How to be a good design manager (8 critical skills to nail it)

Congratulations on being appointed your agency’s new design manager! After consistently being the top designer, it’s well-deserved.

As you’d expect, your DMs and email inbox are buzzing with congratulatory messages.

While you’re, of course, happy for the bump in pay and promotion, one question is bothering you: 

How do I become a good design manager

GIF Source: Tenor

Well, you’re in luck, as this guide provides you with the necessary skills to become an amazing design manager. 

But first, let’s look at what your new job description involves.

Table of contents

  1. What does a design manager do?
  2. Encourage open communication
  3. Be supportive and show genuine interest
  4. Create alignment within your team
  5. Set a clear definition of goals and objectives
  6. Inspire trust and confidence
  7. Promote team accountability (and be accountable)
  8. Embrace transparency
  9. Train yourself to be a visionary thinker

What does a design manager do?

Managers are pros who understand the creative process so much they can provide aesthetic opinions and spot design errors in their sleep.

More specifically, a design manager is an experienced designer tasked with the leadership responsibility of: 

  • Managing design team
  • Evaluating designs 
  • Setting quality standards 
  • Providing feedback on deliverables
  • Approving timesheets

Managers are full-time creative directors who oversee various projects, from product development to web design, marketing, and beyond. 

Think about project managers on a construction site. 

They are almost everywhere on a site, giving out instructions to skilled workers because they have a good understanding of what the result is and how to get there. 

A design manager has a similar role but in a more creative setting. 

Why does being a better design manager matter?

Being a good manager will help your company grow and the team you’re managing to become more productive. 

To be more specific, a good design manager: 

  • Provides mentorship and direction to team members: This can come in the form of training or more detailed instructions for junior designers, making difficult decisions when needed, and providing answers to a creative team’s questions.
  • Boosts team morale: A great design manager ensures the team is properly motivated to work by creating a cooperative environment where everyone can communicate. 
  • Boosts employee retention: Employees with a great team lead will be more likely to keep working at the organization. That’s because managers who create great work environments have a positive impact on their teams. 
  • Delegates tasks: You’ll be able to assign tasks to team members and set submission deadlines so everyone knows what to do during work hours. 
  • Ensures team members are satisfied: When employees are fulfilled, they become more devoted to their jobs and, of course, satisfied. But that’s only possible if their team lead resonates with them. 

How can you become the best design manager you can be? Let’s keep moving.

1. Encourage open communication

Considering you’re most likely a well-seasoned designer, you probably know what it means to work under managers who only dish out instructions and never listen to their team’s contributions. 

Well, that takes us to the first talent you need on this new journey: communication skills.

What typically comes to mind when people talk about communication is being able to present their thoughts to others. 

But open communication goes beyond that. 

It is when your team members can express their opinions and feedback with you just as you do with them. 

This can be done through the following: 

  • Huddles 
  • One-on-one discussions 
  • Monthly meetings 

Encouraging your designers to share their thoughts often will make them feel heard, which increases their job satisfaction.

If you’d like to promote open communication, keep these tips in mind:

  • Provide clarity about what’s expected of your team and what success means for you
  • Offer guidance when needed
  • Always ask for suggestions and keep an open mind

Now, since you’re managing a creative team, it’s important to limit the number of meetings you have so that communication doesn’t affect productivity. 

To do that, you need to incorporate synchronous and asynchronous communication tools into your workflow.

Asynchronous communication tools (like, Threads, and Loom) will enable your team to share their ideas while being focused on their work. They allow you to communicate effectively without having to call a meeting. 

On the flip side, synchronous communication supports occasional conversations and team bonding. During these interactions, team members can jump on virtual meetings in real-time.  

You need a mix of asynchronous and synchronous tools for effective communication.

2. Be supportive and show genuine interest

Remember how team members poured in congratulatory messages after your promotion as a way of showing their support?

Well, it’s time to return the favor and show that you’re also interested in them.

Plus, being supportive is one of the hallmarks of a good design lead. 

It’s understanding the different stages creatives on your team are at and trying to help them get better. 

By being supportive, you’re also giving them recognition for the times they’ve done something exceptional for the team and being their advocate.

Here’s how Nick Finck puts it:

Showing interest in your team means trying to understand their:

  • Challenges at work and outside of work
  • Point of view regarding the projects they are working on
  • Design career path
  • Roles in the team

When you have all of this information, see how you can help them reach their full potential by having more personal discussions with them. 

The bottom line is to have empathy: if you’ve got this, you’ll get them to be productive and committed. 

3. Create alignment within your team

Becoming a manager is a lot like being a coach. Perhaps that’s why they’re also called managers. 🙃 

As a coach, it’s your responsibility to ensure every player is on the same page as you. 

Got a strategy you want the team to implement in the next game

You’ll need to have strategy sessions with the players to discuss it and clarify what their roles are before the match. 

If you fail to do that, you’ll most likely end up with a scenario like this:

GIF Source: Tenor

The same applies to you as a design leader. Everyone on your team needs to be aware of their responsibilities on a project.

To get everyone on the same page, you first need to be familiar with the team’s ability (their strengths and weaknesses), how long the design process will take, and the best way to approach it. 

Then you can start assigning tasks based on your team members’ abilities using a design collaboration tool like

Tools like this help create alignment within the team regarding providing reviews, visual feedback, and approval.

When everyone in your team shares the same mindset, it becomes easy to set a vision and work toward it.

