Designers managing designers

When designers get busy, we hire another designer. Might be a short-term freelancer, might be a fulltime staff member. Either way, the result is one designer directing, briefing or managing another.

Managing morphs into leadership and that’s where it gets interesting because leadership uses a completely different skillset to designing.

Leading creatives is akin to catching javelins.
It’s not easy.
Blood can be spilt.
And not everyone wears the armour to do it well.

The key is to think of it as a career change.
Not a career progression.
A new career.

This week’s article shares five things I know about #creativeleadership.

It’s not a natural career progression

First thing to understand is that leadership is not just a career progression: generalist – specialist – leader.

When you think about it, it makes sense: the skills that make an amazing designer do not necessarily make an amazing leader. Designers who manage other designers well usually have unlearnt old ways of working and developed new skills.

Shelly Johnson, a HR specialist on LinkedIn suggested:

Imagine if we treated (leadership) like moving from finance to marketing. We’d see way more focus on learning and investment in upskilling.

It doesn’t involve pulling or ropes

This quote is one I read recently on an Adam Grant post. (Adam is an organisational psychologist at Wharton, and worth following on LinkedIn.)

Leadership is not about pulling people along to follow your route. It’s about shining enough light for them to find their own path.

Yep, it’s a little whoo whoo but the gist is; just because it’s not done your way doesn’t mean it’s not done the right way.

In my experience, designers managing designers sometimes miss that point.

It does involve CIA skills

Good leaders are problem solvers. They have a pocket full of missing jigsaw pieces ready to complete the puzzle. And they don’t work alone – they build a team and they work hard to uncover their team member’s secret powers. They know who does what well, and who needs help. That’s brilliant because designers working to their strengths are usually happier and more satisfied.

And good leaders understand roles and responsibilities. It is very CIA – it’s impossible to deliver the ‘perfect’ brief to a field agent. It’s a two-way street. Good leaders equip their ‘agents’ to take responsibility for asking the right questions.

Sometimes it’s just about about turning up

Consistency is king. Sometimes being a good leader is just about turning up – less about the public speaking and the awards, more about being there to support and answer the questions when needed.

It does get messy

Not many designers enjoy conflict, we’re hard-wired to please, so we tend to accept the #NQR to avoid confrontation.

That doesn’t work well in leadership – infact it can be a down-hill spiral of a project out of control.

Good leaders step into the mess and don’t retreat from the problems.
They take action early before too the mess is overwhelming.

Think of tackling a problem as bringing clarity rather than taking control.  Setting clear expectations for behaviour and performance early removes ambiguity. That makes that ‘next’ discussion cleaning up the mess less, mmm, messy.


Designers can manage designers – infact I would argue designers make great leaders. But generally, the ones who do it well have skilled up to think differently.

How do they skill up?
So pleased you asked.

All this information is part of our online program for Design studio managers.

Our design studio management program is a practical professional development program I 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.

Content includes information about managing people, negotiating, managing workflow, clients, new business and finally, a mini-finance course. Some designers do the program to move to management, some studio owners have done the program to hone their skills and some studios want access to the program to use as a library of factsheets and videos to dip in and out of as needed.

When starting your own design studio, you have a vision of what you hope it to be. However there are many parts to make that vision a reality.

Through the course provided by the Design Business Council I was fortunate to learn those fundamental parts to set the right foundation to establish our studio. The Design Studio Management course guides you through the crucial elements in running a successful studio. You are navigated through potential scenarios with advice on how to resolve them, so when the time presents actual predicaments within your business you are far more equipped to solve them.

The consistent support from Carol and Greg was an influential benefit that helped us reconsider and refine our approach to new business and the growth trajectory of our agency.  No matter the maturity or size of your studio, the Design Studio Management program compliments and enhances your skills in the running of your studio and understanding of the business of design.

Jen Doran, co-founder Our Revolution.

There’s a few ways to enter the program, email if you’d like more information.

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol. Want more info like this? Subscribe below. (And tell your friends 🙂

Carol Mackay

Design Business Council : business advice for creatives.
We help designers build better, stronger, more sustainable, businesses.

Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a need for more information about the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing so they wanted more info about how to work more efficiently and effectively.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.

For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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