Top 5 Resources for New Design Managers

By Kyle Schruder RGD, Director of Design, Coactuate


The transition from individual contributor to design manager is one of the most challenging shifts in a designer's career.
It requires a whole new set of skills—in my case, it turned out the years I put into learning how to do the work weren’t helpful when the time came to lead the work.
The hallmark of a great manager is being able to motivate results in others. The best moments are when your team comes up with a great idea you never would have thought of, and are able to pull it through. For this to happen, you need to make the shift from being intrinsically motivated to do your own great work, to inspiring that motivation in others.
Here are some resources that helped me in my journey with this transition, and hopefully, they will help you too.

Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need

Herding Tigers by Todd Henry was a revelation when I read it earlier this year. It gave me a framework that crystallized something I was intuitively doing, but perhaps not as well as I should have been. Henry’s theory that all designers require “Focus, Function and Fire” is something that really resonated with me and my team. Focus is about steering attention to the right challenge at the right time. Function is all the ways you can increase quality and efficiency. Fire is perhaps the most important — the motivation that what you’re working on is important and the inspiration to push your solutions to the next level.

Discussing Design: Improving Communication and Collaboration Through Critique

O’Reilly publishes a lot of great books on design, and this one is a standout. It is the most exhaustive exploration I’ve seen on how we talk about design and shape our critiques. You might think your approach to giving feedback is reliable, but I encourage you to check out this book to reflect on how you do it.

Cap Watkins - Ways We Work

I’m a big fan of Cap Watkins, and his Ways We Work interview was my first exposure to his work. It’s a nice look at someone who has made the transition to leadership. Also check out his DesignThinkers presentations, “Everything I Know" which he presented in Vancouver in 2017 and “600 1:1s” which he presented in Toronto in 2019 (soon to be made available in the members-only section of the RGD website).

The Coaching Habit

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is an excellent resource for distilling coaching and management down to the essentials. It theorizes that coaching has become too complicated—you don’t need a robust system or software to coach; you need to build connections and listen more than you speak. My main takeaway from this was the importance of digging underneath the surface level when conducting a one-on-one—people won’t always be upfront with what they’re truly feeling.

The One Minute Manager

The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson is a quirky book, framed around the story of a new manager on a quest to learn the secrets of excelling in the role. It’s a nice build on the idea at the core of The Coaching Habit, that management doesn’t have to be complicated. The One Minute Manager provides an approach for quickly dealing with goals, praise, and reprimands. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to do any of those in just one minute, but it’s made me think about the fact that they don’t necessarily need to be 30-minute meetings either.
The funny thing about shifting from being a designer to a design manager is that the skills that led to your success so far are quite different from the skills that will move you forward in your future.
Don’t be afraid to leave the safety of actively designing things and make sure to learn more about building relationships with those who report to you and how to motivate them.