Managing and Making: It Doesn’t Have to Be One or the Other

We work in interesting times. We recognize and accept that if you want to move “up” at a company, you have to become a manager. So, to rise up in the ranks means doing less of the thing you’ll be more responsible for. For a design manager, this means more time in email and Evernote, less time in Sketch and Photoshop. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the way it is.

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I’m not saying we don’t need managers—we desperately need good ones. But I started thinking about our blind acceptance of this cornerstone of modern business, and I wonder if there might be a way to create a system that values doing as much as managing—while also improving the skills of both groups.

I moved into my first management role about six years ago. I can’t quite remember the motivation behind it, but it was some combination of company need and my desire to further my career (and a little bit of “I wonder if I can do it,” I guess). I also had the good fortune of having an excellent manager in one of my first jobs. It opened my eyes to the challenges and opportunities of management, and I wanted to contribute to that. It’s been a huge learning experience (I would say it was humbling, but hashtags have ruined that word forever) and I’m glad I did it.

But a couple of years ago something about being a manager started to bother me. At first it was just a a small voice in the back of my head: How can you be a good design manager if you don’t design any more? I tried to ignore it, but that voice grew louder over time, and eventually I had to deal with the question head on.

The problem is, if you’re a manager, you have career opportunities. Manager turns into Senior Manager turns into Director turns into Senior Director, and so on. If you’re “just a designer,” the path is less clear. Sure, there are Senior and Lead roles out there, but they’re very rarely equated with real career progress. And that’s a problem. It forces some individual contributors to become managers even if they prefer to let someone else take the lead, and it creates a management culture that can become extremely out of touch with day-to-day design activities.

So at the end of last year I made a change. Partly because I was tired, partly to test this theory, I stepped away from management and became “just a designer” again. At first it was weird. Where did all the meetings go? What is this flat surface that I get to sit and work at for most of the day? But then the weirdness subsided and it just got… enjoyable. I now spend most of my days designing products, talking about and helping teams implement those designs. I realized I fell behind on design skills a little bit, so I went into a learning phase, and it was fun.

What does this mean? Am I done with management? Is anyone who chooses a life of management doomed to heartache and despair? Absolutely not! If anything, going back to being an individual contributor has cemented my belief that good managers are as important as they are hard to find. And I certainly hope and plan to be in that role again in the future. Just not right now.

So here’s how all of this comes together. I think we need a career system that encourages people to oscillate between individual contributor roles and manager roles. Maybe we provide “manager sabbaticals” where a manager becomes an individual contributor on a team for six to nine months. Maybe when a manager goes on vacation, an individual contributor takes on their role for a period of time (or for the duration of an entire project). I don’t know exactly what this looks like yet, but I think it’s important for us to figure it out.

Being an individual contributor makes you a better manager because you understand the day-to-day frustrations of your team better, and it ensures that you keep your technical skills up to date. Being a manager makes you a better designer because you understand the needs of leadership teams better, which allows you to communicate more effectively. One feeds the other, so we shouldn’t be forced to “pick a track.”

There are, of course, caveats. People shouldn’t be forced into management by the stigma that only management = career advancement. Some managers have no desire to become individual contributors again, and they shouldn’t have to. It’s about choice. If we encourage (and reward) people to have the freedom to explore different kinds of roles, it can only be a good thing for our industry—and, more importantly, for users.

12 Reader Comments

  1. Great ideas Rian – I think the sabbatical concept has legs. The balance between being a maker and a manager is something many of us have struggled with in our careers. Thanks for bringing it up on ALA.

  2. I find this article idealistic, albeit impractical. While I understand and, in someways, admire Rian’s desire to continue to work directly in the creative skill set he loves, the truth is he designs for a business, and that business needs to generate revenue.

    Since that’s the purpose of any business, it’s only natural that those who move up in its ranks also move ever closer to making the “10,000 foot view” their main focus. The reason managers, on average, get paid more than skilled labor is because the decisions they make have a greater overall impact on company revenue.

