Hiring the Right Design Manager

As hard as it is for designers to learn management skills, it’s even harder for companies to find truly qualified design managers to hire. It’s just a rare quality, because for truly creative types, the act of managing can often be a daily struggle between satisfying the sensibilities of the artist’s id, and orchestrating all the business factors that intersect with a design team. It’s an unnatural and often uneasy internal alliance of opposing agendas.

All of this occurs to me because an acquaintance is in the middle of a search for a new design director, someone to bring a keen design awareness and a sense of leadership to the Web design group inside of the Fortune 1000 company where she works. Aside from the usual qualities that one looks for in a candidate — portfolio, professionalism, work history, proficiencies — I thought it important to look for a few key characteristics when looking for a design manager. So I sat down and knocked out a short list of must-haves that I would recommend looking for when hiring someone to manage a group of designers, specifically in an in-house design group.


Experience, Large and Small

Given the choice between someone who’s led a smaller team to small but significant success and someone who’s led a larger team to large but not particularly notable success, I’d choose the former every time. It’s very difficult for design organizations to scale, in my opinion, and I distrust managers who have thrived at the big Web design agencies; so much of the job description at a large agency essentially amounts to justifying overhead and creating unnecessary process (I’m speaking from past experience). To be sure, there’s a lot of valuable things that can be learned in those environments, too, but it only becomes truly valuable when combined with lessons learned from making do within smaller organizations.

Words Make Better Pictures

Written skills are among the most important assets a design manager can possess; the ability to clearly and lucidly state a case for a design strategy or a subjective design decision is invaluable, and can mean the difference in pulling off a truly great design solution. What’s more, the written word is a reliable window into a design manager’s thought processes. The quality of their prose can tell you if they’re clear thinkers or not. If a candidate for a managerial position can’t clearly express himself or herself on paper, it’s a red flag.

Can’t We All Just Get Along

Gauge each candidate’s capacity for building strong relationships inside and outside the design group, for diplomatically resolving conflicts and misunderstandings. Design can never function as an island unto itself, both because of the many ways it is dependent upon the other pillars of any business in order to achieve meaningful success, and also because design is almost universally misunderstood. Having a keen understanding of whether a potential manager will be the sort to build bridges or burn them is critical; an intensive part of any interview process should concern itself with a candidate’s grace under fire and amongst peers.

D.I.Y. Positive

Given how rare design management skills are, it’s a win to find someone who possesses all of the qualities I’ve listed above. But all other things being equal, I’d vote for the candidate who can build a Web site from scratch over one who can only ‘direct’ the design and development of a Web site. I’m not talking about building an entire complex, transactional site with a custom Ruby on Rails back-end. Rather, I’m talking about a human-scale site, with a small number of templates, authored with modern technologies like XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, perhaps a modicum of database programming, PHP and lightweight content management systems, too. Those who can pull such things off bring a richer level of experience to the table that can be very persuasive when dealing with the folks who are actually building sites.

Admittedly, it’s an incomplete list, but these are the critical factors that jumped to the forefront of my mind when I sat down to consider this issue in detail. I’m sure I’ve missed at least a few very important things… and I’m hoping if that’s the case, then you’ll fill me in.

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  1. This may be an obvious factor, but Design Managers should also demonstrate a passion for design. Portfolios and experience are just static historical representations of achievements in the context of the organisations they have worked for. Ask them what excites them about design now and their expectations for the future. What websites do they visit and why? What topics and techniques are they researching and learning about? As part of the interview ask them to critique on-going work, and to review other designs.

    I used to be a software manager before I made the switch to web design. One of the most useful interviews that I attended was one involving some of the people that I would be managing. This allowed everyone involved, including myself, to assess the suitability of the partnership.

    One final thought: ask them how they manage their own work.

  2. I think you’re right on with the point that people who have managed smaller teams well. With small teams it seems like there’s so much less traditional “management” required of a design or project manager and much more relationship-building and concrete understanding of the entire design process.

    Over the last few years I’ve somewhat reluctantly moved toward the roles you described, away from actual design and production. I do less and less of the D.I.Y start-to-finish work now, but I try to keep some of it on my plate. The great thing about small teams is that you can always find a way to make yourself useful by stepping outside of your job description.

