New design manager seeking advice

A former colleague, an amazing designer who now finds himself running a team of 18, writes me with questions about managing a design team. These questions might be relevant to many new to design management — and there are a growing number of them now that more companies are investing in design talent.

What’s a good way of testing a designer? Our current process involves: portfolio, interview, day of working, week of working

This looks good to me. It is often hard to get people to contribute a day or week of working for an interview. In my experience, instead, we have asked designers to do a design exercise. At Yahoo, we would give the exercise on-site and give them an hour to work on it. At Google, we would assign the exercise after the phone screen and ask them to complete it for our review before we invited the candidate on-site. Once they come for the site interview, we would ask them to present their portfolio for 30 minutes, then their design exercise for 15 minutes.

Is there always initial management overhead with a designer or should they be able to hit the ground running?

Yes there is usually management overhead with new designers, even if they are experienced, and especially if they are more junior. It’s good to keep that in mind as you look to hire designers — if you don’t have the bandwidth or are unwilling to devote that overhead time, better to hire as senior as you can.

Do you have any tips for drawing the best out of your designers?

Let them work on something that interests them. If they are not interested in the work/project, help them discover something about the work/project that they can love. It’s the job of the manager to inspire the designers who work for them; usually this is best done by giving designers strategic context and helping them understand why the project matters.

Coding. A necessary skill for anyone doing design for the web these days?

The ones who know how to code seem to be more effective, because they can prototype their ideas and help implement/fine tune the details. However, I don’t think it’s a necessary requirement, and have worked with many outstanding designers who do not code. Whether or not they code, they do need to work well with engineers.

Does their portfolio have to wow you, or is it worth letting them grow under your guidance. Conversely, what do you do if you like their portfolio but their actual work is sub par?

The more experience they have, the higher the expectations I have. I usually look for curiosity, passion, and eagerness to learn.

When you’re evaluating a portfolio, I assume you are evaluating it based on the work that is featured in it. If you are referring to the designer’s work once they start working for you, that’s a different story. It’s important then to understand why the work is not good. For example, are they not engaged, and if so, why? Is there something about their situation that is limiting their effectiveness, and what can you do as leader to fix the problem (for example, are they not empowered, or is there bad process, or is the Product Manager bad, or are the engineers not implementing what was designed, etc)?

What questions do you have about design management or introducing design in a company?  Send me questions at irene.au@gmail.com

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