Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Skills design managers need.

So. I’ve spent the past six months using my experience to write an online program on design studio management. Or more accurately, I’ve spent the past six months researching the latest skills, tools and resources on design studio management.

I cast the net wide and captured a plethora of interesting information but found I needed focus to give the information relevance.

Then I read this great Seth Godin article ….

The gist of the article is that creative roles are not linear. Creatives need to be part managers, inventors, leaders and support-staff. We need to think big picture but deliver in minute detail. We wear many hats, sometimes simultaneously. But even though we inherently know that, most continue to hire and train based on vocational skills.

Seth’s analogy is of a baseball team. You can measure a team member by counting hits, runs and catches but does a group of good hitters, runners and catchers make a successful team? Apparently not – he cites a case study based on a (highly skilled) jerk that tore a team apart. We’ve all experienced that.

Creative roles are complex. Most of us wear more than one hat. Sure we need specific skills – coders need to code – but usually the specific are vocational skills. And vocational skills can be easily learnt and are taught en-mass. They’re not the skills that will differentiate one studio (and indeed one creative) from another. What does separate us, is what Seth refers to as  ‘real-skills’.

It turns out that what actually separates thriving organisations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work. Culture defeats strategy, every time.

Truth is, it’s easier to teach and measure Adobe skills. We can measure output and we can measure speed. It’s much harder to teach effective decision-making, negotiation techniques or insight. Added to that, the impact of a negative thinker demoralising a team, or a bully pushing others to leave prematurely, is much much greater than that of a snail-paced photoshopper.

And even if you’re a coding wiz with great vocational skills you’re not really much use in a creative team without human skills: those things that can’t be written down, or programmed.

Two examples:

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon reports that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. The only surprising thing about this statistic is how low it is.

In a recent survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council … reported that although MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

Human skills

So, it sounds strange but human skills are my focus in the design studio management program. Sure, we cover tools that can help improve processes, and resources that will help with job scheduling, costing / estimating and budgeting. But we also cover the ‘real skills’ that make a successful designer studio manager, and a sustainable studio.

Bottom line is, managing creatives is not for the faint hearted. We push and pull. We want our team to think outside the square but colour between the lines ( AKA stay within the client brief). Good communication skills are imperative.

Design studio managers need to manage up and manage down. They need to be able to communicate, negotiate and talk people away from ledges. A good design studio manager is not just a title, it’s a design leader that inspires others.

Is it possible to teach these skills? I think it is, by focussing attention on them and broadening thinking and experiences.

Take home point.

We all have the same vocation skills. As Seth says: the most successful studios are going to be those that are more productive, more profitable and a better place to work. I think they will be those led by inspirational leaders.

PS: The program is due for release late March. It was going to be February but each unit is supported by an interview with a practising Australian Design Studio Manager and that takes time. We’re just capturing those interviews now. It will be worth the wait. Got a question? Please feel free to email me.


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Carol Mackay

Carol’s design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information to be easily understood and digested. 2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she is moving from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School.

Currently Carol is co-writing a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. It is due for release late February 2018. Contact Carol for more information.