Managing designers presents its own set of unique challenges. If you have a background in the field you’ll likely find it easier to relate to your employees. However, whether or not you have experience working as a designer, it’s important to remember that designers have different needs than other employees and have their own aspirations, both in and outside of their job.
There are a few common pitfalls and challenges when it comes to managing designers:
Pixel pushing: A designer can be extremely demoralized if their ideas aren’t taken seriously or if they’re just nudging elements back and forth on the page.
Striking a balance: There is often a misalignment between the work you need done and what your designer needs to feel fulfilled.
Estimating design time: Iterations on concepts and the process of translating wireframes into mockups makes factoring the UX design process into sprints difficult.
Getting started: It isn’t easy to communicate your vision for the product, and misaligned expectations often result in unnecessary double work.
While these stumbling blocks are common, they are also avoidable with proper communication and an understanding of what the working relationship will look like. Here are a few more words of advice for managing designers effectively.
Hand designers everything they need to get started
When hiring a designer or onboarding them to a project, it’s important to hand over all relevant assets before they get started. Even if the assets are old and the plan is to update them, or if not all of them have been fully designed, anything you can give the designer for context will help them to hone in on your brand language.
Style guides, brand books or design systems
Existing website links
Starting a project without any of these assets, if they already exist, can result in hours of needless work that will have to be redone, which will frustrate both you and your designer.
It’s also important that a clear design brief is prepared for the designer before work begins, so that everyone is on the same page regarding the scope and company needs.
In order to make a brief as helpful as possible to your designer, make sure to include visual references. These can be taken from similar products, as well as from sites or apps whose visual language is similar to the one you want to implement in your platform. Every page you need the designer to work on should ideally be listed in the brief along with wireframes.
Even if you don’t have a knack for visual design, the most rudimentary wireframes will help convey how the page needs to work and will show all of the elements that need to be included on the screen. Even if the designer ends up completely rearranging them, being able to draw on them as they work on the design will save them a lot of time and guesswork.
This preliminary stage of a project is a golden opportunity to align on a shared vision for the design. It’s also the right time for you to identify what skills this project will require of the designer, and how it can help them grow and evolve creatively and professionally. Take the time to think about what this brief can mean for the product or brand, as well, and how it can be stretched to its full potential.
Finally, many projects suffer from drawn-out design phases and misaligned expectations when deadlines aren’t clearly communicated. This is especially important if the designer you’re working with is a freelancer balancing other projects. If you’re not clear on when things need to be done–even if it’s just an estimate or a first draft–the designer might prioritize other projects, and your product will take longer to design than you had expected.
Designers are intensely creative people. When possible, allowing them to experiment will greatly boost their enthusiasm about your product as well as provide new alternatives to your current designs.
Give specific feedback
We usually know whether or not we like a design as soon as we see it, but articulating why we have that opinion can often be challenging. Nothing is more frustrating to designers than to simply hear, “I don’t like it,” because it gives the impression that the hours of work they put into the design weren’t appreciated. It also gives them little to go on when reapproaching the design.
So, when you look at a design that you feel isn’t working, challenge yourself to hone in on what doesn’t make sense and try to communicate it clearly instead of just voicing disapproval. If you can point to specific elements that feel out of place, it’ll help your designer understand what needs to be changed, even if you can’t articulate what exactly it is about them that's off. Does the design not feel in line with your brand identity? Is it not addressing the needs of the feature? These clues will point the designer in the right direction.
Try to frame your design feedback as a discussion rather than a one-sided monologue. Try to embrace your team’s perspective and different opinions, and accept disagreements as a sign for a healthy dialogue that can only take the design further. Giving feedback can be tricky and sensitive, but it’s an important step of managing a design project as it’s your opportunity to guide the design work in the right direction.
Sometimes something about the design just isn’t clicking, and round after round of feedback trying to address it doesn’t seem to be resolving the issue.
A productive way to move forward is to allow the designer to try to approach the page from an entirely different angle; starting from scratch or reimagining the layout and elements. This provides a fresh perspective on the page, with more options to circumvent the design block you’re experiencing.