    While a part of me really likes the idea of a corporate meritocracy, the hard truth is that capitalism doesn’t work that way.

  3. I like these ideas. I am a manager, I had no desire to become a manager it just happened. In many ways I would rather spend my time learning new skills and fixing issues rather than managing people.

  4. Too often when, someone such as yourself, thinks critically about the status quo, and takes the time to consider solutions or alternatives, there is at least one opposing voice that pegs it as idealistic or some variation of unrealistic. While opposing views are certainly healthy and help foster change, I think this type of thinking, which ascertains that what is is all there is and what will always be, is woefully unhelpful and misguided.

    It is the mark of small thinking, the very antithesis of innovation. Everything we know to exist was once inconceivable. There is always a better way. Idealistic or not, business thrives when it embraces this notion. It’s why UX is so very important. There is always opportunity to learn and improve. The market, capitalistic or otherwise, demands change if it is to thrive.

    I for one, believe you are on to something, Rian, and not merely because I am of a similar mind. As much as it rattles me to consider myself ever being in a managerial position, I do think everyone should be afforded the opportunity to pivot between leadership and contributor roles, and the design industry is one of the best suited to attempt this.

    Agile development is more valuable than ever, and demands leadership at every level of the organization. It’s the beginning of a trend toward a vision like yours. Too many organizations allow managers to grow stagnant in their roles, to the point where individual contributors are more informed, and better able to make decisions. Granted, not all managerial positions play out this way, but I think the risk would be greatly reduced with these sabbaticals as you called them.

    Picking a track is akin to the waterfall method; dated, wasteful of resources, and ignorant of the nature of design. A more fluid approach is definitely worth exploring.

  5. I cringed when I read “just a designer…” as I’ve hesitated myself to take the leap into management at the risk of losing skills and craft, while also fearing a stall in career progress. I believe the balance lies in the ability of a design manager to take the time to roll up her sleeves when interested and necessary and get into the details when the project requires it. Making collaboration a priority when planning and defining the time to allow it is a challenging but positive way to work.

  6. It’s good to hear from other skilled laborers who wrestle with this problem. Until that happy day when most shops offer career tracks and dignified retirements to incorrigible creatives, we need to be honest with ourselves—and our bosses—about what qualifies as a career opportunity.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Blake, I’d like to respond to your point about managers and business. I have a couple of thoughts on that:

    1. Designers should always keep business goals in mind when they design. If they don’t, they’re not designers — they’re artists. Nothing wrong with being an artist, but that’s not our role in organizations.
    2. It is true that the decisions managers make have a bigger impact on revenue. And that’s why it’s so scary if they lose touch with the designers who are tasked to implement the ideas they come up with and the decisions they make. All those 10,000 ft decisions won’t mean a thing without the “skilled labor” that implements them. And that’s my point – we can make both managers and makers more effective by giving them the opportunity to learn from each other’s roles.

  8. This is uncanny; it’s like I wrote this myself! The situation you describe is exactly the same as the one I have found myself in and I’m so heartened to discover I’m not alone. I too have just made the decision to leave management behind and head into the world of freelance design again. It took a great deal of soul searching and encouragement from my partner and close friends but design and creating is what gets me out of bed in the morning so I had to be true to that. Maybe in 10 years time I’ll be ready to go back but for now I need to grow myself. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  9. Rian-
    I also made the jump from individual designer to manager a few years ago. Mainly because I wanted new skills in managing others, but also because I wanted more authority over our design strategy. If you are able to focus on managing, then kudos to you as a manager. I find that there is always enough work at my organization, that most managers still need to step in and be individual contributors. I think of us more as keyframe artists – we still need to be able to speak the language of designers and to step in and set the bigger vision and constraints with good keyframes so that the rest of the designers can do the other frames in between. Those keyframes also let design managers lean into their strengths of using visuals to communicate upward and outward to the rest of the organization.


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