Design Management: How to shape an award-winning design team


This blog has been authored by Kunal Dewalwar, Design Strategist with ValueLabs

One of the best decisions I ever took, which shaped my professional life, was to work with a multidisciplinary team right from the beginning of my career. Working with a team that has diverse skillsets offers something new and exciting to learn every day. My first job as an Assistant Architect in a small firm with a team of four people allowed me to learn a lot as a beginner in the field of design. Naturally, while working in a small team, I often landed up with a heavy load of tasks for myself, including conceptualizing design, designing, handling clients, and managing onsite teams for the execution of work. This pushed me to learn many things about the processes involved such as people management, communication skills, and managing time on the go.

Fast forward to today, after ten years, I am working as a Design Strategist and Manager at ValueLabs, a global technology services, and solutions company, which houses a multidisciplinary award-winning team of nearly 70 designers. Throughout this journey – from a designer to a design manager – I have learned that project success depends on many operational aspects other than just design, such as project strategy, project planning, time management, people management, and client handling.

For any project, when you deal with clients, it is crucial to communicate the value of design to the decision-makers in a precise way, who at times have little knowledge of design and its impact. Because of this low awareness of design, design managers need to communicate and ensure the allocation of necessary budgets and approvals for the overall success of the project.

Communicating returns on Investment for UX Design and assigning a number to measure success before the project even begins becomes difficult, as many qualitative aspects of the design cannot be reliably measured until tested with users and realigned using a design thinking approach.

Many projects start with questions such as ‘How quickly we can expect the designs?’, ‘Why do you need so much time to create just a few screens?’, ‘Can we skip or minimize the discovery phase?’, ‘Can we get quick results to show it to our management and get budget allocation?’, and so on. In such scenarios, it becomes necessary to work with clients and stakeholders to discuss the value of the design process and the outcomes each one can expect and find a solution that yields the best results.

At times, users prefer to go with certain services just because their design interface is intuitive and more user-friendly than that of competitors. In such cases, the value of design lies in its user-centricity, which enhances the experience of each touchpoint for the user.

Design value can also be added through in-depth research during the discovery phase. Here we understand the business, its domain, pain points, current market trends, and competitive landscape. During this phase, gaps can be analyzed and innovative design ideas and solutions can be worked out. Such offerings and improvements help enhance the user experience, eliminate customer pain points, and build strong customer relationships to enrich brand loyalty.

In every project, other than design output, numerous aspects like team management, coordination & communication, time management, and the right processes need to be in place to achieve success.

Having a dedicated high-performance DesignOps team handling these aspects of design practice management helps designers focus only on design.

So, what is Design Management?

The responsibilities of Design Managers depend on the organization and industry that they work for, and its business objectives and goals. In simple words, Design Management is the business side of design that creates and maintains an environment to achieve strategic objectives and goals for the organizations.

Below are the top 10 tasks that a Design Manager has to perform in the lifecycle of any design project:


  1. Design Strategy & Planning:


First and foremost, the task of the Design Manager is to understand project requirements and create a detailed working project brief to enhance the value of the project. Such briefs need to be communicated to all the stakeholders before creating a strategy and planning to achieve project objectives. Once the brief is in place, Design Strategy and Planning becomes the key framework for the design project, as it gives a structure to the processes that one needs to follow to achieve the desired objectives, or a result such as project goals, business goals, or marketing goals, among others.

A Design Strategist or Design Manager plays an important role here, as the project strategy needs to be derived through the understanding of client needs and objectives.

Strategy can be divided into two major parts;

1. Resource planning i.e., Identifying the right skillset while putting a team together and,

2. Planning a roadmap to achieve project end goals

The first part can be strategized very early in the project, right after understanding the project brief and establishing project skill requirements. For the second part, it becomes necessary to have a holistic understanding of the business, current challenges, and the domain, through research conducted during a discovery phase.

2.Resource Planning:


When it comes to resource planning, the Design Manager’s role is no less than Nick Fury’s role in the Marvel universe – to assemble a team of superheroes and use their strengths and capabilities to see a project through to success. A good Design Manager knows the strengths and limitations of their team and can introduce the right people into the right places in the project. Understanding project requirements and focus areas through client interactions and briefings help allocate the right people based on their core strengths.

Even the slightest of mistakes in resource planning may result in project failure causing unnecessary changes to the deliverables, which may negatively impact time, money, and effort spent by the clients and team. Such projects become unviable for both the client and design organizations.

3.Roadmap Planning:


Roadmap planning for the project clarifies the work that needs to be done for the project. This is the immediate step right after the team goes through an in-depth discovery phase. Going through the discovery phase helps the team to understand:

a. What is the client doing as a business?

b. What is the new offering that client is creating?

c. Which marketplace are we entering and who our competitors are? What are they doing differently and how can we benchmark our services to stand out?

d. Are we improving the performance of the existing service or platform?  Or

e. Are we reimagining systems altogether from scratch?

f. What are the pain points that we are trying to address?

