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Designers' Skills, Part 3: The Manager

22 May 2017 | by Nick Hull

You’ve been working for around ten years now and have picked up a range of relevant skills. You’ve developed your own way of working, which clearly works (for you). In terms of results, resolving the design through to manufacture is the ultimate aim on every project. Whether your personal sketches are the best in the studio is a little less critical now; you’re accepted for your personality and most people around you know your strengths, weaknesses and how you can best contribute to projects.

You start to become more comfortable in your own skin. With a bit of luck your personal life is settling down too and you have a little more material wealth. Sure, car design isn’t the ultimate glamorous job you innocently dreamed it might be, but hopefully it is proving to be a satisfying career all the same.

Peugeot Fractal Design Development Web 07

Working with outside clients – Amon Tobin (centre) was consulted on the Peugeot Fractal's audio system

That satisfaction can take several forms. Being promoted as a young manager has the obvious draw of more money, bonuses and company cars, although the possible loss of generous overtime payments and longer hours might dent that salary increase. There’s the fulfilment of being recognised as having potential as a leader within your organisation, with more access to senior management and being trusted with information not disclosed to junior staff.

Nicola Crea, a former Fiat design manager who's now at Coventry University, gives his thoughts on this crucial step in your career: “As a manager, the first step is to take care of several projects, the next step is to direct other younger designers managing and guiding their projects.”

Audi E Tron Sportback Light Designers

Other responsibilities will typically include some budget responsibilities, interviewing candidates, maybe re-connecting with your old design school on a collaborative project. Many young design managers admit these can prove highly satisfying aspects of the job and that the task of steering and mentoring a design project along to a conclusion is very gratifying – once you accept that you are no longer designing everything yourself.

Peter Birtwhistle, former design director of Mazda’s European studio adds his thoughts: “It’s up to you as a manager to motivate your designers to produce the results, rather than you saying ‘just do it like this’. I found that difficult at first; you have to make the decision on what you want to do. Do you want to lead a team, to direct and manage, or stay hands on?”


One of the main differences as a more experienced designer is that you are likely to spend the majority of your time working in three dimensions, particularly on the clay plate, leading and directing modellers and younger designers. Compared to a sketch, it’s far more effective to modify a front end or shift lines on the bodyside using tapes to communicate your intent, rather than resorting to lengthy 2D methods to develop your ideas.

Your feeling for form and proportions are absolutely key, as is your sensitivity for design – knowing when to add a little more form into this shape, a little more lead-in to that radius. At the end of the day, it’s the 3D model that counts, whether it’s a whole exterior or a single component like a seat or an instrument cluster. That is what will be signed off by the board, not a rendering.

Opel Gt 5

Your communication and presentation skills are becoming more important and you may be presenting to senior managers and board members on a regular basis now. Being able to confidently stand up and defend a design or take the flak if things don’t go so well is all part of your skill set these days.

Job adverts on CDN always outline the key skills required and recent examples include the following skills in the job description for design managers:

  • Leading and mentoring the design team
  • Proactively networking with other design teams such as Interior or Colour and Trim, as well as design teams in other locations overseas
  • Demonstration of aesthetic leadership, especially in 3D
  • Ensuring a high-quality vision in strong collaboration with the engineering team
  • Preparing and presenting design presentations 

Regarding selecting candidates as managers, Birtwhistle continues: “By this stage you assume they have the competency, can show they’ve worked on programmes that have reached production or show that they’ve influenced those projects. You’re looking at managerial skills, how you feel they run a team, how they get on with people, etc. They must be able to organise themselves and a team.”


Crea notes that the way a portfolio is presented also changes at this point: “I notice you start showing the finished products rather than sketches of ideas. You’re showing the work you’ve done rather than single projects and how you developed them. By that stage you don’t need to go into early sketches and technical drawings because they’re no longer relevant. At a certain point you’re no longer showing your art work but what you’ve done, what your contribution to design was.”

As a young manager, you are likely to go on some in-house courses, where you can gain specific training in developing your management skills, rather than relying on seat-of-the-pants methods that you might have hitherto employed. Up to that point, many designers have relied on homespun ideas on how to operate as a team leader with varying degrees of success. From this point onwards it becomes vital to receive some proper training with your peers from other areas in the business in order to progress up the company ladder. That may include some professional development qualification – even an MBA.

Jeep Renegade Des Dev Team

It’s all about working together as a team

Interestingly, your skill set is becoming almost a complete reversal of that which you had when you set out as a student!

For a typical graduate designer, the initial skills order was:

  1. Excellent drawing and ideation skills, including Photoshop
  2. Personality: your demonstration of enthusiasm and motivation
  3. Teamwork skills
  4. 3D modelling skills
  5. Good communication skills and English language

After 10 years, it starts to look like this:

  1. Teamwork skills, networking
  2. 3D modelling skills: demonstration of your ability to thoroughly resolve ideas as finished 3D forms
  3. Personality: your demonstration of ambition and vision for the organisation
  4. Drawing and ideation skills: these are a given, other skills have become more critical now
  5. Good communication skills and English language

Some might argue that these ‘softer’ skills should be given more prominence in design schools, but others point out that teaching design management in school is a complete waste of valuable time when it only comes into play ten years later. How relevant will that rudimentary teaching be compared to honing your Photoshop skills? Nobody is going to employ a design graduate who cannot sketch, and if you did get hired, how would you establish your credibility within the team? It’s a tough nut to crack.

In the final part of this series we’ll look at the ultimate stage of a design career – becoming a Design Director.