Anyone make the leap from Designer to Manager?

almost 9 years ago from , Freelance Designer/Illustrator

Hi, I was curious about the transition from being a Designer to one who manages others. Is it a tough one? Any lessons learned?


  • Lete PaceyLete Pacey, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    I did for around 6 months, then leaped back again.

    I always held a relatively weird design position here; being one of the original designers pre-acquisition it meant I was seemingly the natural one to step up to a management position when the team grew to around 10 designers; I naturally assumed some kind of leadership position simply because I was the one that had been there the longest.

    When the idea was presented to be an actual manager, I was relatively accepting of this at first; in a previously very flat organisation suddenly a ladder was placed in-front of me that I could climb. I thought about how I could amplify my own design strengths through this design team. It’s basically multiplying my own skills, right? I could channel good design into every decision we make.

    Well, it turned out to be a lot more difficult. I attended courses around management, HR, assessments, coaching conversations, compensation. It became increasingly clear to me that being a manager was not the same as being a leader; all of this stuff was deadly important, but it was stuff I neither had the talent for or real desire to learn. It was dealing with people. Just because I can throw together a good design, present it well, execute it well and provide good feedback to others does not mean I’ll make a good manager. It’s an entirely different skill set (one that I have a massive amount of respect for).

    During my time as a manager, I never truly felt I was doing a bad job, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was doing a good job. There were just so many parts of it that would take me years to learn; managing people is an incredibly nuanced skill, one that does require almost all of your time if you're taking it seriously. Not that the team was hard to manage, quite the contrary, it was just the vast amount of my brain power it absorbed.

    Ultimately I was designing less and less.

    I took a weekend away with my girlfriend and she forced me into thinking what I really wanted; what makes me happy.

    “I just want to design.”

    I wanted to lead by example; I wanted to create great solutions myself and alongside the design team. I wanted to create great design strategies, gather a team and execute them. I didn’t want to plan the Q4 resource allocation budget.

    So that was it. It may not be the smartest or most future proof plan, but the fact is that where I am right now creating stuff is the most important to me.

    I needed to find a clear definition of management and leadership. At first they presented themselves as the same thing, it was only over these 6 months I found they were very different. And only one of them can make me happy right now.

    29 points
    • Charlie PrattCharlie Pratt, almost 9 years ago

      Great response. Thanks for this.

      1 point
    • Mackenzie DavidsonMackenzie Davidson, almost 9 years ago

      This was a very thoughtful answer - thank you for writing this. My dad always talked about this while I was growing up - one of his regrets, having to step away from design to take a management role.

      Glad you figured out what made you happy and stepped back to it.

      2 points
    • Guillermo Mont, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

      Oh wow. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I can feel my noggin expanding.

      1 point
    • Michael LeeMichael Lee, almost 9 years ago

      Awesome response, thank you!

      0 points
    • William DawkinsWilliam Dawkins, almost 9 years ago

      Lots of insight there!

      If you'd be willing to share, curious how you handled the "leaping back again." Was it with the same team? If so, was there a weird transitioning period or were you able to fit right back into your previous role?

      0 points
      • Lete PaceyLete Pacey, almost 9 years ago


        It was actually pretty smooth. I spoke to my manager and divided the bits I liked and didn't like. It turns out the bits I liked fell under the role of a Lead Designer; whilst all the other stuff I was less keen on fell under Manager.

        I've read some of the comments here and the definition of manager certainly differs (I guess a lot depending on the size of the company). Managers at Citrix are here for the people, in this case the designers, to help them work better – they don't necessarily command who works on what, but they define frameworks to help individuals develop all types of skills (not just design) as well as ensuring all functions of the business run smoothly (design, development, product management, marketing).

        The piece that played a huge part of my previous role was on strategic design decisions and working hands on in making them become a reality. The attention to this part of my role was severely compromised when becoming a manager, so cutting this stuff loose allowed me to be end up a bit where I started – focussing on the strategic stuff.

        Luckily there was a guy in the team who held a natural fit for this Managerial role; he had all the skills required. So the transition hasn't been too rough for me or the team.

        1 point
  • Ben HicksBen Hicks, almost 9 years ago

    I went from being a sole designer/developer at one company to managing a team of four.

    The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone in this situation would be to trust your team.

    I found it daunting at first to delegate work to others with my mind always saying "how can someone else do this in exactly the way I need it" But nine times out of ten my team would always come back and either meet or exceed my expectations.

    Taking a step back from the day to day work can give you time to focus on the bigger strategy and planning picture.

    One thing I'd always suggest is to try and still find time to do some 'real' work - being the boss gives you the opportunity to pick a nice project to work on yourself to keep your hand in - you are a designer after all so don't give up your passion completely.

    5 points
  • Nice ShoesNice Shoes, almost 9 years ago

    Learn to be clear or learn to let go.

    I'm a total control freak and still struggle to put down the. Wacom pen when my design team are struggling to crack something.

    What Im trying to do is be super clear. Almost as if I'm briefing a child (sounds condescending i know). And I'm realising that, although i may of not done something a particular way, it doesn't mean it's wrong.

