How do designers become design managers? Anne Patterson presents the findings of her groundbreaking research on understanding learning and learning to understand
Britain and America: two great countries divided by a common language.
-Sir Winston Churchill
This famous quotation can also describe the gulf that divides the design and management communities. Having been both a designer and a manager, I ve stood on both sides of this great divide and wondered why these two groups sometimes seem so far apart. Sir Winston had an excellent point - language can be a barrier when two communities try to communicate effectively. In considering the relationship between designers and managers, one can think of it as two distinct communities searching for a common language.
Why is it important for these two groups to talk the same talk? Because design is one of the few means by which companies can distinguish themselves from their competition. In the past, companies could compete purely on product quality and cost-effectiveness, but in today s markets these factors are reduced to cost-of-entry. Bringing a design perspective to strategic issues can give companies a competitive edge.
As I progressed through my career as a communications designer in New York, I found myself getting involved with projects that dealt with complex strategic business and marketing issues. As I sat at the table with experts in corporate communications, marketing and strategic planning, I wanted to understand and use the language of business - to cross that divide and be fluent in the languages of design and management. This desire prompted me to enrol in the University of Westminster s MBA in Design Management programme, a learning experience that not only taught me how to speak the language of business, but helped me better understand the journey from designer to manager.
As I began to reflect on my learning experiences in preparation for my MBA dissertation, I began to realize that designers might benefit most from a lifelong learning approach as they work towards becoming design managers. A programme like Westminster s can figure prominently in a designer's career development path, but how do designers learn about business without this kind of experience? What are the learning characteristics of designers, and are designers aware of the benefits of lifelong learning to their career development?
I'd like to share the most impactful findings from my research. First, a lifelong approach to learning is becoming more critical for all professional workers, including designers. Meredith Davis, past president of the American Center for Design, has stated that, the survival of the (design) profession may depend less on its traditional education in art-based concepts and more on responding strategically to changes in the business, social and communication environments. Design schools tend to focus their efforts on helping students develop design skills, not business skills. But if designers aren t learning about strategic business issues before they enter the workforce, they need to learn them during their careers.
Second, when it comes to learning, adult learning needs are quite different than those of children. From the humanist perspective, adults prefer to take an active role in defining their learning content and most often learn to solve particular problems and challenges that they face. They are obviously affected by environmental factors such as work and family pressures. My MBA cohort was the perfect case study for the challenges of the adult learner: members of our group endured numerous job changes, some of which were in direct consequence of their involvement in the programme. Coupled with numerous personal challenges and changes, these factors had a dramatic impact on each individual s capacity and ability to learn. Therefore, adult learning programmes must be flexible to accommodate these bumps in the road to learning.
Another learning theory is Lave and Wenger s idea of communities of practice . This theory led me to the idea of designers and managers as two communities searching for a common language. But the differences beyond these two groups go beyond vocabulary - each of them has their own legends and folklore, according to the communities of practice theory. In other words, as you become a member of the design or management community, you not only learn the stories that everyone in the community knows, but you understand what these stories mean and how the meanings affect your role and your work within the community [see [italic]Tall tales [italic].]
Here are a couple of examples of folklore from managers and designers. The first is from the management side. I used to be charge of an annual report project for a global financial services corporation. I did this project for eight years, so I got the chance to work very closely with different groups within the client company. One of the most interesting was the Corporate Finance group. They were in charge of making sure that all the financial information, which made up about 75 per cent of the book, was dead-on accurate. They had a story that everyone in the group knew, and every year in the eight years I worked with them, they would tell it while we were on press. It seems that, during the process of getting out one of their quarterly reports, someone made a numerical mistake. The person who made the error got fired for it. This one story was a powerful enough influence on the group that it made them all fanatics about process. Not only did they proof the financial sections for a solid month before press time, but they would actually read the sheets again as they were coming off the press. This one story dictated their entire approach to quality control and their dynamics as a group.
On the design side, I ll share a story from my own company. One of
my firm s longest-standing clients is a internationally known gaming
manufacturer. For years, we designed a great deal of their worldwide
product packaging and they were one of our best clients. The
relationship started with a tiny project - a holiday card we designed
for them on a tight budget. Everyone who works for the firm comes to
know this story and to understand that client value is based on
long-term potential, not by the price tag of an individual project. Our
employees learn this concept by first hearing and understanding this
part of our folklore.
My research indicated if designers had their own language and folklore, they might also as a group have their own approaches to learning. But do designers approach learning differently from managers? And if they do approach learning differently, how can designers learn to think, act and be managers?
