From Designer to Design Lead

September 11 2017

I’m an experienced designer and front-end developer, and I’ve contributed to a range of work over the years. I’m confident in my branding, layout, and coding abilities, though everyday those particular skills are squeezed out in favor of scheduling, supporting my team, and encouraging design discipline.

Honestly, I’m learning so many things so quickly that I’m even hesitant to write this post since I know it will be terribly dated in a short time. I imagine I will look back in another year and groan at the things this junior manager is writing. Regardless of what Future Ryan™ will think, I want to document where I’m at today.

Here are a few things I’m learning how to do better after a year of managing my design team.

Responding to Questions

Leading a team means you get asked a ton of questions from every angle — the team you lead, your peers, your own boss, the stakeholders, potential customers, and everyone in between. By the nature of the position, if someone is asking you a question, there’s a solid chance the answer will exist in a gray area.

If I don’t know the answer immediately, I’ve learned it’s ok to respond with Great question. I don’t know exactly, but I will look into it and get back to you.” Then right away, I put time on the calendar to get back to them with an answer. People see right through faking and bullshitting an answer. 

To complicate matters, when I do know the answer, blurting out the answer may not be as helpful as you may think. For example, a simple question such as when is the deadline” may actually point to a larger problem. Perhaps no one knows the deadline and it was never communicated. Perhaps it was moved or the project cancelled altogether.

As an individual contributor, responding to questions was pretty straightforward. As a leader, the why” has to be considered. And you still have to give a solid answer.

Growing as a Manager

Being the most senior designer and the leader of the team, I must continue searching for ways to grow, both in design and management. Right now, I’m reading as many books and articles as I can. I’ve also had success reaching out to people whose work I admire, and talking with them occasionally. (Shout out to Lara Hogan for talking with me over Skype a few months ago!) The only way I become more confident in my design and front-end abilities is by talking with other designers, and management is the same way. 

Falling into individual work feels unavoidable, especially on a small team that is new. When there’s a problem, it’s very tempting for me to help” by jumping in and getting my hands dirty in the project. Turns out it’s not helpful, and it’s also pretty annoying for my team. The lesson here is when I have to individually contribute to a project, that should be a red flag that something else has gone wrong.

Learning about people

We all approach problems in different ways, and we have our weaknesses and strengths. I’ve learned to be extra careful not to project my own fears and apprehensions onto others and their work. They are their own person, and I should learn the nuances of how they work. 

My responsibilities are to guide the design team to better work through mentoring and sponsoring. I clear obstacles so they can shine.