Answers to these questions make the background and the work expected to be done comprehensible to designers.

Based on this clarity, the Design Manager can propose a roadmap for the project and involve the right people at the right time. Such roadmap proposals need to be discussed with various stakeholders of the project before implementation.

4.Process Management:

ux process management

Based on roadmap planning, the Design Manager can decide how to approach the work and the processes to follow throughout the project lifecycle. A precise knowledge of critical aspects of the project, desired results, available time, and budget allocations, is vital to ensure smooth process management.

Such modifications in the process can shape the project and drive impact as per desired end goals.

5.Coordination & Communication:

coordination and communication

Coordination and communication can be both internal and external. Throughout the project, it is necessary to keep everyone in the loop with the status of and potential roadblocks to the project. Here, the Design Manager can have periodic status checks and align processes as per the focus area of the project and its requirements. Design Managers can communicate any important updates to clients and internal teams wherever necessary. Throughout the project, the Design Manager can be a single point of contact for other involved stakeholders to get updates.

Effective communication with the internal team and client can avoid potential loss of time and reduce the effort spent on correcting mistakes and errors through timely detection.

6.Time Management:

time management

Usually, projects come to the design studio in their eleventh hour. Sometimes project deadlines are too short, and the product needs to be launched immediately, or just before the next significant event. Careful planning and time management become crucial in such cases. Many activities like setting up meetings, scheduling user testing sessions, or managing logistics overheads that affect project progress help complete projects in time. A Design Manager can keep a constant check on project progress with internal and external stakeholders, and realign processes to achieve desired results. It is imperative to meet the team daily and to plan the way forward.

7.Team Management: 

team management

Managing people working on various projects is a skill that one has to learn as a Design Manager. There needs to be a daily conversation with the team to check on progress or roadblocks & challenges faced by them, and to understand concerns, in order to roll out innovative solutions, rather than forcing the team to follow through on unrealistic targets.

It is a Design Manager’s responsibility to give the team a chance to learn and grow by giving suggestions on how to handle a client, make crisp presentations, and explore important aspects of design through the DesignOps mechanism. As Design Managers handle multiple projects, they can create cross-learning opportunities within the team. While working on projects, Design Managers can standardize rituals for the team’s approach by setting up daily meets, checking updates, assigning work, and establishing an effective process to save time and avoid miscommunication.

8. Mentoring:


Design Managers are best equipped to mentor teams as they know both the worlds of design and business strategy, making it easier for the team to achieve results. As most Design Managers usually start as designers, they are more attuned to client expectations. Knowledge sharing can help the team enhance their behavior, attitude, and the approach required for the project to solve critical challenges – facilitating a smooth project execution.

Along with stellar guidance, at times Design Managers also need to set a benchmark for the quality of work expected and need to take tough calls if team members fail to live up to the same standards, despite appropriate coaching and mentoring.

9.Design Quality Check:

design quality check

Design Managers have to perform periodic reviews or progress checks to ensure that design work and processes are aligned with business strategy and expected results. They have to ensure that the quality of work is in accordance with organizational standards. Such activities help an organization set a standard of work across all projects and their delivery.

10.Relationship Building:

relationship building

Lastly, Design Managers have to build and maintain a long-lasting business relationship with clients and various stakeholders.

False promises by individuals or agencies often cause disputes and unresolved tensions once not met. Maintaining a positive attitude and transparent communication about achievable outcomes helps build trust and sustain relationships. It is the responsibility of Design Managers to understand the project brief, evaluate time, effort, and budget requirements and set a practical end goal after due consideration.

It is often observed that once the project is complete, many agencies do not reach out to their clients for feedback on the work. Receiving such feedback and helping clients wherever necessary, even after the project has been delivered, builds a trusting relationship.

Final thoughts: 

Imagine a cook managing multiple activities at a restaurant – taking orders, maintaining food quality, managing resources, managing inventory, conducting hygiene checks, and cooking. In trying hard to perform all these tasks perfectly, the cook would be unable to focus on the end objective of cooking a portion of delicious food in the process. The same applies to design projects, where designers are the cooks who need to focus on their core job of producing high-performance design outputs and let Design Managers take care of design operations.

As companies grow, the value of DesignOps continues to grow, and it becomes crucial to manage tasks such as project planning, process, and people management, project outcomes, and much more. With this approach, we at ValueLabs have won over 40 international awards for our stellar work in the field of design.

Know more about our design team here:

Content Quick Links
Interested to know more on latest topics