Design studio manager

Who’d want to be a design studio manager?

Managing creatives is not for the faint hearted – Greg and I certainly learnt that the hard way during three decades of owning an Australian design studio. It needs a specific, part creative part business skill-set that is certainly not taught at unis.

Design managers are literally between a rock and a hard place. They are either managing up – negotiating between clients and/or studio owners and designers, or they are managing down – negotiating with passionate creatives or guiding a graduate through the first job in a design career.


It’s arguable that most of a design manager’s day is spent negotiating.

The key is to remember negotiation is not about winning or losing. No one likes to lose, and those that continually lose can end up disillusioned and demotivated. That said, the best result is not always a compromise.

Compromise can be a lazy solution where neither side gets what they need. There’s a classic tale in negotiation:

Two sisters argue over who would get an orange. 
They compromised and split it in half. One sister ate her half and threw away the peel; the other, who was cooking, grated the peel on her half and threw away the rest of the orange.

Successful negotiation is when you really understanding what everyone needs.

Be prepared

A design manager often has to lead a tense conversation. In this case, preparation is the key: don’t try to wing it.

While it’s impossible to foresee how the discussion will go, think through a few possible scenarios before hand. What if there are tears? Aggression? Worse still, what if you get interrupted in the middle and need to regroup at a later time?

Practice is the key. All research and practice says the same thing: try your utmost to avoid feeling anxious while negotiating. One way to manage that is to relax, and that comes from practicing and rehearsing to keep your negotiating skills sharp.

Anxiety is often a response to being unfamiliar with surroundings and the process. The more comfortable you are, the less anxious you will feel.  That’s where role-play can be effective. Find a ‘friendly’ with which you can try different approaches and test out phrases. It’s amazing how different a phrase that sounded so good in your head can sound when it leaves your mouth.

Unashamed plug

There are three programs presented within the Design Business School, this info is from one written specifically for Design studio managers.

It’s practical professional development we wish was around when we started our studio. All content is tailored to, and based on, Australian design studios, and every unit includes an interview with an studio manager working in an Australian studio.

It’s due for release in February but pre release packages are available. Email me if you’d like to be kept up to date with the progress.


Carol Mackay

Carol is the founder and creative director of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 33 years in business. Her expertise is in the use of design to make the complex simple: package complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information that are easy to understand and digest.

She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not-for-profit sectors. Connect in LinkedIn, or read more at

Currently Carol is co-writing a new program for the The Design Business School to help design studio managers develop skills to fast track their career path.

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