Design teams in large organisations are scaling faster every year. These are organisations that have heavily invested in design as a differentiator and in doing so are struggling to provide the best management structure and processes to help brilliant designers to do amazing work. My growing fear is that this is at the expense of the work, but also of the health and wellbeing of swathes of designers.

Design management as a discipline has been around since the 1950’s, really, starting as many things did in commercial advertising in the United States. Growing teams of unruly copywriters, art directors and illustrators were kept arrow straight as they flip-flopped between project teams and centralised teams. All the while, the agency struggled to keep them focussed, motivated and working as a team. No doubt, mental health suffered daily. And history has been repeating itself ever since.

Separating the person from the function

The time you spend on design management is mostly just people management. Designers are people, after all. And most designers are people that are entwined with their work - it’s difficult to separate out a person’s temperament, culture, upbringing, perspective, and view of the world from their creative work. The work is a result of that experience.

With that in mind, when I hear about design management within tech being separated from line management, or the operations of design, I can’t help think this is an exercise in dehumanising the design process.

Now, I understand that mileage may vary with this and different orgs do different things, but let’s look at each of those functions and their responsibility:

Design managers/leadership: manage design quality, guidance, strategy.

Line managers: day to day admininstration management, 1-1’s, performance reviews, HR function.

Ops managers: all the other stuff that isn’t design but designers might be expected to do.

Whilst it’s efficient for an organisation needing to scale design to increasingly operate this way, it’s not how designers partition themselves or the work they do. In over twenty years of working as a designer, with, or managing designers, I’ve never worked with anyone who would benefit from having their job split across three functions in this way. Why? Well, let’s walk through an example:

Take a designer working in a large organisation with the functions and management I described. She has just attended the Monday design critique and her work has been robustly questioned. Having recently started at the company through an acquisition of the small design studio she worked for, she’s finding the transition challenging. In her 1-1’s with her line manager, it’s been clear she’s in a delicate place.

I expect this is not a unique situation. Everybody has challenges outside of work, or from previous experience, that they bring with them. External forces impact on people’s performance every day of the week. There are many red flags for me in this little story that large organisations would try to fix with process: performance management, involvement from HR, 1-1’s, goal setting etc. But, honestly, what this person needs is not process but continuity of care.

Continuity of care

Continuity of care in healthcare is the continuity of care over time that a patient receives and it’s critical to patient wellbeing and recovery. I’ll tell you a story.

Last year, when I had an emergency trip to hospital and was diagnosed with a common heart condition (super common in cyclists and endurance sports people, btw. I’m fine. All good.) Following collapsing on an intensive bike ride, I was rushed into the emergency department of the local hospital. I was seen by several senior doctors before being moved to a general ward and seen by several specialists. Whilst each doctor had access to my numbers and my notes, there was little handover between each medical team. This is probably due to time and budget pressures in the UK health system. With each doctor having the bare numbers (bloods, basic obs), they needed to rely on me to give them the other information they needed. I spent 2 days repeating the same story to maybe half a dozen doctors. The burden was on me, the individual, to provide the continuity. Thankfully I wasn’t that sick: I was conscious and lucid. The doctors, in this case, were lucky. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. I was a critical aspect in their care plan when I just needed to be a patient.

As a senior designer (or art director, or team lead, or VP of design), leading a team, it’s your responsibility for the wellbeing of your team; happy people do good work. By splitting, or entirely abdicating responsibility, facets of that responsibility may help the organisation scale, but they burden the individual. When things go wrong, it’s up to the individual to join the dots between their managers to help them all understand the picture. Wellbeing affects behaviour affects work affects wellbeing. If each of those aspects is being managed by a different person or team, the individual is in trouble and – ultimately – the organisation is. So how can we help mitigate this?

  1. ‘I’ll manage the design output, but I don’t want to line manage’. Talking to design leaders at all levels over the years I keep hearing this and it’s a worrying trend. When I ask why, the general response is administrative overhead: too many 1-1’s, appraisal and review processes, holiday, sick, training etc. I think that’s an excuse. This is because people are difficult. Managing the whole person – their relationship with their work, the organisation, their wellbeing – is hard, hard work and it’s not for everyone. Remember: their work is a facet of themselves. My advice for situations like this is to encourage that person to undertake line management as well as design management.

  2. If an organisation must have three roles, three managers, dotted lines and the like, there must be a clear understanding of continuity of care for the individual designer. If, on that Monday morning critique, the lead designer knows that a member of their team is having a hard time at home, then they are mindful of that person’s mental health at that time and sensitive to their needs. Where I’ve seen this continuity of care work is when it’s very informal: once a week, the three managers have coffee and run through any potential issues they see. Where I’ve seen it go wrong is when there is too much process which further dehumanises the individual.

  3. Managers of creative professionals will find much to learn from reading Ed Catmull’s ‘Creativity, Inc’ about his time at Pixar. There is, however, one little nugget that sticks in my head and that is good managers need to be observant. Just to watch and be receptive and tuned into the behaviour, motivations, and where they all stand in relation to the work. In military, this is called the Situation Report (or ‘sitrep’ – you’ve probably heard it in movies). It’s also used in manufacturing and healthcare (well, in the NHS, anyway). It’s snapshot of the way things are. Every day, every morning, a manager should do a Sit Rep to themselves. Take a snapshot of mood, energy, workload, focus, and then adjust from there. If mood is low: address it. If energy is hyper and fragmented: focus it. If workload is too high, reduce it. Be mindful of the people, not just the productivity.

Design is an amazing life-long vocation. Diverse, inclusive, culturally rich teams are a melting pot of valuable experience which will effect their work on a daily basis. Organisations and managers have a responsibility to harness and amplify and channel this into amazing design work. By increasingly splitting this responsibility by different functions and people, the burden is placed on individual designers for their continuity of care. Not only do they have to produce great work, they have to get Person A talking to Person B to fix problem X that they’ve been telling Person C about for three weeks.

I worry about the state of mental health in the design industry. The more design is commoditised, and dehumanised in org charts and process, the more individuals will suffer. For the sake of Good Work, we should do something about that.