4. Set a clear definition of goals and objectives

Let’s continue with the football analogy. One of the things a coach is required to do is set goals and standards for their team. 

The goals are then used to determine the training the team undergoes and the players they’ll add to the team. ⚽

Now considering you’re the team’s coach, you’re tasked with the esteemed honor of setting clear goals and objectives for them. 

It’ll be like a creative brief provided by clients. 

Why is this necessary? 

It’s simple: to increase productivity!

When your creatives know what they’re working toward, it’ll be easier for them to channel their energy toward those objectives. That, in turn, can improve their productivity and motivation to work. 

Being a creative, you know how difficult it can be to stay focused on a project. Having a goal can change that for your team and help avoid scope creep.

Scope creep happens when clients add new tasks to a project beyond the initial requirements. This often leads to delays and sometimes project failure.

To set clear goals, follow these  tips:

  • Have regular meetings with management and team members about what needs to be done 
  • Break down big objectives into smaller milestones
  • Identify what factors to measure results by
  • Come up with strategies to accomplish set goals
  • Keep track of goals on a weekly or monthly basis

If your team is going to rally behind you to achieve these goals, there’s something you’ll need to do that takes us to the next skill.

5. Inspire trust and confidence

The Saudis were down one goal to Argentina in the first half of Group C’s opening match in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 

It was expected since the Argentine team was packed with superstars. 

But then something happened during the first half that went viral on social media. 

The Saudi coach gave an inspiring pep talk that boosted the confidence of his players. 

They went on to win the match 2-1. 

GIF Source: Tenor

 …well, that was the only match they won throughout the tournament. 🙃

Anyway, the point is the coach was able to inspire confidence in the team.

That’s something you need to do as a design manager. Let your team know you are confident in their abilities to create quality designs. 

While the occasional pep talk is a good idea, try other options such as:

  • Sponsoring skills training
  • Encouraging personal development
  • Organizing in-house training
  • Inviting veteran design experts to talk with the team
  • Offering team subscriptions to learning platforms 

These gestures will show you’re confident in your team and what they can become. It’ll also boost their morale and attitude toward work – and possibly earn you the ‘cool boss’ title. 😉

And so, just like Master Oogway would say, “with great trust comes great accountability.” 🐢

Technically, that’s our version of how he said it. 

Anyway, you also need to…

6. Promote team accountability (and be accountable)

Mistakes and failed projects are like the emblem of the creative industry. 

They happen, and there’s no escaping them, no matter what problem-solving techniques you use. 

Like ‘Sergeant O’Flag here, you just need to find a way to work around it as the captain of the design team. 

GIF Source: Tenor

To do that, you need to encourage accountability by being accountable yourself. You know, leading by example.

If you make a mistake with your design work, own it and notify your team so you can course-correct immediately. 

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit your mistakes. But doing so will encourage your team to take responsibility for their own errors. 

Know what else you should do?

Instead of turning into an expert design critic when you see colleagues’ errors, try and understand their point of view to visualize what they had in mind. 

Then, you can find out if something good can come from the idea. Doing this will promote a culture of accountability in your team.

And if the mistake wasn’t from your team or has been passed on to the delivery phase, then you need to streamline your workflow. 

Ensure smooth creative collaboration among different teams using visual feedback tools like 

The platform can improve communication by helping you indicate pixel-accurate elements in the design where feedback is required. 

Promoting team accountability is only one side of the coin, the other side involves sharing a little more than you’d like to.

7. Embrace transparency

Transparency means something you can see through. 

You must create a culture among your team where designers are open to sharing their work with others, so everyone knows what they’re working on. 

It also involves sharing their work process, methodology, and why they chose it that way. 

There are several reasons why embracing transparency is important, including

  • Designers aren’t confused about what they’re doing for clients
  • You get clear feedback on projects from stakeholders 
  • Everyone is up-to-date on the design project and methods used
  • The workload is fairly allocated among your team
  • Creative collaboration improves as other designers can share their thoughts on how a project can be improved since they can all see it

Alright, we’re almost there! There’s just one more skill to learn, and you’re on your way to becoming a good design manager.  

 8. Train yourself to be a visionary thinker

In the words of Warren Bennis, “leadership is the ability to translate vision into reality.”

As a design manager, you’re in charge of the visionary design thinking of what you want the team to achieve. 

Take a look at design trends to get familiar with where the industry is headed so you can prep your team to create on-trend product designs. 

Also, if you’ve only been used to creating graphic designs, it might be time to expand your portfolio and identify new potential revenue streams. Perhaps you could dive into web design

That could be another vision you want to achieve. 🤷

The point is that you need to start training yourself to think big as a manager. 

Big visions will keep your team members energized and focused on a goal. 


And just like that, you’re on your way to becoming a fantastic design manager. 

It’s exciting, right? 

Just one more thing before you go off into the wild west of the creative industry – management. 

Improve your design management skills with the right tools

The question of how to be a great manager has been answered. 🥳

With the leadership skills mentioned in this guide, you’re in for an amazing adventure in your design manager role.

GIF Source: Tenor

But what if we told you there’s a way you could be a better design manager without stress? can be the magic carpet that gets you there. It helps ensure alignment within your team and allows members to collaborate effectively. 

You can communicate ideas on, invite people to work with you on a project, and provide feedback, so everyone is on the same page. 

It sounds too good to be true, but we’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

Sign up for a 30-day free trial with MarkUp today and see the magic yourself. ✨