Death by committee
Design is subjective, and anyone you talk to will have their own opinions on anything you’re building. Getting quantitative feedback is important to make sure you’re on the right track and confirm the need for changes and new features, but, during the design phase, it’s best to keep the stakeholders to a minimum in order to iterate faster.
Even with few stakeholders, it’s crucial to know when having collaborators involved is beneficial and when it’s detrimental to a designer. For example, brainstorming features and page layouts are a good time to have a few people involved in order to get everyone to agree on the high-level requirements for the design.
However, when the designer is starting to put ideas onto a page, it’s better if you’re not looming over their shoulder, so they don’t feel judged, and they can focus on putting their ideas into the interface. It’s best to get involved once a draft has been completed to the designer’s satisfaction, and you can work on iterating on it together.
Building a consensus with multiple stakeholders is very difficult, as everyone is going to have their own opinions. At the end of the day, there are many designs that will work and be well received by your users that internal stakeholders won’t initially like. Generally, each additional stakeholder added to a project decreases the speed at which the project gets completed.
The best times to hear feedback from a larger sample of the company is during the wireframing stage, and after the design has been completed. This lets you verify that your ideas come across and that the feature as a whole makes sense.
Prep your team and work with them on a short and well-structured presentation, that walks stakeholders through the project story all the way to the impressive bottom line, which is the final design. Together with your designers, revisit the values and concepts you spoke about during the brief phase to make sure they ended up coming across, and be sure to highlight them in the pitch.
Even with a limited number of stakeholders, there will be differing opinions. This is why having a clear chain of command is important. It’s not always easy, or even possible, to finalize a design that all stakeholders are entirely happy with. It’s important to hear feedback and challenge each other’s opinions, but eventually a decision needs to be made, and it’s not always unanimous. As manager, it’s your responsibility to weigh different opinions and present your designer with a single direction to work towards.
That is the reason there has to be one person ultimately making the decisions regarding the product direction and design. The development needs to move forward, and someone has to call the shots in order for that to happen.
Be a better manager
Given that designers work differently than other employees, they also have different needs. If you want to get the best results out of your designer, you’ll need to tailor your management to their specific situation. Keeping just a few things in mind when working with a designer will go a long way in establishing a healthy and productive relationship.
Understand design: Dive deep into the design world and keep up with design trends. Get to know design fundamentals, such as grid, typography and composition. If possible, learning to use the programs your designer uses will give you a better understanding of how they work.
Be empathic and enthusiastic: This isn’t specific to designers but it’s still important to address. The tone and language you use to interact with your employees has a direct effect on their attitude towards their job and the work they do. Gestures as simple as asking politely when assigning work and thanking them when they hand it in make a world of difference in how appreciated they feel and how excited they will be to work on subsequent projects. Try to be patient, respectful and empathetic towards your team and approach the work with genuine enthusiasm, as your mood will affect theirs. Don’t forget that, when a designer hands something in, they’ve spent hours working on it and likely feel very attached to it. When they do good work, be sure to let them know. When you’re asking for changes, always try to frame it constructively.
Cultivate creativity: Designers are intensely creative people who often feel stifled by the lack of freedom they are given to reimagine designs. When possible, allowing them to experiment will greatly boost their enthusiasm about your product as well as provide new alternatives to your current designs. Letting your designer work on a passion project helps break up the day-to-day monotony they may sometimes experience working on the same few screens.
Develop your designers: Creative roles have available skill development as much as other roles in a company, but they’re utilized far less. Look into conventions or courses that might be relevant to your designer that could help grow their skillset, and ask them what they might be interested in learning. Nurturing employees is a great way to build loyalty and professional relationships, and it benefits you directly because they will apply the skills they learn into your product. Help them elevate skills that have to do with the business side of design, too, like talking to clients, teamwork and independence, time management, and ownership and responsibility.
Invest and be invested in
Designers aren’t that different from other employees, but require a different approach and care. Like other employees, overlooking designers can result in resentment and boredom. Many managers don’t make an effort to understand what makes designers feel fulfilled and don’t understand why designers leave jobs at a higher rate than other employees.
If you pay attention to what their needs are and do your best to accommodate them, you will be rewarded with an employee who is better at their job and more loyal to you and your company.