On Management

Designers aren't traditionally in management, but they should be.

“Even Hemingway had an editor.” 1  or so the saying goes. That was nice for Hem (shout out to Maxwell Perkins) and other writers, but it’s not a universal feature of all creative fields. While visual artists like Carrie Mae Weems work with curators, and musicians like Dolly Parton have producers, designers lack an institutional counter balance to our work. 2  Perhaps because we sit between creative and business, academic and free-market, 3  we simply haven’t evolved that role. Instead, we have Clients. Or Partners. Or Other Business Line Owners.

So we don’t have a robust development space for our work, the way other creatives do, and because we work in and with large organizations to create change, we do have a greater burden of interdisciplinary management than the creatives already cited. For these reasons, and as a high-level statement, the Designer carries a heavy management role, one that is frequently not formalized, and that that role is all about balance between the various departments with which we work. From this balancing position, designers must work against the reductive tendency in organizations that urges a “good enough” stance towards products, services, and systems. At the same time, they must also not get overwhelmed and allow work to fly in all directions without boundaries. 4 

 As seen in the Human-Centered Design Operations Guides, a large part of a designer’s role is getting people on board with the work, evaluating resources, allocating those resources, managing them, and explaining those decisions to other stakeholders. Listed in this way, it is clear that these demands are management demands, not design ones. And yet, they are part of the designer’s role.

Disruption is another feature of the designer’s role, and a challenge to achieving management balance. Frequently, designers must meet their mission through provoking a bit of it. 5  In research, designers collect and manage the communication of evidence that often challenges the assumptions of the organization and underpins the conclusion that disruption is necessary. We are also responsible for managing the creation of that disruption, as well as its pilot and implementation. All of these difficult management tasks fall under the rather misguiding job description of “designer”, and professional designers must take them on.

For these reasons, it is imperative that designers in complex organizations intentionally cultivate their management skills. In order to be successful, designers now cannot simply generate ideas, or make a beautiful object in studio; it is imperative that we welcome others in 6  to perform research, to develop the product, system or service from its very beginnings, to implement it, and to evolve it further. 7 

  1. I haven’t been able to track down the origins of this quote; it seems to have just entered into the popular canon. If anyone can cite the authoritative source, please do let me know via the contacts channels. I’m very curious.
  2. The closest approximate relationship to the author-editor relationship is the Designer- Product Manager one, but it’s really the Designer and the Project Manager that have to work together to get the job done; neither one has a very explicit role in regards to each other. This creates a problem, because both roles require management skills, but only one has the title.
  3. For more on the in-between position of Designers in organizations, please see the What Does a Designer Do? article.
  4. For more on this please see On Design Thinking
  5. To be clear, I do not agree in any way with the obnoxious “move fast and break things” culture popular in the 2000s, but to create change is to disrupt someone, somewhere, and no matter how much they might need to be disrupted, it’s still probably an unpleasant experience for them.
  6. The concept of “creating the welcome” might seem odd. Please see the Compassion Over Empathy for more detail on this subject.
  7. For more on what designers create and sustain, please see On Designed Things