    I remember when I was first starting out, I thrived with an art director who was actually a working designer, not just a manager. I think it makes a huge difference for a design manager not only to have a D.I.Y. background, but to maintain an element of that in their work as much as possible.

  3. I could not agree more with your statements, Khoi. I’ve held the online creative director position at both the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder (which, by the way, I am leaving next week). Having had the same position for two of the largest players in the space (newspaper publishers), I’ve been able to reflect and do some real apple-to-apple comparisons.

    Probably the single most challenging aspect of working for both entities was that all of thier respective sites (generally) work off the same single backend and template structure. While that might seem like a great way to increase efficiencies and maintain a semblance of unified user experience (and it is) – the difficult aspect is dealing with 30+ individual newspaper markets who each have a very strong idea about how their site should look and feel. Every bit of your ability as a designer and manager (and politician and team player and…) gets challenged.

    There are a lot of differences between these companies, to be sure, but the things that have remained constant for me are the very principles you outlined in your post.

  4. I’d add to the list:

    Direct don’t design
    The ideal manager can solicit good work AND good thought from his designers. Many designers that find themselves in management positions find it hard, for whatever reason, to let go of the work. As a result their direction becomes prescriptive rather than descriptive. This is a tremendous blow to developing morale, clear-thinking, and basic skills in the very people they should be encouraging.

  5. Also, having managed/lead a team by happenstance (I was the copywriter, nothing more, to start) but succeeding to the point of very nice bonuses for everyone on that team, and have two fundamental personality, um, flaws (lack of patience, willingness to enjoy conflict, although that’s usually to foster a discussion when someone else tries to shut down, but not always) I learned the secret to getting it done, getting it right, and going faster than deadlines – saying ‘thank you’ every chance I got.

    Thrown from the frying pan into the bonfire, how to manage a web development team that includes powergeeks who were playing with all sorts of bleeding-edge technology to a visual designer who was doing this job as a break from making art, the last of which was at MoMa, and I can’t manage my sock drawer. Oh, and no guidance from my boss who “wanted to see if I could handle it” as he apparently liked to see me fret. He paid for that, too, with nice fat checks.

    I’m still not a manager, but I can create and manage a team, drive projects to goals, maintain excitement and passion and even have fun. I just don’t manage anyone, and I never ‘direct’ someone to do anything.

    I asked questions of everyone, got their opinions, worked out pros and cons, developed outcome probabilities and future growth maps and roadblocks, and thanked them for each interaction. It was ultimately my decision on every point, but I didn’t once say “we’ll do xxx” and we still got what we needed.

    Collaboration is such an abused word, which is disgraceful to me. I fully believe that to lead you must do, to gather consensus you must foster debate, and to be effective you must let other affect you. Ask, discuss, debate, outline, break for cookies, repeat as needed. End every meeting, even if it’s 3 minutes of chatting about nothing work related, with “Thank you.”

    So the biggest question isn’t even something you can ask, it’s something you have see from them, when they interact with others. “Does this candidate say “thank you’ enough?” is usually analogous to “should we hire this candidate?”

  6. I am of the belief that as good as design schools are at exposing students to critique (defending one’s work, accepting criticism, becoming emotionally tougher, etc.), there is one key factor missing in design education that is a critical skill in what decides a good manager from a bad one: negotiation.

    We negotiate every day, all the time — with our signicant other about what to eat, with our family about personal matters, with our bosses about pay, with our clients about color palette, etc. etc. etc.

    A manager must negotiate amongst disparate parties *all the time* — what the client’s goals are, what user needs are, what the desires of their team members are. Negotiating takes all of these individual needs and seeks resolution through indentifying mutual interests.

    I find the following two books critical to someone’s knowledge set if they aspire to be an excellent manager:

    1. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
    2. Crucial Confrontations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillian, and Al Switzler.

    These books are very practical and infinitely useful.

    If a candidate has read these books and has practiced the techniques illustrated in those tomes, to me they demonstrate that she is indeed a skilled and mature manager.