This is where the research got really interesting. Despite the differences in language and folklore between designers and managers, my research revealed that these groups do share a common bond - their core professional skills and their learning styles. Designers possess certain core skills that allow them to deal with complexity and change. Earl Powell of the Design Management Institute describes these skills as thinking about a problem from multiple viewpoints and taking an idea from concept to realization. These skills in perception relate to what researcher Nigel Cross describes as designerly ways of knowing. In other words, designers use these problem-solving skills to tackle what he calls ill-defined problems. We re all familiar with those - whether it s creating a new product line for an emerging market or developing a long-term strategic plan for a company in the midst of constant change. Designers and managers are solving these types of complex, systems-oriented problems all the time.
Designers and managers also use the same types of learning techniques like experimentation and critical reflection. Each group employs the same experiential learning cycle, what David Kolb describes as plan, act, observe and reflect . Based on this common thread - that designers and managers solved the same types of problems and learned through similar methods and approaches - designers are actually well situated to make the transition to management. This was a pivotal finding. So the next question to answer was: what career phases do designers pass through on their journey to design manager? And ultimately, could lifelong learning make this journey easier?
Based on my research and my own professional experiences, I developed a career phase model as a way to graphically depict the journey [see diagram]. Each career phase is described by job responsibilities, educational requirements and job titles. The career path represented by the model is a linear one, in which each subsequent phase builds upon the previous ones. In this model, the designer expands their knowledge of management issues and ultimately becomes a strategic design manager.
It was now time to take these concepts and test them in the real world - where the rubber meets the road, if you will. I wanted to find out if my career phase model resembled the career paths of real designers. I also wanted to find out how designers learn. This would test a number of assumptions. First, the career phase model I had developed described the designer s journey from being a specialist producer to a generalist manager. This was evident in the amount of tactical vs strategic work in each phase. As the designer moved towards design manager, the amount of hands-on design work decreases as their strategic responsibilities naturally increase.
Second, the designer s definition of design also changed as they progressed through each career phase. Design migrated from the creation of visual things to a problem-solving process. So as designers became managers, one would expect that their definition of design evolves.
And third, based on my research in management development, I expected that designers in my study would find the transition from design project manager to design staff manager very challenging. Linda Hill, associate professor at the Harvard Business School, observed the following in her study of first-year managers: Like becoming parents, managers were transformed through experience, through which they came to view the world and themselves differently. I assumed that designers, as they took on management responsibilities, would go through the same kind of shift in their world-view.
So, armed with my career phase model, my questions and assumptions, I interviewed designers who based on job titles and responsibilities, represented one of each of the five phases in my model.
The top-level findings from these interviews were interesting and unexpected. First and most surprisingly, only one designer in my study group even mentioned lifelong learning. Full stop. On the surface, this finding seemed to invalidate the entire foundation of my dissertation. But in digging deeper into the interviews, it became obvious that designers understood the need for learning and they spend a great deal of time learning. They saw formal, school-based learning as a necessary foundation for becoming a designer and a professional. Formal programmes also helped designers develop core skills. One associate designer claimed, We learned how to look at things differently, and how to help other audiences get your ideas. We also learned how to think from different perspectives.
But at the same time, designers in the study were quick to point out the skill-based, tactical nature of their schooling as a shortcoming, especially when it came to business issues: (My design) programme was lacking in any business issues training - the basics of things like marketing and finance. I got no exposure to business terminology. Without providing this basic business vocabulary, designers are challenged from the beginning to become members of the business community.
Based on the shortcomings in their formal schooling, designers turned to informal, on-the-job learning to fill the gaps in their education. And true to their learning characteristics, they often used a problem-solving approach in seeking out learning opportunities. A senior design director commented, I learn more on the job. I m here eight hours a day, and there s lots of hands-on activity. There are lots of people to talk to, and I learn better by watching and observing, than just talking about how to do something. Again, designers prefer to take a more active role in their learning, which aligns with their learning preferences. But their motivations for learning were almost always driven by immediate need, rather than by a perceived need to learn [see [italics] Making your mark [italic].]
Making your mark
I ll give you a personal example from the design perspective of learning driven by immediate need. My first real design job was working for an annual report company in New York. We were producing a new capabilities brochure, and we wanted our logo to appear in a wax seal on the cover. We knew we couldn t use real wax because it s too brittle and wouldn t hold up during shipping. We really didn t want to fake it with an embossing - we wanted something real and tactile. As I was wracking my brains for a solution, I suddenly remembered an object from my native Kentucky - a Maker s Mark bourbon bottle. If you re not familiar with it, the top and neck of the bottle are covered in what looks like red wax. But I knew it wasn t real wax because it s much more durable than that. I called the distillery, got the name of the man who made this wax and plastic amalgam, sent him a die of our logo, and in two weeks, we had perfectly imprinted wax-looking seals for our brochure covers. This was a unique learning opportunity that was certainly motivated by filling a design need.
