How to effectively manage designers

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Being a designer is one thing, but managing a team of designers is quite another, requiring a whole different set of skills.

8 min read

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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 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.

A team of designers in a work meeting

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.

This includes:

  • Style guides, brand books or design systems

  • Existing website links

  • Design files

  • Icons

  • Font files

  • Target demographics

  • Logos

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.