Created on Jul 18, 2023 by Bran Hills

How to manage up to non-design managers

Tired of hearing the age-old design meme “Can you make the logo bigger”?

😮‍💨 Me too.

You’re still going to hear things like that from time to time; but this isn’t about how to make your manager understand design better. This is about how to make your manager trust you to make those design decisions without too much flak.

Build trust through communication

Communication is the core of what we do as designers. If there’s only one takeaway from this article, it’s to build trust with your manager and never let them fall out of it. The easiest way to create trust is to create quality assets and always deliver them on time. If you can’t, say why and when you’ll be able to hand assets in.

The cornerstone of this relationship is the trust your manager has that you can do the job well. Chance are, if you’re being managed by a non-designer, you may be the only (or one of few) subject-matter experts. Your manager is leaning on your expertise in the field.

Set goals for yourself

You and your manager likely have regular 1:1’s. Take some time every quarter to review how you’re progressing on the goals you’ve set for yourself. One thing good managers can do for you as an individual contributor is to help you achieve your work goals.

Here’s a short checklist for goal setting:

Don’t assume your manager has an eye for design

As designers, we know that some people just don’t “get it” sometimes. It’s hard for us to understand that when some people look at the front of an object, they cannot imagine what the back of it looks like. Your manager may be one of those people.

Luckily for us, we are in an age of design where communicating the details is easier than ever. Your manager doesn’t understand what you’re saying about the hover interaction you’ve described? Prototype it. Have a team of marketers that don’t understand the importance of wireframes? Take the time to make it hi-fidelity.

Your skills make everyone’s life easier when trying to pass off an idea to stakeholders. Plus, when the board is happy with your designs, it makes your manager look good—this builds trust!

Have a reason for everything

This is something we learn in first year university programs, but sometimes it’s easy to take our own knowledge for granted. This means you’re going to have to know and learn a lot.

Quite often, marketing will sometimes take an element that was designed to have no more than three lines of copy and turn it in to twelve. You need to be able to explain why the size of the big paragraph is bad for conversions.

Protip: It disrupts the flow of visual hierarchy. That copy may be pushing the catchy headline and call-to-action out of viewport from one another on mobile, which can reduce your conversion rate.

You may have a developer that may argue that your design is overly-complicated to implement. You’re not going to have a seasoned design veteran as a manager to back you up on good design principles. You’ll need to communicate why this particular design decision is important to spend the extra development time on. Or, be okay with dropping it as a “nice to have”.

Be really fucking good at estimating time

This is one thing that designers with great managers come to rely on. Since you don’t have one as an expert in the field, you’ll need to be able to communicate how long something will take. You’ll make sure you think about how long revisions will take, if needed.

One rule of thumb I’ve learned to help estimate time for a design in the corporate world is to double whatever time you think it should take. Set the expectation and be confident about it, but remember that part of building trust with your non-design manager is delivering quality assets on-time. If you find yourself struggling to complete assignments, give yourself a bit more wiggle room.

Be proactive with project management

Don’t wait for your manager to come up with tasks for you. The more autonomous you show you can be, the more autonomy you will receive. Actively seek the next thing to do. There’s always repeating tasks you can automate in a project management platform. Get with your manager and set these things where they can have an at-a-glance oversight of what’s going on.

Use your manager as a shield

One thing your non-design manager is probably really good at is communicating with stakeholders. Use that to your advantage. If you’re a prolific designer within the company, you may find yourself getting requests directly from stakeholders outside the normal chain of command.

First thing you should do in this situation is loop your manager in. If you know you’re too busy to field the request, make your manager navigate the politics of the situation—that’s why they’re the manager!

Educate the non-design manager

Never do it in public unless you’re asked. If your manager is talking to a group of individuals and they say something design-related that’s not exactly accurate, don’t interrupt and correct them. It makes you look like a know-it-all and can annoy your manager. Be empathetic to the situation and don’t call your manager out.

Instead, make note of it. A constant topic in your 1:1’s with your design manager should be the new things you’re learning about design. Communicate with them what you learned and how you can apply it to company collateral. Then tweet me about your learnings @bransghola

Because you’re teaching your manager about design, in your 1:1’s, it may feel like you’re the mentor and the manager is the mentee. That’s okay! If your manager isn’t great at asking the right design questions, come prepared with the design related topics you want to talk about—especially if they’re related to any of your tasks that week.

Be open to feedback

One of my core values is have strong opinions, held weakly. You should have strong feelings about the correctness of your design decisions, but remain open to new information, insights, and evidence that may challenge or contradict these decisions—even if that new information is “the CEO wants the logo bigger.”

Communication is key

Your manager has to trust you with the design tasks. You’re the subject-matter expert on design and they’ll lean on you for that knowledge. The best thing you can do with these relationships is to communicate early and often about everything.