Manage Your Design Team

How to Manage Your Design Team Effectively

In this post, we will explore how to manage design teams effectively. We spoke with Scott Perket, the CEO of Forge, who has extensive experience working at companies such as Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Airtable, Zendesk, AWS and more. He now runs a product design agency and was generous enough to take the time to share his advice about what makes for great leadership in design teams to make this post possible. 

Let’s dive straight in. 

The Most Common Methodologies of Design Management

There are three different types of management methodologies:

  1. Authoritarian micromanagement
  2. Hands-on
  3. Hands-off

Let’s look at each of these in more detail to help understand the differences between them.

Authoritarian Micromanagement

Authoritarians are among the worst design leaders. 

It’s extremely annoying to work for leaders that just tell you what to do, how to do it, and micromanage every step of the way. 

In fact, here are some of the biggest issues with authoritarian leaders:

  • Lack of originality. You have to do everything the exact way your team leader wants, or face the consequences!
  • Showing distrust. You are watched 24/7 so that you don’t make any mistakes, giving you no feeling of being trusted.
  • Stifling design. You will feel oppressed and won’t be able to showcase your creativity and skills.

Many of us in the design industry have had a manager or a creative director like this at some point. Sometimes you can learn a thing or two, but most of the time it’s just an awful slog to get through the work.

Hands-On

Hands-on leaders are there for their team, asking great questions and helping with the strategy from time to time. They create an open and safe environment where you can grow and express yourself.

These leaders are considered the best for those early in their career, and can really make your work more enjoyable.

Hands-Off

Hands-off leaders put a lot of trust in you to go about your work.

This can help you enjoy your work more since you can do everything according to your preferences, as well as being able to experiment with new things.

These leaders can be frustrating for those early in their careers, but great for senior individual contributors who are able to work according to their preferences, but also have the opportunity to contribute to defining culture and process in the organization.

But in some cases it can backfire and make the work a lot more difficult – especially when you need help. 

Some hands-off leaders are completely absent, and you might not see them for six months (other than passing in the halls).

What Leader Do You Want to Be?

There is no such thing as the best management methodology – it’s highly individual, depending on your personality, skills, and teammates. You will need to find your own style and what suits you, which will probably be a combination of the last two methodologies.

The Biggest Management Headaches

Throughout any design project there will always be problems along the way you’ll have no control over. These are usually concerning your company’s budget, external clients, or internal conflicts among your teammates. It’s essential that you know about these, so you can be prepared to resolve them.

Economic Uncertainty

Sometimes unexpected things happen, such as budget cuts, and projects getting shut down. 

There may even be a time when you’ll need to lay off some of your teammates. This is usually the number one issue brought up by the team and in individual 1:1s. 

The best way to handle this is to be completely transparent, discussing and sharing any details to help the team understand your business situation.

Doing this will help you gain their trust, and foster an open relationship with your team.

Giving And Receiving Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is one of the most challenging skills to learn as a design team leader. You need to find a way to have healthy discussions without them being problematic or too personal.

The key is to align the communication and feedback process with your team. 

Many leaders make the mistake of managing their design team with the same approach that previously worked out for them personally. However, this may not be suitable for your current team, and this could cause a lot of internal conflicts.

The best way to create an effective environment for giving and receiving feedback is to experiment with different approaches and see what works.

Here are a few of them that you can try:

  • Train your team. Provide your team with feedback training to help them understand the value of feedback, and motivate them to share their opinions.
  • Lead by example. Shows your team members that feedback is encouraged, not punished.
  • Take action. The feedback your team provides has to lead to action. Otherwise it’s useless and no one will provide it.

There is no best approach – you just have to find the one that resonates with you and your team the most.

Client Challenges

You can often find yourself in a situation where a client is unable to make decisions.

Your team will face these soft skills challenges all the time – and it’s your job as a leader to ensure they’re fully prepared. You can do that by providing your team with proper guidance to help them overcome these communication challenges, and resolve such situations.

Or you can use collaborative tools to make the decision-making process quicker and easier. Atarim can help you achieve that with its visual communication features, allowing collaboration to happen in a way that is incredibly easy and natural to use, and reducing any possibility of ambiguity or misunderstanding.

