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.
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.