These are meant to be taken as suggestions for design managers and managers to-be, so read with a healthy dose of skepticism and apply what you find relevant. (In no way is the tone sarcastic!)
1. Never have an agenda
Throw predictability and safe space to the wind! By taking the back seat on clear guidelines and expectations, you create an environment where the designer will learn to navigate ambiguity and be proactive with setting their own agenda. The benefit of miscommunication is that you will train your designer to ask the right questions, which is one of the main skills of product design. In no time, they will gain the toolkit to become senior designer as they grow more autonomous in their one-on-ones with you.
What if the designer takes the initiative and asks you what the agenda is before the meeting? The right thing to do here is to give one or two cursory bullet points, nothing more. Keep the points vague, but lull them into thinking they know the meeting objectives. To up the ante here, throw a curveball and do not even address the bullet points once the meeting comes. This tells the designer that they should be prepared to pivot and remain calm in the face of change. In the current job landscape,this is a useful skill to have.
2. Criticise and antagonise
Picture this — while the designer is working intently on a prototype, you walk up to them and exclaim “No, no no!” Couple this with a disapproving look, and we have a designer growth moment. They were likely not expecting this type of response while they were in a deep work moment. Keep them on their feet, and they will develop a quick mindset that is eager and prepared to defend their work at a moment’s notice. A lot of designers don’t know how to take feedback, and flounder under pressure. Give them a bootcamp for success by turning each interaction into an unexpected sparring session.
After many high pressure situations, the designer will learn to successfully recite canned responses, such as:
“That’s a great idea, I will put that into consideration.”
“That was brought up with the team and not within the project scope.”
“I don’t have all the details to answer this at the moment, how about I set a meeting so all parties can align?”
Though the designer can misinterpret your apparent disdain and disappointment as hostile, you must remain steadfast in your goodwill, which unfortunately will come across as a putdown. After you question their work ethic and output in some other instances, they’ll learn to handle themselves in any situation.
3. Lead with your emotions
I understand that the work of a manager is sometimes difficult due to politics and shielding individual contributing designers from unnecessary noise. However, to create an emotionally transparent workplace, show (don’t tell!) how anxious you are. This humanises you so that you come across relatable to the team. You will gain the team’s sympathy as behavior that is typically lauded in managers (i.e. professional, judicious) actually alienates you from your reports.
If you are a calm person, you’re likely creating a predictable and psychologically safe environment, which will stunt your team’s growth.
Instead, here are some effective ways to cause emotional turbulence:
- Raise your voice and escalate the situation
- Apologise afterwards, thus creating an exciting cycle of anger and reflection
- Gaslight your designer and proclaim they are the one creating an unsafe environment
- Stray from an agenda or talking points (see point 1)
You get extra brownie points if you also start commiserating with your team about how much you dislike the job and company to show that you’re a “cool manager.” If possible, colour your communication style with aggression, but this is only if you are comfortable bringing your full self to the workplace. A combative nature coming from a manager will encourage the designer to stand up for their own concepts and ideas.
4. Be Dishonest
Do not worry about psychological safety — if the designer is past their probation period, that should be enough safety as it is. And if they are an at-will employee, the type of chaotic environment you’ve cultivated will motivate the designer to keep their portfolio up-to-date and encourage them to survey the landscape for new and better opportunities.
You’ll also demonstrate how important it is to write documentation, which will expand the designer skillset since documentation is usually reserved for Product Managers or Engineers. During this time, the designer will also practice active listening and ask clarifying questions, such as “What I am hearing is (insert phrase), is that correct?” The ability to rephrase and reflect is an excellent skill that will set the designer apart from their peers.
By backtracking between what you say and do, coupled with emotional outbursts (see point 3), you become a primary example of why one should take notes and keep a work journal. Normally, a work journal is useful for logging achievements and wins, which can be referenced when asking for raises or promotions. However, most likely your designer is procrastinating on this. (We know how designers are with their portfolios!) You can “light a fire” under the designer, so to speak, and give them a good reason to document.
5. Advise with Concepts, Avoid Clear Guidance
Designers are generally a curious bunch. They love learning, have a growth mindset and want to pursue the best version of the product they’re responsible for. They’ll be thankful if meetings with you become opportunities for you to summarise all the concepts and best practices you’ve learned from Ideo and other design thought leaders. To directly address the problem that the designer has brought to you wouldn’t be a wise use of time. It’s safe to say not everyone will have read Nir Eyal’s Hooked or Teresa Torres’s Continuous Discovery Habits, so your team will sigh with relief once you start pontificating on the high-level takeaways of these books.
Give them the leeway to figure it out themselves after sharing some YouTube links to videos on good product onboarding. Again, the key is to set them up for success by providing vague and minimal instructions so they must problem solve and advocate alone. Once they know how to operate independently without seeking answers from you, they will be able to handle any situation that their future roles throw at them.
These are my five humble tips that I have for design managers or anyone aspiring to be a manager. Just remember — your role is deeply important, and how you behave as a manager is pivotal to the experience of the product designer. Take your role seriously, and you will see your designers grow into the best versions of themselves.