Another interesting finding was that, as designers developed professionally, they gravitated towards experience-based learning to the point that they sometimes viewed formal schooling as a diversion from their professional development. I m not doing any formal training right now. I m going to take a painting class, because I need to fulfil my creative energy with something that isn t client driven, said an associate designer. For this person, formal education was seen as a welcome escape from work issues, and not a means for making work easier or more fulfilling.
Social learning was another popular choice for designers looking to solve problems and hone their skills. This activity ties back to the community of practice theory: designers prefer to learn by interacting with others in their field. My research supports this; overwhelmingly, designers cited mentors as their preferred learning resource. And designers sought out colleagues not just for technical information, but for counsel as they progress along their career path. Said a group manager, I definitely consult my colleagues for advice and information. It s comforting to know that others are going through the same things that you are in your career, and that you can turn to them for advice. This kind of social learning allows members of the design and management communities to reap the mutual benefits of shared experience and to spread the folklore inherent in these groups.
Speaking of groups, designers often interact with many other groups besides managers. They also deal with different types of vendors, as well as clients from a wide range of industries. It was intriguing to see how designers thought of their interactions with these specialist groups. Designers compared their interactions with these groups to learning a new language or new culture. Said one design firm principal: A lot of design learning is not just skill - it s learning about disparate industries. Designers have to be pluralists. Each industry has its own jargon or language that you have to learn. This comes back yet again to the idea of communities of practice. In order to collaborate with these groups, designers have to learn some of the unique language and terminology to be accepted on some level by that community of practice.
Designers may not be familiar with lifelong learning as a concept, but they are learning all the time and consider it a vital activity. If lifelong learning would indeed help designers travel the career path to design manager more easily, then the next step for me was to understand the career phases encountered and the challenges along the way. For the most part, my study participants found the career phase model relevant, at least until phase three (design staff manager). Many designers reported that the path through these first three phases was not quite as clean as the model, in that they observed a great deal of overlap between phases. This was especially true for designers managing projects, since the management skills they acquired were akin to those needed to manage staff. A strategic design director observed that, Any designer is doing a certain amount of project management. They are still managing relationships, even if they re not managing staff directly. Many designers in the study reported the need to develop a fluid and broad set of skills quickly, especially if they worked in a small firm where fewer people were available to get the job done.
In addition, most designers found that, indeed, as their responsibilities expanded into managing staff, their understanding of their role began to shift dramatically. They began to face challenges that caused them to redefine their previously learned ways of working, and of their definition of design. Not only were they concerned with meeting client expectations, but they now had to worry about helping younger designers achieve their career goals, along with sorting through the often confusing issues around what it means to be a manager. A creative services manager explained that moving from designer to manager of people was the most challenging [transition]. Learning how to work with people and translating what I do innately to others is difficult.
This reaction to making a management transition is consistent with Hill s study of first-year managers. Designers make their first significant foray into the management community of practice when they become staff managers. Change of any kind can be stressful, and here we have a member of the design community of practice breaking through to a new community, and having to learn the language and ways of working that go with it.
I remember my own move into management, and the abrupt transition into that new community of practice. I found that my colleagues who had for many years considered me one of their own suddenly saw me as one of Them when I became a vice president. Literally overnight, I went from being their colleague to being their manager. I had to learn very quickly how to communicate effectively with all of them, considering that our roles relative to each other had quickly changed. I m sure everyone who has made that transition has a story to tell about the challenges of becoming a manager.
And in tackling these challenges, designers found that they had to figure out what it meant to be a manager all on their own. Only one person in my study actually had the chance to take advantage of management training. And true to their nature, designers relied on their problem solving abilities to learn how to be a part of this new community of practice. But with or without training, that management transition was imminently stressful. One of the ways designers coped with the stress was to look for parallels in their design and management work. A group manager told me that the similarities between design and management are that in both, you have to sell yourself and your work, your ideas. What differentiates designers from managers is that you learn to communicate visually. So not only were designers drawing parallels between the work they knew and their new management tasks, they were also applying their design skills in a management context.
