How to Manage a Design Team: 10 Important Tips

August 2020 · 6 min read

In this guide, you will learn the steps of building and leading a great design team, with insights from experienced design leaders to do your best work.

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1. Hone Your Soft Skills

The first step of design leadership is to develop your soft skills.

Some people think the term “soft skills” sounds fluffy or vague. While these kinds of skills are often undervalued, you shouldn’t underestimate their importance.

Research from Deloitte has found that an estimated two-thirds of jobs will be “soft-skills intensive” by 2030, and that demand for these skills may exceed supply by up to 45%.

Working on your soft skills can help you “future-proof” your career. It can also make you a better and more valuable design manager. Here are just a few of the ways design managers are expected to demonstrate their soft skills.

2. Lead By Example

“Leadership” is the most obvious soft skill that senior designers and design managers are expected to have. Being a strong manager means, first and foremost, setting a good example for the people who report to you.

As a design manager, you’ll lead the direction of your team in two different ways. First, there’s the creative side: you’ll be responsible for driving your team’s creative vision and the design culture. Most design managers start off as individual contributors themselves, so your design team may look to you and your expertise when brainstorming ideas or making good design decisions.

The other side is dealing with whomever has commissioned your work. Designers usually create work for either external clients or stakeholders within a company. Being an effective designer means striking a delicate balance between personal creative freedom and client needs. As a design manager, you’ll need to set an example of how to achieve this balance, and guide your team towards successful relationships with clients.

3. Find Key Motivators

Setting a good example is an important part of motivating your team, but motivating people is about more than just being a good designer. Successful design managers are also able to connect with people on a human level, inspiring them to do their best, to make the most of the creative process and to escape creative blocks.

Anastasiya Dyachenko, the CEO of UX design agency Cadabra Studio, says that effective design managers can support and motivate their team with a personalized approach.

“A design manager has to be attentive to the team [and] know the best way to talk to [each] specific designer: for some people, it has to be done in a fun way, with humor and jokes, for others it has to be supportive and gentle, and some designers just need to be pushed.”

4. Understand How To Give Feedback

Being a design manager isn’t always easy, and a major part of the job is knowing how to communicate well. Having conversations with employees, even uncomfortable ones, is an important part of any manager’s role.

If you find this kind of thing challenging, you’re not alone—a 2016 survey found that nearly 40% of managers found it hard to give their workers negative feedback, while almost 70% thought that “communication in general” was a challenge.

But giving clear feedback is important, and opting out of it isn’t an option. Ninety-one percent of respondents to an Interact/Harris poll said their leaders lack good communication skills, citing issues like “not giving clear directions” and “not having time to meet with employees” as some of their major grievances with their manager's job.

There are times when you will have to give negative feedback or redirect a team member. This is even more crucial when collaborating with a new designer. But equally importantly, you should remember to give positive feedback and praise where it is due. The Interact/Harris poll referenced above found that “not recognizing employee achievements” was the number one complaint respondents had about managers.

5. Hire The Right Designers For A Stellar Team

Another part of being a great design manager is knowing how to effectively hire designers. Whether you’re building a team from scratch or bringing on some extra help for your existing team, chances are you may be asked to assist with hiring at some point.

There’s a lot that goes into choosing a great designer, especially when integrating them into a team of designers. Sure, you’ll want to consider their design portfolio, but there’s more to it than just that—you’ll also be looking at their communication, project management abilities, specific design experience, tech skills, and more.

Sam Phillips, Design Manager at English Blinds, looks for a wide variety of skills when hiring designers. “[I look] for vision, creativity, the ability to work autonomously, good lateral thinking skills, the confidence to experiment, and a willingness to collaborate as well as, vitally, being able to express themselves effectively and work well with others. However, I also want hard skills such as competence with the relevant tech, good time management skills, and the ability to organize their own workload and meet deadlines.”

To find a candidate with the right combination of design chops and soft skills, you’ll want to develop a strong vetting and interview process.

6. Structure Your Team Efficiently

If you’re building a team from scratch, you should probably think a bit about what you want your design team to look like. Do you need to find several designers with particular skill sets? Are you planning to hire junior design managers to work under you?

Designers can fulfill a variety of different functions. The Lucerne School of Art and Design lists “design producer”, “design researcher”, and “design strategist” as just a few of the many job titles you might see in the field. Regardless of how you choose to structure your team, make sure your job descriptions clearly outline the responsibilities and competencies of each role.

7. Know When To Ask For Extra Help

There may occasionally be times when hiring an internal designer doesn’t make sense. In this situation, you may want to consider hiring a freelancer to support your team. Freelancers can provide you with flexible support, and with a variety of online resources available, outsourcing design work can be easier than you think. Consider Toptal or Gigster to augment your design team. 

8. Develop a Streamlined Design And Creative Process

Once you’ve put together a design team, you can help them perform at their best by setting clear expectations for how the design process should work, what is expected of your designers, and how they can progress within the company.

It’s best to avoid “design by committee”, where work gets passed around between a large number of people at random. By letting too many stakeholders critique a piece, you risk ending up with a bad final product and frustrated designers. Instead, you should have a clearly defined procedure of who gets to give feedback, and when.

Zach Passarella, Project Manager at Get Known Pros, works with a team of designers to deliver visuals for clients. Here is how he describes his preferred design process:

“First, a storyboard should be made to convey the general visuals that you are planning on creating and get the client to approve them. Then you create a draft and ask for approval once again. Then you can create the final draft and ask for any final fine-tuning and finishing touches.” By asking for client approval at multiple stages of the process, you can make sure your design vision aligns with client expectations.

9. Manage Performance Reviews

Holding regular performance reviews for direct reports helps guarantee that your designers get continuous, structured feedback from management.

While in the past it was traditional to do performance reviews once a year, continuous performance management is becoming increasingly popular. With this system, feedback is given more frequently (often quarterly or monthly, instead of annually). Moreover, non-traditional forms of feedback, such as peer reviews or self-evaluations, are often considered alongside the manager’s review.

Continuous performance management has been shown to be effective, with some studies revealing that 90% of companies who adopt it see direct improvements in engagement, so it’s worth considering it when setting up your review process.

10. Develop New Skills and Continue Learning

As your designers work and gain experience, they’ll naturally develop skills for the next project. You may also want to invest in training to help your team learn about specific topics, or prepare them for future roles in management.

Offering professional development to your designers not only makes them stronger assets to your company, it can also increase their engagement by showing that you care about their career growth. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report showed that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career.

Conclusion: Cultivate Your Design Leadership Skills Through Practice

Ultimately, becoming a great design manager will come through experience. As you run into difficult situations, you’ll learn from both successes and failures. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify what works and what doesn’t, improving your skills as a design leader over time.