Sometimes your clients might not be on the same page as you and your team – or they don’t really understand what you’re trying to say. 

By showing them precisely what you plan to do you’ll give them more confidence and assurance, so they can make the final decision.

Tips For Managing Your Design Team

Managing a team is very demanding, and full of challenges.

Being a design team manager has very little to do with the actual designing aspect of a project. Instead, your focus shifts towards guiding your team, and micromanaging tasks.

You’ll have to take on responsibilities such as project management, client relationships, and supporting designers.

Here are some of the recommendations that will benefit you, the team leader, and your team.

Define Your Roles And Responsibilities

Leading a design team is very different from being a designer. The leadership role is not about giving strict orders or making decisions for your teammates. It’s more about finding ways to listen and communicate with your team. 

Here are a few actionable steps you can take to manage your team more effectively .

  • Communicate in a transparent and constructive manner
  • Encourage your team to collaborate more
  • Identify ineffective techniques or procedures
  • Obtain input, implement it, and settle disputes

As a leader, you can’t manage your team if your own tasks and responsibilities aren’t clear. 

You must be absolutely sure about your role within the team, how to approach management, and your duties and responsibilities.

Find The Biggest Motivators

Motivation, coupled with the right mindset, is a great driving force in any team-based effort. 

To achieve this you need to build a friendly and supportive workplace where your designers can grow and feel comfortable. This sets your team on the right path, and creates an environment where everyone can grow.

Here are the steps you need to take as a design team leader to set your team up for success:

  • Encourage team collaboration and communication.
  • Provide a healthy work-life balance.
  • Conduct regular check-ins.

Your responsibility as a leader is to create a roadmap with a clear vision of which direction to head – that’s the only way to motivate your team and guarantee effective long-term results.

Constantly Strive For Improvement

The only way to thrive in today’s hyper-competitive market is by constantly looking for ways to push your team forward. You, as a team leader, must reflect on past experiences to ensure you and your team don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Here are some of the ways to improve your team’s efforts and effectiveness:

  • Assess what works and what doesn’t.
  • Set long-term, measurable goals.
  • Ask for advice.

Have a clear understanding of what works, what to eliminate, and what results you’re looking to achieve – and work religiously to achieve them.

Assess The Talents Of Your Team

You trust your team and their capabilities – you wouldn’t hire them if they weren’t competent. But everyone still needs to gain full trust and autonomy, and that’s only earned through the work itself. 

You need to give each of your team members a good enough chance to show who they are and how they work. Give them an opportunity to fail, learn, and adapt to new challenges. 

This will give you valuable insights into their:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Soft and hard skills

The best way to leverage this knowledge is to use it to introduce strength-based pairing. 

You need to get a good sense of what is needed to make the project successful, including the types of skills and experience. You will then have to bring your team professionals together, go over the project, and explain their responsibilities and roles in the project. 

You and your team have to be absolutely clear on:

  1. The approach
  2. The initial tasks
  3. The expectations

After everybody is on board, you’ll set timelines for the expected results. In our experience this approach will make your team jump in and start growing, failing, and learning right away – making your projects gain both traction and momentum. 

Stimulate The Team’s Creativity

Strength-based pairing is among the most effective ways to make your design projects successful. But the right skills and experience are not enough. Your teammates must also be excited about the project and who they are working with.

The most important ingredient for this is safety – a safe environment to be their authentic self, ask questions, and fail early and often. This is the best way to stimulate the team’s creativity.

Once you put together your dream team for the project, you’ll need to provide it with:

  • A stage for brainstorming
  • A failure tolerant culture
  • Collaboration opportunities

Allowing the designers to have freedom over their creative decisions makes sure the end product is of outstanding quality. Therefore, let your team have a certain degree of independence over their choices and decisions.

Implement Layers Of Management

The structure of your team plays a critical role in many aspects, from how people communicate with each other, to how members complete tasks. Dividing your team results in uniform standards, and well-defined roles and responsibilities. 

Here are some of the most basic layers of management to implement:

  1. Top-Level management. These managers perform work that demands long hours and demonstrates a strong commitment toward the company, its survival, and its welfare.
  2. Middle-Level management. These managers facilitate any changes needed in an organization, and create an effective working environment.
  3. Lower-Level management. These managers directly interact with the actual workforce and interpret the instructions of the middle-level managers to them.

