From designer to manager — taking the leap

—  Posted on January 20, 2022  —

As 2021 was coming to a close, I found myself at a crossroads and one of the bigger decisions I’ve had to make in my career—Should I continue working as an individual contributor (IC) or move into design management? 

For the past two years, I have entertained the idea of what it would mean to become a manager and when it would “make sense” to make the transition. While it was a somewhat self-imposed chain of events, circumstance and opportunity pushed that thought to the forefront, and I all the sudden found myself with a lot of things to reflect on and consider.

A long history of designing things

I can still remember the first time I opened Photoshop and created some really ugly thing related to a video game I was playing at the time. I’ve always been creative, but part of me never really allowed myself to fully own the moniker. Creatives were seemingly much cooler and much more free thinking than I ever hoped to be. I chalked up most of my creative success in design to my work ethic and passion. What I mean is, I loved design since the first time I started composing artwork in Photoshop, and I’ve always been good at committing a lot of time to things I enjoy. That passion set me on a path to a degree in Multimedia/Web Design and positions in Graphic Design, Web Design, Visual Design and ultimately Product Design.

“I loved design since the first time I started composing artwork in Photoshop.”

Much of my free time lately has been spent being introspective—trying to further understand who I am, what my strengths are, and what has got me to where I am in my career and life today. What always seems to help me in these times is writing and reflection. Taking time to write down my thoughts allows me to give them some space which helps me find truth in some of the chaos of a big decision.

Another thing I found helpful is reflecting on a test my company had me take from plum.io. Surprisingly, the results resonated so strongly with me that I have continually referenced them as I have evaluated my career and personal growth. In my top talents were things like “Conflict Resolution” and “Decision Making”. It’s not often we can see ourselves in the third person and realize “Oh, I have done that well in my career.” or “I actually do that consistently and didn’t realize it.”

Possibly the most important thing for me in this time was listening to what the people closest to me were saying and more importantly, not questioning or trying to find reasons to doubt them. It’s funny how much of our time as designers is trying to understand and reconcile the fact that we’re all “imposters”. We only achieved success because of a long series of “flukes” that ultimately landed us where we are today. I’ve found that a big part of my growth over the years has been learning how to not give the imposter room to voice his opinion because I simply don’t care what he has to say anymore.

“Where do you get your energy?”

This is a common question I read online, and it requires some honesty to properly answer. Identifying what “wakes you up” and ignites your passions can be intimidating because what if you find you’ve been working 40 hours a week on things that aren’t your passion. Perhaps you have always loved user research, but you took a role that was more focused on other areas of UX and always hoped to get back. It’s harder to remember to re-evaluate those choices when we get busy in our day to day work.

In the instance of design and design leadership—Have I historically got my energy from UX things like visual design, user research and wireframing? Or, has my energy come from the mentorship, empowerment, and growth of others I have contributed to in my career?

The truth is that it’s a little bit of both. Sometimes you can’t help but be energized when you’ve just created something beautiful that meets the needs of the user or found a key insight that validates your entire design approach. On the management/people side, seeing someone understand what they need to do to take the next step of growth in their career from things you’ve personally observed and communicated is very fulfilling and gives a strong sense of accomplishment as well.

Taking the leap

I’m reminded of Indiana Jones when he is trying to navigate his way to the Holy Grail in the Last Crusade. In this scene, Indiana takes a leap of faith and steps into an open cavern only to show a bridge revealed beneath him. In some ways, that’s how I felt. I had done all the study and self-reflection I could, and it was time to make the decision knowing there were unknowns on the other side. To put it simply—I’m ready for my career’s success to be tied to the growth of others around me, not to what I design and deliver.

I have been designing for almost 20 years, and there hasn’t been a better time or opportunity for me to take this step. Now, there will of course be many learnings along the way (according to the books I’m reading, articles I’ve read, videos I’ve watched and people I’ve spoken with), but that is part of what makes the transition exciting.

“I’m ready for my career’s success to be tied to the growth of others around me, not to what I design and deliver.”

I tend to look for as close to 100% certainty as possible when making a big decision (buying a house, changing jobs, getting married, etc.). I find myself thinking and overthinking until I feel confident enough to move forward. And now that I’ve made the decision, I will say there is still a lot to learn and a strong feeling of I don’t know what I don’t know. But for me, realizing that I’m comfortable with that uncertainty is the reason that I’m confident that transitioning from an IC to Manager is going to be one of the most exciting and fulfilling next steps in my journey in design.

Caleb McGuire

I'm a husband, father and musician living just a little east of the wonderful Twin Cities. I've been designing pretty things professionally for over 15 years.

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