Well yes and no, or rather not completely as it implies only a part of the responsibilities of a design manager and that, in some companies, design management is not the Design department’s responsibility, it’s often in the hands of the Marketing activity.
Design management and managing design team
Design management is principally concerned with the brand, creating a vision, developing it into a plan, deploying it, making regular checks on how it is progressing, correcting the trajectory whenever that is necessary, making a step by step journey towards excellence, towards creating even more value… Aim towards that nirvana for our brand that we all aspire to reach.
(Also read the “design ladder” model which provides three levels for design: design seen as style, performance or strategy)
Yes but, a design manager what does that mean if it is not related to design management? The very notion of the verb «manage» is interesting, it suggests to achieve by whatever means, to carry on despite difficulties or again, to succeed in accomplishing despite obstacles… as in : «I managed to get the last 2 tickets to the cup final».
I manage a group of designers, or I’m the design manager? Managing a team of designers does not seem to warrant further explanations, or does it?
Let me tell you that looking after the destiny of a team of designers, on a daily basis, is no picnic. Managing them is a little like watching with great attention a saucepan full of milk on a gas stove. Stressing! as the risk of spilling over if you wait too long are real, and the consequences annoying, but if you take the saucepan off the stove too soon, the risk maybe that you will have to face a mug full of lukewarm milk, which I don’t know about you, but it always makes me feel sick.
So, what is a good design manager? It’s someone who will leave the saucepan on the stove long enough to be at the right temperature, keeps himself focused, and takes a timely decision, what else?
A timely professional
A design manager must be an excellent administrator who encourages beyond reproach behavior in order to avoid the prejudice associated with «arty types», which would reduce to ashes the carefully built edifice of creative excellence. If the team of a design manager is often referred to «that bunch of artists» the thing is beyond repair. The worm is in the apple, it signals the end is not far, the fruit will soon crash rotten to the ground.
A good design manager will know how to orient his team towards excellence in order for it to be acknowledged as a well managed team. It will, for example, always arrive on time, (I never want to hear again : «We’re just waiting for Design»), it will anticipate, prepare its presentation meticulously, communicate beforehand with its partners, its logistics will be be at the very best level, it will not allow its monthly reporting systems to be late : be it its overtime statements, the projects worked upon or its traveling expenses.
Its reflexions will be nourished by a 360° approach, whilst making the team’s right hemisphere work at full power, after all, it is their most precious asset. A good design manager will run his team like a high level sport organization, in order to obtain a highly creative output.
And that, only allows you to have a right to speak, not to be relegated as being a group of teenagers, nice bunch of people, but that cannot be trusted for the more serious stuff. But if, by chance, a design manager understands the importance of passing the day to day examination, that finally allows the word designer to be associated with the word rigor… Well then, the Design entity will not only have a say in the company but more than that, it will be able to claim a strategic role, if of course it has the intellectual qualities, that is…
A listening leader
But then what is a design manager as viewed by his own team? It’s someone who ensures that his team remains at it’s highest potential level of creativity. He will be attentive to maintaining a careful balance, knowing that a good team spirit is something very delicate to nurture, particularly as today, teamwork has replaced the solitary genius.
And yet the design manager knows that within his team, he has champions but also close seconds, and others… that even though we may find the George Orwell citation from Animal Farm cruel : «Everybody is equal, but some are more equal to others», a team could be looked upon as being made up of losers and winers, the losers being the majority of those whose projects have not been chosen. The design manager has to be able to handle such a sensitive moment when a designer learns that the project he has worked upon for so long has not been selected. He will make sure that no one loses face in this peer to peer relationship, he will know how to deal when that moment comes and someone realizes : «My project has not been chosen».
For design is a question of feelings, of engagement, of what I am, of the deeper me. So is this an impossible mission in which our design manager can only but fail? And what if… What if the design manager shared openly with the whole team the project? What if he sponsored each of the propositions made by the individual designers, encouraging each one to per sue an individual path, promoting the notion of a design open house where each one is given a specific mission?
For then, at the moment the choice is made by the client, the projects that have not been selected can no longer be described as failures, they will have all taken part in the team’s exploratory phase, each one contributing to a part of the creative overview, leading to the emergence of the selected project. And that is for me the key to a team in full bloom.
In the case where designers work within multidisciplinary teams, be they as members of an innovation team, or perhaps a feature team, the design manager should not step back and abandon his team member to the manager in charge of the entity. This is what I have too often witnessed, and it invariably leads to the creation of animosity and organizational dysfunctions. On the contrary, it’s all important that the design manager maintains an even closer relationship with the designer, helping him, coaching him to better contribute to the project team as a whole, and amongst other things : to distill creative free flowing approaches that might not be common practice to other members of the project team.
So all is well, our Design team is in high spirits but, vis à vis the outside world, out there it can be cold and hostile, is our radiant team performing at its best level as a whole, or is it starting to purr like a self satisfied cat?
A holistic chef
A design manager is not only responsible for the performance of his team at a given moment, he also has the responsibility to make sure that, where it is going is not a dead end. How many design teams have corked the Champagne following a well deserved success without noticing that it was driving on an almost empty fuel tank, that it was feeding itself on petits fours and forgetting to nourish it’s source of inspiration? How many designers entered the boulevard of mediocrity without even noticing?
Without inspiration, without external influences coming from the parallel worlds that exist all around us, we designers can become rapidly experts in our thing, we can lose the contact with the real world, the people, their habits, the permanently changing culture, the appearance of weak signals.
I’ve always been struck by this phenomena so often to be found with impassioned individuals, as for example automobile designers. Of course automobile design can become addictive, it can very quickly materialize in a closed world to outside influences, it then becomes a selective passion which eventually turns out to be an exclusive obsession. That is why, in the year 2000, when I clearly noticed that the creative inspiration of our team was waning, I proposed to our automobile designers to participate in a program called Trend Missions (which phonetically is close to Transmission): we took them out of their close environment, their comfort zone, we took them to the Milan Furniture Fair, we accompanied small groups of 5 to 6 designers for a 3 day discovery, meeting and exchanging with remarkable designers coming from other planets, be it Ross Lovegrove, Tom Dixon, Ingo Maurer, Patricia Urquiola, Richard Sapper, or Jean-Marie Massaud…
We also visited extraordinary cities like Stockholm, Barcelona, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow or New York. Each time we encouraged debates to take place, meetings, exchanges, and we made videos in order to share with those who were not lucky enough to join the trip.
Soon enough the videos were shared with our closest colleagues in other departments, Product Planing, Marketing, Advanced Engineering and then it spread like a bush fire, and the President himself was always keen to have his review and ask pertinent questions.
Thus Corporate Design was able to instill an overture, to encourage a far greater sense of curiosity to its designers, which progressively turned into a new wind of change within the whole company. And that is also the mission of a DESIGN MANAGER, which we then can write with capital letters.
Patrick le Quément is a world famous Car Designer. Patrick’s motto is Design = Quality; his structural changes of Renault design were to develop an independent and innovative formal language, turning Renault Design in an effective brand name.
Patrick is now working as independant Designer, and President of the Advisory Board “the Sustainable Design School”.
image credits: www.complydirect.com, unmaldesmots.blogspot.com, jdca2025.wordpress.com, www.flickr.com, www.interiordesign.net, blog.padmapper.com
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Nicolas is a senior VP at Orange Innovation Group. Serial innovator, he set-up creative BU with an international challenge, and a focus on new TV experiences. Forward thinker, he completed a thesis on “Rapid Innovation”, implemented successfully at Orange, and further developed at nbry.wordpress.com. He tweets @nicobry