Saturday, February 24, 2007

Designers beware: Is the design manager or leader the one that is “better” than the rest?

I recently held a discussion with someone who told me in order to lead a team of designers, the design leader had to be better than the other designers. I don’t agree with such statement.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m very interested in learning and growing as a leader. I’ve read a lot about leadership and I keep up with design publications so I can feed off the experience of others, as well as my own.

So I thought I’d bring the subject up and see what people think!

What would be my answer to such a question? No.

But before I expand on my opinion, let’s just ask ourselves what “better” means. The person to whom I had this conversation was indicating the design leader must produce better logos than the rest, better visual systems, or the best brochures.

So for this person, being 'better' in the "technical” sense of the craft, meant a good designer would naturally become a good design manager. In other words, somebody who is better has the natural ability to supervise other designer's work, on account of their ability. On the other hand, someone with less ability would be unable to judge the quality of the other designer’s work.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask this question, “Would any really good designer necesarily want to become a design manager? I’ve known a fair share of designers that would decline such an invitation, at least feel uncomfortable with such a possibility. Why? For some being a design leader is “boring” and cuts into the one thing they enjoy most... designing! Managers have to start worrying about clients, deadlines, paperwork, tedious tasks and more importantly, the growth of their staff. I don’t know many, if any designers that would trade their art of designing for a higher position. Designers love designing!

Another question... what qualities does a great leader have to posess? Think of the great leaders of the world; those who have moved the masses, that have created a positive impact in history. In fact, why not consider that great boss you once had? What did he/she have in common with those other great leaders? I would say the ability to bring the best out of those they lead... in the case of the design manager, not the ability to draw better nor apply a more exhilirating color.

I once had a great boss who knew a bit about doing the tasks I normally did, however I surpassed him in many aspects of the work, chief of which was technical ability. But I could never have led the team the way he did. He’s still remembered by many as to how he pushed the team in all the right directions. What was so great about his leadership? He trusted and guided us... he encouraged us to learn on our own... he pushed us to try new heights, always keeping his word as he held the reigns. Was he “better”, in this sense of the word? No. But he was certainly wiser, with more experiences, able to see in us abilities we never saw in ourselves.

In closing here’s my thought: A good design manager is one who hires designers “better” than he or she is able to design. This way they’re able to feed off the knowledge of those they lead which will in turn bring out the best in their designing ability. If I were such a leader I would hire those passionate about their work... designers always learning more, always pushing themselves to new heights. In the final analysis, it’s not who’s better, it’s who forms the most diverse team, where the team feels supported to each bring their best to the table. This, to me, is what makes for a successful design team.

I look forward to receiving some comments! I’d sure love to know what the community thinks.
All the best!

*A special thanks to Mr. Green who kindly helped me proof read this article.


krgincolombia said...

Great Blog! I'm convinced... the good designer can be a 'better' designer than his/her boss. Lead on!!!

Carolina Ayerbe said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Krgincolombia! I hope you keep reading! Carolina.

Wayne Smallman said...

Design is just one industry where those in charge may well be less talented than their charges.

Some people posses skills that set them apart at management material, while at the same time are ineligible in the role of those they give instructions to.

However, as a manager, it's always good to be able to do the job of those you're overseeing...

Carolina Ayerbe said...

Thanks for the comment, Wayne! Although I stand by my position in this article, it's interesting to see that not everybody agrees with me, as you (and Ecademy users) can see when I posted it on Ecademy ( It takes all kinds, doesn't it?