Managers Who Love Design…

And the Designers Who Don’t Love Them

Some psychologists have said that fathers and sons are in competition, in a sense, because both are in love with the same woman. Oedipus thought so. Electra, too, as she assumed the female equivalent of Oedipus’ complex. For our part, however, can designers and their managers have a similar sort of problem in their relationship?

To a greater degree than for other professions, designers and the managers who direct them share a love of strategic decision making. While many designers are chartered, explicitly or implicitly, with solving strategic problems as well as visual and interaction ones, many are not. In both cases a subtile—sometime not subtle—competition for decision making autonomy percolates up through the design process.

Cicero said “Freedom is participation in power.” This in itself is interesting to contemplate. In our case, designers seeking more creative freedom are often seeking less management oversight. The alternative to this, executing management’s vision without question, is usually unfortunate: relinquishment of that which inspired a designer to their chosen career. Or haven’t you met a designer who has learned to predictably please management with uninspiring work? I have. And too often.

Designers subordinate to non-designer managers are in the unenviable position of defending the choices they’ve made without the ability to utilize, or at least fully utilize, the vocabulary of design, which defines their profession. The principles and practices of design are often unfamiliar to managers trained or experienced in other domains. The problem is compounded by the fact that, in western consumer society, we swim daily through an over-saturated, cacophony of visual symbolism. We feel ourselves visually literate, as our daily life depends on our ability to navigate culture and business through these symbols. But, as I point out, just as there is more to culinary arts than meets the palette, there is more to design than meets they eye.

The problem is not only that designers and managers are completing for decision making autonomy, but that they are seldom aware—or able to admit—they are doing so. One result is that many managers do not readily understand why designers—graphic designers, as well as interaction and other specialized design occupations—seem more defensive, or possessive of their works, than those in other occupations. Yet, design as of any kind is nearly synonymous with decision making. It should come as no surprise. The word design shares its latin root, dësignãre, with designate, and the french dessein, meaning ‘purpose, intention.’

The designer making decisions and the manager directing or—better, perhaps—supervising them may have great rapport, and through it wend their way to happy project completion. Or they may not, and suppose instead that they just don’t, and may never, see eye to eye. If proximate occurrence is a fair indication, the latter of these is generally more common.

Bridging the Gap Between Personal Opinion and Creative Skill

What if knowing exactly what makes a movie great could also make one a great script writer, film editor, actor, or director? What if the ability to distinguish fine food from poor food also made one a great chef? What if the ability to articulate what makes a song great also made one a great musician? Et-cetera for medicine, mechanics, fine arts… and, you guessed it, design. If critical thinking produced creative skill, with no intervening training and practice, there would be far more creators, and far fewer critics than there actually are.

Critical observation and thinking are useful skills, which can certainly open one’s eyes to previously unseen subtitles and distinctions. But they are not craft. This I state here emphatically: the ability to criticize, or articulate one’s sense of taste, or point of view, and the ability to create are entirely separated by the knowledge and skill each requires. Skill in one does not convey skill to the other. It may help, but it is certainly only one of many more required ingredients.

As many managers are not designers, when they assume the roll of de facto Art Director, direction is more often given from a critical point of view (negative direction), instead of in terms the designer has learned from years of training and practice (positive direction). In other words, lacking the ability to direct according to “to do” versus “don’t do,” both director and designer are left with a kind of pin the tail on the donkey, hit or miss process. They may get lucky, they may not. Regardless, method is lacking and the aims of both management and design are diminished as a result. Not to mention the morale and motivation (which is a concern of good management) of the designer. who is understandably discouraged in this situation.

To top all of this, the sort of organizational structure and division of labor necessary for product manufacturing is of very limited use to interactive communications/software development, which is inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature. Yet most companies and not-for-profits are still, in 2008, organized according to norms established in (and for) the industrial age, over a century ago, make little or no concession to this for their communications / software groups.

Yes, there are some tendencies of human nature itself to consider in all of this. But we should counter them, methodically, as many top-tier creative agencies do for the sake of optimizing conditions for design success. All this in order that the people using—even depending on—our works will not suffer confusion, inefficiency, and missed opportunities for enjoyment, as a result.

Optimizing Design Quality – What Is A Manager To Do?

Designers reading this can take a tea or coffee break. I’m speaking with the managers alone, for a moment. Come back for the Summary, below.

There are many ways you cam make the most of your relationships with designers. Here are just a few highlights, provided as generically as possible, without regard to individual experience, personality or management style.

1) Know what design is. And (or at least) what it is not.

