responsibility across the team. In my practice, we identify designs or research material that reflect the quality the team aspires to reach. We use reviews and retros to deliver feedback and check-in on whether we’re reaching that standard.

Jumping in to give feedback at the 11th hour perpetuates the conditions of a gatekeeper. A good beekeeper nurtures their hive while disturbing them as little as possible.

Play to their strengths

When first taking on management responsibilities there’s a lot of new incoming noise to sift through, particularly when it comes to assigning designers to work. It’s easy to forget that successful projects often rest on matching the right designer to the right project.

Designers, of course, have different technical strengths. Where one UI designer might smash out ten app screens in an hour, another will craft just one component over the course of an afternoon. Aaron Walter, former UX team lead at MailChimp refers to these as hunters and farmers.

But often the more powerful strengths are behavioural ones. They’re the things that give your designer a buzz and leave them feeling energised. They’re easy to spot in your team and can be used to bring the best out of an individual.

How to play to their strengths

To help identify strengths and build up a shared language for describing them there are plenty of tools — I’ve found this one really useful with my team.

Help them grow (it isn’t entirely selfless)

Designers are busy. They work at a relentless pace, always pushing forward to the next release, the next refresh. As a manager, you’re responsible for raising standards and achieving better results. The only way of doing this is with your team, so helping them level up means investing in their careers. It’s not a selfless act; if they do better, you do better. Winners all round!

Levelling-up doesn’t mean getting a promotion it means focusing on improving their skills and ultimately their impact on your organisation.

How a designer wants to shape their career is their choice. As a manager, you’re there to guide and support them. Ultimately it’s about a building a healthy relationship and to do that requires a few commitments:

Commit to growth

Design careers needn’t follow a linear path. They may choose to be a UX generalist or a specialise as a Voice Interaction Designer. As they gain experience their impact will grow. It’s the joint effort of the designer and manager to estimate where their skills lie and to pitch a flag at where they’d like to be. There are countless tools to support this. We use a capabilities framework to define skills and their levels.

Commit to 1:1s

The sacred space for just you and your designer. This is the time and place for you to discuss the small things and big goals and hold each other accountable for it all. I experiment with a lot of formats but generally follow this outline:

Commit to mutual feedback

Regular feedback is the easiest way to change behaviour and improve performance. At first, it’s hard and can feel forced but developing a culture of feedback can do wonders for team growth. We sought help from a behavioural psychologist to encourage our team to develop the habit.

If you’re lucky, managing designers may come naturally to you.

For the rest of us, it’s a long, hard and sometimes confusing road. Balancing what’s best for individuals versus the team, accepting you can’t do everything and dealing with the unexpected.

As your confidence grows, so does your influence and your ability to help others make good design possible. And just as you’ll teach your designers: follow your own path and develop your own style. If you’re giving your attention to just one of the above then you’re on the right track.