An orderly and organized team structure lets designers and other positions hold accountability, encouraging efficiency and promoting collaboration.

Face Conflicts With Positivity

In the course of managing a team, conflict is inevitable. It’s important to address these conflicts early and effectively to sustain the fitness of the team. If you fail to do this, these small conflicts can develop into impactful issues – causing a lot of trouble.

 Here are some of our tips to address and resolve conflicts effectively:

  • Accept that conflicts are a natural part of human interaction
  • Listen actively to understand everyone’s perspectives and concerns
  • Analyze the conflict to get to the root of the problem
  • Separate the person from the problem to prevent personal attacks
  • Work together to brainstorm solutions and agree on a course of action to build team unity and prevent similar conflicts from arising again in the future.

You need to look at the conflicts objectively, identifying points of agreement and disagreement. 

Also, being positive and hopeful in the most stressful of times not only makes your team more resilient, but also enhances your chances of professional success.

Equip Your Team Properly

Your team needs to have the right equipment to have the ability to create amazing results. It’s your responsibility as a team leader to supply your design team with the right tools and resources, and give them an opportunity to work effectively. 

Here are the essential things you need to equip your team with:

  1. Mentor/proper leader
  2. Standard operating procedures
  3. Training and development plans

Overlooking resource management and resource allocation is a big mistake to be avoided at all costs. 

Identify And Acknowledge Your Mistakes

It’s only human to make mistakes. However, ignoring them, blaming others, and not working to address them is the real problem.

Of course, it’s natural to slip sometimes. For instance, you might lose track of crucial data that pushes your ongoing project behind schedule. In such a case it’s crucial to accept accountability, and do everything to fix the situation.

Here are a couple of ways to take control of your mistakes.

  • Take accountability
  • Understand what led to you making the mistake
  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself — mistakes happen!

A great team leader is not one who doesn’t make mistakes, but one who addresses them and takes steps to both remedy the situation, and identify how they can be avoided in future.

Establish Direct Communication With Your Teammates

Communication is the key to progress in a creatively demanding environment. 

The responsibility of a good leader is to ask for insights from the team members, and to provide feedback on their work. To make this happen you need to create a safe environment in which everyone can share their opinions and ideas without being criticized for them.

Most teams establish direct communication by:

  • Having team syncs
  • Setting up meetings
  • Chatting in Slack channels

But there also has to be a place for personal conversations with team members to get more detailed insight into their emotional state.

Share Your Progress Publicly

Having a strong communication channel is invaluable as it saves countless resources spent during iterations and updates. 

By sharing work early on, stakeholders can enjoy increased transparency, and your team can get a better understanding of stakeholders’ expectations. Early involvement also helps cultivate a feeling of trust, as stakeholders will be able to see all of the effort that goes into designing the project.

A strong communication channel can help identify potential roadblocks or challenges early in the process, allowing for:

  • Quicker resolution
  • Reducing the risk of delays
  • Preventing miscommunication

Atarim solves this problem by providing a single dashboard to manage all your clients and projects in one place. By using Atarim, a design team can be more efficient, productive, and deliver higher-quality work to its clients.

Don’t Forget To Pause And Celebrate

Your team is busy – always chasing the next projects, meeting deadlines, and dealing with last-minute changes.

Sustaining this for a long time is not advised, and may lead to serious problems, such as:

  • Demotivation
  • Overworking
  • Burnout

To prevent this and achieve long-term success, you need to occasionally allow your team to take a break from work and celebrate past accomplishments. You can even go one step further and surprise your teammates with gifts and rewards.

This will definitely boost the spirit of your team members, show your appreciation, and lead to increased motivation and productivity. 

Conclusion

Managing a design team effectively is not an easy task. It requires the combination of these three elements:

  1. Communication
  2. Collaboration
  3. Organization 

By establishing a strong team culture, delegating responsibilities, and encouraging an open and transparent working environment, designers can deliver better results.

Atarim can help design teams streamline their workflow, keep track of project progress, and stay organized. If you’re looking to deliver projects faster with less back and forth, and a happier team – get started with Atarim today!

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