How to know if design management is right for you

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Take a second to think about where your design career is headed. Are you destined to be an Individual Contributor or is Design Management more your style? While both roles are equally invaluable to a design team, you might be wondering which career path is more in line with your goals and aspirations.

Today we’re shedding light on the role of Product Design Managers—what their day-to-day responsibilities include, the challenges faced in this role, and the difference between design management and individual contributor. We hope these insights help you determine where you want to steer your own design career!

What does a Design Manager do?

A Design Manager plays many roles in leading a creative team. Instead of pushing pixels, you’ll likely find yourself in charge of product strategy, improving design processes, and building your design team. Here’s how Paul Murphey describes his role as Product Design Manager at Intercom:

“At Intercom, I work as a product design manager. At its core, this means it’s my job to hire, grow, and retain a team of designers and help them to ship high-quality product quickly. Doing that involves a bunch of different things:

  • Managing a team of product designers across multiple products.
  • Coaching these folks and helping them to develop in their careers.
  • Running design projects and ensuring we deliver high-quality work.
  • Shaping the vision of our products and driving strategic design work.
  • Evolving our design practice — our processes, our principles, our tools, etc.
  • Growing our team by hiring new folks.
  • Representing our product publicly, for example by writing
 or doing interviews.

Design Manager vs. Individual Contributor

So what’s the main difference between a Design Manager and an Individual Contributor? According to Evernote’s Senior Design Manager, leading a team isn’t all about making design decisions, but requires a set of skills that are very different from being a great designer:

“Picking between management vs. an individual contributor track really comes down to what altitude of design you want to focus on. The great reward of management is being able to share a sense of accomplishment in achieving really massive efforts that are too big to be tackled individually. The associated burden is that you’ll need to primarily focus on things like process, culture, team satisfaction, and (arguably the hardest part) managing the performance of your direct reports.

If you like the idea of building machines that do big things and aren’t going to be deeply disappointed to relinquish control of the pixels to someone else, then you’re probably a good fit for design management. Depending on your culture, you likely retain the right to set the quality bar for design and to teach and mentor into the weeds.”

The challenges Design Managers face

Just like any other job title, Design Managers face their own set of day-to-day challenges. Some of these challenges include handling conflict between teammates, communicating negative feedback, and making sure your team is aligned on a shared design vision.

For Sara Kremer, Product Design Manager at Asana, another obstacle worth noting is maintaining a great team culture while building a fast-growing team.

“Right now, we are in a high-growth phase at Asana. As a business we’re doing really well, growing the team quite quickly, and building features even faster than before. This growth is exciting, but also presents some challenges. As a Product Design Manager, I need to be mindful of how we scale the design team’s culture and processes. Asana is a really great place to work and our designers are part of a close-knit team. As we add more designers, we want to keep a family vibe on the team.”

Design Management is not for everyone. But if you find yourself excited about things like coaching, mentoring other designers, product strategy, and building teams, you might want to consider exploring this career path further. We hope these insights were helpful!


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