Most suppose design is what they see. We see “design” (output) so that must be “design” (work) right? But there is a problem. Language sells us short here, because the work (verb) and results of work (noun) share one term: we aren’t provided a ready distinction. Seeing a painting is not seeing painting. Seeing a design is not seeing design.

If cooking were learned by eating we’d all be Top Chefs. The discipline of design can no more be discovered by viewing than the discipline of music can be discovered by listening. Yes, we can learn more by active observation than by passive observation, maybe even enough to be a credible critic, but not enough to make us a chef, musician, or designer.

Design in the intransitive verb sense is the application of design principles, and the ability to fully appreciate the design context of our venture, in its entirety, for what principles to apply, how to apply them, why applying appropriate combinations of design principles will achieve its specific strategic goals.

2) Know how to facilitate design.

Facilitating design is like building wings as you take off down the runway. But, as the project management axiom goes, every project begins at the same place: the end. Meaning, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you’ve arrived. So, facilitating design is really facilitating decisions. Here’s the funny thing, though; design goals aren’t really about design. Design is a means, not en end in itself (this distinguishes it from art). It’s about strategy and users: what to do, and what the use of it is. By definition a designer is tasked with determining how the strategy and uses of products and services will become manifest.

This can get tricky, because design can influence or even determine strategy, as much as the reverse. Generally speaking, designers can produce designs, and programmers can produce programs. Yet in my experience lots of highly intelligent people underestimate the job (value) of communication. And though we often talk about communication as an articulation skill, as a tree falling in the forest makes no sound with no listener present, communication is more a listening than speaking skill (according to the definition of sound as requiring a source, medium and sensor). And listening means reserving judgment and tuning in to people’s needs and assumptions, as well as their statements.

As organized decision making (collaboration) equals communication: the better we communicate within our organizations, the better our organizations will communicate with others. In other words, to facilitate design is to facilitate constant and consistent communication of goal/s and objectives—in interaction design; those of the end users. But let’s not confuse this with mere creation of institutional memory (design documentation). That too is a means, and not an end in itself, yet is too often counted towards individual success. What good is a means that doesn’t achieve good ends? No, we must do what we want not: close our eyes and measure our efforts by the words of others outside of our organizations.

2) Know what makes a designer good at design.

In other words, hire well. Hiring well means hiring “soft skills,” and the capacity for experience, as well as “hard skills” gained from training and work history. I think Larry Tesler has said it best in response to the question, “What personal qualities do you think make a good interaction designer?”[1]

“Enough confidence to believe you can solve any design problem and enough humility to understand that most of your initial ideas are probably bad. Enough humility to listing to ideas from other people that may be better than your own and enough confidence to understand that going with other people’s ideas does not diminish you value as a designer.

True concern for the comfort and happiness of other people, including your users, and your teammates. If you’re not teammate friendly, your products won’t be user friendly. That does not mean you should cave in under pressure on an important issue when you have the data that supports your opinion. But it does mean you should judge success by the success of the product and the team, not just by the success of your own narrow contribution.

There are a lot of other desirably personal qualities for a designers, such as attention to detail, objectivity, appreciation of humor, appreciation of aesthetics, and appreciation of data about users and usage.”

Hrm, it sounds a lot like he’s talking about the qualities of managers of designers, too.


Managers managing designers without trade craft training and experience will yield best overall results for themselves, their organization, and end-users of design works, far sooner than if attempting to become experienced designers themselves, by practicing design facilitation: supporting design and designers by articulating strategic goals and improving communication, and supervising rather than directing (playing Art Director of) design work.

Remove, for a moment, the fact that all organizations now engage in some form or level or marketing and interaction design. Imagine instead that your organization has given you management authority over a chef, musician, or mechanic. You might argue for or against that garnish, tempo, or brand of carburetor, but I think you’d leave it to them to determine how to cook, play, or repair your engine. The practice of any profession is not only knowledge and use of tools, but the practices of certain processes. Hire process experience, not just use of tools. And let them—even encourage them to—apply their experience.

The manager’s core skill (value) is facilitation of production, perpetuation of values (quality, efficiency, utility…) and accountability for results. So best, I suggest, they clarify (communicate) goals, and how to measure their achievement. After all, if you can measure it, you can’t manage it.

So have you suggestions for helping non-designer managers best manage designers who answer to them? Comments are open:

About Michael Cummings 31 Articles
Michael Cummings has been planning, designing, and producing interactive systems since 1995.
Contact: Website

3 Comments on Managers Who Love Design…

  1. the article is amazing
    i’m a graphic designer & i always have problems with my manager
    but after reading this article some things we’ll change in our communication

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