    3 points
  • Joshua Goldenberg, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    A couple of scattered thoughts, with a head cold:

    The team itself is a design challenge. At the core are people, just like any other design challenge. You can actually get a similar kind of satisfaction working on the design of the humans (the relationships, process, or just helping with their work) as you can from a design artifact, it just takes place over a longer time scale — so you have to be patient. You sometimes get to see your small wins six months later.

    At some scale, the day-to-day becomes very different. The more humans there are, the less focus-mode you get by default. One of the most important things you can do is set up and drive the story arc that you want to create. Team goals, team events, people and subgroups you want to help grow, future managers, recruiting, all of that. You have to be building/designing the team, while you're reacting to stuff, so that you're not only reacting to stuff. If you find yourself only reacting to stuff, stop, reset your calendar, and refocus some of your time. Check in on the story arc, and make sure its tracking. What are the themes you want to see happen? Better critique? More focus? More diversity or consistency or communication?

    You can pick off small design projects if you are careful and time them well. I look for tiny projects that are interesting but scoped smaller than a full day or two of work, so I know I can commit to designing it and actually deliver. If you need to feel like your tools are sharp and you want to get into the details this is a decent way to do it.

    If you have to have a hard conversation with someone, you can practice it first, like you would with a design pitch or presentation. Prep is good.

    Stay humble! You're in service to others, now doubly so, as a designer and as a steward of the team. Help out, take care of people, make them stronger and better and you will feel successful.

    (Obligatory qualifying footnote: grew design at Palantir from 2-30ish people in the last 3 years. Still feel like I've barely scratched the surface).

    2 points
  • Florent AlixFlorent Alix, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    I am monitoring this thread, please continue

    2 points
  • Jonathan ShariatJonathan Shariat, almost 9 years ago

    I made the jump over a year ago and I decided to write up everything I learned here:

    You Can't Fix the UX Without Fixing Everything

    1 point
  • Adam RobbinsAdam Robbins, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    In Jan 2014 I made the transition from being a senior designer to a partner at two man design & dev studio. In reality the only people I have to manage (aside from myself and clients) are freelancers.

    My biggest gripe with moving away from being (just) a designer is the lack of time I get to focus on the thing I love most — design.

    Design used to be around 95% of what I did, and it now accounts for little more than half of that. My advice would be, if you think you can find happiness doing various day to day things besides design, then go for it.

    I thought I could find happiness in new challenges and experiences, the reality is, the jump made me realise how much I truly love(d) design.

    1 point
  • Mike A.Mike A., almost 9 years ago

    Hi Guillermo,

    the biggest shift is in that being a manager is completely different role! With my previous employer I got the opportunity to lead a small team of 5 designers. Although my title was Sr. UI designer, I felt more like manager - it was more about dealing with people, consulting and less about actual designing. It is something a lot of people don't notice when they apply for a leading / managing role.

    So here are my 2 cents: Always have the right expectations and know what you want to do in your life.

    1 point
  • Dean HaydenDean Hayden, almost 9 years ago

    Good set of comments. The advice that has rung true with me is letting go and trusting your peers. Having been micromanaged on everything that I do to the point of being a photoshop (sketch/illustrator, name your poison) conduit I would say trust is the biggest thing. If work fits the brief, forget how it's done and don't let personal opinion get in the way. You are there to make sure things are done on time and within budget, if you start having exaggerated creative input then it's a slippery slope of alienation and resentment within your team

    0 points
  • Sam SolomonSam Solomon, almost 9 years ago

    Want to trade spots?

    I'm a project manager that is trying to move back into design.

    0 points
    • Zach UbbelohdeZach Ubbelohde, almost 9 years ago

      Care to expand?

      1 point
      • Sam SolomonSam Solomon, almost 9 years ago

        Sure thing.

        I was doing freelance web design and development before joining the advertising world. I've got a pretty broad range of skills—everything from A/B testing to design to frontend. This made me a pretty attractive candidate as a producer.

        Why did I take the job? Freelancing wasn't going to well—a few severely underestimated projects. It was the opportunity to move and try something new. Plus I figured that I'd learn a ton working at an ad agency.

        Day-to-day for me is setting and following timelines, finding development partners and doing QA. It's been a good experience, but it feels like I'm not moving forward where I want to—as a designer and frontend developer.

        Maybe it's just the agency world, but as a whole it feels like design is where I need to be.

        0 points
    • Timothy McKennaTimothy McKenna, almost 9 years ago

      That is interesting to hear....I'm currently in the process of getting of PMP certification but I am still a working art director. What made you want to become a project manager first of all and what is making you want to move back to the design?

      1 point
  • Marco SousaMarco Sousa, almost 9 years ago

    Relevant: https://medium.com/the-year-of-the-looking-glass/owning-it-c1036506ccc9

    0 points
  • Jonas SpottJonas Spott, almost 9 years ago (edited almost 9 years ago )

    The biggest difference is to think execution over details. Quality should never lack, but your focus should be on the quantity and making ideas go quickly to execution - and let the designers think about the small details from the given design guides of course. Depending on the company.. if you have unlimited resources like Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. things might look different :)

    0 points