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.