Designers found the career phase model fairly analogous to their own experience. Though the divisions between phases were not quite so clean, they viewed their professional development as basically linear and cumulative. And sometimes, making those transitions to the next stage of their career was extremely stressful, causing them to make links between their design and management activities in order to works through the issues of their transition. But what were designers ultimate career goals? Did they want to become strategic design managers, or something else altogether?
The designers in my study
were about to surprise me further with additional revelations around
the career phase model. The biggest point of controversy about the
model emerged over phase four and five - design organization manager
and strategic design manager, respectively. Rather than seeing phases
four and five as part of a linear career path, most designers in my
study saw them as forks in the road. Designers were apt to choose
running a design organization as their ultimate career goal, rather
than become a strategic design manager. The motivation for this choice
for many revolved around the amount of hands-on design work, or rather
the lack thereof, in the strategic design manager job description. One
associate designer questioned the relevance of phase five: I m not sure
why a designer would even go to phase five - because they re tired of
being hands-on? Because they want to think about design rather than do
it? You don t think about being strategic early on in your career.
Obviously, these people can t foresee relinquishing their design
responsibilities for management ones. Perhaps this because their
professional identity centres on their role in the design community of
practice, and abandoning that role for another seems inconceivable to
One designer in my study described this sense of
allegiance to the design profession in terms of a craftsman
orientation. It s building on top of what you did before, which is the
craftsman model of always getting better at what you ve always done.
This idea of cumulative development might explain why the strategic
path seems so foreign to many designers. The similarities between
design and management aren t immediately apparent to them, and so
designers might feel that they are giving up all they have learned if
they take on a role that is mostly business or management focused.
sentiment was echoed by group director who had made the transition from
design to strategic design management. He said, You are picking up a
new profession (by becoming a manager), which is painful for anyone.
Get ready to leave your old (design) profession behind! Certainly there
s no denying that, as a manager, you will do less hands-on design work.
I've certainly experienced that reality, first in an operations role
and now in a business development and marketing capacity for my firm.
And I ll be honest - there are some days that I long to crank up the
music and jam on some design concepts or to knock out a bunch of
mechanical files. Why? Because it feels familiar and safe, I think. But
I've come to realize through my management work and through my MBA
experiences that my design perspective is valuable in a business
context, and I find satisfaction in designing other things like
workflow processes or marketing strategies. But my research made me
realize that not all designers feel that way, depending upon the point
they ve reached in their own professional development and their career
One of the most compelling findings in my research was the almost universal lack of understanding around design management, both as a concept and as a career path. This might also explain some designers reluctance in giving up their place in the design community of practice. If they aren t even aware of strategic design management as a potential career path, it's understandable that they would treat this option with scepticism.
This finding is important when considering the design and management relationship and the delicate balance between the two communities. If we agree that a design perspective is valuable one for someone functioning in a management capacity, then it s important to make designers aware of design management as a fulfilling and important career path. And building this awareness should ideally happen when a designer is learning what it means to be a designer. A first step would certainly be to incorporate more business and design management information into undergraduate design programmes, so that designers can learn about design management while they are developing those core skills that will make them good designers and managers.
The true power of design is as a problem-solving process. When you begin to think of design this way, design is not constrained to particular disciplines or client challenges. You can apply your core design skills to solve any type of problem. As Bonnie Briggs says, I have yet to see a business problem that doesn t involve or couldn t benefit from design thinking. Once designers truly appreciate the power of their core skills and learn how to constantly improve and apply those skills, then the journey to strategic design manager will be truly fulfilling and relevant, both to the individual designer and to the business world at large.
About this article
The above article was first published in New Design magazine and is reprinted with permission.
About the Author
Anne Patterson brings more than 17 years of educational and design experience to the industry. Most recently, she was Director of New Business Development and Marketing at Girvin Strategic Branding and Design in Seattle, Washington. Previously, she was Senior Vice President of Design at the DeSola Group in New York City. She holds a MS in Communications Design from Pratt Institute in New York, and has recently completed an MBA in Design Management from the University of Westminster in London, the first such program of its kind in the world. Anne is now Principal of designmatters, which provides strategic consulting services to design firms and assists designers with strategic career development.
About New Design Magazine
New Design magazine is the only title devoted wholly to the business of industrial and product design. Published six times each year, New Design tackles the issues faced by designers, design managers and those involved in the purchase of design services, both in the UK and the rest of the world. With its powerful combination of intelligent, incisive journalism from an dedicated in-house editorial team, contributions from major industry figures, and innovative graphic design, New Design has already established itself as a must-read in all its key market segments. As the designer's role changes in the 21st century, New Design is tracking, predicting and helping to facilitate that change.